Tristan Tzara: The Tsar of Dadaism
Tristan Tzara is one of the most famous Dadaists that have ever lived. His chaotic eye and obscene techniques have created some of the most influential artistic ideologies, influencing a wave of Avant-Garde in the 20th century.
As a theatre practitioner, it is crucial that I know my ABC’s of art history. Despite certain practices focusing on paper-and-paint techniques rather than performance, I tend to find inspiration from past artists’ previous work 99.9% of the time. After all, nothing that we have today just appeared from scratch. From the newfound fame of Minimalism to the influential feminist art movement that stormed the world, these ideologies were explored throughout history in their unique ways within set historical environments. A combination of time, the events in history at said time, and environment, what the world was like for these artists to work in, allowed these ideas to emerge, developed, and distributed across the globe, prompting their official establishments. Everything that surrounds us has its roots and has gone through endless periods of trial and error experimentation, inspiration from some of the most influential artists in the world, and world-altering events, such as world wars, natural disasters and tyrannical rulers.
In simpler terms, art history is a tangled ball of string that, once unravelled, reveals that most ends begin from the same piece of string. Some practices are fluid with their ideologies and happy to evolve as time passes. Others stand sturdy with how they believe art should operate, usually expressed through a Manifesto.
Over the past couple of years, I have explored a wide plethora of sources and historical accounts, ranging from the Ancient Greeks to the modern techniques of Contemporary theatre, my field of expertise. Within this timeline, I have fallen in love with the 20th-century movement, Dada. I have found that, unless you specifically decide to study Dada, there are very slim chances that you hear about it in passing. I find this insulting. I am confident that you are aware of an aspect of art present today that, if explored, can be traced to the movement.
I have thus decided to share an account of an artist that has inspired my work countless times. His radical approach to what art is. Using the power of chance combined with an ideology that I can only compare to pure, live chaos provides a recipe to create some extremely challenging work, which I aim to do within my practice. I am, of course, talking about the Tsar of Dadaism, Tristan Tzara.
On the 18th of April 1896, in Moinești, Western Moldova, now eastern Romania, a young revolutionary called Samuel Rosenstock. The young Rosenstock lived in Hungary when he was eleven as the Rosenstock’s were not emancipated and thus, not a citizen until after 1918. During these years, he lived in cities like Bucharest, where he attended boarding school and finished high school. During his time, he began to develop his writing and became an editor at the Romanian literary and art magazine Simbolul with his friends Vinea and Marcel Janco. The editors attracted the attention of established Symbolist authors within the Romanian Symbolist movement, which allowed Rosenstock to enter the plains of Avant-Garde art.
In 1915, Rosenstock began to sign his works under a new, adopted name, Tzara. His rival, Ion Vinea, claims he provided the Tzara part of his new name. Vinea also states that Tzara wanted to keep the Tristan part as it provided a humorous pun where Triste Âne Tzara translates to Sad Donkey Tzara in French. This name would seem perfect for the future Dadaist and a name fit to be echoed throughout the 20th-century Avant-Garde.
Tzara and Dada
Tzara is most famous for his work within the Dada movement. Without breaking off into a separate blog explaining the ideologies of Dada, it is an art movement that began in Zurich, Switzerland, at the Cabaret Voltaire. Here in the Cabaret Voltaire, a group of artists, Hans Arp, Marcel Janco, Richard Huelsenbeck, Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings and Tristan Tzara, were the pioneers of the movement. Dada is a direct response to the terrors of the first world war. Commonly referred to as Anti-Art. It challenged everything art stood for and attacked the bourgeoise ideology and favoured nonsense, freedom, abstraction and spontaneity in chance. Art was no longer here simply to please the viewer. Art becomes art because art is art; no audience or artist can say it otherwise. A battlefield that the artist and audience have no control over, and Dada reigns champion. The Dadaists explored various techniques to achieve a perfect balance of chaos and beauty while at the same time disregarding the movement as one to recognise this would be against Dada’s ideologies. I understand that this is a little complicated to grasp; however, the Dadaists work opened the pandora’s box of artistic possibilities that can never be closed again. What came after was the boom of phenomenal Avant-Garde work. It is by far one of the most influential movements in art history that made ways for other movements to flourish, such as Surrealism, Performance Art and Minimalism.
