A screening of Hans Richter’s early films, including Rhythmus 21 and Rhythmus 23, will take place in the Bentson Mediatheque at the Walker Art Center on April 6 at 7 pm. This free public event is made possible by generous support from the Bentson Foundation.
“To accept the paradox that the genuine and sincere can walk hand in hand, foot to foot, foot in mouth, and hand to foot with the spoofy, nonsensical, that is what makes the understanding of dada difficult.” —Hans Richter
One day in early 1918, Tristan Tzara, then living at the Hotel Limmatquai in Zurich, knocked on the thin partition that divided his room from that of Hans Richter: he wanted to introduce Richter to the Swedish painter Viking Eggeling. “Eggeling showed me a drawing,” Richter recalls. It was a revelation: “I ‘understood’ at once what it was all about.” An explanation: theretofore intoxicated by the anarchic fervor of his Dadaist companions, Richter had spent more than a year producing anti-art at a prolific rate, painting and drawing in a stark, abstract style, working from spontaneous impulse and in an almost automatic fashion. He had eventually reached a conceptual dead end and, after consulting the Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni, had started describing his compositions in terms of contrapuntal music. Now Eggeling’s experiments—his “dynamics of counterpoint,” which “embraced generously and without discrimination every possible relationship between forms” (Richter)—presented him with a way forward.
Richter and Eggeling lived and work together for the next three years, at Richter’s parents’ home in Klein-Koelzig near Berlin, producing countless drawings which they arranged and rearranged endlessly, trying to find relationships, trying to create rhythm. They arrived at what they called “scrolls,” and in the process developed, as Standish D. Lawder notes, “a new artistic syntax in which the eye traveled a prescribed route from beginning to end,” ultimately leading them to film, “the logical medium to extend this dynamic potential into actual kinetic movement.” Their efforts to secure funding and technical support for making films form a convoluted story, but in 1921 Hans Richter eventually realized Rhythmus 21. This, a landmark in avant-garde filmmaking, was so radical in its abstraction that it broke with almost every precedent of cinema, presenting the spectator with only rectangles of black and white in motion. (More on this later.) From his years with the reckless denizens of the Cabaret Voltaire to a long partnership with the almost absurdly regimented Eggeling (whose all-encompassing philosophy of “linear orchestrations” even prevented him from eating eggs and milk in the same meal: they were “too analogous”), Richter had achieved a balance between spontaneity and order. In Richter’s words, it was “a kind of controlled freedom or emancipated discipline, a system within which chance could be given a comprehensible meaning.”
This association with Eggeling is interesting in that a search for “comprehensible meaning” is not a topic that comes up very often in discussions of Dadaism. From very early on, Richter and his fellow Dadaists, in Zurich as well as in Berlin and elsewhere, presented Dada as a movement of negation, subversion, paradox, and agitation. “Dada not only had no programme, it was against all programmes” (Richter). The nihilism of Tzara’s “Dada means nothing” is perhaps the most potent distillation of Dada’s anti-everything stance, and the more iconic examples of Dada work—Duchamp’s urinal, a moustache on the Mona Lisa—serve to underline the ironic disruptions that were intended above all as a rejection of common sense, bourgeois taste, and the prevailing attitudes in contemporary art and literary criticism.
Beyond this initial reading, however, we can (perhaps) begin to discern some kind of cohesion; a deeper investigation reveals that this acerbic spirit of negation carried political implications, at least of some kind. In Berlin, John Heartfield and George Grosz proclaimed, “Down with art! Dada is on the side of the revolutionary proletariat!” In Zurich, Hans Arp declared that his tactics “were designed to bring home to the bourgeois the unreality of his world and the emptiness of all his endeavors, even including his profitable nationalism.” For his part, Richter saw Dada’s “provocations” as “a means of arousing the bourgeoisie to rage, and through rage to a shamefaced self-awareness.” And it is worth noting, as Richter does in his attempt to portray “the climate in which Dada began,” that in 1916, Lenin and his entourage were living across the street from the Cabaret Voltaire; the Zurich Dadaists repeatedly crossed paths with Lenin in the library, and Richter recounts seeing him speak in Berne. (Richter’s wry recollection: “It seemed to me that the Swiss authorities were much more suspicious of the Dadaists, who were after all capable of perpetrating some new enormity at any moment, than any of these quiet, studious Russians.”) Whether Lenin had any direct influence on Dadaist thought is, of course, unlikely. But the episode is illustrative of the broader intellectual climate of Zurich and indeed Europe: revolutionary leftist thought was not unknown to the Dadaists, and their proclamations and polemics seem to reflect this.
