On the fringes of Dada in Berlin

It seems to be almost a running joke that British people find it difficult to name a famous Belgian. This post highlights a major work of an important and influential 20th century Flemish poet who should definitely be more widely known and who was briefly on the periphery of the Dada movement in Berlin after World War I.

Paul van Ostaijen in Germany, 1920 via Wikimedia Commons

Paul van Ostaijen (1896-1928) was from Antwerp where he gained a reputation as a dandy within bohemian circles. He was a political activist for the Flemish independence movement, and his flight to Berlin at the very end of World War I meant that he escaped a short delayed prison sentence, imposed earlier that year for demonstrating against the pro-French speaking Cardinal Mercier. He was already a published poet and critic, and during the two and a half years that he spent in Berlin he wrote perhaps his most important work, Bezette stad, published in 1921 and described in a recent translation into English as “one of the key works of the Dadaist movement”.

The cover of Bezette stad

Bezette stad is a poetic description of the city of Antwerp during World War I and its German occupation – Van Ostaijen had witnessed the German Zeppelin bombing of the city in August 1914 and the subsequent siege from a nearby village. The work is highly experimental and uses stream of consciousness, perhaps foreshadowing Eliot’s The Waste Land, published a year later. Snippets of songs, advertisements, newspaper reports etc are included, helping to depict the daily life and nightlife of the city as well as the bombs, fire and injured people of wartime. Although predominantly in Dutch, the poem has a multilingual flavour, featuring French (the language of administration), German (the language of the occupiers), Latin (the language of the Church) as well as English, all of which presumably made subsequent translating of the work quite a challenge. The tone of the work is somewhat bitter, pessimistic and nihilistic, at odds with the naïve idealism of his earlier poetry and reflecting the disillusionment and depression that Van Ostaijen had experienced after the failure of the Spartacist uprising shortly after his arrival in Berlin. He had lost faith in humanity and fiercely attacked a society dominated by the Church, the King and the State.

A few sample pages

The book edition of Van Ostaijen’s poem was designed and illustrated by his friend, the artist Oskar Jespers using specially carved palm wood letters and featuring four woodcuts between the sections.  The experimental and expressive “rhythmic” typography shows the influence of Apollinaire and employs many different fonts, font sizes and concrete font arrangements. The typography helps to make the work look more Dadaistic and futurist. The artist Fritz Stuckenberg, whom Van Ostaijen had befriended in Berlin, on seeing the book for the first time thought that the meaning of the words was made more apparent by the layout and that Van Ostaijen had found a new form of expression:

“Es ist auch für den, der nicht fähig ist, die Sprache zu lesen, ein hoher Genuss, die Seiten durchzublättern u. ich glaube es ist oft erreicht, allein aus der kalligrafischen Disposition den Sinn des Verbes zu enthüllen. Du schlägst mit diesem Buch alle bisherigen Versuche um eine neue Ausdrucksform.”

Letter of 23 April 1921 in Eine Künstlerfreundschaft: der Briefwechsel zwischen Fritz Stuckenberg und Paul van Ostaijen, 1919-1927

Bezette stad is certainly now recognised as a vital piece of avant-garde literature, as evidenced by the recent facsimile edition in the original language as well as translations into English (Occupied city) and French (Ville occupée) and access via Project Gutenberg, all of which are available in the University Library.

Stuckenberg’s Das Liebespaar, (Bildnis Paul und Emmeke van Ostaijen), 1919, now in Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte, Oldenburg via Wikimedia Commons

The short time that Van Ostaijen spent in Berlin was not a happy time. He had little money, was unable to find work and was financially dependent on his girlfriend Emmeke. He did become friends with various painters and writers associated with Der Sturm and did frequent the Berlin cafés that were the meeting places of the intelligentsia. However, he did not assert himself as an active member of artistic circles and remained on the edge, being more of a reader and exhibition visitor. He did not gain any official recognition – I have looked at several books that we hold on Dada in Berlin and his name is not mentioned. The publication of Bezette stad in April 1921 coincided with problems in his relationship with Emmeke (caused by her meeting the physicist Peter Pringsheim whom she later married – he was brother-in-law of Thomas Mann) which precipitated his return to Belgium the following month. Earlier, in 1919, the pair had been painted by Fritz Stuckenberg in classic Expressionist style.

A better-known member of the wider Dada-inspired artistic movement is the German, Kurt Schwitters. We recently took delivery of a new book on Kurt Schwitters, Der norwegische Schwitters: die Merz-Kunst im Exil. Schwitters was also on the edge of Dada in Berlin – although based in Hannover, he exhibited in Berlin and also wrote a Dadaist poem, An Anna Blume in 1919 – the word “dada” appears prominently on the cover. There is speculation that he might have applied to join the Berlin Dada movement and been rejected. What is certain is that he later accompanied Theo van Doesburg, better known for De Stijl, on a tour introducing Dada to the Netherlands (see What is Dada??? and other Dada writings by Van Doesburg). Later still he was in exile, first in Norway and then in England, settling in the Lake District at the end of World War II where he remained until his death in 1948. I wonder whether Schwitters and Van Ostaijen ever met. We do know that Paul van Ostaijen was aware of Schwitters as he mentioned him in a letter to Stuckenberg in April 1920, but I have not as yet come across any reference to direct contact between them.

Katharine Dicks

Further reading

    • Bergius, Hanne: Das Lachen Dadas: die Berliner Dadaisten und ihre Aktionen S400:4.b.9.811
    • Bogman, Jef: De stad als tekst: over de compositie van Paul van Ostaijens Bezette stad 9002.b.1801
    • Boyens, Jose: De genesis van Bezette stad: ik spreek met de mannen en regel alles wel : brieven van Oscar Jespers aan Paul van Ostaijen 1920-1921 over het ontstaan van Bezette stad en de Antwerpse groepering van het Sienjaal  9000.a.4642
    • Metzger, Rainer: Berlin in the twenties: art and culture, 1918-1933 C202.c.9014
    • Reynebeau, Marc: Dichter in Berlijn: de ballingschap van Paul van Ostaijen (1918-1921) 751:28.d.95.36
    • White, Michael: Generation Dada: the Berlin Avant-Garde and the First World War  C201.b.4732

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