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Broad Spectrum of Dadaism Illuminated In Zurich Exhibit

AT the entrance to the Kunsthaus, Zurich's renowned museum of fine arts, a poster in a nonexistent language startles an unprepared visitor. Adding to the puzzler is a tape-recording of a voice uttering unintelligible words. From the ceiling in the hall hangs the dummy of a pig wearing the uniform of a World War I German officer.

Thus, visitors are ushered in to an exhibition featuring the bizarre world of Dada, an irrationalist trendsetting movement in 20th-century art that was conceived in New York and launched almost 80 years ago in Zurich, where a small group of young iconoclastic painters and writers gave the movement its name.

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The more than 400 exhibits in ``Dada Global,'' as the Kunsthaus exhibition is called, give evidence that Dada is not a style in art but a broad spectrum. They include naturalist watercolors by German-born George Grosz and Paris-born Francis Picabia's ``Cure-dents,'' a collage of toothpicks, straws, and strings arranged in the shape of a flowerpot.

Man Ray, the late American exponent of Dadaism, is represented with a series of photographs and a rare wooden sculpture, called ``By Itself, II.'' Ray's photograph of Tristan Tzara, a Romanian-born writer and co-founder of the movement, shows a monocled man in conservative dress - a strange contrast to the strictly nonconformist line propagated by the movement.

Legend has it that the word Dada (meaning hobbyhorse in French) was picked from a dictionary opened at random. But according to a sticker reproduced in the 450-page exhibition catalog, Dada also was the brand of a lotion marketed at the time. And arrows on a map of Siberia reprinted on the catalog's frontispiece point to a village named Dada.

Guido Magnaguagno, who organized the show, says the question of how the ominous word was chosen has become irrelevant. What matters to him is that of all the avant-garde movements ``at the end of the so-called `bourgeois era,' Dada ... was certainly the most aggressive, the noisiest, and perhaps even the most innovative one.''

Dadaism is considered to have received its most profound inspiration before World War I in New York from Ray's lifelong friend Marcel Duchamp, the French-American painter. His moving sculpture ``Bicycle Wheel,'' mounted on a high wooden stool, dates from 1913.

On display at the Kunsthaus is a book-sized box holding 62 tiny replicas of his works. Duchamp, who died in 1968, abandoned art in the 1920s.

``All important things which I did fit into a small handbag,'' he once said. ``Things which were not produced are better anyway than those which were.''

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Although Dadaists proclaimed that ``art is dead,'' art historians agree today that the spirit of Dada stimulated a wide array of new styles in art, extending from Constructivism and Surrealism to Pop Art and Conceptualism.

Dada also is seen as having considerable influence on literature, specifically on the works of James Joyce and John Dos Passos. Simultaneous poetry - several people reciting different texts at the same time - alternated with Dadaist readings of ``sound poems'' - inarticulate, meaningless combinations of letters. Magnaguagno says the concept sought to demolish a language associated with war propaganda and hypocrisy.

* `Dada Global' continues at the Kunsthaus in Zurich through Nov. 6.

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