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Dada in Paris. Revised and expanded by Anne Sanouillet. Translated by Sharmila Ganguly (review)

From: University of Toronto Quarterly
Volume 81, Number 3, Summer 2012
pp. 774-775 | 10.1353/utq.2012.0049

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Few texts have played as seminal a role in reconstructing the history of the avant-garde as Michel Sanouillet’s Dada à Paris, first published in 1965, revised and expanded by Anne Sanouillet in 1993 and 2005,and now finally translated into English. Writing at a time when Dada was seen as little more than a phase in the prehistory of surrealism, Sanouillet conducted extensive archival research and interviewed many of the protagonists of that brief but groundbreaking cultural moment to provide a detailed account of the complex network of relations that, over a period of less than four years, from 1920 to 1923, brought together many of the protagonists of the European and North American avant-garde in the Dada adventure. A concise but comprehensive introduction sketches the genesis of the movement in Zurich and its rapid dissemination throughout Europe and in New York. The book then shifts its focus to the French capital, where a group of young writers – the ‘three musketeers’ André Breton, Louis Aragon, and Philippe Soupault – formed in the poetic environment of Apollinaire’s ‘new spirit,’ found a new direction for their literary research in the works of Dada co-founder Tristan Tzara and in particular in his ‘Dada Manifesto 1918.’ By January 1920, Tzara was himself in Paris, where he had been preceded by Francis Picabia, and soon they, Breton and his friends, and several other artists (mostly writers) joined forces. Sanouillet chronicles in minute detail, sometimes literally day by day, the public initiatives of the group – art exhibits, publications, and most especially public ‘performances’ – meant to challenge and undercut the cultural values of their mainstream audiences. He also describes the rivalries that opposed Dada to other avant-garde factions (Cocteau was especially detested) and the internal divisions that eventually and perhaps predictably tore the movement apart. The narrative is well-known. By mid-1921, two antagonistic conceptions of Dada emerged: one, embodied by Tzara, identified its spirit in the pure undermining of all positive values and in the immediacy of the gratuitous gesture. The other, with Breton as its main proponent, sought to channel that destructive impulse toward the articulation of ‘a line of direction, if not a goal,’ and would eventually result in the emergence of a full-fledged avant-garde formation, namely surrealism. As the author rightly notes, in Paris, a city that by the early 1920shad seen and heckled and finally accepted every possible artistic avant-garde, Dada found itself confined to the sphere of literature (visual artists such as Picabia or Max Ernst had been formed outside France) and for the most part did not push its revolution into the wider artistic field, as in New York, or into the domain of politics, as in Germany. In its struggle with Dada, the institution of literature proved its remarkable resilience.

I said that the narrative is well-known, but it is so precisely because Sanuillet’s book has played a crucial role in shaping it. Indeed, one of the reasons why Dada in Paris remains of such interest almost half a century after its initial publication is that, even in this updated edition with its references to the international consecration of Dada in the last twenty years, one can perceive behind the impeccable historical reconstruction the passions and antagonisms that in 1965 still divided the protagonists of this cultural season and of which the historian himself was by no means a neutral witness. (In one of his most scathing but also revealing comments, Sanouillet describes Breton and his faction as ‘champions of a respectful avant-garde, apprentice mandarins committed to playing out the futile game that would lead them from a juvenile revolution to the sanction of the Nouvelle Revue Française.’) Dada in Paris is a book that deftly balances critical rigour and militant passion, the detachment of the historian and the proximity of the witness. With its immense apparatus, including some 250 letters and documents by the main protagonists and a bibliography of over 1,000 entries, it is also an irreplaceable reference work for the study of the avant-garde.

Luca Somigli  

Department of Italian, University of Toronto

Copyright © 2012 University of Toronto Press Incorporated
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