The Enlightening Journey of Mr Hugo Ball
February, 1916, Zurich, Switzerland: Mr Hugo Ball announces the beginning of the Dada Anti-Art movement by reciting a nonsensical poem entitled “Karawane” to a bewildered public.
The poem begins with the lines:
jolifanto bambla o falli bambla
großiga m’pfa habla horem
higo bloiko russula huju
A photograph of Hugo shows him dressed in his ‘sorcerer’s outfit’ – a cardboard cylinder, a cardboard hat and trousers, wings and oversized lobster claw gloves.
February, 2018, Maitland, Australia – 102 years later : Hugo himself, dressed in the same attire, features in a series of digital paintings that pay homage to many of the world’s best known artists – among them Fra Angelico,Vermeer, Mondrian, Degas and Caravaggio.
In these works the Anti-Art movement threatens to come full circle – ironically with Hugo as the fulcrum.
The Catalyst For The Exhibition
‘For quite a few years I’d been perplexed by an old photograph of a man dressed in what looked like cardboard trousers, jacket and cape.
The man was Hugo Ball, and he was dressed in, what he called, his ‘wizard’s outfit’. On his hands he wore lobster gloves, on his head, an odd looking chef’s hat. I knew he had something to do with Dada poetry and all I knew about Dada poetry was that you made it by pulling random words out of a hat - or so I thought.
My interest piqued, I discovered that Hugo Ball was not just one of the catalysts for the Dada movement, in fact he was its annunciator. The photo commemorated a night at the Cabaret Voltaire (Zurich) in 1916, the night he declared Dada’s presence to the world with a sound poem made of meaningless words entitled ‘Karawane’.
The more I read about Mr. Ball and Dada’s premise of rejecting the essence of traditional art (but replacing it with nothing else), the more they seemed faintly ridiculous. The idea that discounting all that had gone before as ‘irrelevant’ seemed irrelevant in itself. In fact a little study showed that, as Dada became more accepted, it eventually became anti-Dada.
With this in mind, I postulated that, if Mr. Ball were still alive, he might benefit from more of an art ‘education’. I would take this fellow dressed in his stiff cardboard outfit and place him in paraphrases of works by other artists.
Of course the idea is as equally nonsensical as the Dada movement itself - so I felt the two would make good bedfellows.’
Andrew Finnie, August 2017
Hugo Ball (German, 1886 – 1927) was one of the leading Dada artists. He was a performer and writer. As a poet he pioneered the development of sound poetry.
An avant-garde movement, Dada was anti-establishment and anti-art. Framed by the carnage of The Great War, Dada mocked the current materialistic and nationalistic attitudes.
In 1916 Hugo Ball created his version of the Dada manifesto. In that same year, dressed in his cardboard ‘wizard’s’ costume, Ball performed his sound poem ‘Karawane’ to a bewildered audience.
The poem was meaningless, reflecting the ‘meaning’ of Dada itself. Other members of the Dada group were artists such as Hans Arp, Tristan Tzara and, later, Marcel Duchamp.
After two years of Dadaist works, Ball left the group. He worked as a journalist, then turned to Gnostic Catholicism, living a frugal and quiet life. He died in 1927 from stomach cancer.
In recent years his work has influenced modern songwriters and composers - perhaps most well known are the ‘Talking Heads’ who adapted his poem “Gadji beri bimba” in the song “I Zimbra” for their 1979 Fear of Music album.
As the first conceptual art movement, Dada had an important influence on many later artistic movements.
The precursors to these digital images were made in 2016, starting firstly with Mondrianopolos, then with Hugo at The Cabaret Voltaire*. The majority of the works were made in June and August 2017.
The premise for the show initially was to take Hugo Ball on a journey through art history. He would be the common denominator in all the images. This context considered references from the Lascaux Caves rock paintings, through Giotto, Fra Angelico, Cranach The Elder, all the way to the 20th Century - with the likes of Norman Lindsay and Jeffrey Smart holding up the Australian end.
Yet having finished a convincing rendition of Cranach’s Adam and Eve, replacing Adam with Hugo Ball, and the animals with Australian animals, I realized that, apart from showing what could be done in a digital homage, I wasn’t bringing anything ‘new to the table’
‘Everyone’ had heard of Adam and Eve, and many people would have been exposed to Cranach’s image or similar. I felt like I was acting out Marcel Duchamp’s ready made Mona Lisa - without the moustache. It was possibly humorous but without substance.
One of the other premises for the exhibition was to achieve ‘more public exposure for ‘little’ known but significant artists.’ So the next step was to look at artists who had once been famous but had fallen from grace in recent times.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau for example, was very popular in his lifetime. He was a traditional academic Salon painter, one of the painters ‘reviled’ by the Impressionists. After his death he quickly fell out of favour, not being rediscovered till the 1980’s.
