A View of Four Dada Portraits

‘Let us take the word Dada,…It is just made for our purpose.The child’s first sound expresses the primitiveness, the beginning at zero, the new in our art’ – the Dadaist christening Non Art (Richardson, T and Stagnos, N 1974: 109)


Portraiture is one of the most important genres in western art history in that through it great figures in history were captured.The aim of this essay is to view four Dada portraits in terms of how they show 1. Sociopolitical realities 2. Gender Expectations’ codes of convention and 3. The role of spectator. The artworks that this essay will discuss have been produced between 1915 – 1920.

Portrait of Tristan Tzara

Figure 1

When we look at this work we are confronted by an arrangement of organic shapes, one on top of the other building the composition of the work. There is no reference to the human face. However we are drawn to the medium itself and how it has been manipulated to depict Tristan Tzara (1886 – 1963).

According to Richard Huelsenbeck, Tristan Tzara was one of the Zurich artist members who founded Dada in 1916. Hugo Ball, Hans (Jean) Arp (1887 – 1966), and Marcel Janco ( 1895 –  1985 ) were the other members of this group (see Chipp, HB. 1968: 377).

According to Tristan Tzara ‘In art, Dada reduces everything to an initial simplicity, growing always more relative. It mingles its caprices with the chaotic wind of creation and barbaric dances of savage tribes (Chipp 1968: 386). This is indeed true of figure 1. The composition is simple and it looks like anyone who is not an artist might have produced the artwork.

In 1942, in a lecture entitled ‘Abstract Art, Concrete Art’ Jean Arp highlighted that:

1Concrete art (Abstract art) wishes to transform the world. It wishes to render existence more tolerable. It wishes to save men from the most dangerous of furious madness: vanity, it wants to simplify man’s LIFE. It urges man to identify with nature (see Jean Arp, ‘Abstract Art, Concrete Art’ca. 1942 Cited in Chipp (1968:391)

The key word here is ‘nature’. In the Portrait of Tristan Tzara the shapes which represent Tristan Tzara recall forms which can be liken to algae, rock formation or even plant leaves. Observe the gaping shape towards the right.

If we bring one of the questions raised at the outset of this essay, the one that concern socio political references I think that the work is devoid of such references, it is rather a personal account. It is a personal account in that, though its title alludes to an important figure in the Dada movement’ it is an abstract rendition of its subject matter or, to use Arp’s term, it is Concrete. One cannot easily make out the image that the work is depicting, it is the title of the artwork that affords the viewer the opportunity to fathom that it is a portrait and also the viewer’s schooling in modern art movements can afford the ability to make the connection as to who Tzara is.

The portrait then, as unrealistic as it is, terms of abstract art, which strives to save, free man and simplify his life, it represents Tristan Tzara. This artwork which was conceived during World War I is devoid of gender expectations.

The role of the spectator is to ponder what the work is trying to show. The spectator is propelled towards a deeper questioning of what art should be and the form it should take especially bearing in mind the western tradition of art making.

Chipp points out that Dada was an attempt to free the artist from traditional views of the arts to form a conception  of art as a moral and social phenomenon (1968: 380).