“The word, gentleman, is a public concern of the first importance.”

on

The word is dada.

Hugo Ball in costume for reciting a sound poem, 1916, Zurich.

The second time I took a course on Modern British Literature (not because I failed the first), we were again required to present some one or some thing that was contextually relevant to the life&times we were studying. I chose to present on Dada. No, I didn’t listen to Sean and wear a big lobster claw or some other ridiculously Dada Iconic costume. Conforming wasn’t the idea. Besides, I thought my slides were enough. And I wanted people to be able to leave with some concept of Dada, if not a sliver of understanding. Also, my grade depended on coherence and I looked strange enough trying to present anyway. Dada may seem fairly simple in execution, but it is not easily explained. Not when Why? is a reflexive inquiry.

Researching Dada was a lot of fun! Sean was an awesome help as he is an Artist and has learned his Art History. And as an Architect, there was more. We had the best conversations on that which led up to the movements and that which led away. And while this was great geeky fun, it was also necessary because Dada is not easy. Dadaists may seem silly, and often dismissed out of hand, but the dada were serious, “And while we put on a show of being facile, we are actually searching for the central essence of things, and are pleased if we can hide it. […] DADA is neither madness, nor wisdom, nor irony, look at me, dear bourgeois” (Tristan Tzara, in one of his 7 Dada Manifestos in 1918).

[I am by no means an expert on Dada, and I feel my grasp is fairly tenuous at best.  I thought some background was best as I read the following book a bit critically as I am not completely unfamiliar with Shelley Jackson’s subject.]

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I am not writing this book to get famous but to give you some tips on living./Listen, kiddo: sometimes you stare at a black dot for an hour and nothing happens./But sometimes it gets up and walks across the floor./ I like bugs. /What I’m trying to say is, Pay attention and expect the best.~Mimi’s Dada Catifesto

Mimi’s Dada Catifesto by Shelley Jackson

Clarion Books, 2010.

hardcover, 48 pages. Picture Book, ages 6 & up

Mimi is an artistic cat in need of a human. But for a cat like her—with the soul of an artist—only an artist will do. Mr. Dada is a human who believes that art can be anything, and that anything can be art. And for a human like him—with the soul of a Dadaist—only an artistic pet will do. Sometimes, though, it takes a while for humans to see what’s right in front of them all along. So it is a good thing that Mimi is loud and silly and surprising and bold. Mimi is a Dada cat, through and through.

This charming story about staying true to yourself sparkles with playful prose and stunning mixed-media illustrations while introducing readers to the Dadaist art movement. ~Publisher’s Comments

I saw Shelley Jackson’s Mimi’s Dada Catifesto face out on a Library display. I was intrigued as to how Dada would do in a children’s picture book. However would the author/illustrator introduce the Reader to Dada, let alone explain what Dada was/is? The answer: some necessary use of oversimplification, and a marvelous “Author’s Note” at the end.

“This is a Dadaist book, and so, like the Dadaists, I borrowed from many famous works of art to make it.” If it were allowed, I think a photocopied set of pages of a first book constructed out of images and other found objects would have been brilliant. As it is, I think Shaun Tan in the construction of this book as well as Jennifer Bryant’s A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, which is no insult, of course.

Speaking of William Carlos Williams, while certainly regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest American Modernist Poet, I was surprised to see a poem inspired by “This Is Just to Say” in a book about Dada, especially when the poem was written in 1934 and the Dada were declared “dead” in 1923 by the Surrealists (a few of whom had been Dada). Yes, yes, I know Dada is not “dead” for plenty. It just—it is not the same. And I acknowledge the fact I am arguing with a children’s picture book**; one I am just glad someone attempted and pulled off. Who wants to dwell on the depressing historical context, let alone share it with a child? Not Shelley Jackson, and not most of the parents who wouldn’t pick up this book, and not most of the parents who would.

