Book Notes

Author Jed Rasula presents a new history of Dada in Destruction Was My Beatrice: Dada and The Unmaking of the Twentieth Century

Destruction Was My Beatrice: Dada and The Unmaking of the Twentieth Century , by Jed Rasula, Basic Books, 2015, $29.99.

Perhaps you will understand me better when I tell you that Dada is a virgin microbe that penetrates with the insistence of air into all the spaces that reason has not been able to fill with words or conventions.

— Tristan Tzara

April 18, 1916. This was the day Hugo Ball first mentioned the term “Dada” in reference to the art movement that spontaneously erupted at 1 Spiegelgasse in Zurich, Switzerland, address of the Cabaret Voltaire. How can the performances, costumes, paintings, and poetry that emerged during that time still wield such influence nearly 100 years later? Dada is a difficult term to precisely define. Tristan Tzara famously declared, “The true Dadas are against DADA!” “Da, da” means “yes, yes” in Tzara’s native Romanian. Dada also means self-kleptomania, the essence of our time and defiance of definition. The idea emerges as elasticity itself because, as Rasula says in his book, “No” is still saying something.

Rasula’s account doesn’t leave out the uncertainty of life in Europe during the first and second world wars, which incited the audacious, insubordinate spirit of Dada. Groups of artists worked together and were scattered apart as the hostilities of combat and exile took their toll on the main players of Dada. Creativity materialized as a kind of collective defiance against the oppressive chaos that surrounded them.

Dada influenced and was inspired by the Futurist, Constructivist, and Cubist art movements, all well represented in Destruction Was My Beatrice. Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal signed under the pseudonym R. Mutt and displayed in a gallery as a sculpture called Fountain remains one of the most well-known Dada objects, though Duchamp evaded the label of Dada throughout his life. The author discusses the influence of collage artist Kurt Schwitters and his Merzbau, a project that transformed his family home into a sculptural art space of angular protrusions, in essence a three- dimensional cubist painting. Francis Picabia, another early innovator of Dada and its younger sibling Surrealism, is represented as a dynamic painter and writer whose distinctive ideas converged with the major avant-garde events of his lifetime.

Where do the lines intersect, and who moves the plot forward? Good histories read like a mystery unraveling over time, and this slow reveal keeps the pages turning. Rasula writes, “Without Dada we would have no mash-ups, no samplings, no photomontages, no happenings — not even Surrealism, or Pop art, or punk.” The fact that an influential art movement could be born from a small group of passionate artists under the duress of war, a movement that consistently evaded categorization and yet morphed across the globe as “a virgin microbe,” is a testimony to the resilience of the human imagination in all its self-contradictory complexity.

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Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer in Southern California. She can be reached at