James Ensor is another case in point. Rightly famous in his own country, and a significant influence on painters such as Klee, Nolde, Grosz and other expressionists and surrealists, he is little seen outside of Belgium.
In this exhibition, Bouguereau’s referenced work Dante and Virgil (detail above) emphasizes an uncomfortable subject set in Hell - two brutal, naked, desperate men fighting to the death.
Bouguereau set the theme for many of these works. Realizing that confronting images had more impact than traditional Romantic works, I started working with a third premise - that (some) ‘good art should be disturbing’
As Banksy reportedly said: “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Of course this is a narrow viewpoint. But so is the assumption that art is about aesthetics and higher feelings. In reality, the worst kind of art is the piece that you walk past without a second glance.
Bouguereau led to Goya. Many of Goya’s images are purposely disturbing, yet more importantly, they reflect on human behavior. Goya himself led off in all directions - Ensor, Bellmer, Balthus, Paula Rego amongst them.
All in all I have chosen more than 20 artists.
Some of the works paraphrase more than one artist - a reference to Norman Lindsay’s Enigma lies within Ball in Mr. Bellmer’s Mannequin Studio. Death Leading the Blindmen references both a Holbein woodcut and Breughel’s The Blind Leading the Blind.
Self referentially, in the homage to Velázquez’s painting Las Meninas, the paintings on the back wall are replaced by others from this exhibition.
Paraphrasing, Referencing and Homaging
In 1996 Steve Jobs famously misquoted Picasso as having habitually said: ‘Good Artists Copy; Great Artists Steal’.
In fact, whether he knew it or not, Jobs was actually paraphrasing T.S. Eliot who, in 1920, wrote:
Whatever Job’s intentions were, in those few words he ably demonstrated that the moral intentions of borrowing another’s work are not always obvious. It’s no accident that we have a multitude of words that suggest different degrees of ‘copying’.
Art works can be described as referencing, inspired by, assimilating, paraphrasing, appropriating, mis-appropriating, reinterpreting, homaging, copying and even stealing.
The act of appropriation itself has become a strong symbol of Post Modernism, yet the Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘appropriation’ as ‘the act of taking something for your own use, usually without permission’.
All this suggests certain questions.
Does adding the word “homage” to the title make everything legitimate? Does a famous artist stealing another’s work make that theft acceptable because they are famous?
Is it acceptable to appropriate ideas and images just because artists have been appropriating for time immemorial? After all, no artist works in a vacuum. Progress in art, music, and architecture has been made possible by incorporating what has gone before.
Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.*
* T. S. Eliot, “The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism”, 1920
Appropriating and Misappropriating
Unsurprisingly, a brief foray into art history shows that many famous works heavily ‘reference’ other works. Examples are in abundance.
Compositionally, Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe was based on a section of a engraving of Raphael’s The Judgment of Paris (see images below). Picasso and Goya copied or referenced Velázquez’ Las Meninas. Van Gogh’s beautiful rendition of Hiroshige’s Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi bridge and Atake is, apart from the technique, almost a direct copy.
Bacon’s series of Screaming Popes is initially based on Velázquez’ Portrait of Pope Innocent X. Holbein’s’ woodcut Death and the Blindman has been copied by many. Cindy Sherman’s Sex series of photographs alludes directly to Hans Bellmer’s puppets. Rego’s uncomfortable compositional sexuality references Balthus. Andy Warhol appropriated publicity stills and newspaper photographs for his silk screens.
I approached this exhibition with these moral connotations in mind.
In these works I have attempted to paraphrase an artist’s work by building on ideas that they have generated. There are compositional references. There are references to certain elements (style, objects, atmosphere, chromatic palette) of an artist’s work.
In some cases there is cross fertilisation where I have taken references to two artists and combined them in one work (for example Death Leading The Blindmen references both Holbein and Breughel)
The closest compositional paraphrases were those I felt most closely associated with the beauty of the original work. For example, Diego Velázquez’s handsomely composed Las Meninas, or the raw vigour of Bouguereau’s Dante and Virgil - where two naked men are locked in a death struggle, or Fuseli’s The Nightmare, where the ugly incubus is contrasted with the delicate beauty of the sleeping woman.
For other works I took the feel of the work as a jumping off point - Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters being a good example.
Lastly, two other works have been left out of the show because I felt they too closely resembled the initial works: Norman Lindsay’s Enigma (detail, above) and Norman Rockwell’s New Kids in the Neighbourhood (detail, top right).
Right : Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass (detail) .
Left: Raphael The Judgment of Paris (detail).