Dec 13, 2017 in Art

The Constructivists p1

The Constructivists may be regarded as the active proponents of the socialism-inspired approaches to the connection between art and social reality, for they “envisaged their work as ‘intellectual production,’ proclaiming that their ideological foundation was ‘scientific communism, based on the theory of historical materialism’” (Lodder 2). The intended goal of the Constructivists - a “communistic expression of material structures” - was to be carried out by the ‘scientific’ organization of the artists’ work in accordance with three famous principles of Constructivism: tektonika (“the political and socially appropriate use of industrial materials with regard to a given purpose”),  konstruktsiya (the process of the material construction), and faktura (“the choice of material and its appropriate treatment” (Lodder 2). Taken together, they would underline the Constructivists’ penchant for the industrial orientation of visual arts.

A number of Dadaist studies relate to the development of Kinetic art. In particular, works by Sandqvist detailing the ‘Oriental’ influences behind the Dada movement are particularly useful. Further, Maftei explores the problem of self-critique by Dada artists, The New York and Zurich Dada are relatively well covered by Tashjian (1979), Sandqvist (2006) and Dachy (2010). As to the works dealing with individual artists of Dada and their most important artworks, there are  plethora of books and scholarly articles in peer-reviewed journals that may be found useful in this regard. In particular, Alchemist of the Avant-Grade: The Case of Marcel Duchamp by John Moffit would appear to trace the intrinsic connection between Duchamp’s Dadaist trajectory and his earlier symbolist and occult endeavors. In total, though, Dadaism is less extensively covered in the professional literature than Constructivism, leading to certain complications with regard to researching the movement’s artistic legacies.

In total, the account of the scholarly coverage of the early 20th-century Kinetic art, Dadaism and Constructivism as well as the works by their individual representatives, shows that these subjects have simultaneously been extensively and aesthetically explored by the prior researchers. Hence, the purpose of the present study will be to ameliorate the problems and expand on the topic.


Introduction to Dadaist Art. The development of the Dadaist art largely coincided with the unraveling of societal norms and conventions associated with the beginning of WW I. As the optimistic and rationalist worldview from the late 19th to early 20th century West European society failed to adequately confront the social dislocation and disorder brought about by the seminal events of 1914-1918, feelings of pessimism and of the absurdity of daily life began to penetrate the various fields of social sectors. In the sphere of art, Dadaism became one of the most vivid expressions of this process.

The emergence and brief existence of Dada as a coherent artistic movement may be deemed one of the largest mysteries in the history of modernist art. According to Kristiansen, “Dadaism began in 1915 and died in 1924” (457). The impact of Dada upon the further artistic development in the 20th century was nothing but staggering; the movement’s emphasis on spontaneity and rejection of all the prevailing standards touched upon poetry, literature, visual arts, art theory, art manifestoes, theatre and graphic design. According to Tristan Tzara, one of Dada’s luminaries, “Dada is entirely negative to any affirmation, system or theory and, thus…the manifesto of Dada can be an anti-manifesto only” (qtd. in Maftei 222).

In a broader sense, Dadaism was renowned for its hostility to any systematic activity; even coherent symbolic language itself. Tzara defined the major task of Dada as “a great negative work of destruction” aimed at “sweeping and cleaning” the underlying aesthetic reality (Tzara 81). Unlike other modernists, Dadaists refused to attach even a relative importance to certain values or aspirations; from their perspective, the key task of a Dada ‘artist’ (if the latter term can even be applied here) was to expose idiocy, absurdity and incoherence of the life in modern society. In the words of Hugo Ball, another leading Dadaist, Dada art is “at once a buffoonery and a requiem mass” (Ball 51). This paradoxical characteristic reflects Dada’s preoccupation with the intense moral crisis that gripped the 1920s Europe after the values of peace and ‘civilization’ was found to be scarcely observable in social reality (Kristiansen 460).

As for the specific features of Dada visual art per se, these emphasized the deconstruction of each and every major feature of ‘normal’ life of the early 20th-century society. The key themes in Dada included such problems as the illusion / absence of originality in the technological and alienated society, the constant presence of the irrational, and the lack of attempts to cling to the last remaining vestiges of the formally ‘rational’ and comprehensible existence. Dada deliberately blurred the lines between various types of artistic performance, seeking to create a chaotic mixture of them all. Thus, as noted by Maftei, “Dada “artworks” were usually conceived as all-in-one theatrical performances, [and] art happenings,” with “jangling keys, gymnastic exercises called noir cacadou, and screaming presentations of sound poetry” serving as the performances’ usual features (Maftei 222).  As “all of this took place in tight…spaces with almost no distance between the spectators and the performers” (Maftei 222), the subversive atmosphere would accompany Dada happenings, adding to their notoriety. 