Tzara played a fundamental part in the movement. There is a continuous debate of who is the true founder of the term ‘Dada’. Some believe it was the founder of the Cabaret Voltaire Hugo Ball when he wrote in a magazine that the movement should be called as such. Others see Tzara as the true founder. Tzara had no interest in this matter; however, Marcel Janco gave Tzara credit, stating that he chose the name due to its multiple terminologies. In West Africa, The Kru languages use Dada to describe the tail of a sacred cow. It also has a term closer to Tzara’s home, as it is also used as a double affirmative to ‘mother’ in Romanian and other Slavic languages. You may be asking:
“David, who do you think is the true founder of Dada?”
Well, that is a question that changes its answer depending on what day I wake up. Dada is the art of chance, and to have a founder would deem it a failure in its own eyes. If I had to choose, if we discussed the movement’s ideologies and beliefs, I would lean more towards Tzara as the founder. In contrast, if we speak of the movement’s establishment in its physical form, I would change my answer to Ball as the founder. This unknown origin of the movement, in my personal opinion, is the true beginning of the term. Dada has always been and always will be, despite the original ‘group’ that created work at the Cabaret Voltaire. For us to seek a natural beginning and end is everything that Dada rejects. I encourage you to join me to accept that Dada has no birth and no death. Its body may die, yet its spirit, like a walking soul, continues forever.
As Hugo Ball decided to leave the movement and follow a newfound religion path, Tzara continued to nurture Dada and dedicated himself to its success. Simply put, we do not know the father of Dada, but Tzara mothered it to become what it is today. Dada would find itself emerging throughout the world, most notoriously in Germany and New York. Even now, in the 21st century, we see Dada influence artists around the world. My favourite is the Dada monster from the ‘Ultra Series’ in Japan, created by Tsuburaya Productions. The show has an unusual alien-like character called Dada. It is an extraordinary creature with a sporadic design and erratic movements, embodying the art form’s aesthetics and chaotic nature. The Dada monster is an excellent fusion of the influence of Dada and the essence of modern Japanese culture. It is only one of many iconic art pieces that stemmed from the movement’s establishment over a hundred years ago.
The Cut-Up Technique
Arguably one of the most unique methods of creating poetry in art history, the cut-up technique makes a personal, unique poem that is meant to hold the true spirit of the creator and focuses on the use of chance. This was important to Tzara. The lack of artistic input allows the piece to be free from the artist’s subconscious needs and the spectator’s greed. Chance is the one technique that creates beauty from chaos, and Tzara loved it. The cut-up technique is quite simple. In the words of Tzara himself, here is how to create your own Dada Poem:
1) Take a newspaper
2) Take a pair of scissors
3) Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem
4) Cut out the article
5) Cut out the words that make up the article and place in a bag
6) Shake gently
7) Take out each of the scraps one after the other in which they left the bag
8) Copy conscientiously
“The Poem will be like you, and here you are, a writer. Infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.”
- Tristan Tzara
The poem you have created is free from the conscious thoughts you, the artist, are continuously battling when trying to make ‘pure’ art. What I mean by pure is not clean or spiritual, but rather a true art, like the first blossoms in spring or the intricate designs of a spider’s web. You become a part of a natural system of chance that returns to you a piece of art that is both you and not you. By giving in to chance, fate takes control, and you lose control of the process, turning you into a participating spectator. The artist, in this sense, is the universe itself.
I would like to finish my report with a Tzara influenced Dada poem of my own. I followed Tzara’s instructions and found a nice size article from a letter that came through the mail a couple of weeks ago. Before I began the process, I tried to calm myself and enter a state of mild meditation. As I cut up the article's words, I could not help but read each word aloud as it fell onto my desk. Once all the pieces laid there, separated from their sentences, I placed them inside a hat. I could not find a bag close to me, so I figured a hat would work just fine. One by one, I placed each word onto a piece of black card. I chose black card instinctively as I figured that if I made an active choice of the colour, it would go against the exercise's purpose. Also, it was the closest to me, so a win-win situation. I placed the words on the card without adjusting their position. I was not looking for the layout to be neat but rather natural and careless. I had to remove myself from what was happening in front of me as, on some days, I can be extremely picky with small details. After all the individual words were out of the hat, I read my poem to myself. As I read the poem, a vast grin appeared across my face. I have created my very own piece of Dada art. Here is my very own Tzara Dada Poem.
Abroad the Old York road
Range and ever, now we’re for
Cause food to here having ones visit
Whether help a on a for is
Order or you’re simple with more
The celebration together place full
To order your occasion for every getting party
Than to spread with putting loved
- D. Wici