Abstract Art and Dadaism

In what follows, it will be necessary to briefly allude to my artistic experiences, in abstractism and Dadaism, even though little from that has remained on the public level.

I have already said why I did not sympathise much with the futurists. On the other hand, in the immediate after-war period, I was attracted to the Dadaist movement, founded in Zurich by the Romanian Tristan Tzara, mainly because of its radicalism. Dadaism came not simply as a new trend in avant-garde art. It rather defended a worldview in which the impulse towards an absolute liberation by the subversion of all logical, ethical and aesthetical categories manifested under paradoxical and disconcerting forms. For having known ‘the tremor of awakening’, the Dadaists proclaimed a ‘severe necessity without discipline or morality’, the ‘identification of order and of chaos, of the I and of the non-I, of affirmation and of negation, as an emanation of an absolute art’, the ‘active simplicity, the incapacity to distinguish between the degrees of clarity’. ‘What is divine in us – Tristan Tzara had said – is the awakening of anti-human action’. ‘Every man must shout: there is a great destructive, negative work to be done. We must sweep and clean. Affirm the cleanliness of the individual after the state of madness, aggressive and complete madness of a world abandoned to the hands of bandits who have demolished and destroyed the centuries. With neither aim nor plan, without organisation: uncontrollable folly, decomposition’. And also: ‘Dada is a virgin microbe’. ‘We are looking for a straightforward, pure, sober and unique force, we are looking for nothing’. The most characteristic trait of Dadaism was even the dedramatising of these negations, from which all pathos was removed through being translated into the forms of cold paradox and pure contradiction. ‘Dada is not serious –again Tzara himself used to say. Let no one feel sorry for the defeats of intelligence. Dada is working with all its might towards the universal installation of the idiot’. ‘The real Dada is against Dada – it changes, affirms, says the opposite at once - no importance’. (These expressions can be found in T. Tzara’s Seven Dada Manifestos, which were then collected in a volume which appeared in Paris in 1924). Externally, these positions found an analogy in the method of absurdity used in certain Oriental esoteric schools – Ch’an and Zen – to blow up all mental superstructures—even if, naturally, the core of these is completely different. We could have also referred to Rimbaud’s words on the insight method through a ‘reasoned derangement of all the senses’.

In all rigour, Dadaism could not lead to any art proper. It rather marked the auto-dissolution of art in a superior state of liberty. This seemed to me to be its essential significance; so much so that, interpreting Dadaism as the limit of a sort of an immanent dialectic in different forms of the most modern art (in the appendix of my Essays on magical idealism, reproduced in the recent re-edition of the poem in four voices The obscure dialogue of the inner landscape), I thought it possible to elevate it to the rank of a true ‘category’ in one of my philosophical works which followed (Phenomenology of the Absolute Individual). The most coherent conclusion would have been to reject all artistic expression, moving into an adventurous life, as Rimbaud had done when he left aside his own illuminated poetry, after having discovered that “I is another”; or else a continuous game, with a serious deepness in lightness and a lightness in the deepest seriousness. But in the prevalent anarchic climate, it was rather abstract art that took birth as an intermediary solution. At that time, its formula was a use of pure expressive means detached from all necessity and from all content to evoke or attest a state of absolute liberty.

I was one of the very first in Italy to represent the abstract art movement, related to Dadaism (I personally knew Tristan Tzara and other representatives of the movement). I exposed its theory in a small publication from 1920, Abstract Art, published in the “Dada editions” of Maglioni and Strini in Rome, and which also contained some of my poems and reproductions of my paintings (*). However, in this text, the aesthetical condition was ultimately relegated to the second order in relation to the expression of the effort towards the unconditioned, joined with repercussions of the crisis I’ve already mentioned, the severest phase of which corresponded to the period of my latest artistic experiments. In that pamphlet, I denounced in the name of a “superior liberty” the “aspirtuality” of all that is usually considered as spiritual, of “humanity’s” values and of spontaneous creativity, as well as of romantic and tragic forms of art. The climate advanced by abstract art was one opposed to the obscure and incessant urge which moves man, in an eternal circle. The absolute sense of the I was exposed in it, with the image of a yet unchannelled and unlimited current, of the primordial energy before the conditioning by one or another human circuit, in sentiments, in creations, in instincts, in enthusiasms, in utilities. But a characteristic trait of the ensemble was my emphasis on a more unknown, impenetrable and dominating, rather than ecstatic, spiritual conscience, which should have had as a typical expression the arbitrary agitation of forms. In this manner, I considered the explicit intellectualism of the most recent art as a positive rather than negative aspect, due to the priority of will over spontaneity. The detachment of the means of expression with regards to all content and their use following infinite abstract possibilities: that was the technique which I exposed to incite, through art, the intuition of a superior state of being which I also associated in this first text to the ‘brief, rare lightening through the great death, the great nocturnal reality of corruption and sickness’, embodied in the experiences of mystics and seers. To be sure, escapist tendencies were not absent from the personal experiences I’ve already mentioned; but there was nonetheless the trace of a specific orientation: I reproached Dadaism for not having attained the deepest dimension (I should have used the adjective ‘metaphysical’); through destruction, upheaval, incoherence, contradiction and abstraction, it thought of liberating ‘Life’ (as in an exasperated Bergsonism), whereas for me it was something other, different than life.

