Dada Movement and Chronology

"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 - Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, and Expressionism - 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 Surrealist in France.


Dada was born out of a pool of avant-garde painters, poets and filmmakers who flocked to neutral Switzerland before and during WWI.
The movement came into being at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in February 1916. The Cabaret was named after the eighteenth century French satirist, Voltaire, whose play Candide mocked the idiocies of his society. As Hugo Ball, one of the founders of Zurich Dada wrote, "This is our Candide against the times."
So intent were members of Dada on opposing all the norms of bourgeois culture that the group was barely in favor of itself: "Dada is anti-Dada," they often cried.
Dada art varies so widely that it is hard to speak of a coherent style. It was powerfully influenced by Futurist and Expressionist concerns with technological advancement, yet artists like Hans Arp also introduced a preoccupation with chance and other painterly conventions.

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Untitled (Squares Arranged according to the Laws of Chance) (1917)
Artist: Jean (Hans) Arp
Hans Arp made a series of collages based on chance, where he would stand above a sheet of paper, dropping squares of contrasting colored paper on the larger sheet's surface, and then gluing the squares wherever they fell onto the page. The art could then provoke a more visceral reaction, like fortune telling from I-Ching coins, which Arp was interested in. Apparently, this technique arose when Arp became frustrated by attempts to compose more formal geometric arrangements, (Gale, p.63). Arp's chance collages have come to represent Dada's aim to be "anti-art."
Cut-and-pasted colored paper - Museum of Modern Art, New York
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Dada Beginnings

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 Tristan Tzara claimed to have invented the word Dada, in his Dada Manifesto of 1918. Various explanations have been floated for the name of the group, but the most common is that put forward by co-founder Richard Huelsenbeck, who said that he found the name by plunging a knife at random into a dictionary. It is a colloquial French term for a hobbyhorse, yet it also echoes the first words of a child, and these suggestions of childishness and absurdity appealed to the group, who were keen to put a distance between themselves and the sobriety of conventional society. It also appealed to them because it might mean the same (and nothing) in all languages - as the group was avowedly internationalist.


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 Hans Arp, 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 Kurt Schwitters, 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 André Breton, 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 Johannes Baader, George Grosz, Hannah Höch, and Raoul Hausmann. 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 Kurt Schwitters, made art that reflected inspiration from Constructivism. Schwitters' works in particular examines modernist preoccupations with shape and color. In Cologne, Hans Arp made breakthroughs in collage during his collaborations with Max Ernst. And in Paris, under the influence of figures such as Francis Picabia and Tzara, the movement took on a more dandyish tone, before collapsing into internal infighting and ceding to Surrealism.

Further Developments

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

Marcel Duchamp 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 Picabia, Man Ray, and Guillaume Apollinaire, 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.

Original content written by Justin Wolf
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comment to editor


"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


The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
Dada: Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, Paris

By Dorothea Dietrich, Brigid Doherty, Sabine Kriebel, Leah Dickerman

The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology, Second Edition (Paperbacks in Art History)

By Robert Motherwell

Dada: Art and Anti-Art (World of Art)

By Hans Richter

Dada & Surrealism (Art and Ideas)

By Matthew Gale

National Gallery of Art Dada Archive

International Dada Archive

Project by The University of Iowa Libraries

From Dada to Surrealism - Review

By Phillippe Dagen
The Guardian Weekly (UK)
July 19, 2011

No Nonsense about Dada - Review of MoMA Exhibition

By Clare Hurley
World Socialist Web Site
September 18, 2006

Our Art Belongs to Dada

By Martin Filler
March/April 2006

After Almost a Century, is Dada Still Among Us?

By Alan Riding
The New York Times
October 13, 2005


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Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Cubism
Futurism was the most influential Italian avant-garde movement of the twentieth century. Dedicated to the modern age, it celebrated speed, movement, machinery and violence. At first influenced by Neo-Impressionism, and later by Cubism, some of its members were also drawn to mass culture and nontraditional forms of art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Futurism
Russian Constructivism emerged with the Revolution of 1917 and sought a new approach to making objects, one which abolished the traditional concern with composition and replaced it with 'construction,' which called for a new attention to the technical character of materials. It was hoped that these inquiries would yield ideas for mass production. The movement was an important influence on geometric abstraction.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Constructivism
Expressionism is a broad term for a host of movements in early twentieth-century Germany, from Die Brücke (1905) and Der Blaue Reiter (1911) to the early Neue Sachlichkeit painters in the 1920s and '30s. Many German Expressionists used vivid colors and abstracted forms to create spiritually or psychologically intense works, while others focused on depictions of war, alienation, and the modern city.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Expressionism
Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Surrealism
Hugo Ball
Hugo Ball
Hugo Ball was a German-born author, poet and artist who is credited with leading the Dada movement in Zurich. In 1916, Ball penned the Dada Manifesto, in which he claimed that he coined the term 'Dada' by randomly choosing the word from the dictionary.

Modern Art Information Hugo Ball
Hans Arp
Hans Arp
Hans Arp (also known as Jean Arp) was a German-French artist who incorporated chance, randomness, and organic forms into his sculptures, paintings, and collages. He was involved with Zurich Dada, Surrealism, and the Abstraction-Creation movement.

Modern Art Information Hans Arp
Tristan Tzara
Tristan Tzara
Tristan Tzara was a Romanian and French poet, playwright, and avant-garde performer who played a key role in early Zurich Dada. A proponent of pure automatic techniques, he had an at-times contentious relationship with the Dada's Surrealist direction in Paris.

