The first time I encountered the Romanian-French avant-garde poet, essayist, performance artist, playwright, film producer, and passionate collector of African art, Tristan Tzara was in 2005 at the National Museum in Copenhagen where I was working through the anthropological archives that had belonged to the well-known couple, Carl and Amalie Kjersmeier.
In their guestbook, I found greetings from many of the prominent people of that time from the world of anthropology–Marie-Louise Bastin, Frans Olbrechts, Man Ray, Eliot Elisofon, Douglas Fraser, KC Murray, Leon Underwood and Pierre Vérité. I also found this beautiful greeting from Tristan Tzara, founder of Dada and one of the main characters of Surrealism:
“For Mr. Kjersmeier in whom taste and knowledge is unified in an insight into negro art which he has worked to advance; in remembrance of those heroic times when only a few people perceived the greatness of this art.
With my fondest greetings and my admiration.”
Born Samuel Rosenstock, on 16 April 1896 to Romanian parents Emilia and Filip Rosenstock, Tristan Tzara was an original thinker. His early restlessness was said to have been influenced by extreme boredom, induced by growing up in a small Romanian village.
During the years he worked towards his baccalaureate in Bucharest, Tzara became fascinated by symbolism and with his fellow students, Ion Vinea and Marcel Janco, he founded the Romanian literature and art magazine, ‘Simbolul’ (The Symbol).
To avoid military service in Romania, in 1915 he sought refuge in Switzerland, where he settled in Zurich to study philosophy. His principles of free-thinking and anti-establishment ideas led to painful conflicts with his family which ultimately led to his father disowning him—Tzara would later write:
“In my father’s world I no longer exist.”
A few months after his arrival at Zurich, which at the time was a hotbed of revolutionary thought, Tzara founded the Dada movement, a nihilist anti-art movement, created in collaboration with the author Hugo Ball and his friend Marcel Janco. Dada did not have an unequivocal program, rather it was a reaction to the repercussions of World War I, full of mistrust of authority and disfavour and ignorance of the arts.
Among the Dada art forms, we meet sound, poetry, cut-up techniques, collage, and photomontage that all used random elements as creative forces through which they often expressed political discontent.
In 1915 Tzara proclaimed,
“The intelligent man is now the standard.” [What is missing is] “idiocy—everywhere Dada will use its powers to establish idiocy.”
The painter Hans Richter, who was another member, said,
“We will create a new kind of man, liberated from the tyranny of reason, banalities, generals, native countries, nations, art dealers, microbes, residence permits and the past.”
The basic principle was to offend and to cause outrage.
At the University Library in Zurich, Tzara found poems from Aboriginal, Maori and African ethnic groups that he edited for the performances called Soirées Nègres at the Cabaret Voltaire—the performances consisted of singing and dancing, sometimes in the original language.
Tzara was determined to find an alternative to the continuation of the tradition and history which he considered to be a legacy of the pernicious establishment. From 1916, Tzara organised disruptive and unexpected performances at the Café Voltaire, specifically intended to shock and insult the audience—his main endeavour was to disseminate a sort of anti-art, one no longer based on comprehensible standards of society.
With the uncompromising declaration, “art needs a radical operation“, Tzara described the pretence of art and claimed traditional artists to be narcissistic bigots. He encouraged what he called Dada’s magical revolver—to make dormant established art, so a new world could be born that emphasised life and the living. With this philosophy, the Dada movement initiated a militant anti-art revolution.
In 1919, Tristan Tzara continued his Dada activities in Paris. He established literary meetings and organised public performances that were meant as a sort of joke, a hoax or a trick. Through his art, he strove to make war with the preposterous oppression by bourgeois society—instead, he would offer an antidote, based on the lack of an obvious historical precedent.
In Paris, Tzara joined the surrealist magazine ‘Littérature’. This marked the first important step in the phase-out of the Dada movement. After having been involved in the great internal controversy that led to the fragmentation of the Dada movement, he finally joined the Surrealists. As Tristan Tzara’s commitment to left-wing politics grew, his poetry would include more political content that emphasised revolutionary and humanistic values.