In this way, the ruination of traditional representations and perceptions of art was purported to be achieved. In particular, the emphasis on collision between man and machine, with the resulting overtones of the ‘prosthesizing’ of human body and activities in the modern world, which would stand in stark contrast to the Futurists’ technological optimism (Gaughan 146). Grosz and Hausmann’s ‘automaton’ paintings are specifically relevant here, as they emphasize the fragmentation and dismembering associated with the rise of Taylorism and ‘scientific management’ in European economies of that time (Gaughan 148).

The New York / Zurich Dada: An Artistic History.

The common accounts of Dada history claim to connect the movement with the subsequent Surrealist art, usually presenting Dada as “an inchoate and juvenile form” of this style (Dickerman 6). Others disagree. However, this account may be rather Eurocentric, as it ignores the contributions of the American artists to Dada movement, and Francophile, as the participation of the artists of East European origin in the growth of Dada is effectively ignored. Hence, it is necessary to analyze the so-called ‘New York’ and “Zurich Dada’, so as to pinpoint their key contributions to Dadaism as such.

Dada is considered to be one of the most important movements of the 20th century. It was an international movement that found its reflection in different places of the world and in different times. The movement started in Zurich, then spread to East Europe and France, later to Spain and New York. During the time of WW I it became safe and neutral. The development of Zurich Dada was heavily predicated upon the antinationalist attempts of the group of avant-garde artists seeking to escape the growing nationalism of the WW I Europe in the neutral state of Switzerland. As underscored by Demos, the origins of the Zurich Dada rebellion against the conventional art should be sought in “critical and sometimes desperate response to the brutal protection of national interests” (Demos 148) and patriotic propaganda that engulfed the artistic and, broadly speaking, spiritual life of the majority of European nations at that time. In particular, such Zurich Dada artists as Hugo Ball, Richard Huelsenbeck and Jean Arp were the nationals of the warring states of Germany and France who strove to oppose the fanatical militarism of their respective nations by mocking and eventually deconstructing the conformist perceptions of art and reality that they deemed necessarily intertwined with each other. In the same vein, Marcel Duchamp, who played the pivotal role in the development of New York Dada. He left the USA in July 1918, when the country entered into the WW I, and set off for Argentina. Having left France in 1915 feeling lack of patriotism, Duchamp has fallen into American militarism and patriotism which he judged to be ‘worse’ than the French one (Cabanne 59). Nevertheless, the New York Dada was far from being a fashionable import brought by an eccentric French artist of cosmopolitan outlook; as the pre-1914 art of Man Ray demonstrates, proto-Dadaist tendencies were already present in ‘homebound’ American art (Belz 207).

The formation of New York Dada was inherently connected with an artistic encounter between Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, who came to the United States of America from Paris in summer of 1915. By that time, Man Ray was already a renowned avant-garde artist, with such oeuvres as Tapestry (1911) and Man Ray 1914 (1914) showing his entrenched “anti-art and anti-Cubist” tendencies (Belz 208). The latter artwork, in particular, may be considered as an example of “an ultimately Dada character,” due to its mockery of standard concepts of ‘serious’ and ‘realistic’ content as such, together with the rejection of the orthodox distinction between subject and object of art (Belz 208). Ultimately, this work may be compared with the best known examples of Duchampean ready-mades and similar Dadaists’ pictures. Thus, by the time that Duchamp arrived in New York and started asserting a significant influence upon the local avant-garde milieu, the grounds for the development of the American Dadaists’ school had already been laid.

The subsequent history of the Dada artistic movement in Zurich and New York is directly related to the development of the café-based artistic sub-culture that was generally dismissive of both orthodox and other modernist forms and styles of art. The Dadaists’ impulse was ultimately short-lived, as the artists of both groups of the Dada movement ultimately transitioned to new styles and formed part of the new artistic schools after 1925. However, such leading figures of the movement as Duchamp, Picabia and Arp played major parts in the growth of various schools of abstract art and the spread of the notion of happening as the key construct of the modernist and post-modernist art. In particular, the late 1950s neo-Dada groups were greatly inspired by the original Dada artwork, and the artworks of such representatives of the movement as Rauschenberg or Kaprow precisely reflect this fact (Hapgood and Rittner 69).

