Corpus Suche:

Smoky Venus of Dada


By Nicole Haitzinger

Sophie Taeuber (1889–1943), better known as Sophie Taeuber-Arp after her marriage with Hans Arp, is one of the few women who played a decisive role in Zurich Dada (1915–1920). Her early oeuvre allows an exemplification of two relevant aspects in the context of the (de-)hierarchization of senses in modernity: referring on the one hand to abstract dances at the Galerie Dada (1919) and the so-called “Dada head” (Untitled, 1920), and on the other hand to the artist who worked in a transmedial way as a dancer, textile designer, painter and architect, I would like to give a cursory introduction to the hierarchization of senses in modernity before presenting a Dada-performance designed to overwhelm the senses. In the second part I am going to outline an avant-garde version of pygmalionization with particular accentuation of the nose.


Introduction: On the hierarchization of senses


The sensorium of the body is to be understood as a historically bound cultural agent that is constantly constructed, transformed and performed in specific regimes of senses. Within history in general as well as the history of art in modern Europe and in performance in particular, certain senses and certain sensorial experiences have been ignored; especially when it comes to senses that transgress the linguistic and the iconic, like the sense of smell does. [1] Even if, phenomenologically and transhistorically speaking, all senses are simultaneously activated in a theatrical/performative event, a range of – more or less subtle – control experiments, disciplining and submissions of particular senses can be noted in the history of European modern times and – closely interwoven – in a global history.


Although European theatre of the early modern period is inconceivable without constructions and receptions of antiquity, discourse and productions hardly ever refer to the prevailing cultivation and differentiation of olfactory culture. In this respect, transformations of antiquity, as performed in Early Modern Age theatre, are highly selective in a context strongly influenced by high culture. In interpretation of ancient texts, the evidence of a distinctive olfactory culture is ignored: by focussing on eye and ear, the nose does not draw attention as an organ of perception in view of aesthetic experience.


By way of example, theatres were no longer perfumed as they had been in Roman antiquity, as stated by Lucretius in De rerum naturae:

“[…] never think that first-beginnings of similar shape penetrate men’s nostrils, when noisome corpses are roasting, and when the stage is freshly sprinkled with Cilician saffron, and the altar nearby breathes Panchaean scents […].” [2]

Ancient culture and theatre fostered communitas via specific olfactory atmospheres by using mainly incense materials. In contemporary theatre, settings or characters are hardly ever marked with different odours: in contrast to the staging of an ancient tragedy wherein the invisible presence of Gods was visualised with odours (or by bodiless voices). [3] Since the Renaissance, odour has been substituted, abstracted and discursively excluded from the register of sensual (theatre) experience. In the context of performing arts, the incipiently discursive division of senses within the colonial matrix, the privileged status and cultivation of far senses (eye, ear) and the ignorant depreciation of near senses (nose, tactile sense) are momentous: for instance, the isolation of senses within Western thought goes along with the establishment of genres.


In the dynastically and, from the 19th century on, nationally determined Europe, the wide-ranging functionalization of the senses becomes a political and aesthetical program. For this reason, it is no coincidence that eye and ear are privileged in the large Western narrative throughout modern European history in contrast to ancient aroma culture. These senses are cultivated by scientific and aesthetic education. It is not by chance that the proscenium theatre conquered discursive sovereignty in the course of colonialization and globalization with a specific focus on eye and ear.

Smelling as a near sense (and the nose) with its function of food assessment and conservation of species is a matter of debate, culturally censored, suppressed and fetishized with anxious uncertainty, and enmeshed in contradictions [4] among academic circles, and outsourced to other cultures in the context of colonialism: “Olfaction as the sense of lust, desire, and impulsiveness is associated with sensuality. Smelling and sniffing are associated with animal behavior.” [5] From this point of view and with the quasi-scientific argument of instituted anthropology of a pronounced or weak olfaction, it is just a small and consequently systematizing step towards the depreciation of indigenous cultures, which are more closely akin to the animal than to the civilized European one in this conception.