However that may be, it is clear in Richter’s case that an abhorrence of blind faith in rationality, and the wars that it engendered (Richter, it is worth noting, was injured and subsequently discharged from the army during the First World War), were a primary factor in his gravitation toward Dadaist practice. He explains at length:
Pandemonium, destruction, anarchy, anti-everything—why should we hold it in check? What of the pandemonium, destruction, anarchy, anti-everything, of the World War? How could Dada have been anything but destructive, aggressive, insolent, on principle and with gusto? In return for freely exposing ourselves to ridicule every day, we surely had a right to call the bourgeois a bulging haybag and the public a stall of oxen? […] We would have nothing more to do with the sort of human or inhuman being who used reason as a juggernaut, crushing acres of corpses—as well as ourselves—beneath its wheels. We wanted to bring forward a new kind of human being, one whose contemporaries we could wish to be, free from the tyranny of rationality, of banality, of generals, fatherlands, nations, art-dealers, microbes, residence permits and the past.
This, in effect a critique of modernity, goes a long way in explaining Richter’s attraction to anti-art. Raoul Hausmann: “Anti-art withdraws from things and materials their utility, but also their concrete and civil meaning; it reverses classical values and makes them half-abstract.” Objects of no value, garbage, shoe strings, a urinal—elevated to the canvas or the gallery wall they are ironically re-contextualized, given “meaning,” or rather the illusion of meaning, in an attempt to undermine received notions of taste and importance. However fleeting the effect, anti-art attempted to circumvent the mechanisms by which bourgeois society incorporated disparate artistic elements into narratives that painted over affronts to public decency and neutered threats to political stability: Dadaist art could never be a source of national pride; it could never be appropriated as state propaganda. (In the early days of the Cabaret Voltaire, retrospectives of earlier modernist artists—Klee, de Chirico, Feininger, Marc, and others—were made possible for the reason that Richter points out: “It was the always resourceful Tzara who discovered that the belligerent nations were only too anxious to compete with each other in neutral Switzerland, even if only in the field of culture […] From Italy, Germany and France Tzara received works which were normally almost unobtainable, post free, as propaganda material—and used them as propaganda for us.”)
What does this mean for the Dada film? After all, the most useful Dada expressions of anti-art—the ready-made, the found object, the newspaper advertisement, the impromptu happening—were also, perhaps not coincidentally, the most inexpensive to achieve and the easiest to disseminate to a broad public. The question of a Dadaist cinema is therefore immediately complicated by two concerns: the financial constraints of the technology and the limitations of the theatre space itself—in terms of visibility, accessibility, and possibilities for radical transformation or repurposing. Perhaps the most memorable illustration of the latter problem was the premier of René Clair’s Entr’acte in 1924. Screened during the intermission of Francis Picabia’s ballet Relâche, the artists (Clair; Picabia, who wrote the film’s outline; and Erik Satie, who wrote the score) intended for the film to be supplemented by the sounds of the audience coughing, talking, and mulling around in the theatre or exiting before returning for the second half. Greatly to their disappointment, the audience stayed seated and watched the film in attentive silence.