In fact, the movement in which I took part, holding Tristan Tzara in high regard, realised little of what I had seen in it. While it definitely represented the extreme and unsurpassed limit of all avant-garde currents, yet it did not consume itself in the experience of an effective ‘rupture of levels’ beyond all art and all similar expression. Following Dadaism was Surrealism, whose character, in my opinion, was regressive, because, on the one hand, it cultivated a sort of psychic automatism centered around subconscious and unconscious levels of being, to the point of associating with psychoanalysis, and because, on the other hand, it contented itself with transmitting confused sensations of a troubling and impenetrable ‘backdrop’ of reality (particularly in ‘metaphysical painting’), without any real upward opening.

As for abstract art, it would end up in conventionalism and academicism. There was a pause; then it resurfaced and proliferated in the second after-war as an easy and commercialised product. In this resurgence, all its value, not as a new artistic orientation, but indeed as a sign or a trace of a certain existential situation, and especially of a tendency towards transcendence, this value was lost: and this was the essential value for me. A certain orientation towards transcendence, although latent, could also be found in Tristan Tzara himself. I have kept an illustrated postcard which he sent me from the Austrian Tyrol on September 3 1920, and with a significant symbolism: it was a landscape of valleys with a church and a background of glaciers. On the church’s sharp-pointed bell tower, on the cross, Tzara had drawn, in the Rosicrucian style, a blossomed flower, and on the highest peak in the background a hand with the index pointing towards the sky. On the other hand, marginalised artists, who had previously associated with Dadaism, such as Aragon, Soupault, Eluard and Breton, had to fit in while making for themselves a name in mainstream culture.

As regards my contribution in that field during the aforementioned period, I can refer, for painting, to a personal exposition of fifty four canvases held in 1920 at the Bragaglia Galerie of Rome; this was followed by another personal exposition of some sixty canvases in Berlin, at Herwart Walden’s Der Sturm gallery, and another exposition held, with Ciotti and Cantarelli, in the Bragaglia Galerie in 1921, not to mention my participation in collective expositions in Lausanne, Milan and other places. Some of my paintings drew the attention of Serge Diaguilev, the famous director of the first Russian ballets. My sketches for the scenes of Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande have been mentioned in histories of avant-garde Italian scenography. Among my paintings, some carried the title ‘inner landscape’, with the indication of a given hour of the day. Others were simple linear or chromatic compositions. A small group of paintings were still in the futurist vein, even if I gave them, in the first exposition at Bragaglia, the label of ‘sensorial idealism’. In 1921, I fully abandoned painting. Having exhausted the experience, I moved unto something else. Most of my paintings were dispersed. It wasn’t until forty years later, from 1960 to 1963, that some people in Italy and in France drew attention to my contribution, for its anticipatory historical value. A retrospective exposition was also organised and had some success. One of my paintings is held at the Gallery of modern Art in Rome.

In the field of poetry, I published certain things in French reviews, aside from the poems that appeared in the appendix to Abstract Art. Most important was perhaps the French poem La parole obscure du paysage intérieur, published in 1920 in the Dada Collection in 99 hand-numbered copies. Appreciated by the principal representatives of Dadaism, it concluded my experience in the area of avant-garde art. I authorised its re-edition forty years later, by Scheiwiller editions, to show furthermore that I do not at all renounce my past experience and that I am far from considering them as ‘sins of youth’; but I took care to explain the situation and the period that saw the composition of this poem, without which its reedition would have left confusion among those who do not know me outside my more recent ‘traditionally’- oriented activity.

To review: while the style of the poem was that of abstract poetry and of ‘alchemy of words’ (words used especially in the combinations of their evocative parts dissociated from the real sense), the poem itself nonetheless had a theme, because it described a sort of internal drama, the key to which was indicated in a phrase of Gnostic inspiration: ‘He awakened on the Great Day and for having known the darkness knew the light’. In the poem, four persons spoke in turns and represented each a given tendency of the spirit. One incarnated the will to a destructive and dissolving overcoming; the second – a feminine person – the human, affective or sentimental element (the ‘soul’); the third ‘disinterested abstraction’ in the rarefaction gradually created at the heart of the ‘inner landscape’, accompanied by a certain irony, and the last one ‘descriptive contemplation’, functioning as a sort of choir, that is to say, recording the successive transformations in the landscape. The fundamental theme was that of existential obscurity, of the deaf and constant gravitation which can be found at the heart of human life. Destruction and rarefaction intervened in it following the presentiment of a superior liberty and under the effect of a different impulse. The word ‘hyperbola’—the curve which stretched asymptotically towards the infinite—closes the poem, which was recited before a small invited public in a Roman cabaret of the period (at the ‘Augustan Caves’), with musical accompaniment (Schonberg, etc.).

Other poetries written during that period, published and unpublished (which had for influence particularly Rimbaud, Mallarmé and the Maeterlinck of Serres Chaudes), were gathered in a volume titled Raâga-Blanda. At one point, we thought about playing a dirty trick. One of my female acquaintances, a friend of Papini, should have given him the poems while asking him to write a preface for their publication, while mentioning as their author, under an imaginary name, someone who would have ended his life very early. In fact, the person who went, in their contingent and problematic aspects, through these experiences in the avant-garde art scene was dead. And yet, under the pretext of a document of ‘abstractism and of Dadaism’ of a retrospective character, the brochure was published in 1969 by the editor Vanni Scheiwiller in Milan. But, for my part, I wrote no more poems and neither painted at the end of 1922.

Hosted by www.Geocities.ws