Major Themes in Dada: Anarchy and Irony. The Dadaists’ willingness to shock the audience and disregard conventional standards of aesthetics may be epitomized by the very choice of the movement’s name, or more precisely, pseudo-name. As claimed by Tzara, ‘Dada’ was a “word that doesn’t mean anything” (qtd. in Demos 150), which may have had a plethora of meanings, according to various commentators. Thus, for instance, ‘Dada’ was associated with “a double affirmative in Russian and Romanian” (Demos 150), which may be further considered as “a radical No, which is, ironically, the result of double affirmation” (Maftei 222). This rather symbolic instance of the Dadaists’ choosing of their self-name may be viewed as the most evident expression of the movement’s disregard and deconstruction of conventional affirmations.

Both the ‘theory’ behind Dadaism and its specific artworks may be characterized by their connection to the notions of anarchy and irony. On the one hand, the Dadaists dismissed the very notion of artistic ‘system’ or ‘style,’ which were usually considered to be a necessary prerequisite for any previous artistic school. While Tzara’s affirmation of the ‘anti-manifesto’ nature of Dada phenomenon was already mentioned here, Dickerman emphasizes another important feature of Dadaist art. In his perspective, the Dadaists deliberately aimed to overcome the very boundaries of art as such.

According to Dickerman, Dada’s major impact consisted in “the violation of traditional object and medium boundaries” (Dickerman 9), which would breach the boundaries between artistic genres and modes of expression, “by way of the detritus, processes and idioms of a new media culture” (Dickerman 9). As opposed to traditional visual art, “Dada works spill out of traditional object boundaries into performance, media pranks, installation and various new means of distribution” (Dickerman 10). Rather than a mere “virtuoso object production,” the construction of new aesthetic and political modalities became the Dadaists’ main goal, which would express itself as  “intervention within and activation of the terrain of modern culture itself” (Dickerman 10).

One of the examples of such anarchic approach to the connection between life  and art may be the famous collages produced by Jean Arp in Zurich in 1916. Using the highly abstract and geometrically stylized collages that were arranged at the chance basis, Arp attempted to oppose and deconstruct the “identity-as-difference” that he held liable for the development of nationalistic sentiments underlying the horrors of WW I. Accordingly, the abstract collages that are generally characteristic of Arp’s work are interspersed with the inclusion of fragments of commercial papers or newspaper articles that further add to the effect of randomness (Demos 157). Furthermore, Arp’s collages appear contradictorily to “invoke both the grid compositional format and chance-based procedures” (Demos 156), emphasizing the collision and contradiction between rationality principle incarnated in the grid and the randomness principle exemplified by the collages’ general roughness and lack of ideal geometrical forms. In the words of one of the researchers, “Arp invoked the former only to attack it with the latter” (Demos 156). This attitude may be taken to be representative of the Dadaists’ views on the world of forms, in general.

Furthermore, the majority of Dadaists’ artworks are necessarily ironic. For instance, Sheppard observes that the Dadaists were aware of the need for self-irony as a subjective reflection of the fact that “in a world of flux,” all attempts to arrive at objective or ‘genuine’ formulations and artistic expressions are necessarily futile (Sheppard 199). The Dadaists went as far as to name such thinkers as Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson as Dadaists, with Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser, one of the German Dada paintings of that era featuring Einstein uttering the word ‘Dada’ (Sheppard 199). Thus, the Dadaists’ appeal to irony and self-irony may be well situated within the context of growing irrationalist and relativist tendencies of their contemporaries’ outlook, as well of the newest discoveries of relativist paradigm of science.

Major Themes in Dada: Satire and Anti-Commoditization. At the same time, Dadaism was characterized by its inherently satirical orientation. As mentioned in previous sections, Dadaists were sharply critical of militarism and patriotism as the defining features of West European societies of their time. Therefore, a substantial part of their critical artworks and happenings was aimed at uncovering and mocking alleged ‘illusions’ of national identity or the absurdity of modern mechanized war. At the same time, Dadaists were similarly critical of all other aspects of mass society, such as the ones connected with progressive mechanization and standardization of human life at large. These two strands of artistic critique would form the basis for the Dadaists’ conceptualization of their contemporaries’ social relations.