Though Clair was never a Dadaist, his Entr’acte was screened a year later in Berlin, in conjunction with Léger’s Ballet mécanique and Richter’s Rhythmus films, at what Thomas Elsaesser has called a “Dada film soirée.” The relative scarcity of such “Dada” film screenings, however, suggests that the Dadaists were simply more interested in other forms of expression (painting, poetry, music) and different modes of public exhibition. Moreover, the fact that the very category of Dada cinema is so tenuous—could film in fact be “Dadaist”?—is made all the more so by Richter’s repeated claims that during the early 1920s he had very little interest in film at all:
I didn’t really get into films until 1927, because I always considered films only an exercise, an extension, a realization of the problems which I had met in painting. In 1919, I realized the promise of movement in the scroll drawings. But I wasn’t interested in movement per se. I was interested in painting: but painting had led me to problems of dynamism, dynamism led me to kinetic problems, and kinetic problems could ultimately be realized only in film. Although I started making films in 1921, I still was mostly interested in them as solutions to the problems that I had met in painting. It took me a while to get into the films themselves.
What then, if anything, are we to make of Rhythmus 21?
In the first place, it is helpful to remember that Richter’s own definition of Dada was rather elastic, and certainly never dogmatic. The following comment is typical: “Though Léger was never a Dadaist, his Ballet mécanique is 100% Dada.” Likewise Richter’s summation of Entr’acte: “It bends over backwards to laugh over and with the paradoxical happenings, dada!” Manifestos aside, the film is Dada; never mind the context of its first screening, the scandal it may or may not have caused; forget the intentions of the filmmaker, if indeed the filmmaker was even a filmmaker: it is the film itself which is Dada. Unsurprising, then, that in his capacity as filmmaker, Richter’s Dadaisms, his negations, his playfulness, his critiques, took place entirely within the context of the medium. Unlike Picabia and Clair, he appeared uninterested in creating a spectacle around the film’s screening, in inviting the audience to disrupt or otherwise interact with the film. He did not sprinkle salt and pepper, or throw pins and thumbtacks, directly onto filmstrips (as Man Ray did), nor did he seem otherwise interested in unconventional manipulations of the technical apparatuses of the film. Richter, who was not a filmmaker, simply made films.
Fitting, then, that Germaine Dulac has described Richter’s early films as “pure cinema,” and P. Adams Sitney has highlighted their “frank use of purely cinematic materials.” Whether or not Richter had intended to achieve cinematic purity, the aesthetics of Rhythmus 21 and Rhythmus 23 are so radically abstract that they force the viewer to confront the films precisely as light on a screen, i.e. precisely as cinema. Richter was clear about his intention: “The forms that emerge are neither analogies nor symbols nor means to beauty.” The black and white rectangles which expand and contract, advance and recede, which at times challenge the viewer’s very conception of the screen’s boundaries, do not stand in for anything. Rather, they express (as Richter calls it) a feeling, engendered by the tension of forms, the continual re-contextualization of cinematic space on screen. The fact that the viewer today can still feel the rhythm of Richter’s experiments is a testament to the expressive power of a cinema stripped bare, creating tension and movement with only the most elemental particles of the cinematic apparatus: dark and light, contrasted over time.
Perhaps a more interesting speculation: it is through an understanding of the way in which film was commonly understood—as an art form and as a technology—that best explains Richter’s disinterested attitude toward the medium. Standish D. Lawder: “Like the other pre-war miracles of technology that signaled the arrival of the future—the automobile, the airplane, the wireless—the film too was regarded as a scientific wonder and, at the same time, a deeply poetic experience.” (Naturally one is skeptical to believe that Richter held the same opinion.) Lawder continues that the advent of the scientific film, pioneered by the likes of Marey, “extended the powers of vision into the normally invisible and the geographically remote,” happily contributing to the forward march of technological progress, medical innovation, and territorial conquest. What’s more, the larger film production companies in Europe and the United States soon picked up on the commercial appeal of such films; the public was fascinated by—to take one example—the success of the French microbiologist Jean Comandon, who in 1909 used microphotography to capture bacteria and microbes, presenting “images of organic forms in movement [which were] palpably real, that is, objectively verified by moving photographic images of a biological, if not spiritual, inner life.”