The so-called volatility of smell, which is not able to constitute an enduring stimulus for thinking, enhances this legitimation. After all, olfaction is a conflicting sense, which can be hardly regulated and disciplined. Moreover, even the sovereignty of language fails to describe various scents; as a result, philosophy (with Kant leading the way) gets aesthetically disqualified. Since the discourse on hygiene as part of urbanization, the nose with its sentinel function has been recognized as an organ for the detection of foul and poisonous substances and diseases. Unanimously speaking, the modern individual’s sensitive delicateness is measured against their ability to sense gentle and delicate fragrances. [6] At the beginning of the 20th century, the nose and olfaction were associated with various contradictory stereotypes.


In the context of art, the perspectival constriction towards a privileged treatment of far senses within the discourse, and subsequently a “right” aesthetic experience based on beauty and rationality, were radically broadened in avant-garde experiments at the beginning of the 20th century. Dada attempts a directorial and performative dehierarchization of the senses. The variability of aesthetic perception and experience of the world becomes the starting and vanishing point of its radically scenic and sculptural experiments. [7] Whereas Dada opposes the quest for incense programmatically, [8] this needs to be understood as a substitutional metaphor for any overdetermined and subject-bound relation to antiquity. Here, I would like to say that exactly the opposite is true. Dada is firstly more figural because of its proximity to the ancient mental thought of aesthesis in terms of a touching evocation of all senses, [9] and secondly, more real due to the mythically grounded scenic metamorphosis still influenced by the Greco-Roman world. [10]


One: Overwhelming of senses through the smoky Venus


The meaning of dance in the broadest sense and, as a result of this, the radical modelling of corporality are great in the early phases of Dada – it is not by chance that Huelsenbeck describes the dancing, singing and reciting at the Cabaret Voltaire[11] The performative Dada performances take place in a smoky ambience as described by Huelsenbeck: “A caustic, cindery smell wafted through the corridor. The Zurich students would bring their long pipes with them from the restaurant. This was their way of irritating the bourgeois. They would sit at round tables with their feet up on the boards.” [12] Let us remember: in Ovid’s Pygmalion it is the smell that marks the metamorphosis of a statue into a maid “turaque fumabant” (Ovid X, 274) [13], as it corresponds with the bloody sacrifice of the heifers for the goddess Venus.


It is not by chance that the repetitive and almost obsessive reference of the avant-garde, Dada and Surrealism to the pipe in particular – be it as specific as mentioned here, or abstractedly as in Magritte’s or Duchamp’s case (to my knowledge, research regarding this is pending). [14] One might dare to state that the acrid pipe smoke can be seen as an avant-garde substitution for ancient incense materials; both are to be understood as cultural gestures, both present a way of calling on old and new Gods – there Venus, here the Goddess of Dada, both mark a moment of transformation. And, as the Pythagoreans said: “incense as a bloodless offering to the gods.” [15]


On 29 March 1919, Sophie Taeuber, who had studied applied arts in St. Gall, Munich and Hamburg, and who was trained in dance at Rudolf von Laban’s school, performed her abstract dances at the Galerie Dada, Bahnhofstrasse 19 in Zurich, artistically directed and created by Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara. Hans Arp, whom she had been dating since 1915 and whom she would marry in 1922, designed the masks that were indicatory for the expression of body and movement. The dances were performed to Ball’s sound poem Song of the Flying Fish and Seahorses.

“Abstract dances: a gong beat is enough to stimulate the dancer’s body to make the most fantastic movements. The dance has become an end in itself. The nervous system exhausts all the vibrations of the sound, and perhaps all the hidden emotion of the gong beater too, and turns them into an image. Here, in this special case, a poetic sequence of sounds was enough to make each of the individual words particles produce the strangest visible effect on the hundred-jointed body of the dancer. From Gesang der Flugfische und Seepferdchen there came a dance full of flashes and edges, full of dazzling light and penetrating intensity.” [16]

From a movement-analytical perspective, a selective mobilization of individual body parts defines the body concept that is subject to Sophie Taeuber’s abstract dances. The left-right symmetry is suspended, the articulation of specific joints (elbow, wrist, hand, finger) away from the body and towards the body, combined with the accentuation of a lateral rotation of the trunk, happens isolated and sudden: in Ball’s aesthetic perception, this creates the impression of a dance with “gesture[s] ordered in a hundred parts” and a dance “full of spikes and fish-bones”. [17] Furthermore, Sophie Taeuber’s Dada-dance is characterized by a high variability in expenditure and distribution of energy in motoric actions: in photography and descriptions by her Dada contemporaries, her unique scenic presence shines through as crossing and nodal point of polarities, [18] and is based upon a multi-variant modulation of the share of energy that is spent in the muscular movement.


