Probably my favorite of the number of Dada works that I browsed through during this lesson is Hans Arp’s Portrait of Tzara: The Entombment of Birds and Butterflies. Arp, one of the founders of Dadaism, created poetry, paintings, and sculptures, but the majority of his output was sculptures or reliefs. This fine example of his art is a painted wooden relief.
The work was created in 1916 and 1917 in Zurich during the seminal phase of Dadaism in Switzerland. As the title suggests, it honors another founder of the Dada school of thought, Tristan Tzara. But with further study, the essential message of this relief as implied in the title becomes twofold.
First, as a portrait of Arp’s friend Tzara, it is an abstract personality study. In fact, some see in this work a distorted resemblance to the human figure and hints of Tzara’s physical quirks, such as his manner of flapping his hands in a bird-like fashion.
However, this work contains more than a human character study. For by suggesting the entombment of innocent and beautiful creatures, Arp also makes reference to the nihilistic and anti-war philosophy of Tzara and many of the Dada members. This idea is also supported by the tomb-like arrangement and dark charcoal coloring.
The entire Dada movement embodied an angry reaction to tradition, since its adherents believed that the traditional order of society was responsible for the great suffering of World War I. Hence, in this Portrait, there is no direct homage no either Tzara’s actual face or to the actual shapes of birds or butterflies – even though these are the legitimate subjects of the work. The rejection of tradition is clear. Arp’s work is not abstract, but it is completely different from any artistic approach before him.
This relief appeals to me not only because of its distorted and almost ghastly appearance, but because of the dichotomy at work in its creation. It hangs somewhere between traditional art and abstract art in form, while conveying two separate messages at once. Personally, I find this piece a work of genius.