“Big: Barry Humphries: Dada Artist”, at the National Gallery of Australia in 1993. I remember seeing the small exhibition in the foyer as I stood in the long line for tickets to the blockbuster exhibition “Surrealism: Revolution by Night.” Behind me, in the line, there was a mother with her pre-literate daughter. The girl asked her mother to read each gallery card that went with Humphries’s works.
“Pus in Boots, 1953, reconstructed 1993 ‘custard’, leather workman’s boots, flies”
After each one, the girl would say, “Yuk!” and then move on to the next piece. She was definitely getting her yuks. The exhibition now strikes me as little more than prop comedy and a shitload of dreadful puns.
The cosmic convergence of ANZAC day and the death of the comedian Barry Humphries brought these memories back and created more context for Humphries as a Dadaist artist. An examination of which strikes at the heart of Australia’s imaginal national character.
Dada was an anti-art movement created by Germans and Romanians escaping military service in Switzerland. It rejected all logic, civilisation and artistic conventions that had led to such a massive and senseless slaughter of people. In the aftermath of the war, it quickly spread to Europe, the Americas and even Japan, but not Australia.
Australia was not just behind the times; Dada was antithetical to the Australian national character. As an anti-war movement, Dada is deeply abhorrent to Australian culture and national identity, with its foundations in the Australians fighting and dying in World War One. For Australian nationalism, the slaughter of the war made mythic sense as a sacrifice.
Humphries had read Dada Poets and Painters, edited by Robert Motherwell, in high school. Then as a first-year student at Melbourne University, he held “The First Pan-Australian Dada Exhibition” in 1952. After this first exhibition, Dada became a one-man show for Humphries; there was no movement, group or imitators. The other artists were Clifton Pugh and Germaine Greer, but there is no detail of what either contributed. Pugh, who exhibited under an assumed name, would later recant his involvement.
Although this was the “First Pan-Australian Dada Exhibition”, it happened while neo-Dadaists were emerging in Japan and the USA. And it was very different to both Dada and neo-Dadaism.
This was not the anti-war Dada; Australia’s participation in the Korean War was not mentioned. Nor that Humphries was a private in the Melbourne University Regiment. Nor was this the anti-art Dada, with Humphries claiming to be part of art history with the first “Dada exhibition”, the pop art painting (Wheaties cereal box image) and experimental music recording in Australia.
“Wobboism” or “Wubboism”, with its comedy routine explanation of taking its name from a garbage collector or a pseudo-Aboriginal word, does have elements of Hugo Ball’s anti-semitism and Richard Huelsenbeck’s “negro poetry”. But these are not the celebrated aspects of Dada.
Humphries’s fascination with Dada led to him incorporating aspects into his early performances. What Humphries took from Dada was its superficial form, shock value, and use of random, absurd humour. Rejecting the nihilism at its core. Dada was just an act he took on and off like Dame Edna’s dress, not an existential statement.
One startling conclusion from examining Barry Humphries’s Dadaist art is that it indicates that Australia is more militaristic and conservative and less accepting of dissent, change and nihilism than Japan. Australians will tolerate the absurd, but only if they find it funny, and Humphries was.