Speaking In Tongues
Guided by Voices


by Anna Glazova

Constructivism versus Dada

The time of the Weimar Republic, rich in political events and changes in the mode of production, caused revolutionary shifts both in social and artistic lifestyles. Machinery and revolution became the keywords in everyday life, so it was clear that art had to deal with them as well. Different movements (like expressionism, dada and Constructivism) approached these topics differently, but continuously.
The mass production of commodities is reflected in the usage of the woodcut by the expressionists (this method made it possible to create large amounts of originals), in the inverted usage of mass-media products (as pieces of newspapers, fragments of political slogans etc.) by the dadaists, in the inclusion of the «materials» (wood, metal and others) into paintings by the Constructivists.
The revolutionary idea that the art should be re-established as non-elitist was maintained to the greatest extent by the Constructivists, but was developed and transformed by the Dadaists as well. Both the Dadaists and the Constructivists in attempting to address masses had to get socially engaged. For that purpose, all of them needed a platform that should have explained their goals and made clear by what means those goals could be reached. Through the distinction of those aesthetic programs the sometimes really tiny difference (1) of two movements can probably be shown. In case of dada, their aesthetic program can be reduced to one word -- «rebellion», while the Constructivists in Germany (2) claimed to be politically neutral and concerned only with the changes in art and artistic practice. From a certain point of view, Constructivism appears as a successor movement: while the Dada tried to attain the destruction of old-fashioned values and bourgeois culture and be new and unrestricted, the goal of the Constructivism was the enduring (Hans Richter, G Form, no. 3, 1966).

Dada: its statements and ways of expression

Hausmann wrote: «Dada gestaltet die Welt praktisch nach ihren Gegebenheiten, esbenützt alle Formen und Gebräuche, um die moralisch-pharisäische Bürgerwelt mit ihren eigenen Mitteln zu zerschlagen.» (3) The moral instrument of dadaistic destruction was irony; the instruments of irony were principally photomontage, collage, bringing ready-made structures into a new context, changing the scale in peculiar ways. The Dada reality is a reality where a newborn child is as important as a fashionable shoe, and an anonymous black and white man with a strange clockwork instead of the brain is Tatlin at home. Jean Arp wrote: «dada is for senseless which doesn't mean nonsense.» One could put it that way: Dada was so nonsensical, that it made sense again -- and it was the sense of negation. «Am Anfang war Dada», «In the Beginning Was Dada» -- the title of Huelsenbeck's book denies the common God, replacing him with Dada, the pure negation. In that way, Arp is wrong, saying that Dada was new and unrestricted, because the negation of an object is a strong bind onto it, therefore Dadaists were caught in the same world of the old values. But there was something that made Dada really new -- destruction is acting, hence Dada was an act, a performance. Hausmann, reading for hours his «onooohhoouuumhn», (4) was acting against any sense. Similar was the performance arranged by George Grosz and Walter Mehring: the race between a typewriter and a sewing machine (5). What is distinctive here is that the mode of the meaning's destruction (or, better -- de-construction) is a paradox. There is a movement, but no race is possible. In this respect, Grosz and Mehring show resemblance to their contemporary Franz Kafka, whose work was full of paradoxes, concealing and revealing the meaning at the same time.
Apart from performances, Dadaists wrote and published manifests, that were supposed to influence potential readers with their revolutionary ideas, yet this hardly could be achieved, as it becomes clear from the text of Der neue Mensch (The New Man) by Huelsenbeck. «If this ecstatic outpouring -- so reminiscent of a prayer -- with its Christian symbolism and sprinkled throughout with Latin and Italian quotations, was meant as a political manifesto inciting to rebellion in war-weary Berlin of 1917, I am afraid it must have been a failure», says Kleinschmidt. Hannah Höch, with her outstanding skills in the technique of collage and her unique artwork, depicting «deleterious effects of technology» (Maria Makela, The Misogynist Machine: Images of Technology in the Work of Hannah Höch) in relation to women, was excluded from the Dada group and its annals by her male colleagues, despite their proclamation of women's emancipation. The irony of George Grosz knew no exclusion: he was so upset with the whole world that named himself «the saddest man in Europe» (6). The Dadaists «wanted to bring art in direct contact with life; they had no tolerance for art that was not in the service of life, or immediate political significance», says Kleinschmidt. But this was an illusion; in 1954 Huelsenbeck wrote: «Life is life, and I know today (something I didn't know as a dadaist) that life has a completely different existential nature from art […]». In spite of producing a revolt in the society, the Dadaists rather succeeded in being revolutionary in art: both in their innovative collage techniques and in their recognition of the existential man/machine conflict in the society.