Keeping in mind Richter’s critique of modernity, is it such a stretch to see the link between these early experiments in microbiology and the devastating chemical weapons of the First World War? It is not for nothing that Richter singles out “microbes” (working here, one is inclined to think, as a metonym for science employed as a means to achieve destructive ends) in his litany of modern barbarities/banalities. Whatever the case may be, the fact is that in Richter’s abstract films, nothing is “objectively verified.” Neither the complexities of the microbial world nor the complexities of the combustible engine were of interest to Richter behind the lens. Quite the contrary: “My abstract films are as simple as can be. They are dances and, as such, very simple, naive ones.” Naïveté, simplicity, rhythm, feeling. Or, as Pitney observes, the films “articulate a purely cinematic temporality … which either excludes or subverts mimetic representation.” And is it not precisely the ultra-refined mimesis of scientific film, the hackneyed and moralizing mimesis of commercial narrative film, against which Richter unequivocally set himself and his anti-art? Writing of his abstract films, Richter makes the point clear:
Not to be content with picture-postcard views, not to find the usual love scene, the happy-ending with virtue rewarded, the same old arrangement of legs, arms, heads in plush drawing-rooms and royal courts—but, instead, to see movement, organised movement, wakes us up, wakes up resistance, wakes up the reflexes, and perhaps wakes up our sense of enjoyment as well.
In discarding photographic reality, Richter deprived his films of perhaps the one thing that moviemakers and moviegoers treasured most: the representation of external reality on screen. And in doing so, Richter was perhaps more subversive than even the most scandalous of Surrealist cinéastes. By reducing his films to simple geometries of black and white, to the building blocks with which representation is achieved (gradients of dark and light), Richter in effect exposed cinema as an illusion, discarded everything that might appeal to popular taste, rejected the notion of filmic “reality,” and yet still managed to create kinetic, highly dynamic cine-paintings whose titular rhythm is difficult not to detect—managed, that is, to create films whose “organised movement” would arouse a heightened awareness, activate critical faculties, and encourage resistance to the banal, the melodramatic, the insensitive.
Abstraction, which for Richter arose as “a reaction to the general disintegration of the world around us,” is in these films employed in the most austere manner. But it must be remembered that the corollary to radical abstraction was, for Richter, the possibility for artistic advancements in the wake of the dismemberment of accepted forms:
This dissolution was the ultimate in everything that Dada represented, philosophically and morally; everything must be pulled apart, not a screw left in its customary place, the screw-holes wrenched out of shape, the screw, like man himself, set on its way towards new functions which could only be known after the total negation of everything that had existed before.
Whether Richter’s abstract films constitute a total negation of the history of cinema up until 1921 is, of course, impossible to state with certainty. But it is perhaps fair to contend that they come rather close to doing so. Even more likely is the notion that, having realized abstraction in film to such a radical degree, the artist freed himself to move into the realm of photographic reality, which indeed he did in the aptly titled Filmstudie from 1916. Richter continued to make films into the early 1960s and, over the course of a long life (eventually dying in 1976), he wrote endlessly, often reflecting on his Dada years, always insisting on the contemporary relevance of what the movement meant. Whatever bearing his early abstract films had on his later cinematic endeavors, it is clear that he brought to them his polemical spirit and an astute eye for subversive forms. Dismantlement and regeneration, he understood, worked dialectically: every so often a vicious, derisive laughter was needed to clear the air for new ways of seeing and new modes of expression. “The spirit of dada, whatever it is called,” he wrote in 1957, “is bitterly needed today. Is needed to brace us against the fatal world we presume to understand when we blow it to pieces; […] against the new mystics and the older nonmystics; against the serious concrete-blockbuilders and against the busy cloud magicians; against the world planners and the plumbers, the cheaters and the humorless in art, in film-art, in everything.” A life-long Dadaist, it seems Richter never tired of asserting the importance of art’s ability to poke fun at anybody and everybody who took the world too seriously—an assertion that today seems as necessary as ever.