In 1916, as World War I raged around them, a group of bohemians gathered at a small nightclub in Zurich, Switzerland for a series of bizarre performances. Three readers simultaneously recited a poem in three languages; a monocle-wearing teenager performed a spell from New Zealand; another young man flung bits of papier-mâché into the air and glued them into place where they landed. One of these artists called the sessions “both buffoonery and a requiem mass.” Soon they would be known by a more evocative name: Dada.
In Destruction Was My Beatrice, modernist scholar Jed Rasula presents the first narrative history of the emergence, decline, and legacy of Dada, showing how this strange artistic phenomenon spread across Europe and then the world in the wake of the Great War, fundamentally reshaping modern culture in ways we’re still struggling to understand today.
The Dada movement began in Zurich in 1916 and essentially collapsed in Paris in 1923, but its lasting worldwide influence was profound. Rasula examines the events leading up to the initial 1916 collaborative performance at Cabaret Voltaire, the seven years in which Dada flourished, and the movement's persistent afterlife. The story of Dada is dizzying: it encompasses an enormous cast of characters, locales, and competing philosophies (and anti-philosophies). Rasula shows how the movement arose in the prewar atmosphere of Zurich when young artists including Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco, Hans Arp, and Richard Hulsenbeck attended the cabaret and found they shared an avant-garde spirit. Rasula's focus on Francis Picabia and Kurt Schwitters covers new ground in addition to illustrating how well-known artists such as Man Ray, Max Ernst, and Marcel Duchamp fit into the collective movement. The book is also a fascinating history of place, as it traces the spread of Dada from the cabarets of Switzerland to the cafes of Paris, art fairs of Berlin, and galleries of New York. Perhaps befitting the Dada style, Rasula's narrative jumps around a lot, and the shifts in time and story lines can be somewhat difficult to follow. This accessible yet rigorous and comprehensive study outlines the history of a movement whose irreverence and inventiveness still influence our world today.