• Considered a technique, and not an art, typography has often been neglected in the study of the avant-gardes of the beginning of the 20th century. The graphic work done for the publications, tracts, and Dada magazines was however essential, in that it ensured the movement a characteristic and strong visual signature, illustrating both the sprit of its subversive nature and the texts themselves: "Every page should explode, either because of its deep seriousness, or because of its vortex, vertigo, newness, timelessness, crushing humor, enthusiasm of its principles, or the way it is printed." [Tristan Tzara, 'Manifeste Dada [1918]', in Oeuvres complètes T. I / texte établi par Henri Béhar (Flammarion : Paris 1975) 362].
    Certain members of Dada, from Tzara to Hausmann, were so interested in typography and so upset the conventional graphics of publications, that at times it has been spoken of a 'typographical revolution'.
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    It should be recalled that all the innovations were accomplished with complete respect for typographical technique, certainly pushed to its limits, and perhaps diverted from its normal use, but not overshot. There was no invention of new characters – for that, it will be necessary to wait for the experiments of the Constructivists, were undertaken in much more depth – nor transgression of the rules of alignment – note that the famous pages composed by Tzara, Une nuit d’échecs gras and Le Coeur à Barbe, as visually disconcerting as they appear, in fact maintain a solid structure. In fact, the primacy of innovation in this field belongs to the Italian and Russian Futurists. In 1913, the Marinetti Manifesto on 'words in freedom' is particularly noteworthy, expressing in virulent terms of which the Dadaists were certainly aware: "I undertake a typographical revolution directed especially against the idiotic and nauseous conception of old-fashioned books of verses [...] Better still: my revolution is directed against what is called typographical harmony of the page [...] I intend to redouble the expressive force of words." [Filippo Marinetti, Les mots en liberté futuristes (L'Age d'Homme : Lausanne 1987].
  • The Dadaist typographical oeuvre, while not fully pioneering is no less considerable. Its fundamental contribution is to detach the graphic work from the content it transmits: the graphic element is considered in and of itself. This interest for matters of typography goes beyond the simple realm of printed matter, to impose itself, as a purely plastic sign, in the work of certain Dadaist artists. Admittedly, this practice finds its origins in the Cubist collages of Picasso and Braque, and again in certain Futurist canvases; but the use of typography attains its veritable apogee with the Dada movement. It incited among the Germans – Kurt Schwitters, John Heartfield, Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann, a true passion. It was there that the most innovative experimentation was carried out, especially with collage and photomontage, realized with great success by Heartfield for the cover of Der Dada No 3 (1920), and Hausmann, for Dada Cino (1920), or in lesser known works, true 'typographical portraits', such as Gurk (1919) and Dr. Max Rues[t] (1919), in which he manipulated and worked with scraps of newspaper, like other painters worked with colors.
  • Gruen 1918
    In their enterprise of the destruction of logic and reason, the Dadaists could not omit their supports – language and writing. The incoherence they introduced in their literary production had for counterpart the visual explosion of the typographic harmony of the page mined by an anarchistic composition, derision and chance.
    It was natural that the movement, seeking to turn away from all areas of the past, destroy old hierarchies –particularly by turning to disciplines less prestigious than the humanities or the fine arts – would seize typography and attempt to make it, renew it, into art. It was in fact Schwitters who proposed in 1924: "With regard to typography one can establish innumerable laws. The principal one would be: never do what someone else before you has done." And again: "Typography, under certain conditions, can be an art" [Kurt Schwitters in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten (1992) 516]. These rules permitted a great quantity of solutions, which one can indeed find in the extreme typographical diversity of Dada’s publications: one need only compare the covers of Littérature and those of Mécano an illustration.
  • Dada typography, heterogeneous by nature, has its own features. Its objective was to propose a new form of reading, one that was explosive, anti-linear, and – its essential point –no longer dependant upon the meaning of the text, contrary to Futurist typography, which specifically wanted to be an 'expression' of this meaning. The typographical importance of a word is not related to its semantic importance and, by derision, the least meaningful elements, puns and aphorisms, were often put to the fore. However, all the Dadaists did not practice this dissociation of form/content. Hausmann for example, used graphics in a more expressive way, making the optical effect correspond to the sound effect he wanted to produce: "the Futurists, and especially the Dadaists, understood that the reading, or the communication, of sounds could have weight only through the optical effect" [Raoul Hausmann, 'Typographie', in Qualität (1932) No. 4].