Jackson is looking for accessibility and this illustrated piece is that, whether the Reader is a child or adult.  In the “Author’s Note” Jackson walks the Reader back through the book, enumerating her sources, “Mimi’s art show was inspired by Marcel Duchamp, who invented the “ready-made,” “The costumes of Mr. Dada and his friend are inspired by Hugo Ball’s costumes.” A passion and a lively sense of humor lift from the text and artwork. Mimi’s Dada Catifesto is a fun book.

In addition to a narrative, an artistic cat looking to live alongside an artistic human, Jackson inserts games and activities. Count the peas on a page, host a “ready-made” exhibit, and create a poem from clipped-out words. Ideally, someone would have marked in this Library book already, have already pasted their bits of cut-out words to form a poem on the appropriate page. And then the next Reader should paste over a few words and add some at weird angles between the already there. Yes, I am very definitely tempted.

 

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“The world was full of silly things in 1915, just like now (umbrellas! bow ties! false teeth!), but most art ignored the silliness. To the Dadaists, that was the silliest thing of all.”*

Dada is in many ways suited to the young audience Jackson is targeting. Apparently silliness abounds, from the sound poems to the costumes to the raucous performances to the indecipherability of action. The assertions that “art can be anything and anything can be art” to “They thought that when you understand something, you stop thinking about it. Not understanding is much more interesting,” to “The Dadaists made art out of everything. Pieces of newspapers, ads, junk they found on the street—even other works of art.” Jackson examples Marcel Duchamp’s 1919 parody of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, notably ignoring the added inscription and it’s coarse implication. What an exciting idea, though, right? Art within reach, Art without criticism, while being criticism. Anyone can be a dada. “Many cats are Dadaists.”

In this beautifully ambitious picture book, Shelley Jackson creates a fun introduction to Dada. She begins with beginners and pairs dadaist venues with a sweet story. Not unlike the cat, Dada is also looking for a place to belong. It is a stray beast, a bold and sassy figure, who finds the sacrifices for the sake of integrity and dignity well worth the while. Mimi is told as long as she behaves 1, 2, & 3, all will be well (i.e. purr; look cute; don’t wash your behind while they’re watching). She cannot compromise. There is something at stake. Dada was her response. Dada is her voice.

If you are looking for an unusual subject for an informative yet narrative-driven picture book, especially within the realm of Art, Mimi’s Dada Catifesto is a must. Even if you aren’t, do give Shelley Jackson marvelous little creation a chance. This one would be fun to own, collaborate with, and lend out to friends to make their own additions; then perhaps a soiree? We can deal with the historical, the political, contexts later.

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*does the use of “silliness” come across as a bit saccharine to you too? that is, if you are familiar with what was going on.

**In the Author’s Note,” Jackson writes, “Nobody could agree about what Dada meant, and nobody really understood Dada—not even the Dadaists!” This could be seen as convenient, argumentatively, but that doesn’t make it any less true. I like Jackson’s boldness and ingenuity in tackling  this Art Movement, and to good review.

Do check out this review by the wonderful blog “7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast”

I mentioned I thought the “Author’s Note” very good, Jackson also includes a list of resources under “More About Dada;” books, websites, and audio cds. She includes Matthew Gale’s Dada and Surrealism (Phaidon Press, 1997) which I also found to be a brilliant resource.

>The quote in the title is the last line of Hugo Ball’s 1916 Dada Manifesto, which was read at the first public Dada soiree in Zurich on July 14, 1916. I just love the way it resonates; of course, especially in light of that which comes before it.

One Comment Add yours

  1. This book looks gorgeous. A fan of (most) modern arts, there’s a fondness in my heart for Dada. I remember learning about it in high school art class, and while I did not pursue this style, its affects are definitely obvious in some of my works of old. I love how something so inexplicable can be explained, how something so bizarre can seem normal, and how something out of place can fit right in.

    Great review, L. And again, what wonderful pictures.

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