Dada was an artistic and literary movement that began in Zürich, Switzerland. It arose as a reaction to World War I and the nationalism that many thought had led to the war. Influenced by other avant-garde movements - Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, and Expressionism - its output was wildly diverse, ranging from performance art to poetry, photography, sculpture, painting, and collage. Dada's aesthetic, marked by its mockery of materialistic and nationalistic attitudes, proved a powerful influence on artists in many cities, including Berlin, Hanover, Paris, New York, and Cologne, all of which generated their own groups. The movement dissipated with the establishment of Surrealism, but the ideas it gave rise to have become the cornerstones of various categories of modern and contemporary art.
Switzerland was neutral during WWI with limited censorship and it was in Zürich that Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings founded the Cabaret Voltaire on February 5, 1916 in the backroom of a tavern on Spiegelgasse in a seedy section of the city. In order to attract other artists and intellectuals, Ball put out a press release that read, "Cabaret Voltaire. Under this name a group of young artists and writers has formed with the object of becoming a center for artistic entertainment. In principle, the Cabaret will be run by artists, guests artists will come and give musical performances and readings at the daily meetings. Young artists of Zürich, whatever their tendencies, are invited to come along with suggestions and contributions of all kinds." Those who were present from the beginning in addition to Ball and Hennings were Hans Arp, Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco, and Richard Huelsenbeck.
In July of that year, the first Dada evening was held at which Ball read the first manifesto. There is little agreement on how the word Dada was invented, but one of the most common origin stories is that Richard Huelsenbeck found the name by plunging a knife at random into a dictionary. The term "dada" is a colloquial French term for a hobbyhorse, yet it also echoes the first words of a child, and these suggestions of childishness and absurdity appealed to the group, who were keen to put a distance between themselves and the sobriety of conventional society. They also appreciated that the word might mean the same (or nothing) in all languages - as the group was avowedly internationalist.
The aim of Dada art and activities was both to help to stop the war and to vent frustration with the nationalist and bourgeois conventions that had led to it. Their anti-authoritarian stance made for a protean movement as they opposed any form of group leadership or guiding ideology.
The artists in Zürich published a Dada magazine and held art exhibits that helped spread their anti-war, anti-art message. In 1917, after Ball left for Bern to pursue journalism, Tzara founded Galerie Dada on Bahnhofstrasse where further Dada evenings were held along with art exhibits. Tzara became the leader of the movement and began an unrelenting campaign to spread Dada ideas, showering French and Italian writers and artists with letters. The group published an art and literature review entitled Dada starting in July 1917 with five editions from Zürich and two final ones from Paris. Their art was focused on performance and printed matter.
Once the war ended in 1918, many of the artists returned to their home countries, helping to further spread the movement. The end of Dada in Zürich followed the Dada 4-5 event in April 1919 that by design turned into a riot, something that Tzara thought furthered the aims of Dada by undermining conventional art practices through audience involvement in art production. The riot, which began as a Dada event, was one of the most significant. It attracted over 1000 people and began with a conservative speech about the value of abstract art that was meant to anger the crowd. This was followed by discordant music and then several readings that encouraged crowd participation until the crowd lost control and began to destroy several of the props. Tzara described it thus: "the tumult is unchained hurricane frenzy siren whistles bombardment song the battle starts out sharply, half the audience applaud the protestors hold the hall . . . chairs pulled out projectiles crash bang expected effect atrocious and instinctive . . . Dada has succeeded in establishing the circuit of absolute unconsciousness in the audience which forgot the frontiers of education of prejudices, experienced the commotion of the New. Final victory of Dada." For Tzara the key to the success of a riot was audience involvement so that attendees were not just onlookers of art, but became involved in its production. This was a total negation of traditional art.
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Soon after this, Tzara traveled to Paris, where he met André Breton and began formulating the theories that Breton would eventually call Surrealism. Dadaists did not self-consciously declare micro-regional movements; the spread of Dada throughout various European cities and into New York can be attributed to a few key artists, and each city in turn influenced the aesthetics of their respective Dada groups.
In 1917, Huelsenbeck returned from Zürich to found Club Dada in Berlin, which was active from 1918 to 1923, and included attendees such as Johannes Baader, George Grosz, Hannah Höch, and Raoul Hausmann. Closer to a war zone, the Berlin Dadaists came out publicly against the Weimar Republic and their art was more political: satirical paintings and collages that featured wartime imagery, government figures, and political cartoon clippings recontextualized into biting commentaries. In February of 1918, Huelsenbeck gave his first Dada speech in Berlin and several journals, including Club Dada and Der Dada, were published that year along with a manifesto in April. The photomontage technique was developed in Berlin during this period. In 1920 Hausmann and Huelsenbeck give a lecture tour in Dresden, Hamburg, Leipzig, and Prague. The "Erste Internationale Dada-Messe" was held in June.
