Dada was an early 20th-century art movement that began in Europe. Dada art had a rough, sardonic edge to it which sought to challenge preconceived notions of reality and mock authority with absurdity. This was a direct correlation to the Great War and the cultural values these artists found themselves surrounded by.
In 1916, Switzerland was neutral when it came to the Great War (World War I) which raged throughout Europe. This would later be known as the First World War, and much of the world was in a disastrous upheaval. Politicians were lying and soldiers were dying. It was during this time that in Zürich, and also New York, a new cultural and artistic movement had formed, later to spread in the main countries of France and Germany. Strangely enough, not one natural-born Swiss helped start the Dada movement; the artists there were brought together by their abhorrence of the war as well as fear of being forced to serve in it (Hunter, 167).
Among these artists were Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp, Hugo Ball, Hannah Hoch and Richard Huelsenbeck (Elger, 8). Dadaism was different than anything the world had seen before: an essentially nihilistic group that’s principles based around intentional irrationality, cynicism, and anarchy. The basis was to reject laws of beauty, as well as social organization and the bourgeoisie, namely on art itself. Along with the ironic sense of anti-art, the Dadaists also directed their repulsion at World War I and rebelled against the materialist values that had brought it about (Rubin, 12).
Exiled from war, this group of artists and poets met in an old quarter of town where they began to form their revolutionary ideas. Together they protested and found the middle ground in anarchy and disorder while still presenting innovative artistic opportunities (Hunter, 167). Tristan Tzara, called one of the leaders in the Dada movement, was so disgusted with the war he decided that the society which had created it did not deserve art. Therefore, in a sense Dada was about making ugliness, not beauty (Rubin, 12).
“The beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of art, but of disgust” – Tristan Tzara
New York, much like Zurich, was a safe haven for artists trying to escape the war. There, artists who were eventually some of the most well-known in the Dada movement met and began working together. These artists included Marcel Duchamp (so-called Mr. Dada), Man Ray, who was famous for his photomontages, namely Tears, and Frances Picabia. All of these artists had met within days of arriving in New York. Four years later, by 1920, most of the Dada artists had converged in Paris, where they worked together though still separate in their own endeavors (Elger, 24).
The ultimate extremity of Dada expression was the unwarranted act- an idea which is illustrated by the choice of the name ‘Dada’ itself. Though there are many theories, supposedly the name was chosen when a penknife, at chance, was placed into the pages of a dictionary. (Dada is the French word for hobbyhorse.) This act celebrated the very core of Dadaism, focusing on the new instinctual energies which the movement embraced (Hunter, 167). Dadaism wasn’t only about the art itself- it was a way of life. Many of the Dadaists were radical in their actions toward conventional society. The first step was to make negative gestures; to attack the icons of the old culture. The art of the Dada era focused more on the intellectual aspects of a piece of artwork, as opposed to the focus on attractiveness like the art before- such as Expressionism and Impressionists. Their art was based solely on the message of the artwork, with heavy weight put on the creation itself — interpretation of Dada is dependent entirely on the viewer. This was a trait that would later be carried over into the Surrealism movement (Rubin, 15).
The Dadaists also shifted their focus from the previous notion of painting as the main form of art by the construction of more physical forms, including sculpture, public gatherings, demonstrations, and film. With so many different artists from different countries and backgrounds, they had a wide range of art styles from these exhibitions as well as poetry, photography, film, collage, and readymades. There were also several Dada Manifestos written (Bernard, 85). The Dadaists in Berlin did something the artists in Zurich were unaware of when they began working with photomontage technique. Using this style, they would assemble pieces of photographs, often in combination with other types of graphic material to convey a message. A large portion of their art was designed not to hang in a gallery but as posters, magazine covers, or illustrations to accompany ads. This gave their art a completely new conception as typographic elements, from newspaper clippings and headlines communicated a newfound style of authenticity and energy (Elger, 19). They deliberately calculated surprise, scandal, and shock, and often times protests ended in numerous arrests and magazines were often banned (Elger, 27).