Constructivism: the elements and the construction

El Lissitsky and Ilya Ehrenburg wrote in 1922 in the magazine Âåùü/Gegenstand/Objet: «The negative tactics of the "dadaists", who are as like as the first futurists of the pre-war period as two peas in a pod, appear anachronistic to us. Now is the time to build on ground that has been cleared.» In some respect, this is right: the tactics of Dada were negative, and they definitely prepared the ground for Constructivism. But the word «anachronistic» is perhaps not the most appropriate description. In the early 1920's Dada remained «a continuing and active force in its own right.» (Dawn Ades, Dada-Constructivism). There were examples of the Dadaists and the Constructivists working together, such as the Aubette café in Strasbourg, which was built by Arp and Van Doesburg and Sophie Täuber, or a «dictionary» of modern art, Die Kunstismen, written by Arp and Lissitsky.
The ambition of the Constructivists was «to create an abstract art that would signify new objective values» (Victor Margolin, Constructivism in Germany). Van Doesburg outlined their strategy as follows: «certainty instead of uncertainty, open instead of closeness, clarity instead of vagueness, religious energy instead of faith (7), truth instead of beauty, […], machine production instead of craft […].» (8) As an aesthetical program it seemed a step further in comparison with Dada, whose aim was merely to destroy old values. But the social engagement by the Constructivists is similar to the Dadaists' one: they claimed, «that their art was a beacon for social transformation», but actually they «fought their battles in a limited milieu» (ibid.). They printed journals and wrote manifests, but were known only to a closed circle of artists. Several years later, the Constructivism movement in Germany splitted into two movements: one around the magazine G (supported by Richter, Lissitsky and van Doesburg) and another, opposed to the first, with the Hungarians Kallai, Kemeny and Moholy-Nagy, who published a magazine Egyseg. The first group defined their art as not allied with any political program, but expressing new forces of the modern life. For the other group, Constructivism was the expression and the tool of the Communist ideology.
Although the Constructivists' strivings for pure geometrical form, for severe abstraction cannot be compared with the dadaistic freedom of Chance (for example, Hans Arp's vogel selbdritt), those movements had several things in common: Dada used to seek elements and cut them with the kitchen knife from the belly (9) of reality, and as the early Constructivist works by Moholy-Nagy show, he used the same language -- letters, numbers, iconic symbols, — to create machine-like symbols. Both of these avant-garde movements claimed to challenge the contents of contemporary art and life, and tried out various modes of expression apart from traditional drawing and painting: collage and sound poems by the Dada, the forms, mutating between art, sculpture and architecture by Constructivism.

1. An example can be found in the pages of the magazine Mecano, Blue, 1922: Moholy-Nagy's Nickel-Plastik is reproduced at the same page with a sound poem by Raoul Hausmann and the drawing Cigarette by Scharchoune. Although the spirit of Dada was that of a playful parody (Dawn Ades, Dada-Constructivism), the analogy is too striking to miss. One can find further examples in early works by Moholy-Nagy, that show similarities with dada in composition and technique: Perpe (1919), Bridges (1920), h Construction (1921).
2. Here the International Constructivists are meant; the Russian Constructivists explored the idea of political representation in their art.
3. «Dada forms the world practically with its own contents to destroy the burgher-pharisaical world with its own means.» (Raoul Hausmann, Dada in Europa, 1920, translation mine)
4. Raoul Hausmann, «bbbb», 1922
5. This event is described in «Dada Spectrum: The Dialectics of Revolt» by Hans Kleinschmidt.
6. Lewis, George Grosz.
7. Compare with «In the Beginning Was Dada».
8. Theo van Doesburg, The Will to Style.
9. Hanna Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife: Dada through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany.