But why did these artists suddenly turn, with such explosive results, to these objects that had hitherto not been considered art at all in Western terms and were to be found only in museums of ethnography? In part it was the outcome of a long-simmering revolt against the dominance of the Renaissance style. In part it was the result of artists’ response to the insanity of the First World War.
Renaissance art was a fantastically sophisticated, fantastically elite, fantastically artificial product that always carried within it the seeds of decadence. In seeking to break away from it artists sought the opposite qualities – honesty, simplicity, innocence, nature. They sought too, pure and simple faiths, in contrast to the complexities of the Roman Church. In their search for these truths, painters moved out of the city and into the fields, to increasingly remote rural fastnesses untainted by urban life. Then, in a crucial leap, one of them, Paul Gauguin, left Europe altogether.
The stage was thus set for Western culture to be challenged in its most treasured belief – its innate superiority to the rest of the world. In statues of tribal gods, and in ritual masks whose non-naturalistic, highly stylised forms also embodied powerful, highly expressive imagery, artists found a model for an alternative to Western art. The most dramatic early result was Cubism which, from about 1909, following mainly the formal implications of tribal art, rapidly undermined the Western model by fragmenting the image and abandoning perspective. A major outcome of this was abstract art.
Around the same time the artists of the German group Die Brücke focused more on the primal, instinctual and ritual aspects of non-Western art, founding the major stream of modern art broadly known as Expressionism. Then came the war, which for the artists completed the case for the failures of Western society and its art. In Zürich and in New York, and then Paris, the Dadaists took their cue from tribal art, Cubism and Expressionism and pushed further the deconstruction of the Western model.
Much Dada activity was ephemeral. At Dada’s original home, the famous Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich, anarchic performances of nonsense poetry and plays, and of bizarre music of random sounds, laid the foundations of what was later to be known as performance art. But the main medium of Dada’s pictorial or sculptural art was collage, and its three-dimensional equivalent, assemblage.
This work, made from found materials, established one of the fundamentals of art as we know it – that it does not have to be painted or carved or modelled, and that it can be made of anything. Often including elements from tribal art in its imagery, it was politically or socially or aesthetically aggressive, as in Hannah Höch’s Monument I (above), from her series of collages ‘From an Ethnographic Museum’ (1924–28), which features in the Berlin show. In it, using images clipped from magazines, she combines startlingly different sources: an African mask; the torso of an ancient Egyptian goddess; and the leg and arm of a film actress. This strange composite figure is placed on a pedestal, thus proposing a subversive new ideal of the female figure in art.
Dada introduced the ideas that eventually gave us conceptual art, whose influence in turn has combined with the other streams of modern art to give us the great, broad, extraordinarily rich, varied, diverse and international river of contemporary art that the world now has. So go to Berlin and Vienna – both cities one anyway needs no excuse to visit – and then come back and go to the new Tate Modern to see what I mean.
Dada Africa: Dialogue with the Other is at Berlinische Galerie, Berlin, until 7 Nov
Foreign Gods: Fascination for Africa and Oceania is at Leopold Museum, Vienna, 23 Sep - 9 Jan 2017