  • Without any concern for functionality, the Dadaists assembled on the same page, and sometimes in the same word, different typefaces and different sizes, playing with mismatched unions, pages out of balance, and composing indifferently in any direction – forwards, backwards, horizontally and vertically.
    They appropriated and subverted certain ideograms – a hand or an eye – to make rallying signs of them. The mono-directional sense for reading was abolished and the page became polycentric and polysemic. Compositions, like those of Theo van Doesburg and Kurt Schwitters for the program of a Dada evening in The Hague, in 1923 – a true all-over, a centrifugal explosion of contradictory signs, scrambling the immediate perception of the message – translated the need of the Dadaists for finding a graphic means to transcribe the creative act in its first breath, its spontaneity and its indetermination, that is, not yet ordered and consequently not diminished by the action of intelligence. Creation, thus understood, can not be reduced to a repressive typographical uniformity, which is good only for so-called artists: "The author the artist rented out by newspapers, notes the comprehension of his work: poor wretched lining of a coat for public use; rags that cover brutality, urine collaborating with the heat of an animal to covers the lower instincts. Flaccid and insipid flesh multiplying with the help of typographical microbes" [Tristan Tzara, 'Manifeste Dada [1918]', in Oeuvres complètes T. I / texte établi par Henri Béhar (Flammarion : Paris 1975) 365].
  • Though promoting this contempt of clarity, Dada does not fail to take the public into account. On the contrary, the graphic work carried out in the publications, and especially on the covers of the journals and pamphlets, whose visual impact is most immediate, reveals a strong will to attract the public, to better yell in its face.
    As in the realm of theatre, or more generally of public performances, where the Dadaists attack the passive and comfortable position of the public, spectator or reader. This evident borrowing that Dada makes from the technical and visual vocabulary of advertising – moreover, artists' attraction to posters is old – evinces a real desire to occupy the forefront of the scene, while at the same time mocking the commercial codes and mechanisms – which it uses to excess, to the point of absurdity. It was the same process used in a tract such as Dada soulève tout, dated 12 January 1921, where advertising's soliciting and use of slogans are diverted ("The ministry is overturned. By who? By Dada. The Blessed Virgin was already a Dadaist"). The Dadaists went as far as to propose premiums: "50 francs reward to who ever finds the means of explaining DADA to us."
  • This playful dimension would not last very long, not any more than unspecified Dada 'heritage' in matters of typography. Of all the experiments undertaken by Dada in this field, only the tamest ones know posterity. The Constructivists, right from the start of the movement, were interested in typography, and undertook a thorough reflection of this idea, going as far as creating a group around the question, the Ring neuer Werbegestalter [=Circle of New Advertising Graphic Designers]; seeking a new rigor, preaching clarity, concision and precision – elements one already found in the 1917 magazine De Stijl, directed by Theo Van Doesburg.
    They renounced any typographical games and visual provocation (in fact, Littérature had hardly shown any inventiveness in this respect) and, which seemed to go against the transmission of meaning. After the madness of Dada, a "new prudish classicism" (according to Jacques Damase) quickly took its place in the 1930s.
    Jean Brun, 'Typography', translated from the French text, published in the catalogue Dada (Editions du Centre Pompidou : Paris 2005) 942-945. The translation was part of the Press Pack, published by MNAM Centre Pompidou 2005, p. 68-70 [Courtesy MNAM Centre Pompidou].
    top: design for 'Mouvement Dada' by Francis Picabia.
  • under: Grün, May 1918. On the backside of 'Dadaistisches Manifest' [Collection Centre Pompidou, Musée national d'art moderne, Paris].
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    banner: (detail) Raoul Hausmann, 'Mechanischer Kopf' (Der Geist unserer Zeit), 1918 [Collection Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris].