"DADA, as for it, it smells of nothing, it is nothing, nothing, nothing."
Dada was an artistic and literary movement that began in 1916 in Zurich, Switzerland. It arose as a reaction to World War I, and the nationalism, and rationalism, which many thought had brought war about. Influenced by ideas and innovations from several early avant-gardes -, , , and - 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 is believed to have dissipated with the arrival of in France.
Disgusted by the nationalism that had sped the course to war in 1914, the Dadaists were always opposed to authoritarianism, and to any form of group leadership or guiding ideology. Their interests lay primarily in rebelling against what they saw as cultural snobbery, bourgeois convention, and political support for the war. Dada events, including spontaneous readings, performances, and exhibitions, had been taking place for three years at Hugo Ball's Cabaret Voltaire before
Concepts and Styles
The cross-cultural possibilities of language were at the core of the movement's belief in freedom of expression: Hugo Ball, in his early Cabaret Voltaire readings of sound-poems, underscored this by deconstructing words into a series of guttural sounds meant to be universally comprehended. Likewise, visual artists such as, used abstract compositions made by chance to express patterns in nature which were expressive regardless of one's cultural background.
Overall, Dada artworks present an intriguing paradox 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. Like the Cubists, some Dadaists portrayed people and scenes representationally in order to analyze form and movement. Other artists, like, practiced abstraction to express the metaphysical essence of their subject matter. Both modes sought to deconstruct daily experience in challenging, rebellious ways. Key to understanding Dada works lies in reconciling the seemingly silly, slapdash styles with the stringent anti-war message. Tristan 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.
The Spread of Dada
The end of Dada in Zurich followed the Dada 4-5 event in April 1919 that ultimately caused a riot. Soon after this, Tristan Tzara traveled to Paris, where he met, and began formulating the theories that Breton would eventually call Surrealism. Dadaists did not mean to self-consciously declare micro-regional movements, but as it happened, 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 Berlin, Club Dada ran from 1918 to 1923, and included attendees such as artists , , , and . Closer to a war zone, the Berlin Dadaists made politically satirical paintings and collages that featured wartime imagery, government figures, and political cartoon clippings recontextualized into biting commentaries. In Hanover, the Merz group, including , made art that reflected inspiration from Constructivism. Schwitters' works in particular examines modernist preoccupations with shape and color. In Cologne, made breakthroughs in collage during his collaborations with . And in Paris, under the influence of figures such as and , the movement took on a more dandyish tone, before collapsing into internal infighting and ceding to .
As Arp, Ernst, and Tzara went to Paris, they were instrumental in bringing Dada interests in free expression and the deconstruction of both forms and conventional ideas to those who would become Surrealists. Dada's tradition of irrationality led directly to the Surrealist love for fantasy and expression of the imaginary. Artists such as Max Ernst are considered members of both Dada and Surrealism since their works acted as a catalyst in ushering in a new era of art based on the unconscious.
Duchamp and New York
provided a crucial creative link between the Zurich 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. Duchamp, along with , , and , had already been in New York as early as 1917, and Duchamp served as a critical interlocutor, bringing the notion of anti-art to New York. 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 completed in 1923) and is considered to be a major Dada milestone for its depiction of a strange, erotic drama using abstract, mechanical forms. Duchamp's disdain for bourgeois convention was shared by all members of Dada. Though he was not a Surrealist, he helped to curate exhibitions in New York that showcased both Dada and Surrealist works.
"Dada does not mean anything.. We read in the papers that the Negroes of the Kroo race call the tail of the sacred cow: dada. A cube, and a mother, in certain regions of Italy, are called: Dada. The word for a hobby-horse, a children's nurse, a double affirmative in Russian and Rumanian, is also: Dada."
- Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto
"Words emerge, shoulders of words, legs, arms, hands of words. Au, oi, uh. One shouldn't let too many words out. A line of poetry is a chance to get rid of all the filth that clings to this accursed language, as if put there by stockbrokers' hands, hands worn smooth by coins. I want the word where it ends and begins. Dada is the heart of words."
- Hugo Ball's manifesto, read at Zunfthaus zur Waag on July 14th, 1916
"We attempted perfection; we wanted an object to be without flaw, so we cut the papers with a razor, pasted them down meticulously, but it buckled and was ruined... that is why we decided to tear prewrinkled paper, so that in the finished work of art imperfection would be an integral part, as if at birth death were built in."
- Hans Arp from The Artist in his Studio by Alexander Liberman