What is Dada? Learn about the 20th century art movement

Photo: Theo van Doesburg (Public domain)

Art has existed since the dawn of time, but it has undergone many changes. Different artistic movements have emerged over the millennia, and with them they have brought inspiring artists that we celebrate years later. A fairly recent style has been dadaism. Dada was a 20th-century avant-garde art movement (often referred to as an “anti-art” movement) born out of the tumultuous societal landscape and turmoil of World War I. It began as a vehement reaction and revolt against the horrors of war and the hypocrisy and follies of bourgeois society that had led to it. In a subversion of all aspects of Western civilization (including its art), the ideals of Dada rejected all logic, reason, rationality and order, all considered pillars of a evolved and advanced society since the time of the Lights.

Dada proponents instead embraced absurdity, chaos, nonsense, and blind chance – attributes they believed offered a truer representation of a society that could engage in what they saw as the senseless carnage and destruction of the First World War. As one of the first adherents of Dada, the Franco-Romanian poet Tristan Tzara said, “The beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of art, but of disgust.”

The Birth of Dada and Cabaret Voltaire

During World War I, a number of anti-war intellectuals, writers and artists fled to neutral Switzerland. It was there, in Zurich, that many of them met during their voluntary exile and started the ball rolling for Dadaism. In 1916, the German writer Hugo Ball-generally dubbed the founder of Dada- opened the Cabaret Voltaire with his companion and Dadaist comrade Emmy Hemmings.

Dada Club Cabaret Voltaire

Inauguration of the Cabaret Voltaire exhibition (Photo: author unknown [Public domain])

The venue was a somewhat satirical cross between a nightclub and an arts hub where Dadaists congregated to display their artwork and perform experimental music, poetry, dance and other nonsense. Marcel Janco, another original supporter of Dadaism says: “We had lost confidence in our culture. Everything had to be demolished. We would start again after the tabula rasa. At the Cabaret Voltaire, we began by upsetting common sense, public opinion, education, institutions, museums, good taste, in short, the whole order in force.

Why is it called hobby?

As for how the movement got its unusual name, there are several different explanations for how it happened. The most popular version of the story fits quite well with the overall essence of Dada. He alleges the name was chosen by Hugo Ball and Richard Huelsenbeck when they randomly stabbed a knife through a French-German dictionary and landed on the word, which they thought was appropriate. Tristan Tzara later claimed that he coined the term. Some think it was just a nonsense word, chosen for its resemblance to a child’s first unconscious babbling.

“Dada is ‘oui, oui’ in Romanian, ‘rocking horse’ and ‘hobby horse’ in French,” Ball wrote. “For the Germans, this is a sign of stupid naivety, joy of procreation and concern for the pram.” Either way, it didn’t really need to make much sense.

As Dadaism developed, it spread across Europe and even to America. Many of its original members left Zurich and traveled to other cities such as Paris, Berlin and New York, taking with them their own versions of Dada ideals and philosophies. From then on, with each new location, the movement took on a different hue, becoming politicized in some regions while leaning more towards its anti-art aspects in others.

Dada artists and their works that characterized the movement

Hugo Ball

Dada artist Hugo Ball recites sound poetry

Left: Dada artist Hugo Ball recites sound poetry at Cabaret Voltaire (Photo: author unknown [Public domain]), right: his first sound poem, titled “Karawane” (Photo: user Albrecht Conz on de.wikipedia [Public domain])

The same year he opened the Cabaret Voltaire, Ball also wrote the first Dadaist Manifesto. In it, he stated what seemed to be the impetus behind much of his work: “I will read poems that are meant to dispense with conventional language, nothing less, and be done with it. . . I don’t want words that others have invented. . . I want my own stuff, my own rhythm, and also vowels and consonants, matching the rhythm and all mine.

It will serve to show how articulated language was born. I let the vowels have fun. . . The words emerge, the shoulders of the words, the legs, the arms, the hands of the words. Au, oh, uh. Do not let too many words out. A verse is a chance to get rid of all the grime that clings to that cursed tongue, like the hands of stockbrokers, hands smoothed by coins. I want the word where it ends and begins. Dada is the heart of words.

This new form of poetic articulation he described was called sound poetry, and it was his main means of Dadaist expression. He performed the first and best known of them – called “Karawane” – at the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916.

