Tristan Tzara - Biography and Legacy
Romanian Poet, Writer, and Filmmaker
Biography of Tristan Tzara
Tristan Tzara, born Samuel Rosenstock, came from a Romanian family with Jewish roots. A highly original thinker by nature, his early years were marked by feelings of boredom with the small, agricultural town in which he lived. While attending school in Bucharest he became captivated by Symbolism, and co-founded the magazine Simbolul with Ion Vinea and Marcel Janco. In 1915 he went to Zurich, a hotbed of revolutionary ideas, to study philosophy. His freethinking, anti-bourgeois principles led to painful clashes with his family that eventually led his father to cut him off. As he later wrote, "I was dead for him."
To symbolize the formal break from his prior life, he decided to change his name. Various explanations have been offered for his choice. In Hebrew, "Ttzara'at" means one exiled from the community. In Romanian, it means "sad in the country." There are those who called him "Tzara Thoustra" in homage to Nietzsche's book Thus Spoke Zarathustra. There is no question that Tzara was intrigued by Nietzsche's nihilistic philosophy wherein God was dead. He joined many other young intellectuals who, having witnessed the horrors of the First World War, resented the nationalist and bourgeois conventions that had led to the conflict, fled to neutral Zurich for sanctuary.
Two significant, but very different, events merged from these years: Tzara's Dada movement and Lenin's political revolution. Ironically, the latter was Tzara's neighbour at the time and there is some indication that Lenin attended some Dada events as a young man. Years later Tzara told an interviewer for the British Broadcasting Corporation that although he met Lenin, and probably played chess with him in their local café, he had no idea at the time that he would go on to become the "Lenin" - the leader of the Russian Revolution.
While Europe exploded into war, Tzara and Marcel Janco linked up with a group of pacifist artists and radicals, including Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Richard Huelsenbeck, Hans (Jean) Arp, and Sophie Taeuber-Arp to form the Dada group. Influenced by a range of avant-garde movements, such as Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, and Expressionism, they believed that the role of art was to upset bourgeois sensibilities and ask difficult questions about society. The word Dada means the same (or nothing) in all languages, but, showing his flair for publicity, Tzara insisted it was chosen by randomly stabbing a knife into a dictionary. Whether true or not, that story was an excellent means of advertisement of their extreme spirit.
Tzara described Dada as a "magic revolver," a peaceful weapon that would destroy all the traditions of existing bourgeois society, a "bomb," a "furious wind" with "a great negative and destructive work to accomplish." He was anti theory and pro action, intent on demystifying art. He insisted: "Art needs an operation!" In Dada 3 (1918) he wrote: "The new artist protests: he does not paint a symbolic and illusionistic reproduction, he creates directly in stone and wood, iron, clay, rock, living organisms, which can be turned in any direction by the limpid wind of momentary sensation."
Dada began when a group of artists including Tzara began to stage Dada performances at the local Cabaret Voltaire. A small café named after the 18th century French satirist whose novella, Candide, mocked the idiocies of society, this café was a perfect venue. Freethinkers keen on seeing a new type of expression, unshackled from tradition and constraint, were attracted to the electrifying anarchistic events organized there by Tzara and Hugo Ball. Tzara believed the "primitive" (non-Western) to be a more honest method of pure communication, and accordingly nothing, whether sex, death, cannibalism, masturbation or suicide, was taboo. All of these themes were re-enacted within those performances, accompanied by outrageous and unexpected actions including vomiting, painting, shouting "sound poems" (phonetic nonsense verse), African chants, drumming, and dance. As Tzara was particularly interested in African art, publishing African poems he'd discover at the library in Dada journals, the performance of "chants nègres" was a regular event at both the Cabaret Voltaire and the other location frequented, the Zunfthaus zur Waag. Tzara's performances were very physical, sometimes he shouted and pounded on the tables. When Ball became uncomfortable with Dada's direction, Tzara took the lead. He became an icon, with his charming personality and well-known eye monocle, for his pacifist, yet rebellious manifestos, the first of which was published in 1918 (there were eventually seven, the last published in 1924).
