THERE IS A SEQUENCE in René Clair’s Entr’acte (1924) in which the image of a folded-paper boat floating on a deluge of water is superimposed over shots of the rooftops of Paris, so that it seems to be moving through the watery skyline of a mysteriously postdiluvian city. Watching the film at the Centre Pompidou, where it was screened as part of the exhaustive survey exhibition “Dada”—jointly organized by the Centre Pompidou and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and spearheaded by curators Leah Dickerman, of the National Gallery, and Laurent Le Bon, of the Pompidou—one could not help but feel a similar sense of elation and immersion. The Paris incarnation of the show was a sea of paper, engulfing the viewer in copious quantities of collages, letters, manuscripts, drawings, notes, diagrams, posters, photographs, albums, pamphlets. It is not that three-dimensional objects or performance was absent, but rather that they came to seem almost subsidiary components of a vast, overwhelming paperworld. In this respect, the show was a direct descendant of the Hayward Gallery’s seminal 1978 exhibition “Dada and Surrealism Reviewed,” which focused on little magazines and their function as strategic platforms for articulating, developing, and publicizing the movement’s programs. The Pompidou show maintained the radical role of ephemera while expanding its organizational shape into a vast and permeable grid, which attempted to offer encyclopedic breadth while maintaining a fluid openness.

There is always a danger of fetishizing the least scrap of paper (especially when it is hung behind glass), but in the end the show’s precarious balancing act succeeded in genuinely reconfiguring the field. The matrix of small rooms—some organized geographically, some monographically, some thematically—allowed visitors to take any number of routes, and the connections that emerged were complex and revelatory. The curatorial emphasis given to Dada’s urban staging grounds—Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, and Paris—and also to lesser known activities in places as far afield as Russia and Japan highlighted the movement’s status as the first genuinely international avant-garde. The installation interwove the various sections in a way that echoed the dynamic of cosmopolitan cross-pollination. Some fifteen hundred works by more than fifty artists were crowded into this mazelike arrangement, with the most established names (Hans Arp, Kurt Schwitters, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp) intermingling with newer additions to Dada scholarship like Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven as well as now-obscure cohorts like Richard Boix and Angelika Hoerle. The impulse to include everything has been the undoing of many an ambitious museum survey. But here the sheer volume of works seemed a canny recapitulation of Dada’s own strategies of dispersal and hyperproduction, pressing us to address what this paperworld stands for and raising the important question: To what extent is such immersion symptomatic or diagnostic of the moment that was Dada?

Dada was born of contempt for the lamentable conditions that had given rise to World War I, the quotidian tyrannies of bourgeois life as well as the epic tyrannies of nation-states. If Dada marked a crisis of the modern technological subject—traumatized by war, degraded, alienated—then its reaction to this crisis was to proliferate, with an energy that is as exhilarating as it is anxiety-provoking, a vast and disparate body of material. Much of this material was paper or, more specifically, printed matter, which, by the second decade of the twentieth century, had reached its apotheosis as the primary information medium—becoming in turn the ubiquitous stuff of modern life and the palpable texture of experience itself. The progenitors of Dada inhabited a world where jacket pockets filled up with discarded ticket stubs and fingers bore the stains of newsprint. This information culture was the means as well as the target of Dada’s derision. Dada’s own printed matter, with its nonsense words and free-floating letters, was a kind of psychotypography of everyday life, exercises in full regression, as if technological modernity could not be reconfigured unless it was first shattered into bits and pieces. Only through convulsive fragmentation could the everyday be deconstructed and salvaged. The exhibition took this most fundamental Dada operation and mobilized it as curatorial strategy. Although the National Gallery and MoMA shows will include fewer items, the sense of proliferation seems at the very heart of this timely reappraisal—which is, to answer my own question, both symptomatic of the moment it examines and diagnostic, in that it reveals something new about what it shows, allowing us to draw out some general strategies and operations from Dada’s vast and scattered project. For this show presents Dada as a prototypical global network, marking a pivotal moment when the avant-garde self-consciously came to see itself as an expansive network across countries and continents.

The vastness and global ambition of the Dada project (“Dada overturns everything”) were inversely proportional to the size of the art objects it produced. Many of the artworks on view at the Pompidou were small, if not tiny—even granting that they were created decades before the era of Abstract Expressionist giganticism. It is as if, in order to disseminate their tactics across as broad a terrain as possible, the Dadaists made a conscious decision to exchange monumentality for portability. A tiny collage by Schwitters (Untitled [Der Hand], 1923), Hannah Höch’s miniature string picture (Schnurenbild [String Picture], 1923–25), and Ernst’s microscopic cutouts all present very small surfaces that are dense with detail and have to be looked at closely. Each is an exercise in the distortion of scale, with elements shrunk or magnified without regard to perspectival logic, mimicking the disproportions and absurdities of everyday life (conscious versus unconscious, individual versus corporate, incidental versus epic). For contemporary art audiences, it is worth hanging on to the thought that small-scale portability has not always been market-driven and may in fact be a means of resisting art’s inexorable commodification.

