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  • Between Zurich and Romania: A Dada Exchange

    Amelia Miholca

    Chapter from the book: Jonsson, H et al. 2021. Narratives Crossing Borders: The Dynamics of Cultural Interaction.

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    In 1916, a group of ambitious artists set out to dismantle traditional art and its accompanied bourgeois culture. Living in Zurich, these artists—among them the Romanians Marcel Janco and Tristan Tzara, and the Germans Emmy Hennings and Hugo Ball—formulated the new Dada movement that would awaken new artistic and literary forms through a fusion of sound, theater, and abstract art. With absurd performances at Cabaret Voltaire, they mocked rationality, morality, and beauty.

    Within the Dada movement in Zurich, I would like to focus on the artists whose Romanian and Jewish heritage played a central role in Cabaret Voltaire and other Dada related events. Art historical scholarship on Dada minimized this heritage in order to situate Dada within the Western avant-garde canon. However, I argue that the five young Romanians who were present on the first night of Cabaret Voltaire on February 5, 1916 brought with them from their home country certain Jewish and Romanian folk traditions, which helped form Dada’s acclaimed reputation.

    The five Romanians—Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco and his brothers Georges Janco and Jules Janco, and Arthur Segal—moved to Zurich either to escape military conscription or to continue their college studies. By the start of the twentieth-century, Romania’s intellectual scene was already a transcultural venture, with writers and artists studying and exhibiting in countries like France and Germany.
    Yet, Zurich’s international climate of émigrés from all over Europe allowed the young Romanians to fully expand beyond nationalistic confines and collaborate together with other exiled intellectuals.Tom Sandqvist’s book Dada East from 2007 is the most recent and most comprehensive study of the Romanian aspect of Dada.

    Sandqvist traces Janco’s and Tzara’s prolific, pre-Dada time in Bucharest, along with the folk and Jewish sources that Sandqvist claims influenced their Dada performances. For instance, Tzara’s simultaneous poems, which he performed at Cabaret Voltaire, may derive from nineteenth century Jewish theater in Romania and from Hasidic song rituals. Moreover, the Dada performances with grotesque masks created by Janco relate to the colinde festival in Romania’s peasant folk culture. In my paper, I aim to analyze Sandqvist’s claim and answer the following questions: to what extent did Janco and Tzara incorporate the colinde festival and Jewish theater and ritual? Was their Jewish identity more important to them than their Romanian identity? And, lastly, how did they carry Dada back to Romania after the war ended and the Dadaists in Zurich moved on to other cities?

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    How to cite this chapter
    Miholca, A. 2021. Between Zurich and Romania: A Dada Exchange. In: Jonsson, H et al (eds.), Narratives Crossing Borders. Stockholm: Stockholm University Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.16993/bbj.f

    This is an Open Access chapter distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (unless stated otherwise), which permits unrestricted use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. Copyright is retained by the author(s).

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    Published on June 15, 2021


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