Tristan Tzara, born in Romania in 1896, did not live a happy life. He survived two World Wars and life as a Jew in Europe during the Holocaust. He was also an incredible man, a founder of Dadaism, who wrote plays, poetry, essays, manifestos, directed films, painted and composed music. While it might not be surprising to struggle to come across happy-go-lucky style fun facts about Tzara’s life, it is pretty rubbish that everything available about the poor man is so hideously dry and boring. Even the quickest glance at Tzara’s Wikipedia page would cure the worst insomniac. So, let’s try to breathe some life into this strange, talented man.
- Tzara is what we, in the 21st Century, would define as multi-ethnic. Therefore, two different cultures tried to claim his talent for their arsenal. In fact, Tzara was born in Romania, lived all over Europe, and his first language was Yiddish. Due to racist laws, Tzara wasn’t considered a citizen of Romania until 1918. Perhaps this is why much of Tzara’s later work is in French, as it could have been easy to have little regard for Romania.
- Another thing that must have muddled young Tzara’s identity was his education at Saint Sava National College – which certainly sounds Catholic.
- Oh, and Tzara’s birth name was Samy Rosenstock. Apparently, “Tristan Tzara” is a Romanian pun.
Romania was not directly involved in the First World War, and Tzara traveled to Switzerland during the war, which was (of course) neutral. Scholars have interpreted this as an act of pacifism, but Tzara’s later involvement with the French Resistance and the Spanish Civil War would suggest that it’s much more complicated. Who would have expected such? Either way, it’s clear that the social change brought about by the supposed “great” war had a massive impact on Tzara… And how could it not?
Ever keen to label artistic movements which rebel against clear definition, stuffy academics claim that Dadaism was founded in Zurich, in a Cabaret bar, in 1916. I’m sure I’ve heard this story before, but it involved the devil, rock and roll, and a crossroads at midnight. Anyway, despite Dadaism being created in 1916, New York Dadaists were active in 1915, and the movement was over in the early 1920s. It seems nobody told Tzara that because he published the Seven Dada Manifestos in 1924. The book claims “absolute faith in every god that is the immediate product of spontaneity,” which could, ironically, be the god of Dada itself. Also involved were Jean Arp – sounds like a French name, but it wasn’t – and Hugo Ball, whose name indicates that he could be a fictitious upper-class villain in any spy novel ever written. The cabaret bar was, unsurprisingly, frequently raided by the police, and this meant that Tzara himself was often at odds with them. Given the anti-authoritarian stance of Dadaism, it’s hard to think that this did anything but enhance the Dadaist reputation.
I, too, have been in conflict with Swiss law enforcement, but that’s because I once had a nap on a bench in a Swiss airport. It’s just one of the many ways I am similar to Tzara…
To drum up additional publicity, Tzara and Arp announced they were going to duel and invited Jakob Christoph Heer to be their witness. One would assume this is because they thought Heer’s work was tiresome and colorless, but his books have been so widely forgotten that I couldn’t tell you if that’s true or not. Cabaret Voltaire held its final Dadaist performance in 1918, where there was a melee, the audience fought with the performers, but the show continued…
The Dada movement “consisted of artists who rejected modern capitalist society’s logic, reason, and aestheticism, instead expressing nonsense, irrationality, and anti-bourgeois protest in their work.” How dull and untrue! This movement was contrary, sexy, Jewish, traumatized, revolutionary, and funny. Dadaist works of art are collages, items that state an opposite purpose, the Mona Lisa with a mustache! One avant-garde and iconic item was simply an upside-down urinal, autographed by the artist (who used a fake name), and, tragically, museums have lost it. This is, to me, side-splittingly hilarious! The joke seems to have been lost on the art critics – although, to be fair, the joke was on the art critics. Even now, the MoMA has an exhibition called “Dadaglobe Reconstructed.” The original Dadaglobe was an attempt to bring together 50 artists from ten countries to show existing artwork and inspire more. It was never completed because the artists were broke. The MoMA calling its “reunion” a “reconstruction” seems, to me, to indicate that they have (accidentally) got the point. Also, part of the display includes “photographic self-portraits.” Got to be the most pretentious way of saying “selfie” I’ve come across.
With Dadaism over, Tzara moved on to writing plays, holding mock trials for antisemitism and, eventually, supporting the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. For the unaware, the Spanish Civil War was absolutely brutal: mass graves are still littered over the countryside. Salvador Dali, who had been kicked out of the Dadaist movement, was massively impacted by the war, as was George Orwell. The latter joined a British socialist militia to fight with the republicans. His book Homage to Catalonia chronicled his experiences, and further critiques of the situation pop up in Animal Farm and 1984. Described as “World War Two in miniature,” the Nationalists were supported by fascists in Italy and Nazis in Germany. The Republicans were joined by Communists from Russia. There were significant divisions between the Republican factions, and Tzara himself was criticized for his Marxist-Leninism by the French Communist Party and the Soviet Union. It was a challenging and politically complicated time. Despite that, Tzara never backed away from activism.
After the Spanish Civil War came the Second World War, where Tzara lived in Vichy, France, and ran a secret radio broadcast as part of the resistance. He could not return to his native Romania, which only recognized his citizenship in 1918 and stripped him of it in 1942 as part of new draconian anti-Semitic laws. The Romanian regime also banned Tzara’s books. In 1944 Tristan Tzara wrote for L’Eternelle Revue, a French Communist newspaper edited by Jean-Paul Sartre. It had many incredible contributors, including Picasso.
As we see, Tzara’s life was never easy. He lived to fight tyranny wherever he found it through art and protest. Within this lens, it’s easy to see Dadaism as the joyous and contrary rebellion of youth that eventually withered and gave way to something more rigid and direct. Creativity as rebellion is fine, but when the fascists surround you, and millions are executed for their ethnicity, it doesn’t seem enough. If Tzara was still alive today, it would be fascinating to discuss the Israel-Palestine situation, Barbados’ rejection of its colonialist past, the dissolution of the USSR, the rise of Putin and the current situation in Ukraine. It’s truly tragic that a man who spent his life fighting for what was right, fair, and good passed away so young. A portrait done in 1923 shows Tzara, old before his time, looking pensively down. Photographs taken towards the end of his life show him looking amused and distracted, but always with the shadow of sadness across his face. He passed away at just 67 years old and is buried in Paris.
Written by Clara Godwin-Suttie
Read how to make a dadaist poem: here