In 1934, he left the Surrealists and joined the French Communist Party.
Tristan Tzara was attracted to African art, an attraction that led to a collection of historical African masks and figures.
Tzara often opined about the exceptionally high artistic quality of works made by African artists, work which, in his opinion, was not exceeded by anything in the Western world. It was especially among the African masks and figures that he found magic—the dynamic tension, the harmonious sense of shape, and the emotional power of expression. The same traits were found in African dance and music—an intrinsic sense of rhythm that also fascinated him.
Tristan Tzara was considered to be one of the greatest connoisseurs and collectors of African art of his time. He was regarded as an extremely competent expert in this field. At one time he also worked as a consultant and advisor for the art collector Peggy Guggenheim, among others.
Tristan Tzara was passionately committed to his collection—he was always looking for new objects. He often went “hunting for Negroes“, an expression of the day when looking for African artworks. Tzara’s collection did not consist of randomly found objects—it was collected with the cogency and knowledge of an expert. He kept his collection in its original condition since he thought that to refurbish it would be to destroy the authentic surface. He was respectful of the esthetical condition of the object.
In 1930, at the Galerie Pigalle in Paris, Tristan Tzara, Pierre Loeb, and Charles Ratton—three significant experts—arranged a large anthropological exhibition of 425 objects from Africa and Oceania that were lent by, among others, Pablo Picasso, André Derain, Georges Braque, Joan Miró, Paul Guillaume and Félix Fénéon.
The exhibition was a great success and a milestone for the recognition of African and Oceanic objects as artworks in their own right. It also solidified a growing interest among a wider audience that led to increased interest in collecting historical African artworks. This contributed to art dealers travelling to the African continent to collect large quantities of masks and figures which could then be purchased at the special ‘tribal’ art galleries of Paris and Brussels.
Many artists were inspired by this new form of expression, but they didn’t copy it directly. They absorbed and incorporated visual impressions into their own art. In 1931, Pablo Picasso sculpted ‘Bust of a Woman’, whose origins derive from a Nimba figure from Guinea.
When in 1911, Amedeo Modigliani carved ‘Female Head’ in limestone, it was a Guro mask from Côte d’Ivoire, which was “the source“. That same year, Emil Nolde painted ‘Figure and Mask’. It came about after he had painted many of the exhibited masks and figures from Africa and Oceania in Berlin’s Völkerkundemuseum. Max Ernst was inspired by a Tusyan mask from Burkina Faso when in 1934-35, he made the bronze sculpture ‘Bird-Head’.
As for Tristan Tzara, one was sure to find him at the Les Deux Magots cafe which he visited regularly to tell his friends about his latest discoveries of the day, whether it was an extraordinary African sculpture or the solution of an enigma in a poem by Villon.
With the advance of Hitler in Germany, Tzara joined the anti-fascist movement and participated for a short period in the Spanish Civil War. At the beginning of World War II and the scourge of anti-Semitism in Europe, he had to escape to Southern France where he joined the French resistance.
In 1941, the Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu prohibited all bookshops in the country from selling works by Tristan Tzara and 44 other Jewish-Romanian authors. In 1942, when the anti-Semitic measures of the country were put into general effect, Tzara was deprived of his rights and his Romanian citizenship. He thus became a French citizen and after the war, continued his political activities. He also continued to write—in 1946 he published ‘Sign of Life’ and in 1950, ‘In Living Memory’.
The last major journey that he made was to Africa, which he had never seen despite his love of its art. In 1962 he attended the Congress of African Art and Culture in Salisbury, the capital of what was then Southern Rhodesia.
In 1988, 25 years after Tristan Tzara’s death in 1963, a large part of his African and Oceanic art collection was put up for auction at Guy Loudmer in Paris. This exceptional collection, which had been greatly appreciated by aficionados for more than half a century, was here scattered into the four winds.
Tristan Tzara was awarded the Taormina Prize in 1961.
ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA contributor, Leif Birger Holmstedt is a designer, collector, and author of books including 'African Masks' Borgen 2003 and 'Magic Masks and Figures from Greenland' Borgen 2008. Leif Birger Holmstedt has also authored a number of ethnographic articles.