The Good Soldier Svejk and the Dada happening

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Dada was born in Zurich in February 1916, when Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings launched the Cabaret Voltaire. The First World War had brought many artists to the city, and besides opposing the war with a passion, the Dadaists defied prevailing artistic conventions, describing their work as 'anti-art'. Their impact on art, writing and theatre is felt to this day. But what does this have to do with the Czech Republic? The answer is: more than we might think.

The recent Prague Writers' Festival looked at Dada from a specifically Czech perspective, with several distinguished academics and writers discussing, with a very un-Dadaistic seriousness, the Czech relevance of one of the 20th century's great explosions in the arts.

Dada is rarely associated with Prague, but the Dadaists did come to the city. Czech students were writing about Dada as far back as 1919 and Raoul Hausmann and Richard Huelsenbeck - two of the founding proponents of Dada - toured the country in 1920. In 1921 Hausmann returned along with Kurt Schwitters. The two performed phonetic poems in Prague, much to the bewilderment of the cultural establishment.

Dada came to fascinate several of the key Czech cultural theorists and artists of the time - including the hugely influential Karel Teige, who wrote at some length on the subject. Czechoslovakia had only just come into being, and was keen to embrace the new. There is plenty to link it to Dada, sometimes in unexpected and indirect ways. For all this, Dada itself never really caught on in this country and always remained marginal, while many other "-isms" took hold.

Jindrich Toman
To discuss the complex and little known history of Czech Dada, I spoke with Jindrich Toman, a Czech academic now teaching at the University of Michigan, who has devoted years to studying the art and culture of Czechoslovakia in the 1920s and 30s and was one of the key speakers at the Prague Writers' Festival.

"There was really no Dada in the strict sense, and so many researchers and critics were asking why there wasn't any Czech Dada. I think that's a very wrong question, because by the time Dada started spreading, it started dying anyway. Dada is 1916 Zurich - before that maybe in New York before the war very briefly. It's a kind of set of episodes. The idea of becoming a Dadaist in Prague in 1922, 3 or 4, would have been a very provincial idea - picking up some new idea or fad from the west and bringing it in, while in the west it's already being 'recycled' or is up for sale."

Wouldn't it also be fair to say that at the time Czechoslovakia had just come into existence, the country was in a state of flux and there were other things on people's minds? Maybe with this process of nation-building there wasn't space for Dada.

"You know, the cultural and political scene was very lively. There were many segments and they did not necessarily all move in the same line. I would say that Dada - in Berlin, in Switzerland during the war and in Paris - was a kind of 'carnival'. It was a very bubbling, critical and aggressive thing, and the Czech avant garde noticed it. While there was no Dada there was a lot of interest in it. For much of the 1920s, not only here but also in Germany, there is certain nostalgia for real Dada. In a way it's nostalgia for the carnival, for those days reserved for the big things - where you can take airs and jumps and liberties and everything. The traces remained very strong, and that's the mood of Dada. These revolts in the spirit of Dada were coming back again and again. You know, many people said Pop Art was very similar to Dada. Many elements in Postmodernism have provocative, scandalistic, Dadaistic qualities, so Dada reemerges again and again on a cycle of around 20 years."

One of the things that has been pointed out at this festival is that one of the founding fathers of Dada, Walter Serner, actually came from this country, from Bohemia.

"Yes, he was born in Karlsbad - Karlovy Vary - and he turned out to be a total bohemian in the other sense! For a very long time it was absolutely impossible even to outline his biography. He was a 'dandy'. He continued the tradition of dandyism of the turn of the century - very provocative. And it turned out that he lived in Prague in the late 1930s, that he returned to Czechoslovakia. Unfortunately he and his wife were deported. They disappeared, probably in Auschwitz."

So they returned in the late 1930s and had the misfortune of being in Czechoslovakia when the Nazis marched in...

"It seems that they tried to emigrate, but they just did not succeed in that."

One of the things that intrigued me, when I was reading about Dada in Czechoslovakia, is that some people have seen Dada elements in the writings of Jaroslav Hasek, who of course is famous worldwide for writing The Good Soldier Svejk.

"I think that's right. Dada was not born out of nothing. There was a big cabaret culture, there was a big satirical culture before the war, there was a great culture of caricature in the second half of the 19th century that continued. Cabaret is about performance, about people getting on the stage, and doing funny things, and reciting crazy poems and singing. Hasek was part of the world of the cabaret in Prague and he prepared all sorts of performances, mystifications, he also wrote very funny things that the Dadaists would have liked, such as a short story composed of sentences from a language text book - simply picking up these idiotic sentences like, 'We have tea,' or something like that.

"He was also partially involved in a magazine called The Animal World. It was a magazine published by a pet dealer for his clients, and in it they had stories about animals. They also included funny photomontages with animals. That is in a way the funny pre-Dada history of photomontage, and Hasek was somehow close to it. So we would really find a lot in Hasek.

And subsequently photomontage had a big history in Czechoslovakia...

"Photomontage has a big history in Central Europe in general. This is something I'm preparing a relatively big book on. It is about the history of photomontage in print - meaning printed sources like magazines, books, dust jackets in the 1920s and 1930s."