At a museum exhibition in Paris last month, somebody attacked a porcelain urinal in the name of art. That exhibit has now come to the United States. It's here in Washington and it opens Sunday at the National Gallery of Art. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg reports on the international art movement created during World War I designed to puzzle, challenge and enrage.


Dada, the movement was called Dada like the first word a baby speaks. In French it's what a mama calls a toy hobby horse. In Russian, dada means yes, yes. To the men and women who made Dada art, the meaning didn't matter.

Mr. ALFRED PACKMON (Director, National Museum of Modern Art, Paris, France): It's a good name. It sounds well. It's good to remember and it's part of the Dada spirit that it is not very clear how it started.

STAMBERG: Alfred Packmon, director of the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris, where the Dada exhibition was launched. Packmon says it is the spirit that counts. In the midst of World War I, avant garde artists, organized in small circles, beehives of audacious creativity all over Europe, then the U.S. Marcel Duchamp's Mona Lisa is a prime example of the Dada spirit. Duchamp took the best known painting in the world and turned it into the world's best known Dada work. Alfred Packmon explains.

Mr. PACKMON: The Mona Lisa is so famous that she became a sort of icon of what is loved and what is hated in art.

STAMBERG: Leonardo de Vinci's Mona Lisa is loved because it's a beautiful painting--mysterious, intriguing, compelling. And the Mona Lisa was hated by the Dadaists because it had become a sacred cow--overexposed, commodified, no longer appreciated as a painting, but now just an image to reproduce on postcards, posters, coffee mugs...

Mr. PACKMON: Duchamp was maybe the first to realize this and almost 100 years ago he just put the moustache on the Mona Lisa which is, at the same time a very funny thing, which you can consider the (unintelligible) joke, but on the other hand, it's more serious than that, because it means to attack the museum, to attack the icon that the museum fabricates and to tell the public that when you look at the Mona Lisa, maybe you should be aware that you are not only looking at a nice lady painted by Leonardo, but also at something that can be used by all sort of treatment.

STAMBERG: But this was sacrilegious to do.

Mr. PACKMON: Of course it was, and this is the interesting thing.

STAMBERG: A child's fantasy to run through a museum putting moustaches on formal portraits, became a Dada statement. Then, ironically, Duchamp's daring deviltry itself became a classic on postcards and posters and mugs... Well, nobody put his urinal on a coffee mug although that guy in France did go after it with a hammer. Duchamp's 1917 Readymade, a mass-produced, sparkling, white porcelain urinal, bought from a plumbing supplier. In the spirit of challenging what society called art, Duchamp turned the urinal on its side, signed it, named it Fountain and tried to enter it in an art exhibition in New York. It was refused Alfred Packmon says, but it made quite a splash.

Mr. PACKMON: This is the kind of very extreme position that some artists in the beginning of 20th century wanted to, sort of, push into art to explain that art has changed and there is no more a nice bench of flowers on the chimney.

STAMBERG: So is he saying with this (Duchamp), anything can be art?

Mr. PACKMON: He is not exactly saying anything can be art because the artist is the person who decides what is art and what is not art. As long as the artist decides to show it as a work of art it becomes a work of art. This was his conception.

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STAMBERG: In addition to painting, sculpture, photographs, film and collage, Dada artists also work in sound. Composer Erik Satie mixed music with other sounds: machinery and the human voice.

Mr. LOREN LEBEAU(ph) (Curator, Paris, France): In fact, it's a complex reconstruction of the language.

STAMBERG: Paris curator, Loren Lebeau, says first the artists took language apart then put it together anew. Again, in the spirit of Dada.

Mr. LEBEAU: So, they said that the letters in the word are very important -- the sound is very important, so they begin again.

STAMBERG: They were all about beginning again?

Mr. LEBEAU: Yes, it's so like we said in French, tabula rasa. We want to destroy everything to reconstruct something.

STAMBERG: Dada was a moral and ethical response to the slaughter of World War I. In grief, rage, despair, Dada used art to comment on the world -- made art an indictment of the hypocrisies that wiped out a generation. The terrible war appears in some Dada works. Henrik Hurla(ph) who, with Max Ernst, founded Dada in Cologne, Germany, shows mutilated trench soldiers with swastikas on their uniforms. Leah Dickerman, curator of the Dada show at Washington's National Gallery, says in this picture, agonizing to look at, Hurla confronts the pathologies of war with no illusions.

Ms. LEAH DICKERMAN (Curator, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.): It's really a soldier's nightmare with the images of limbless men in a kind of nightmare atmosphere and little hands and flower pots reaching out towards the men and that theme of crippled and dismembered bodies is actually a very repetitive theme in Dada.

STAMBERG: Dada: such a powerful, passionate, pervasive, artistic movement during and after the First World War was superseded in 1924 by another movement: surrealism. But Dada served its purpose. One artist, George Grosz, described Dada as the organized use of insanity to express contempt for a bankrupt world. In its rejection of conventions of the past and its ridicule of the future, Dada is thought to be an art about nothing, but curator Leah Dickerman says Dada was not the Seinfeld of art.

Ms. DICKERMAN: Just because Dada is attacking traditional values and ideas of high art doesn't mean that it's meaningless at all; in fact, quite the opposite. It's a profoundly moral stance.

STAMBERG: And they really say we've moved so far beyond the pretty picture--something you frame and hang up on a wall.

Ms. DICKERMAN: Yes, I think that's true. Well, even more than that, Dada is a rejection of the idea of the work of art as a picture--a world that you can see through a window, and instead, that Dada is surreally grabbing the stuff of modern life itself and making art out of the material and scraps of modernity in order to comment on modern life.

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STAMBERG: The Dada exhibition is at Washington's National Gallery of Art through May 14. It opens at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in mid-June. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.


You can look up some famous Dada works by going to This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

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