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Dada East: The Romanians of Cabaret Voltaire

by Tom Sandqvist
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2006
448 pp., illus. 75 b/w, 16 col. Trade, $45.00
ISBN: 0-262-19507-0.

Reviewed by Alise Piebalga
University of Plymouth


The opening statement of this fascinating book by Tom Sandqvist states that ’Dada was a curious movement’. The magnetism of this movement lies not only in the reactionary and unfamiliar nature of Dada gatherings and art, but also in the fact that this international movement was active during one of the most turbulent and contingent periods of modern history. It is, therefore, even more fascinating that the author chose to highlight the ties Dada has with the East, particularly Romania and how Romanian culture, literature, and politics provided a rich and fertile ground for the happenings in Zurich and their widespread effect.

The book has been divided into 13 chapters each dedicated to either an infamous Romanian protagonist of Dada, such as Marcel Janco, Arthur Segal and Tristan Tzara, or descriptions and analysis of wider socio-political and artistic influences, such as the anti-Semitic policies of the Romanian government and the inspirational nature of one of the nation’s most colourful literary persona, Urmuz.

Each chapter is supported with evocative black and white and in some cases colour images of Bucharest and its surrounding areas, journal covers, and photographs of the Dadaists, as well as their art. Particularly interesting are the images supporting the chapter dedicated to The Little Paris of the Balkans——Bucharest with accounts from the early 20th century travellers, Mrs Dudley Heathcote and John Reed, noting the absurd nature of the city with its numerous coffee and pastry houses "crowded with debauched-looking men and women" and its uncanny and intended resemblance to Paris.

Partly due to the evocativeness of the images, but mostly to imaginative and easily flowing language, this book reads like a novel, with the more descriptive accounts interlocking seamlessly with originally analytical and evaluative conclusions. For example, the author describes the celebratory rituals held in Romanian villages around Christmas and New Year, with wild masks, dancing, simultaneous singing and poetry and draws parallels with the costumed Dada performances in Zurich, with masks crated by Marcel Janco, poetry performed concurrently by several readers and rhythmically ritualistic "negro songs." Alternatively, how a typical Jewish upbringing, education, and the richness of Yiddish culture contributed to the development, personal growth, and artistic practices of the three legendary Romanian Dadaists: Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco, and Arthur Segal among others.

Given the research limitations reported by Tom Sandqvist, like the lack of research materials, still lingering obsolete communist structures, and the language barrier, it is surprising how thoroughly this book explores the Romanian cultural influence on the Zurich Dada and beyond——from peasant culture to Bucharest’s coffee houses, from Yiddish songs to Christian mysticism, and from anti-Semitic policies to international cultural and artistic exchange. This research presented by Tom Sandqvist adds a new dimension to the curious story of Dada; it sets the works of art and the wild performances of the Dadaists within a new cultural and political context, highlighting the movement’s significant position within art history. However, the relaxed tone and the social approach contribute to an enjoyable and exciting read.



Updated 1st May 2006

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