The critique of militarism and nationalism was already raised here regarding Arp’s Zurich collages, with their intentional randomness and hybridity. On the other hand, the criticism of technology may be found in the assemblages of German Dadaist artists Grosz and Hausmann of 1920, which were directly aimed at unmasking the mechanized nature of contemporary social relations and the ‘new man’ as such.

As opposed to naïve enthusiasm of Futurists, led by Marinetti, regarding the capacity of technology to assist humans in their domination of nature, Grosz and Hausmann emphasized the utter dependence of a mass society on technology. For instance, in Mechanischer Kopfe [Mechanical Head, 1920], the assemblage crafted out of the head of a hairdresser’s dummy, Hausmann’s conveys the notion of exterior manipulation of human thoughts and aspirations by “brute external forces” (Jones), exemplified by instruments of measurement attached to the dummy’s head. While previous accounts of human agency assumed the dichotomy between external action and internal reflection, Hausmann shows that “there is no interior” (Gaughan 146), that both spiritual and cultural life of mass society are dependent upon its technological / instrumental activities, and not vice versa.

In a similar manner, Grosz turns his audience’s attention to the problem of the mechanization of humanity. In his The New Man,(1920),  the artist presents a faceless and standardized human-like figure striding towards the white screen in the studio, with an abstractly rendered blueprint its only adornment. By depriving his subject of any identifiable facial features and focusing on the incessant movement toward  abstract rationality, the painter seemingly invites the viewers to ponder the fact that modern humanity has increasingly turned into a mechanized collective, with the “apparent melting of man and machine” (Gaughan 147) becoming a salient feature of social reality. Thus, the Dadaists’ perspective on mechanization would consist in uncovering the absurd, but refrain from voicing any distinctive opinion of their own – in line with the prevalent ‘anti-manifesto’ nature of the Dada discourse.

Finally, the Dada movement was characteristically anti-commercial in its general attitudes and modes of artistic activity. In particular, this was underscored by the Dadaists’ extensive usage of waste and readymades as the main material for their artwork (Dickerman 9), as well as their dismissal of commercial considerations while dealing with the organizing of their exhibitions or similar special events. The Dadaists were similarly unconcerned with the issues of authenticity and originality, as the notorious example of Marcel Duchamp’s re-imagining of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa may demonstrate. In this, they were sharply different from each and every one of the artistic schools that had emerged earlier. The Dadaists’ propensity for collage and readymade-based assemblages would have its impact on the subsequent development of Kinetic art as well as other avant-garde genres of art.

Marcel Duchamp’s Kinetic Art as a Pinnacle of the Dada. Given the importance of the development of Kinetic art in the context of this thesis, it is necessary to analyze the contributions of Marcel Duchamp, one of the perceived founders of the Dada school, on the development of this type of art. In particular, his mobiles represent some of the most spectacular examples of early Kinetic art, exerting a significant impact on its subsequent development.

As emphasized by Judovitz, Duchamp’s interest in movement is connected with his attempts to construct readymades that would simultaneously generate “verbal as well as optical and Kinetic effects” (Judovitz 101). Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913) may be considered as one of the first examples of a Kinetic artwork (Atkins). The work is significant as the first piece of kinetic art that contained motion as the bicycle wheel inverted on the stool rotated. While the Bicycle Wheel, an assisted readymade had to do something to it; the essence of a readymade is that he just chose it, like the bottle rack or the shovel.The Bicycle Wheel, may be the most notable of Duchampean mobiles, some other readymades and assisted readymades constructed by Duchamp should be noted here. In particular, Door: 11, rue Larrey (1927) is built in such a manner that in its rotation it opens one doorway, while closing another. Hence, this mobile offers a “logical conundrum” (Judovitz 101) to its viewers, as it is the doors that are simultaneously open and closed. In January 1920, being assisted by Man Ray the artist made an optical experiment. He took into account the idea that an image is retained in the eye after it disappears and built a machine which was called Rotary Glass Plates. He painted segments of a circle on the five glass plates mounted on the electrically operated metal axis. Later, the experiment was made again, using a record player turntable. Likewise, the 1924 Monte Carlo Bond represents a mockery of the commercial society’s most cherished value: entrepreneurship. This machine, allegedly conceived as a ‘perfect’ means of winning at any roulette, is in reality a convoluted painting-machine, with a number of roulette disks that are repetitively spinning (Joselit 19). The Duchampean mobiles are considered to be the true and final expressions of Dadaist irony and social criticism having the qualities that are inherently present in some subsequent forms of the avant-garde Kinetic art. 

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