Tristan Tzara

Portrait of the Dada poet Tristan Tzara

“Portrait of Tristan Tzara” by Robert Delaunay (Photo: Wikimedia Commons [Public domain])

Tzara was also a poet, but his methods were quite different from those of Hugo Ball. Instead of deconstructing individual words, he sought to overturn conventional rules of grammar and leave his poetic constructions to chance. In 1920, he wrote instructions describing his technique:

Take a newspaper.
Take scissors.
Choose from this article an article of the length you want your poem to be.
Cut out the item.
Then carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Then take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy carefully in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will look like you.
And here is an infinitely original author, with a charming sensibility, although little appreciated by the vulgar.

John (Hans) Arp

Hans Arp.  Untitled collage with squares arranged according to the laws of chance 1916-17

John (Hans) Arp | Rectangles arranged according to the laws of chance, 1917

John Arpe helped establish a Dadaist group in Cologne, Germany. Although not as deeply rooted in Dadaism as some of his counterparts, he was one of the first artists to incorporate chance and chance as a collaborator in his works. In one of his first “random collageshe tore pieces of paper into rough shapes, then laid them on a larger sheet of paper, gluing them in place wherever they fell.

Raoul Hausman

Hausmann, Mechanical Leader (Spirit of Our Age)

Raoul Hausmann | Clockwork Head (The Spirit of Our Time), 1920

Raoul Hausman was a poet, performance artist and also worked in collage. However, his most famous work is a sculpture titled Clockwork Head (The Spirit of Our Time). It consists of a solid wooden mannequin head, on which are fixed various instruments and found objects. This piece is an iconic representation and physical embodiment of Dadaist ideals, undermining the claim that the head is the source of reason and logic. By contrast, Hausemann argued that the man’s head is empty, “with no more abilities than chance has stuck to the outside of his skull”.

Hannah Hoch

Hannah Höch, Cutting with the Dada Kitchen Knife through Germany's Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Era, 1919-20

Hannah Hoch | Cutting with the Dada kitchen knife through the last German cultural era of Weimar Beer-Belly, 1920

Hannah Hoch was one of the few active women in the Dada movement and one of the pioneers of the technique of photomontage and collage. His works were more serious on many levels than those of most other Dadaists. Dealing with themes of feminism and womanhood, her collages often go to the heart of the hypocrisy and oppression of women in modern society.

Marcel Duchamp

Fountain Dada Readymade Sculpture by Marcel Duchamp

“Fountain” by Marcel Duchamp (Photo: Wikimedia Commons [Public domain])

Perhaps one of the most ubiquitous artists of the Dada movement, Marcel Duchamp challenged the very notion of what can be considered art. His most famous work – arguably one of the most iconic works of art of the 20th century – is his 1917 sculpture titled Fountain. The piece is a urinal he found, turned on its side, and signed under the pseudonym “R. Cabot.” Why did he sign it under a pseudonym? Well, that’s a much bigger story long.

This piece was what Duchamp called a “ready to use– a common manufactured object that he would sign, date and exhibit in a gallery, thus declaring it a work of art. In doing so, he raised many concepts that challenged long-held views of what constitutes art. Duchamp’s larger goal was to move away from what he called “retinal” art, or art made for the eye, towards a new form of art created for the mind.

What happened to Dada?

The Dada movement was intended to be short-lived, appearing to have programmed its own self-destruct button from its conception. “Dada is anti-Dada” was even one of the group’s most used mantras. In the early 1920s, Dadaism slowly died out as its main players dispersed across the world and moved on to other pursuits. However, despite its brief trajectory, Dada marked a pivotal and pivotal moment in 20th century art and culture, and its enduring influence is still noticeable in many styles and artistic movements that followed, long after its own rapid demise. .

What happened to Dadaism?

Artist: Theo van Doesburg (Photo: Wikimedia Commons [Public domain])

Several Dada artists themselves became founding members of other art movements that quickly followed in its footsteps, the best known being Surrealism. Dadaism also had a huge influence in other areas, including Pop Art and Neo-Dada, beginning in the 1950s and 1960s. In addition to this, Duchamp’s work and philosophies regarding what can be considered as art served to forge a new path for conceptual art. In fact, many modern and contemporary art movements that we study and appreciate today have their roots in Dada. As said by André Breton, another artist associated with Dada, as he approached the end of his life, “Basically, since Dada, we haven’t done anything.”

Dada’s influence can even be seen outside of the visual arts. Many critics have associated his influence with the birth of 70s rock music and the punk movements that followed later. Others have acknowledged the groundwork that Dadaist visuals could have laid for much of today’s Internet visual culture, especially memes.

Although this anti-art and art rebellion took place around 100 years ago, it is still incredibly relevant. Perhaps more now than it has been in quite a while.

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Christopher S. Washington