Kurt Schwitters, excluded from the Berlin group likely because of his links to Der Sturm gallery and the Expressionist style, both of which were seen as antithetical to Dada because of their Romanticism and focus on aesthetics, formed his own Dada group in Hannover in 1919, though he was its only practitioner. His Merz, as he termed his art, was less politically oriented than that of the Club Dada; his works instead examine modernist preoccupations with shape and color.
Another Dada group was formed in Cologne in 1918 by Max Ernst and Johannes Theodor Baargeld. Importantly, Hans Arp joined the next year and made breakthroughs in his collage experiments. Their exhibits focused on anti-bourgeois and nonsensical art. In 1920, one such exhibit was closed down by the police. By 1922, German Dada was winding down. In that year, Ernst left Cologne for Paris, thus dissolving that group. Others became interested in other movements. A "Congress of the Constructivists", for example, was held in Weimar in October of 1922, which was attended by a number of the German Dadaists and in 1924, Breton published the Surrealist manifesto after which many of the remaining Dadaists joined that movement. Schwitter's Merz publication continued sporadically for several years.
After hearing of the Dada movement in Zürich, a number of Parisian artists including Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard, and others become interested. In 1919 Tzara left Zürich for Paris and Arp arrived there from Cologne the next year; a "Dada festival" took place in May 1920 after many of the originators of the movement had converged there. There were several demonstrations, exhibitions, and performances organized along with manifestos and journals published, including Dada and Le Cannibale.
Picabia and Breton withdrew from the movement in 1921 and Picabia published a special issue of 391 in which he claimed that Paris Dada had become the thing it originally fought against: a mediocre established movement. He wrote: "The Dada spirit really only existed between 1913 and 1918 . . . In wishing to prolong it, Dada became closed . . . Dada, you see, was not serious... and if certain people take it seriously now, it's because it is dead! . . . One must be a nomad, pass through ideas like one passes through countries and cities." Paris Dada published a counter-attack under the direction of Tzara. Two final Dada stage performances are held in Paris in 1923 before the group collapsed into internal infighting and ceded to Surrealism.
Marcel Duchamp provided a crucial creative link between the Zürich Dadaists and Parisian proto-Surrealists, like Breton. The Swiss group considered Marcel Duchamp's readymades to be Dada artworks, and they appreciated Duchamp's humor and refusal to define art.
Like Zürich during the war, New York City was a refuge for writers and artists. Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia arrived in the city only days apart in June of 1915 and soon after met Man Ray. Duchamp served as a critical interlocutor, bringing the notion of anti-art to the group where it took a decidedly mechanistic turn. One of his most important pieces, The Large Glass or Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, was begun in New York in 1915 and is considered to be a major milestone for its depiction of a strange, erotic drama using mechanical forms.
By 1916 Duchamp, Picabia, and Man Ray were joined by the American artist Beatrice Wood and the writers Henri-Pierre Roche and Mina Loy. Much of their anti-art activity took place in Alfred Stieglitz's 291 gallery and at the studio of Walter and Louise Arensberg. Their publications, such as The Blind Man, Rongwrong, and New York Dada challenged conventional museum art with more humor and less bitterness than European groups. It was during this period that Duchamp began exhibiting readymades (found objects) such as a bottle rack, and got involved with the Society of Independent Artists. In 1917 he submitted Fountain to the Society of Independent Artists show.
Picabia's travels helped tie New York, Zürich and Paris groups together during the Dadaist period. From 1917 through 1924 he also published the Dada periodical 391, which was modeled on Stieglitz's 291 periodical. Picabia's 391 was first published in Barcelona, then in various cities including New York, Zürich, and Paris, depending on his own place of residence and with help from fellow artists and friends in the various cities. The periodical was mainly literary, however, with Picabia being the prime contributor. The 1918 Dada Manifesto had declared: "Every page must explode, whether through seriousness, profundity, turbulence, nausea, the new, the eternal, annihilating nonsense, enthusiasm for principles, or the way it is printed. Art must be unaesthetic in the extreme, useless, and impossible to justify." He broke away from Dada in 1921 as mentioned above. In addition to the special issue of 391 in which he attacked Paris Dada in 1921, in the final issue of 391 in 1924 Picabia accuses Surrealism of being a fabricated movement, writing that "artificial eggs don't make chickens."