The spectrum ranges from a weightless motion control (meaning that terrestrial gravity is decidedly counteracted) to a swinging mode in which force and corporeal substance correlate and achieve maximum elasticity. The distribution of energy within the duration of a movement (phrasing) is varied in order to correspond with the directorial (gong) and rhetorical articulation of the Dada sound poems. To put it in Hugo Ball’s words: “The nervous system exhausts all the vibrations of the sound”, so that the “word particles” can be envisioned through dance, i.e., the movement phrases. [19] Multi-sensory perception is constituent for the vibration, understood as periodic oscillations, which becomes the aesthetic/aisthetic paradigm for Dada performances/dances. The transgression of an allegedly constructed classification system that collaborates with World War I, the cultural construction of a “grave” modernity, an “era of hardware” [20], of industry, of factories and of war machines manifests itself through the vibration in the performative.

Considered as being nonsensically designed, Dada performances are perceived in a multisensory way and from an analytical perspective, meaning that they address all senses. [21] Dada bodies smell like modern spirit, or as Ovid would say: “corpus erat!” (Ovid X, 289).


Two: Dada’s nose


Sophie Taeuber’s Dada head (Untitled, 1920) can be understood as a singular, self-contained, small myth that can be connected to Ovid’s myth of Pygmalion abstractedly rather than specifically. [22]


Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Dada head (Untitled, 1920); © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Online see: (last retrieved: 2021-11-12).


Here, Ovid’s myth is perspectively reversed into its opposite; the mythical basic formula of the animated statue experiences the realization in a counter-model, namely the mortification of a male Dada head. The contrast between nature and culture, the delicate border between them is turned upside town. The narrative of the sculptor Pygmalion, who, disappointed with women’s infidelity, creates an artificial companion, is strategically prepared via the Propoetides who were converted into stones by Venus because of their wantonness (Ovid, X). Firstly, Ovid’s Pygmalion narrative depends on the act of creation of the initially naked sculptural body; secondly, on its endowment with ornamental signs of culture (shells, smooth stones, flowers, birds, amber tears of the tree, with crimson coloured clothes); and thirdly, on its animation that is only possible with the help of the goddess: Venus’s festivities approach, followed by animal offerings, incense fumes, Pygmalion asks for a woman similar to the ivory girl.


Flames flare up three times: Venus favours the transformation. Pygmalion touches and kisses the statue: “corpus erat”, she feels and blushes “sensit et erubuit” (X). The sensual is constituent for the humanization and the human existence. And in Ovid’s case, tactile sense (Pygmalion’s modelling of the statue, then the touching and kissing and her perception), visual sense (glances between Pygmalion and his statue), olfaction (incense on the altar, offerings to Venus), and sense of hearing (implicitly defined by Orpheus’s moving chant: “the Heliade’s amber tears, that drip from the tree”, Ovid X) are addressed simultaneously.

Sophie Taeuber is a female artist who forms a male Dada head out of wood whose resemblance to her life and art partner Jean Arp’s head is evident. In contrast to Ovid’s Pygmalion narrative, which excludes the counterpart of the opposite sex from the artistic act, Sophie Taeuber is part of the art movement Dada, although one cannot speak of equality within the historical space of modernity. [23] More or less in negation of the Pygmalion narrative, the as masculine defined Dadaist experiences a transformation: less strongly indeed, since the abstracted human head is crafted from wood. Only in a rudimentary way does Taeuber denote the eye as a sensory organ and the ears as clearly accentuated. And as I would like to argue, the nose stands out intentionally and not by pure chance. [24]


Undoubtedly, Dada remains fully committed to the visual sense and the sense of hearing in the programmatic works and manifests. Huelsenbeck defines simultaneity solely as a problem of the face and the ears, [25] and Walter Benjamin accentuates solely the clash of two senses, namely visual and acoustic sensory overload, in his much-cited characterization of Dada art as “projectile”. [26] The dances of the smoky Venus by Dadaist Sophie Taeuber show a staging practice wherein all senses are addressed in a dehierarchical performative way. It appears that the sculpted Dada head is, firstly, contingent on a modern formula of Pygmalion; and secondly, it articulates the rehabilitation of the (for a long time superseded and/or pejoratively discursified) nose in an artistical way.


