Theses Doctoral

The Art of Living in the Historical Avant-Garde

Silveri, Rachel

This dissertation reexamines the art-into-life narrative of the historical avant-gardes through an analysis of a set of experimental life practices established by artists across Dada, Orphism, and Surrealism. Focusing on Tristan Tzara’s performances of identity, Sonia Delaunay’s fashions and self-branding, and the collective endeavor to open and operate the Surrealist Research Bureau, my project proposes a broader envisioning of avant-garde material culture to examine the ways in which artists creatively produced an “art of living” in relation to the normative types of “lifestyle” produced contemporaneously in France during the years 1910-1930. Rooted in original archival research and interdisciplinary in focus, my discussion of these artists is centered on three distinct sites within material culture (the manifesto, advertising, the office) and reveals how these activities at times challenge and at times replicate various dominant discourses.

The first chapter examines how Samuel Rosenstock became the Dadaist Tristan Tzara. Specifically, I focus on Tzara’s elaboration of himself through the delivery and subsequent publication of his manifestos, Sept manifestes dada (1924), which performatively cite and repeat his name throughout. Discussed alongside additional publications and events throughout Paris Dada, I detail how Tzara’s well known critique of language is geared toward a production of subjectivity that refuses to cohere to the types of categorical identity dominant within France at the time, including those of national, racial, and ethnic classification, particularly as they circumscribed the artist within the popular press.

In the second chapter, I consider Sonia Delaunay’s early simultaneous dresses (1913) and the development of her commercial fashion business, Maison Delaunay (1924-1931), analyzing in particular the ways in which Delaunay deliberately intertwined her image with her business practices of publicity, from branding and advertisements to fashion photography. Elaborating the ways in which these practices evolved within the gendered constraints of the artist’s own everyday life as well as the broader feminization of the decorative arts, I argue that Delaunay strategically negotiates normative forms of marketing and commercialism in order to gain visibility and ultimately recognition as an artist.

My third chapter provides the first in-depth material history of the Bureau de recherches surréalistes, which operated in Paris from October 1924 to April 1925. Focusing on the Bureau’s daily Cahier de la permanence, its promotional photographs, and press announcements, I detail the ways in which the Bureau became a site of debate among the Surrealists for issues concerning office labor and governance. Elaborating the tensions between the Surrealist pursuit of revolutionary action and the need for workplace leadership and control, I position how the daily procedures of the Bureau overlap with the rise of standardized office practices as outlined in contemporaneous trade journals and management theories.

Together, these creative, material practices offer a new narrative of the avant-garde endeavor to merge art with life. Here, Dada becomes an identity, Orphism becomes a business, and Surrealism becomes a workplace, each with its own political uncertainties, each simultaneously challenging and upholding varying historical norms, each serving as an alternative to both pure critique and pure affirmation. Within this discussion, the traditional concepts of an avant-garde politics (revolution, utopia, and anti-capitalism) give way to a greater consideration of ethical practices of self-making. “The Art of Living in the Historical Avant-Garde” thus reveals the integration of art and life as neither utopian pursuit nor historical failure but rather as a series of actual life practices ambiguously enmeshed within a terrain marked by nationalism, consumerism, and bureaucracy.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Joseph, Branden W.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 22, 2017