Concepts and Styles
Dada artworks present intriguing overlaps and paradoxes in that they seek to demystify artwork in the populist sense but nevertheless remain cryptic enough to allow the viewer to interpret works in a variety of ways. Some Dadaists portrayed people and scenes representationally in order to analyze form and movement. Others, like Kurt Schwitters and Man Ray, practiced abstraction to express the metaphysical essence of their subject matter. Both modes sought to deconstruct daily experience in challenging and rebellious ways. The key to understanding Dada works lies in reconciling the seemingly silly, slapdash styles with the profound anti-bourgeois message. Tzara especially fought the assumption that Dada was a statement; yet Tzara and his fellow artists became increasingly agitated by politics and sought to incite a similar fury in Dada audiences.
Irreverence was a crucial component of Dada art, whether it was a lack of respect for bourgeois convention, government authorities, conventional production methods, or the artistic canon. Each group varied slightly in their focus, with the Berlin group being the most anti-government and the New York group being the most anti-art. Of all the groups, the Hannover group was likely the most conservative.
Readymades and Assemblage
A readymade was simply an object that already existed and was commandeered by Dada artists as a work of art, often in the process combined with another readymade, as in Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel, thus creating an assemblage. The pieces were often chosen and assembled by chance or accident to challenge bourgeois notions about art and artistic creativity. Indeed, it is difficult to completely separate conceptually the Dada interest in chance with their focus on readymades and assemblage. Several of the readymades and assemblages were bizarre, a quality that made it easy for the group to merge eventually with Surrealism. Other artists who worked with readymades and assemblages include Ernst, Man Ray, and Hausmann.
Chance was a key concept underpinning most of Dada art from the abstract and beautiful compositions of Schwitters to the large assemblages of Duchamp. Chance was used to embrace the random and the accidental as a way to release creativity from rational control, with Arp being one of the earliest and best-known practitioners. Schwitters, for example, gathered random bits of detritus from a variety of locales, while Duchamp welcomed accidents such as the crack that occurred while he was making The Large Glass. In addition to loss of rational control, Dada lack of concern with preparatory work and the embrace of artworks that were marred fit well with the Dada irreverence for traditional art methods.
Wit and Humor
Tied closely to Dada irreverence was their interest in humor, typically in the form of irony. In fact, the embrace of the readymade is key to Dada's use of irony as it shows an awareness that nothing has intrinsic value. Irony also gave the artists flexibility and expressed their embrace of the craziness of the world thus preventing them from taking their work too seriously or from getting caught up in excessive enthusiasm or dreams of utopia. Their humor is an unequivocal YES to everything as art.
As detailed above, after the disbanding of the various Dada groups, many of the artists joined other art movements - in particular Surrealism. In fact, Dada's tradition of irrationality and chance led directly to the Surrealist love for fantasy and expression of the imaginary. Several artists were members of both groups, including Picabia, Arp, and Ernst since their works acted as a catalyst in ushering in an art based on a relaxation of conscious control over art production. Though Duchamp was not a Surrealist, he helped to curate exhibitions in New York that showcased both Dada and Surrealist works.
Dada, the first conceptual art movement, is now considered a watershed moment in twentieth-century art. Postmodernism as we know it would not exist without Dada. Almost every underlying postmodern theory in visual and written art as well as in music and drama was invented or at least utilized by Dada artists: art as performance, the overlapping of art with everyday life, the use of popular culture, audience participation, the interest in non-Western forms of art, the embrace of the absurd, and the use of chance.
Most of the artistic movements since Dada can trace their influence to that group. Other than the obvious examples of Surrealism, Neo-Dada, and Conceptual art, these would include Pop art, Fluxus, the Situationist International, Performance art, Feminist art, and Minimalism. Dada also had a profound influence on graphic design and the field of advertising with their use of collage.
From left: Hannah Höch, Hans Richter, Juliet Man-Ray, Frida Richter, and Man Ray at the exhibition 'Dada: Documents of a Movement', Düsseldorf (1958)
The Dada group in Paris (1922)
Poster for Salon Dada, Exposition Internationale, Galerie Montaigne, 1921
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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
See works of art
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
The Jewish Angel
Photo: This Is the Color of My Dreams
Nude Standing by the Sea
The Accommodations of Desire
The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Green Box)
The Satin Tuning Fork
Being With (Etre Avec)
The Great Sirens
The Eternally Obvious
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