born 1896 Moinesti, Romania
died 1963 Paris, France
Poet and tirelessly energetic propagandist for Dada, Tristan Tzara, whose given name was Samuel Rosenstock, was born into a well-off Jewish family in Romania. He attended a French private school in Bucharest as a youth and while in high school met Ion Vinea and Marcel Janco, both of whom shared his interest in French poetry. Together they founded the literary magazine Simbolul, in which Tzara, under the pseudonym S. Samyro, published a selection of poems written in Romanian and influenced by French symbolism.
In 1915, seemingly as the result of a family scandal, Tzara’s parents sent him to Zurich, where he enrolled at a university to study philosophy. His first poem signed with the name Tristan Tzara (tzara being the Romanian for land) appeared in October of that year. Romania did not enter the war until 1916, but it is not clear when Tzara might have been first drafted for service. In the fall of 1916 he received papers granting him a deferral of military service, and in 1917 he was relieved from military duty.
Shortly after his arrival in Zurich, Tzara reunited with Janco and Janco’s brother Georges, with whom, according to Hugo Ball’s diary, he attended the opening night of the Cabaret Voltaire. Over the course of the year in 1916, Tzara’s activities at the Cabaret of reciting his poems and those of others led to a more active role in coordinating and planning Dada events. He also, probably through the influence of Richard Huelsenbeck, became interested in African poetry. He incorporated into his poetry scraps of sound, bits of newspaper fragments, and phrases resembling African dialects. Beginning in November 1916, Tzara collected and translated African and Oceanic poems from anthropology magazines in the Zurich library. The soirées nègres at the Cabaret Voltaire led to Tzara’s lifelong collecting of African and Oceanic art. On July 23, 1918, in Zurich’s Meise Hall, Tzara recited his “Manifeste Dada 1918.” Also published in Dada 3, this radical dadaist declaration reached André Breton in Paris, thus beginning the connection that would bring Tzara and Dada to Paris a year later. It was through Tzara’s efforts that Dada in Zurich reached a broad international audience, and he has often been described as embodying the migratory quality of Dada.
Tzara arrived in Paris and burst upon the avant-garde literary scene in 1920 at a poetry reading organized by Littérature. He brought to Dada in Paris a skill in managing events and audiences, which transformed literary gatherings into public performances that generated enormous publicity. He remained the editor of Dada, which appeared in France until 1922. As the cohesiveness of the Dada movement in Paris was disintegrating, Tzara published Le coeur à barbe (The Bearded Heart), a journal reacting against Breton and Francis Picabia.
From 1930 to 1935, Tzara contributed to the definition of surrealist activities and ideology. He was also an active communist sympathizer and was a member of the Resistance during the German occupation of Paris. Tzara remained a spokesman for Dada, and in 1950 delivered a series of nine radio addresses to his Parisian audience discussing the topic of “the avant-garde revues in the origin of the new poetry.” In 1962 Tzara traveled for the first time to Africa. He died in Paris the next year.