Tzara experimented and innovated in typography as well, working newspaper and advertising type into his manifestos, mixing up article clippings and words. He was quick to hail the new media of photography and film, noting: "When everything that called itself art was stricken with palsy, the photographer switched on his thousand candle-power lamp." He appreciated the artistic freedom these new media offered, embracing the photo montages of words, sounds, typography and art he'd noted in Cubist papiers colles as well as Futurist sculpture.
As well as a poet, performer, and writer of manifestos, Tsara was a master at propaganda. He made sure that Dada proclamations were aggressively circulated, both in Zurich and throughout Europe. Firmly convinced that nationalism led to war, Dada demanded "no more paintings, no more men of letters, musicians, sculptors, religions, republicans, royalists, imperialists, anarchists, socialists, Bolsheviks, politicians, proletarians, democrats, armies, police, countries, we have had enough of all these idiocies, no more anything, nothing, nothing, nothing." Tzara conceptualized Dada as a "virgin microbe" with which he would, through his multilingual journal, infect the world. He called on Dada "to shit in many colors to ornament the zoo of art with the flags of every consulate." Local and ex-pat Dada groups emerged in Paris, Cologne, Berlin, Hanover, and even as far as Russia and New York. Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and Francis Picabia became international spokesmen in New York; the young Breton continued its practice in Paris.
Tzara relocated to Paris in 1920, sparking an exciting blitz of ideas, demonstrations, exhibitions, performances, manifestos and journals among the Parisian avant-garde, including Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, Philippe Soupault, Paul Éluard, Jacques Rigaut, and Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, known as the "Dada Spring." He wrote articles for Breton's Littérature magazine as well as staging outrageous events which shocked the local audience. Tzara described his Paris Dada activities as: "antiphilosophical, nihilist, scandalous, [and] universal." His guerrilla public relations tactics brought anarchy to the city. For example, posters would promise outrageous events such as "Dada Sex Displays" only to disappoint the audience that arrived and found a large wooden phallus balanced on balloons. Huge crowds gathered to see the world's biggest star, Charlie Chaplin, deliver a lecture on Dada, only to discover he wasn't showing up at all. The more the audience rioted, the more Tzara rejoiced. There were events specifically intended to be confusing to the public, such as those where Tzara and Breton would recite competing manifestos while Picabia drew pictures on a blackboard that he immediately erased. As Tzara explained "This painting was valid for only two hours." Responding to these outrageous events, the press described the artists as madmen and lunatics possibly in need of psychiatric help.
Tzara enjoyed great notoriety and cultivated his fame; once he even sent a false news report that he'd been shot in the thigh after he and Arp had dueled. Jon Dos Passos wrote of seeing Tzara leading a crew through the streets of Paris like the Pied Piper, conducting them in strange dance moves while chanting: "Dada, Dada, Dada." In his article for Vanity Fair (1922), Tzara noted with great satisfaction that one critic had called for him to be shot and that in Paris, "for the first time in history, people threw at us, not only eggs, salads and pennies, but beefsteaks as well. It was a very great success."
Wanting to spread Dada ideas throughout Europe, Tzara launched an art and literature review called Dada in 1917 which he followed up on with his Dadaglobe project. As the latter was intended to illustrate a truly global meeting of minds Tzara wrote to artists around the world asking for contributions for what would be an anthology of poetry, writing, and artwork. Although not completed by Tzara himself, the project was resurrected nearly a century later in a Zurich-based exhibition, and eventually published with the title: Dadaglobe Reconstructed.
Tensions between Tzara and Breton in Paris eventually caused a rupture in their relationship. Tzara believed in chaos and that there was no such thing as ultimate truth. He rejected any attempt at explanations, claiming, "Dada has no meaning." Breton, on the other hand, wanted to put ideas into a coherent system and to analyze using psychoanalytical tools drawn from Freud. Tzara maintained that analysis defused the Dada bomb and that psychoanalysis was bourgeois. Breton called Tzara a publicity-mad imposter and even alleged that he had not been the true author of the Dada Manifestos. A great argument broke out between the two in 1923 during a performance of Tzara's play The Gas Heart. The play was intended to irritate the audience with illogical dialogue, and Andre Breton, Paul Eluard and Robert Desnos were heckling loudly from the audience. At one point Breton leapt on stage, causing Tzara to call the police. This move officially ended their relationship until some time later when the two were drawn together through their mutual interest in Surrealism.