  1. ^ See Banes, Sally; Lepecki, Andre: The senses of performance. Routledge London and New York, 2007, 1.
  2. ^ Lucretius: On the Nature of Things. Translated by W. H. D. Rouse. Revised by Martin F. Smith. Loeb Classical Library 181. Harvard University Press Cambridge, 1924, p. 127.
  3. ^ Edith Hall: Greek Tragedy. Suffering under the sun. Oxford University Press Oxford, 2010, p. 157–158. “When gods mingle with mortals, at stage level, even if they are visible to the audience, they have the power to make themselves invisible to the on-stage characters (as Athena is at the beginning of Sophocles’ Ajax and Artemis seems to be at the end of Hippolytus), and recognizable only by other sensory means – their voice or smell.”
  4. ^ Corbin’s argumentation in The Foul and the Fragrant is indicatory: “[…] given the extent to which it is riddled with contradictions; science has oscillated between appreciating and depreciating olfactory phenomena. The baffling poverty of the language, lack of understanding of the nature of odors, and the refusal of some scientists to abandon the spiritus rector (“guiding spirit”) theory all help to explain the abundance of muddled thinking and tortuous writing on the subject.” Corbin, Alain: The Foul and the Fragrant, Odor and the French Social Imagination. Harvard University Press Cambridge, 1986, p. 6.
  5. ^ Ibid.
  6. ^ Corbin made the assumption that the rise of narcissism favoured the appreciation of the discredited olfactory organ in 19th century Europe. Ibid, p. 216.
  7. ^ “Alterability of perception lies at the heart of numerous aesthetic experiments from the early 1910s to the mid-1930s”. See Wilke, Tobias: “Tacti(ca)lity Reclaimed: Benjamin’s Medium, the Avant-Garde and the Politics of Senses”. In: Grey Room, 39, Spring 2010, pp. 39–55, here p. 41.
  8. ^ See Huelsenbeck, Richard: En Avant Dada. Eine Geschichte des Dadaismus. Paul Steegemann Verlag Hannover, 1920, p. 29.
  9. ^ On the appreciation of multi-sensory aesthetic experience and recognition of all senses in the modern performing arts, see Früchtl, Josef; Zimmermann, Jörg: Ästhetik der Inszenierung. Dimensionen eines künstlerischen, kulturellen und gesellschaftlichen Phänomens, Suhrkamp Frankfurt, 2001; Waldenfels, Bernhard: Sinne und Künste im Wechselspiel: Modi ästhetischer Erfahrung. Suhrkamp Frankfurt, 2010.
  10. ^ As in the words of Pierre Vernant: “If it is true that works of art, like any other social products, are connected with a specific historical context and that their genesis, structures, and meaning can only be understood within and through that context, how is it that they remain alive and continue to communicate with us when the forms of that social life have been transformed at every level and the conditions necessary for their production have disappeared?” Vernant, Jean-Pierre: “The Tragic Subject: Historicity and Transhistoricity.” In: Vernant, Jean-Pierre; Vidal-Naquet, Pierre: Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece. Zone Books New York, 1996, pp. 237–247, here p. 237.
  11. ^ See Huelsenbeck, Richard: En Avant Dada. Eine Geschichte des Dadaismus. Paul Steegemann Verlag Hannover, 1920, p. 5.
  12. ^ Huelsenbeck, Richard: Memoirs of a Dada Drummer, ed. by Hans J. Kleinschmidt, University of California Press Berkley, Los Angeles, London, 1969, p. 9.
  13. ^ Ovid: Metamorphoses, Volume II: Books 9–15. Translated by Frank Justus Miller. Revised by G. P. Goold. Loeb Classical Library 43. Harvard University Press Cambridge, 1916, p. 82.
  14. ^ Interestingly, both smoking substances are connoted by an elsewhere, both indicate the creolization of respective (ancient/modern) cultures: incense comes from the East, from the eastern cultures beyond the Mediterranean, tobacco comes from the transatlantic plantations of the colonized New World.
