Orange, Pear, Apple, Dada: Emily Gravett, Again! and the avant-garde

October 20, 2015

Written by Katherine Firth

The first Dada manifesto was read by Hugo Ball in 1916 in Zürich at the first Dadaist soirée: Dada is a simple word, he claims: it is “Very easy to understand. Quite terribly simple.” I had always believed it was a word that meant nothing, but Ball claims: “In French it means “hobby horse”. In German it means “good-bye”… In Romanian: “Yes, indeed”. This means that it is a childhood word, an international word, a contradictory word, a hello, yes, no, goodbye word. In the second Dadaist manifesto 1918, Tristan Tzara suggested that “One shouldn’t let too many words out. A line of poetry is a chance to get rid of all the filth that clings to this accursed language.” Small numbers of words are good, poetry, patterns are good. Dada helps you to strip away, allows you to return to a time of greater innocence, of cleaner, simpler, purer moments.

Dada is one stream in the early twentieth-century modernist avant-gardes that attempted to remake and rethink culture in these radical ways. The modernist small book and small magazine movement (1905-30) was strongly influenced by an interest in the book as a thing. The Russian Constructivist school’s little magazines were made of patterned wall paper off-cuts, like Khudizhestvenny Trud (Artistic Labour). The Dutch magazine Die Stijl (The Style) advocated bold lettering and radical, non-horizontal typography. The German magazine Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) broke the rules of painting which said that a picture should look realistic, look truthful, in order to enable artists to speak a deeper truth about spiritual realities. The lettering, the paper, printing on wallpaper samples, breaking the rules of type, of grammar, of visual layout, they all intentionally set out to break the rules, to build a new set of possibilities for books, for language, for society. This often went hand in hand with a radically new ways to understand the human condition through the insights of psychoanalysis.

When we look at Blast! (1914), the Vorticist magazine edited by the English cubist painter and novelist Wyndham Lewis, with its hot-pink cardboard cover and its crazy screen-print typography, we think it looks incredibly modern…and yet that modernity is, to us, that of a 1970s art-school paper. That is, a magazine printed before I was born, and I am no longer all that young. Today, although desktop publishing and ebooks have democratised the methods of production, they have also standardised it, visually. The fonts, page sizes and paper types have become, on the whole, versions of the default template. Moreover, those texts are becoming ever less physical, ever more adjustable to the preferences of our individual e-readers (I personally, always read my Kindle in small print, landscape, two columns, sepia colour, serif font, low brightness). The typographic choices of publishers and artists have less and less influence on how we read.

So where might this experimentation exist today? In what physical books-as-objects might they be published? What rules of the book might they break? And where might it lead us– in terms of our own self understanding, in terms of our imaginations–into the darker and less explored places of our psyche?

One answer is children’s books.

Emily Gravett’s award-winning contemporary children’s literature places the physical book-object at the centre of the exploration of identity and dark fear. Her books are self-consciously books, and often books within books.  In both Again! and Wolves, the book’s cover in fact encloses a second text which is then terrifyingly mutilated in the course of the narrative.

In both Wolves and Meerkat Mail, the book is both a published pop-up book and a collage–made of stuck-on scraps of paper, of letters, postcards, receipts, stamps and bits of string. In this, Gravett is part of a long avant-garde tradition. Georges Braque, studio mate of Picasso and co-founder of cubism, made his most famous collage as a work of bricolage (finding bits of made culture and putting them together yourself, a kind of magpie DIY). ‘Guitar, Sheet Music and Glass’ includes pieces of sheet music, a clipping from Figaro newspaper, and wallpaper.  

In Gravett’s work, the pop-up book is inverted and twisted (and ripped up and burned and perforated), building on, and burrowing or blasting through, the famous hole in The Very Hungry Caterpillar. In this way, the construction of the book is predicated on its deconstruction. Tzara claimed that in Dada “Every page must explode, either by… the whirlwind, poetic frenzy, the new, the eternal, the crushing joke, enthusiasm for principles, or by the way in which it is printed.” The printed page explodes with jokes, the joke literally tears or blows the book apart.  

The absolutely gorgeous little dragon in Again! can’t read his favourite story himself. That inability to read means first he holds the book upside down. And because his book is upside down, gravity acts on the words and the pictures. The towers fall, the trolls are tumbled, the princess are rumpled, and the letters jumble in a messy piles in the bottom corner of the page. In this book, for the pre-linguistic child, written language is anarchic, chaotic, destabilised and inaccessible. The only access such children have to the written word is by proxy, by a parent who reads to them.

In Again!, that parent alters the reading at each repetition, as the child demands the bedtime story is read again and yet again. This altered reading changes the text and the illustrations of both the fictional and physical book. The repetition is not simply a repeat, but also a revision. And that revision becomes more and more bizarre as we go along, until it collapses in a clutter of chaotic characters, and then in destruction and absence, with the little dragon blowing a blackened hole in the back cover of his book (and of the volume we hold in our hands). 

Again! also therefore draws on a second strand of development from the early 20th century avant-gardes: the power of repetition. For modern poets like Ezra Pound (associated with Blast!) and W.B. Yeats, the power of repetition was one of incarnation, of the pre-linguistic, of access to the subconscious. In Orange, Pear, Apple, Bear and Again! repetition is the prerogative of children, children whose access to the written word is limited.  

The variation and repetition is used for a somewhat different purpose in Orange, Pear, Apple, Bear. This is the kind of book that a small child can remember without yet, quite, being able to read. However, or perhaps therefore, every repetition morphs, linguistically and verbally. The smallest slips of punctuation cause massive transformations and transgressions of meaning.

Ball claimed: “How does one become famous? By saying dada. With a noble gesture and delicate propriety. Till one goes crazy.” Dada is thus  associated with repetition and with madness. “I let the vowels fool around. I let the vowels quite simply occur, as a cat meows . . . Au, oi, uh.” Dada language is therefore playful. It accepts unlikely occurrences as simple fact. It plays with the sound of language. It allows made up words, it allows nonsense. Tzara declared, “Dada; abolition of logic.” Dada is therefore associated with illogic or new logic.

And so:

Orange, pear, apple, bear.

Apple, pear, orange bear. (And the big brown bear is suddenly bright orange)

Orange, apple, pear bear (has to be seen to be believed, utterly beautiful and strange).

Orange, pear, apple, bear.

Orange, pear, apple, bear.



Dr Katherine Firth is the Head of Academic Programs at Trinity College Residential College. She publishes on modern poetry and the relationship of poetry and music. Her most recent work is a Study Translation of Bach’s St John Passion in A Loewe, Johann Sebastian Bach’s St John Passion: A Theological Commentary (Brill 2014).

One Response to “Orange, Pear, Apple, Dada: Emily Gravett, Again! and the avant-garde”

  1. […] of Latin America in order to accurately understand Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Katherine Firth in Orange, Pear, Apple, Dada: Emily Gravett, Again! and the avant-garde presents a concise and informative background to the origin of Dadaism followed […]

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