A radical artistic and literary movement that was a reaction against the cultural climate that supported the First World War. The Dadaists took an anti-establishment attitude, questioning art's status and favouring performance and collage over traditional art techniques. Many Dadaists went on to become involved with Surrealism.
The Origins of Dada
Dada was an international, multi-disciplinary phenomenon that reacted against the nationalist climate supporting the First World War. The movement was defined by an anti-bourgeois, anti-establishment stance and a love of the absurd, nonsensical and ridiculous. The group even declared themselves anti-art, claiming, ‘Dada is anti-Dada!’. Beginning in Zurich, the movement was later developed in Berlin, Hanover, Cologne, New York, Paris and Barcelona during and after the First World War. It is now considered the first conceptual art movement and a watershed moment in the development of modern art. The Dada language evolved alongside other avant-garde movements including Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism and Expressionism and a diverse output ranged from performance to poetry, photography, sculpture, painting and collage.
Accounts on the discovery of the term ‘dada’ vary, although it is thought poet Richard Huelsenbeck plunged a knife into a German-French dictionary at random. The term appealed to the group, reflecting their childish sense of the absurd. It had an elastic quality, as Ball explained, ‘Dada means in Romanian, ‘Yes, Yes’, in French a rocking- or hobby horse. In German it is a sign of absurd naivety.’
Zurich and the Cabaret Voltaire
During World War I, Zurich was a refuge for international artists, writers and thinkers. Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings initially founded the movement in 1916 in the city’s Cabaret Voltaire, with other members including Hans Arp, Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco and Richard Huelsenbeck. The Zurich group published a Dada magazine and held numerous art exhibitions spreading their anti-war, anti-art ideas. They also held regular evening events with experimental poetry readings, music and dancing, and Tzara and Arp famously explored ‘chance’ through ripping up and scattering paper pieces onto the floor. In 1917, Tzara went on to found Galerie Dada on Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich and later became the leader of the movement, spreading the word through letters to France and Italy.
Dada in Europe and the United States
After the end of the First World War in 1918, many artists returned to their home countries and spread Dada ideas further. In Berlin, Huelsenbeck founded Club Dada, with major figures including John Heartfield, George Grosz and Hannah Hoch. Their work reflected a fascination with technology, and took on deeper political leanings than the Zurich group. Kurt Schwitters was excluded from the Berlin group, due to his work’s aesthetic qualities, instead founding his own one man group in Hanover in 1919, in which he termed his art Merz. In Cologne, Max Ernst and Johannes Theodor Baargeld formed a Dada group in 1918, later joined by Hans Arp who made series’ of ground-breaking collages.
During the war Dada also emerged in New York, with leading exponents Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia. Duchamp famously coined the term ‘readymade’ to describe his found object art, revolutionising the conventions of visual art. In the early 1920s, many Dada artists had converged in Paris including Arp, Ernst, Duchamp and Picabia, where Andre Breton and others had begun to formulate the ideas that would become Surrealism.