By 1929 Tzara and Breton had reconciled and there is no question that Breton's First Manifesto of Surrealism, promoting the unconscious, the primitive, automatism, chance, and the blurring of imagination and reality, was clearly influenced by Tzara's ideas. After publishing his Second Surrealist Manifesto, Breton noted that their earlier split "was not based on anything quite serious as we may have been led to think." Their mutual desire to create a new super reality was exhibited again and again, as with the 1931 publication of Tzara's L'Homme approximatif (Approximate Man). Begun back in 1925, this work argued that man was an incomplete "approximate man like me like you reader and like the others" and clarified his vision of the man of the future as a man truly living a surreal life. Tzara continued to write for Surrealist publications but, over time, argued more and more with Breton over both the philosophy and direction of the movement.
In 1935 Tzara participated in the Congress of The Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists, directing a Support Committee for Spanish Intellectuals. As a delegate, he went to the Spanish front during the Spanish Civil War. Life became very difficult during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II and the artist was forced to flee Paris and go into hiding in the south of France, leaving behind his home and possessions. During this period he wrote in resistance magazines and did broadcasts for the Free French radio station. He subsequently relocated to Toulouse where he joined the intellectual group of Henri Lefebvre, a figure who had long admired Tzara's ethos of living life as art and actively applied it to Marxist efforts at social transformation.
After the war Tzara became a French citizen, repossessed his Paris home, and became very involved with the Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires which was linked to the French Communist party. He remained engaged in and critical of modern politics, delivering radio addresses, writing essays on Mexico and ancient Egypt and publishing a number of poems on these themes including Parler Seul (1950), The Inner Face (1953), Sign of Life (1946), and From a Man's Memory (1950). He spoke out against the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and France's relationship with its ex-colonies.
Throughout this period he continued to publish poetry but later in life turned to esoteric matters, devoting considerable time to the study and deciphering the secret anagrams he'd detected in the work of François Villon. His long manuscript on the Villon "secret code" was published after his death as Le Secret de Villon (1991).
Tzara retained a fascination for African art throughout his life, amassing a large collection of works. His expertise in the subject was acknowledged with the invitation to attend the Congress of African Art and Culture in the African Republic of Rhodesia in 1962. Back in France, he used the promotion of the Congress as a means to reassert his anti-colonialist views. He died in Paris the following year.
The Legacy of Tristan Tzara
Due to the domination of Surrealism and Breton's dogmatic stance, Dada's reputation waned and by the 1940s it had disappeared completely. As the former Dada member Hans Richter noted: "Surrealism devoured and digested Dada." For a time it seemed that Breton had devoured Tzara too but in the 1950s there was a resurgence of interest in the subject. Robert Motherwell's book: Dada Painters and Poets (1951) and the 1953 Dada Exhibition organized by Duchamp acknowledge its historical contribution among the New York audience. Motherwell held Dadaist Exquisite Corpse evenings with Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner and new artists, such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, were called Neo-Dadaists.
Tzara's influence in anti-art ideology and methodology can be seen in subsequent avant-garde movements which blended artistic genres (visual, literary, and musical) such as installation art, happenings, and performance art. The Dada call to destruction is evidenced specifically in Ben Vautier's Fluxus work, Total Art Matchbox (1966). There he takes Tzara's earlier exclamation that "art needs an operation, "quite literally with his exhortation to: "USE THESE MATCHES TO DESTROY ALL ART. SAVE THE LAST MATCH FOR THIS MATCH."
The use of collage in Dada, specifically Tzara's "cut up" techniques, had a profound influence on graphic design, advertising, poetry, and installation art. This technique was key to Beat Poets such as Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs and became a popular technique for songwriters such as David Bowie. Dada's nihilistic call for destruction was influential on the 1970s Punk movement wherein a violent audience reaction became a goal and musicians scream, spit, and fight in a manner similar to what had been seen at the Café Voltaire much earlier. The Sex Pistols specifically adopted the "cut up" technique for the song titles in their typographic collage and photomontage on their Never Mind the Bollocks album. A less provocative reflection of the Dada mixed media performance ethic is evident in Neo-Dada works such as John Cage's Theatre Piece No 1 (1952) and David Bowie's costumes are usually considered the result of those seen in Tzara's play The Gas Heart.