the madness of the famous ‘dada campaign’ is revived

One hundred years ago, the artist Theo van Doesburg organized a ‘dada campaign’ through the Netherlands. The soiree of that time will be re-enacted in Haarlem next week.

Peter van Brummelen

In Amsterdam, mounted police had to be involved when a Dadaist tour visited the Bellevue Hall on 19 January 1923. The evening in one word: chaos. The author AM de Jong, later known for his Merijntje Gijzen books, was there. In the Socialist newspaper The people he reported indignantly the next day under the heading ‘Vlegels front and behind the scenes’.

De Jong not only found the performances below par, he also condemned the crowd that had gathered, who behaved in a particularly rowdy way: ‘It wasn’t even funny because of its silliness, it was just gross, tasteless, crude and completely uncivilized ‘ (he left unmentioned) that, among other things, ‘Hup Ajax!’ from the audience as noted elsewhere).

It had not gone much differently in Haarlem a day earlier in the ‘campaign’, and the reactions were the same, as journalist Peter Bruyn knows. “IN Haarlem’s Daily the editor-in-chief thought the whole thing was ridiculous what had happened. A disgrace to art, which should be uplifting. There were also people who thought it was funny, but in the decent world people didn’t like it at all.”

Barking and meowing

Peter Bruyn is one of the organizers of the event Dada Haarlem 1923 – 2023, which offers, among other things, exhibitions, films and performances. The highlight is the reenactment of the Haarlem dadasoiree from a hundred years ago, just like it was then in the Rosehaghe room. The public is encouraged to come in appropriate 1920s attire. Mobile phones are not allowed, but just like back then, whistling, barking and meowing are allowed.

Dadaism originated in Zurich, Switzerland, halfway through the First World War. People turned against the established order with absurd and confusing ‘anti-art’. Dada, a movement that did not want to be a movement, quickly caught on in the rest of Europe. The Netherlands only joined late, says Bruyn: “In 1920 it was actually already over with Dada, but the Dutch campaign along eight cities was only in 1923. There was a lot to do.”

The tour was organized by Theo Van Doesburg, one of De Stijl’s artists. “It was actually a very organized movement, but Van Doesburg was also interested in Dada. He had good international contacts and was able to lure the German Kurt Schwitters and the Hungarian Vilmos Huszár to the campaign. His wife Nelly played the piano at these festivities.”

Intense nose blowing

The program was not the same every night of the tour, but the opening act was always provided by Van Doesburg himself. In a dark room he read from the brochure – in black clothes with a white tie and white socks What is Dada?. In Haarlem, his lecture was interrupted by Kurt Schwitters blowing his nose violently, on other evenings the German made animal noises.

“Nelly van Doesburg played extreme piano pieces for the time when Vilmos Huszár was busy with some kind of doll. There was a lot of madness, also in the hall. People had bells and whistles with them,” says Bruyn.


When the Dutch ‘dada campaign’ started in 1923, the art movement was already in decline.Image Getty Images

Does Bruyn have any idea who attended the Haarlem dadasoiree at that time? “Hell yes. In the eighties a booklet was published in the evening where people who were there at the time were interviewed. It wasn’t Jan with the cap who came, it was mainly people from the art world. There were also prominent people , who didn’t like dada, but were curious.”

And who will come next Thursday and Friday when Haarlem’s soiree is reenacted by actors? “At least there are people who know what dada is, so you can fill it in yourself. But local residents have also become interested. In addition to the two evening performances, which are now sold out, we have arranged a matinee for them on Thursday. Other interested parties can also buy a ticket for it, because the performance only makes sense if the hall is full, just like in 1923. The public is an emphatic part of it.”

Dada knows

As a part of Dada Haarlem 1923 – 2023 performing at the pop center Het Patronaat Blixa Bargeld, the singer of the group Einstürzende Neubauten, who made a name for themselves with a set of instruments that included sledgehammers and shopping carts. Bargeld is an expert in Dada. There are more dada lovers in pop music. For example, the British electronic duo Cabaret Voltaire named themselves after the café in Zurich where dada originated.

Bruyn: “But with Cabaret Voltaire, there was only that reference in the name. Blixa Bargeld and Einstürzende Neubauten are really influenced by dada. There are several of them in pop music, but it is primarily about outsider musicians, also in the Netherlands.”

Did Dada have further influence in the Netherlands, according to Bruyn? “Then you end up with artists from the Fluxus corner, the art movement from the sixties. It is easy to draw a line from Dada to Willem de Ridder and Wim T. Schippers.”

More information: www.dadahaarlem.com

The program for a dadasoiree in Haarlem, 11 January 1923. Image

The program for a dadasoiree in Haarlem, 11 January 1923.

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