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Hugo Ball

German-Swiss Performance Artist

Movement: Dada

Born: February 22, 1886 - Pirmasens, Germany

Died: September 14, 1927 - Sant'Abbondio, Switzerland

Hugo Ball Timeline

"Every word that is spoken and sung here [the Cabaret Voltaire] represents at least this one thing: that this humiliating age has not succeeded in winning our respect."


Hugo Ball's major contribution as leader and co-founder along with his girlfriend, cabaret performer, Emmy Hennings, of the Dada movement, was to articulate the collective's radical nihilistic and iconoclastic ideology. It was this first group in Zurich that spawned important international offshoots in Paris, Berlin, and New York. In their First Dadaist Manifesto, written by Ball in 1916, the early Dadaists who met at the Cabaret Voltaire explained how their new movement was a direct revolt against the prevailing bourgeois aesthetic and social values of the West and against society's glorification of war and violence.

Ball's sound poems such as Karawane (1916) and Katzen and Pfauen (1916) exemplified Dada's ironic, nonsensical, and playful yet deadly serious critique of Western culture. A prolific writer and well-educated in German history, philosophy, and literature, Ball also drafted a number of other experimental writings, including a novel, an extensive diary, and several scholarly works.

By 1920, Ball returned to the Catholicism of his early life and immersed himself in the mysticism of early medieval Christian saints. He retired with Hennings to a tiny Swiss village, Agnuzzo, where he began the process of revising his diaries from 1910 to 1921, which were later published under the title, Die Flucht aus der Zeit (Flight Out of Time). The diaries provide a wealth of information concerning the people and events of the Zurich Dada movement. Ball died quite young, at age 41 in 1927, poor, a religious zealot, in self-imposed isolation and all but forgotten. He had become the epitome of the Dadaists as he once described them: a person "still so convinced of the unity of all beings, of the totality of all things, that he suffers from the dissonances."

Key Ideas

In keeping with the deliberately contradictory aspect of Dada - to be playful and deadly serious at once - Ball explained the source of the name of the movement, writing, "Dada comes from the dictionary. It is terribly simple. In French, it means 'hobby horse.' In German, it means 'Goodbye,' 'Get off my back,' 'Be seeing you sometime.' In Romanian: 'Yes, indeed, you are right, that's it. But, of course, yes definitely right.' And so forth." And at the same time, he insisted that Dada was also intended to challenge its audience's firmly held beliefs about the state of the world - in particular the chaos and bloodshed of the First World War.
While Ball and the Cabaret Voltaire were essential to the founding of the Dada movement, by 1917, the momentum of the previous year began to wane. Artists moved on. The next stop for many was the Galerie Dada at Bahnhofstrasse 19 in Zurich. Major Dadaist groups developed in Berlin, Paris, and eventually New York City, all of which endured for much longer than had the original group based at the Cabaret Voltaire. But Ball, Hennings, Tzara and others had inspired the revolution - although the ways in which individual artists and groups interpreted and carried out the aims of Dada varied wildly.
The aesthetic of Ball's poems and costumes was always secondary to the essential ideas they conveyed. The visual artists in the movement, like Ball, embraced the use of unconventional materials like cardboard from which he constructed his outrageous costume for his performance of Karawane. "For us," he wrote, "art is not an end in itself, but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in." Thus, a hastily fabricated cardboard costume in which he resembled an eccentric cleric while reciting a provocatively nonsensical sound poem - and the poem itself - were vehicles for achieving a larger aim: to dismantle language, particularly as it pertained to imperialism, patriotism, and war.

Most Important Art

Hugo Ball Famous Art

The Cabaret Voltaire, Zurich, Switzerland (1916)

Hugo Ball met cabaret singer, Emmy Hennings in Munich in the middle of 1915. Together they fled to Zurich to avoid the turmoil of war. In February 1916, the couple opened the Cabaret Voltaire where Dada was born. There Ball organized and promoted Dada events, including performances in which he participated - most often reciting his sound poems. Other founding members of the original Zurich group were Tristan Tzara, Richard Huelsenbeck, Marcel Janco, Sophie Tauber, and Hans Arp.

Technically a nightclub, the Cabaret Voltaire was a lively hub where the artistic and political activity of the anarchic Dada movement could be freely undertaken. It was, in essence, a living example of the Dada Manifesto, which Ball drafted and read aloud at the first public Dada soiree on July 14, 1916. As the leader of the group, Ball articulated their philosophy to destroy and clear away the refuse of "the rationalized language of modernity," which for them was emblematic of the "agony and death throes of [the] age."

Most often, the Cabaret Voltaire offered music, dance, and spoken word performances and the events could be quite raucous and chaotic with audience members just as often baffled as intellectually invigorated. The spectacle was intentionally brutal and perplexing as the artists attempted to mirror the turmoil of the day.

A site for radical artistic experimentation, the Cabaret Voltaire did not limit participation by non-Dada artists and avant-garde notables such as Filippo Tommaso Marinetti of the Italian Futurist group, Wassily Kandinsky, Giorgio di Chirico, and Paul Klee, among others, were contributors to the scene. German painter, Hans Richter, described the nightclub very imaginatively, writing: "The Cabaret Voltaire was a six-piece band. Each played his own instrument, i.e. himself." Arp described an average night at the gathering spot as "total pandemonium." He recalled, "The people around us are shouting, laughing, and gesticulating. Our replies are sighs of love, volleys of hiccups, poems, moos, and miaowing of medieval Brutists." Whether Tzara was writhing erotically to the music of Janco's invisible violin while Hennings performed acrobatics in the guise of the Madonna, an average night at the Cabaret Voltaire provided attendees and participants with an unforgettable experience.
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