It was not only Duchamp who refused the optical, or what he called the “retinal,” in art. Dada’s disparate practitioners were united by a collective drive to make work that could embody some kind of tactile or haptic experience. This meant literally cutting things up and sticking them together. While collage was not conventionally expressive in the manner of, say, a painted gesture, the piecing together of dismembered images and snippets of text was intended not to cancel but to reinvigorate and rescue the handmade. One of the most ubiquitous Dada dismemberments is the image of a disembodied pointing hand, a common typographic symbol that became almost a logo for Dada itself—cropping up, at the Pompidou, in works by Schwitters, El Lissitzky, Raoul Hausmann, and, most iconically, in Tu m’, 1918, the last painting Duchamp ever made and the work that opened the exhibition. In any number of examples, the hand is severed not only from its context but also from all that had once been connoted by the “hand” of the artist. It shatters into multiple registers: It may be an indicator of a directional flow (“this way”), a readymade gesture, a token of alienated labor (replicated, Taylorized), the indexical trace of a touch that might be either tender or sadistic. The hand can signify in any of these ways—sometimes, absurdly, in several registers at once. The handmadeness of the collage, the Dada mode of choice, resists the mechanization of experience while at the same time spreading out its own panorama of mechanistic part-objects, frequently comic or ludicrous, and seemingly born of both desire and disgust. Having learned the most radical lesson of Cubist collage, the Dadaists understood that the paper scraps and throwaway fragments of the metropolis had become the materials from which art had to be made.

Traditional forms like painting struggled to find a place in the face of these shifts. The decision to propose Duchamp’s Tu m’ as a possible manifesto for Dada, placing it at the beginning of the Paris exhibition (opposite a wall of small paper works including, centrally, Francis Picabia’s La Sainte-Vierge II [Virgin Saint II], 1920) was an interesting one. With its array of paint swatches that seem to signify the commodification of color itself, and with its pointing hand, famously painted not by Duchamp but by a signwriter, Tu m’ can only be considered a manifesto, not for painting, not even for antipainting, but for a different mode of operation altogether. The title, which plays on the word tomb and the French “tu me . . .” (“you . . . me,” with, for example, “tu m’aimes” meaning “you love me”), prods viewers to supply the missing verb—making them actively participate, and thereby insisting that the spectator is part of the work. Duchamp’s renderings of the shadows of the readymades that hung from his studio ceiling make the painting’s surface one that collects, rather than creates, impressions—and collects them, furthermore, from a space somewhere behind the viewer. Thus spectators find themselves in a kind of circuit of rotations that the pointing finger constantly exhorts them to continue. Their relationship to the painting is a perpetual being caught between.

Painting as such holds no interest in this context. But the consequences for the medium, and in particular for color, still have a certain resonance in the most compelling paintings by Picabia, the artist who seems to have taken up Duchamp’s challenge most directly. Picabia’s quirky, and incidentally very graphic, black-and-white renderings of the spiraling effects of Duchamp’s rotoreliefs, strewn with colored bodies caught in concentric circles, make painting look viable only because it is now entirely inexpressive. The other trajectory worth noting reinforces the point but from another angle. For George Grosz, in the more explicitly politically charged milieu of Berlin Dada, the delicate art of watercolor parodies not just painting but painting as a bourgeois position. Grosz conveys, with heavy irony, the vitriol of his disgust, staining and dirtying the paper, as if spitting in the face of the bourgeoisie could be a beautiful chromatic gesture. What becomes clear is the sheer absurdity of painting under these conditions.

The readymade has come to stand as a kind of shorthand for the most radical paradigm shift wrought on twentieth-century art. However, not only are the strategies of Dada impossible to contain within that term, but so too the readymade itself looked less monolithic in the context of this show than often thought. The signwriter’s hand in Tu m’ points precisely toward a split between the readymade as industrial product and the more elusive circuit of shadows and projections that the exhibition dramatized (and interestingly, a contemporary urgency to reimagine the Duchampian readymade could be seen concurrently in “Part Object Part Sculpture,” curated by Helen Molesworth, at the Wexner Center for the Arts [see Lambert-Beatty]). In previous exhibitions Duchamp’s readymades have generally been shown on platforms or on plinths—a presentation that urges either a literal reading (the readymade as industrial object) or an almost purely abstract one (the readymade as conceptual proposition). At the Pompidou, however, the curators followed a more recent convention of suspending the readymades from the ceiling as Duchamp did in his studio. Multiple bottle racks were hung so that their shadows proliferated like ghostly doubles on the wall. Thus the readymade was returned to its original state—split in two, as in Tu m’. Duchamp’s painting articulates the spectral double presence of the readymade, engaging its psychic as well as its social implications. This kind of doubleness resonated with a great deal of the other work on view, sometimes unexpectedly. For example, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, whose considerable body of work was given a welcome and strong showing, made a number of painted-wood sculptures that suggest both odd industrial objects and, at the same time, strange hand-painted, colored relics. Mass-produced objects, like printed matter, not only negate conventional aesthetic notions but also exert their own uncanny compulsions.

Over the past twenty-five years, much of the best and most influential critical writing on interwar European art has focused on Surrealism, and as a consequence Dada has tended to be overshadowed and overlooked. This has already begun to change, and this extraordinary show crystallizes critical attention on Dada as a pivotal moment that still reverberates. Certainly artists have never stopped attending to the massive rupture and transformation that Dada represents. Even the failures, like Richard Huelsenbeck’s Dada Almanach or Tristan Tzara’s Dadaglobe, both unsuccessful magazine projects, speak to the immensity of the utopian ambition as well as to the impossibilities of its fulfillment. The tension between handmade and readymade, the rejection of the retinal and the monumental, the impulse to “overturn everything” through the least fragment and the concertina-like effect of contraction and expansion—small-scale magazine/worldwide dissemination, scrap of paper/galaxy of meaning—resonate in the work of any number of contemporary artists. We might also think of the upsurge of little magazines, performances, and other ephemeral projects generated recently in New York as well as in other cities across the world. If we contemplate Dada’s legacy now, and this is very much a Dada show for now, then it is hard to think of any corner of the artistic imagination that has been left untouched by it.

Briony Fer is professor of art history at University College London.