  15. ^ Classen, Constance; Howes, David; Synnott, Anthony: Aroma. The cultural history of smell. Routledge London and New York, 1994, p. 46.
  16. ^ Ball, Hugo: Flight out of Time: A Dada Diary. Edited by John Elderfield, University of California Press Berkley, 1996, p. 102.
  17. ^ Ball, Hugo; Lewer, Debbie: “On Occultism, the Hieratic, and Other Strangely Beautiful Things.” In: Art in Translation, 5:3, pp. 403–408, here p. 407.
  18. ^ An overview on the different movement-impressions that Sophie Taeuber-Arp left behind can be found in Damman, Catherine (2016): “Dance, Sound, Word: The ‘Hundred-jointed Body’ in Zurich Dada Performance. In: The German Review: Literature, Culture, Theory, 91:4, pp. 352–366, here p. 360–361: “Hans Arp would later recall Taeuber’s dancing body not as mechanical object at the mercy of some external force but rather as an aggressive force itself, describing ‘the piercing glare’ and ‘the startle and the bite’. [Hans Arp, ‘Sophie tanzte’, Spirale 1, Bern 1954, quoted in Erica Kessler, ‘Sophie danse’, trans. André Gunthert, in Sophie Taeuber (Paris: Musée d’Art Modern de la Ville de Paris, 1898), 45.] Thirty years later, Marcel Janco still vividly remembered Taeuber’s ‘jerky syncopated expression’ [Janco, Marcel: “Creative Dada.” (1957), In: Dada: Monograph of a Movement, ed. Willy Verkauf, Marcel Janco, and Hans Bolliger (London: Academy Editions/New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1961), p. 23]. [...] Hennings remembered Taeuber as having natural beauty and grace, writing, ‘the ineffable softness of her movements allowed one to forget that her feet even touched the ground’. [Hennings, Emmy: „Zur Erinnerung an Sophie Taeuber-Arp.“ Translated by Catherine Damman. In: Hennings, Emmy: Dada, p. 116.].
  19. ^ Ball, Hugo: Flight Out of Time: A Dada Diary. Edited and with an Introduction by John Elderfield. University of California Press Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1996, p. 102.
  20. ^ See Bauman, Zygmunt: Liquid Modernity. Polity Press Cambridge, 2000, p. 113 [emphasis in original].
  21. ^ The manifests mainly refer to the simultaneity of word and image. Vibration is a key term – addressing all senses.
  22. ^ Gerhard Neumann gives an excellent historical and theoretical overview in „Pygmalion. Metamorphosen des Mythos“, however he does not refer to Dada explicitly.
  23. ^ Her Dada contemporaries certainly appreciated Taeuber artistically, but characterized her almost exclusively in reference to Jean Arp.
  24. ^ Here, a conception of ancient senses and especially of the nose can be identified. According to Mark Bradley, this is “a conduit for channelling messages from the outside world to the inner brain and the humours of the body […] [and vice versa] nasal infusions carried the humours from within into the outside world.” Bradley, Mark: Smell and Ancient Senses. Routledge London and New York, 2014, p. 4.
  25. ^ See Huelsenbeck, Richard: En Avant Dada. Eine Geschichte des Dadaismus. Paul Steegemann Verlag Hannover, 1920, p. 21.
  26. ^ “From an alluring visual composition or an enchanting fabric of sound, the dadaists turned the artwork into a projectile. It jolted the viewer and was thus ready to win back for the present day the tactical quality that is indispensable for art in the great periods of change.” Benjamin, Walter: “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility (Third Version).” In: Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, 4: 1938–1940. Edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Belknap Press Cambridge, 2003, p. 32.


How do things come together? Hütte der Wohnung Miryam van Doren mit dem Hochzeitsrock
(genäht von Nicole Haitzinger & Bettina Kogler), der Stummfilmikone Irma Vep (aktiviert von
Sabina Holzer) und dem verlorenen Buch.  © Jack Hauser 2021


(3. 12. 2021; aktualisiert 9. 12. 2021)