“Dada means nothing. We want to change the world with nothing.” – Richard Huelsenbeck
Namely the principal pioneer of the Dada movement in New York was Marcel Duchamp, an artist straying from his original Cubist style of painting in 1912 (Rubin, 16). One of his more famous works included L.H.O.O.Q., his reproduction of Leonardo Da Vinci‘s Mona Lisa, which he altered with pencil, adding a mustache and beard to her well-known face. Though many viewed this as an attack on high art, the piece was in actuality a statement about Leonardo’s indistinct and seemingly androgynous life and artwork. However, there was also an underlying allusion to Duchamp’s own personal life and alter ego, Rose Selavy (Rubin, 19). The title L.H.O.O.Q. supposedly was decided upon because when said quickly in French, it sounds strangely similar to the French phrase “elle a chaud au cul,” or “she’s got hot pants.” (Hunter 171)
Another painter straying from his roots in cubism was Francis Picabia. He was visiting New York when he met Duchamp and brought a new variation to the “machinist style,” and to the Dada lifestyle itself (Rubin, 23). Picabia was overwhelmed with New York City and the architecture there. He and Duchamp began working together, his best work made from 1915 through 1917. One of his most famous pieces is The Matchwoman II, which is oil on canvas with a collage element behind it as her eyes are represented with hairpins and hair with matches. The painting also included zippers and coins, all of which were pasted to the surface of the painting (Rubin, 27). Picabia was the oldest in the Dada movement and left in 1921, saying he found it too controlled and systematic (Bernard, 87). He is best known as once saying, “All my life I have smoked painting.” (Rubin, 23).
“Dada talks with you, it is everything, it includes everything, it belongs to all religions, can be neither victory nor defeat, it lives in space and not in time.” – Francis Picabia
While the Dadaists believed in the women’s movement and supported it, they were obviously reluctant to include a woman among them as a fellow Dada artist. As the only acknowledged woman of the Dada group, Hannah Höch worked hard for respect from other Dadaists.
She was prevalent in the use of photomontage and much of her work focuses on the faults of the beauty culture and marriage. Höch was also known for her strong statements against racial and sexual discrimination. She had been introduced into the group by Raoul Hausmann in 1919 after graduating from College of Arts and Crafts in Berlin (Tashen, 42). Her most famous piece was a photomontage titled Cut with the Kitchen Knife, which epitomizes the Dada attitude towards the Great War: that it is maddening chaos (Rubin, 42).
Dada Divides Up
Though most of the Dadaists drew ideas from preconceived notions of symbols and icons found in art before their time- such as religion or mythology- the most common seen denominator was the idea of fantasy. This characteristic would also carry over to Surrealism, along with the element of sexuality. However, by the year 1924 Dadaism had broken up completely into smaller groups, the main being Surrealism. However, other movements attribute influence to the Dadaists as well, such as Pop Art, which is sometimes referred to as ‘Neo-Dada.’ An influence can also be attributed to Futurism, however, where Futurism promoted optimism; Dadaism replaced it with hostility and nihilism.
Through the years 1922 to 1924, Dadaism slowly began to fade as many of their most influential artists left the movement and turned to other ideas and styles. It lived longest in Paris until the end of the war, but lacked a clear focus or concrete goal (Elger, 27). At the Nazi Exhibition in 1937, where a collection of modern art that Hitler banned as being un-German was being displayed, the Dada works were thought to be the most degenerate of them all (Bernard, 87).
“What is generally termed reality is, to be precise, a frothy nothing.” – Hugo Ball
Bernard, Edina. Modern Art 1905-1945. Patrick White. Paris: Chambers Harrap Publishers ltd. 2004.
Egler, Dietmar. Dadaism. Uta Grosenick. Koln Germany: Taschen, 2004.
Hunter, Sam. Modern Art. Susan Sherman. New York: Henry N. Abrams Inc., 1985.
Rubin, William S. Dada, Surrealism, and their Heritage. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1967.