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Dada in DC: 90-Year-Old Art Movement is Still Provocative, Whimsical, Engaged

The National Gallery of Art in Washington is about to say goodbye to a major show on Dada, the early 20th century art movement. Painting, sculpture, film, photography, collage and "readymades" from Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, Paris and New York are all part of Dada, which the Gallery calls the most comprehensive exhibition of Dadaist art ever shown in the United States.

German artists fleeing World War One founded the Dada art movement in Switzerland in 1916, naming it after a nonsense word. The movement was born out of the artists' horror at the war, particularly its mechanized killing, says the National Gallery's Dada curator, Leah Dickerman, and so she opens the show with a reel of World War One-era footage. “Many of the technologies that we associate with modern warfare, including tanks and aerial dogfights and poison gas, were invented in this moment,” she said in an interview. “These new strategies provided a new efficiency in killing. And for the Dadaists as well as their contemporaries, it really threw into question whether you could talk about a rational European civilization.”

The Dadaists included artists with very different styles and interests, from George Grosz to Marcel Duchamp, Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber, to Man Ray. Wherever it migrated, from Zurich to Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, and on to Paris and New York, Dadaism rejected artistic convention, making art that was by turns angry and political, or witty, modest and abstract -- or a challenge to the very definition of art. “The idea that art is a picture where you can look through the surface onto an imaginary world, was something they exploded as a group,” Ms. Dickerman said. “They replaced it with many of the key strategies we see in the rest of the 20th century: things like collage, montage, installation art, media pranks, sound art.”

The sound art at Dada includes a 1926 film score, Le Ballet mécanique -- played at the National Gallery for the first time with the fully robotic orchestra that composer George Antheil envisioned: sixteen player pianos, together with xylophones, drums, bells, and sirens. In every medium, from sound to sculpture, Dada art was provocative, oppositional, outrageous. Marcel Duchamp doodled on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa, and exhibited a urinal as a piece of sculpture. But Leah Dickerman says Dadaism was never disengaged. “I think it's about people who want to understand their own moment,” she said, “and they want to analyze it, and they want to make it visible to their audiences, as well. They're trying to sometimes shock people into another understanding of their own times, to shock them out of a kind of amnesia, or shock them out of a kind of sleepwalking state.”

Visitors to the show said they were surprised at how topical it seemed. “It's really timely,” said one man. “A lot of those pieces could be today, you know, because of the reaction of the artists to the war, and to the mindless violence, and sort of incomprehensible stuff that's going on in society, I think is just exactly what we see in a lot of ways right now.” Another agreed, saying, “You can't divorce their art from the moment that they're in, and of course it makes you think about our moment." The National Gallery of Art show was selected from art works shown in Paris as part of a larger exhibit. A third version of Dada opens in June at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.