Modern Art Information Tristan Tzara
Richard Huelsenbeck
Richard Huelsenbeck
Richard Huelsenbeck was a German poet, writer and musician. He was a founding member of the Berlin Dada group and was the editor of the Dada Almanach. When he later moved to New York City, he practiced Jungian psychoanalysis under the name Charles R. Hulbeck.

Modern Art Information Richard Huelsenbeck
Kurt Schwitters
Kurt Schwitters
Kurt Schwitters was a German multi-media artist who was particularly influential in the development of the Dada and Constructivist movements. By the 1920s, Schwitters was heavily involved in the international avant-garde, touring the world with artists like Hans Arp and Tristan Tzara. These travels earned him wide acclaim in the U.S. and scrutiny in his native Germany, which would soon come under the control of the Third Reich.

Modern Art Information Kurt Schwitters
André Breton
André Breton
André Breton, author of the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, was an influential theorizer of both Dada and Surrealism. Born in France, he emigrated to New York during World War II, where he greatly influenced the Abstract Expressionists.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information André Breton
Johannes Baader
Johannes Baader
Johannes Baader was a German writer and artist associated with the Dada movement in Berlin. Baader gave public performances wherein he decried the clergy, laity and politicians, which resulted in his brief arrest. In several of his works, he wryly declared himself the president of the universe.

Modern Art Information Johannes Baader
George Grosz
George Grosz
George Grosz was a German Dada and Neue Sachlichkeit artist. He was enamored of America and highly critical of Weimar society. Grosz immigrated to the United States just as Hitler came to power and opened a private art school in Des Moines.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information George Grosz
Hannah Hoch
Hannah Hoch
Hannah Hoch was a German-born Dada artist. She and Raoul Hausmann were among the first artists to work in photomontage. Hoch is most famous for her works dating from the Weimar years, most notably 1919's 'Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany,' which critiqued Weimar Germany.

Modern Art Information Hannah Hoch
Raoul Hausmann
Raoul Hausmann
Raoul Hausmann was an Austrian artist and writer. He was a key figure in the Berlin Dada movement and on January 22, 1918 delivered his 'First Dada Speech in Germany.' Hausmann and Hannah Hoch were among the first artists to work in photomontage.

Modern Art Information Raoul Hausmann
Max Ernst
Max Ernst
Max Ernst was a German Dadaist and Surrealist whose paintings and collages combine dream-like realism, automatic techniques, and eerie subject matter.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Max Ernst
Francis Picabia
Francis Picabia
Francis Picabia was a French artist who worked in Dada, Surrealist, and abstract modes, often employing language and mechanical imagery. He published the Dada journal 391 in Barcelona and America.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Francis Picabia
Marcel Duchamp
Marcel Duchamp
The French artist Marcel Duchamp was an instrumental figure in the avant-garde art worlds of Paris and New York. Moving through Dada, Surrealism, readymades, sculpture, and installation, his work involves conceptual play and an implicit attack on bourgeois art sensibilities.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Marcel Duchamp
Man Ray
Man Ray
Man Ray was an American artist in Paris whose photograms, objects, drawings, and other works played an important role in Dada, Surrealism, modern photography, and avant-garde art at large.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Man Ray
Guillaume Apollinaire
Guillaume Apollinaire
Guillaume Apollinaire was a French writer and art critic who in the early twentieth century was a member of the avant-garde group of artists based in the Montparnasse community of Paris, which included Picasso, André Breton and Henri Rousseau. He is credited with coining the term "Surrealism."

Modern Art Information Guillaume Apollinaire
Untitled (Squares Arranged according to the Laws of Chance)
Untitled (Squares Arranged according to the Laws of Chance)

Title: Untitled (Squares Arranged according to the Laws of Chance) (1917)

Artist: Jean (Hans) Arp

Artwork Description & Analysis: Hans Arp made a series of collages based on chance, where he would stand above a sheet of paper, dropping squares of contrasting colored paper on the larger sheet's surface, and then gluing the squares wherever they fell onto the page. The art could then provoke a more visceral reaction, like fortune telling from I-Ching coins, which Arp was interested in. Apparently, this technique arose when Arp became frustrated by attempts to compose more formal geometric arrangements, (Gale, p.63). Arp's chance collages have come to represent Dada's aim to be "anti-art."

Cut-and-pasted colored paper - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Performing at Cabaret Voltaire
Performing at Cabaret Voltaire

Title: Performing at Cabaret Voltaire (1916)

Artist: Hugo Ball

Artwork Description & Analysis: Ball designed this costume for his performance of the sound-poem, "Karawane," in which nonsensical syllables uttered in patterns created rhythm and emotion that could be universally understood. Words that become increasingly stressed during vowel sequences Ball likened to elephants "plodding" along. Ball said of this costume: "My legs were in a cylinder of shiny blue cardboard, which came up to my hips so that I looked like an obelisk. Over it I wore a huge coat cut out of cardboard, scarlet inside and gold outside. It was fastened at the neck in such a way that I could give the impression of winglike movement by raising and lowering my elbows. I also wore a high, blue-and-white-striped witch doctor's hat.." (Gale, p.53).

Photograph - Kunsthaus Zurich (reproduction of original photograph)

The Gramineous Bicycle
The Gramineous Bicycle

Title: The Gramineous Bicycle (1921)

Artist: Max Ernst

Artwork Description & Analysis: Max Ernst and his early collaborator Hans Arp were responsible for bringing Dada to Paris, where Surrealism would later take hold. The Gramineous Bicycle is an example of an early collage, in which Ernst overpainted a botanical chart into abstracted elements. His work, which would become increasingly dream-like, often dealt with the deconstructed human body. In this painted collage, Ernst transformed plant illustrations into biomorphic forms that seem both human and foreign. Collages such as this were precursors to his Surrealist works.

Gouache and ink on botanical chart with ink inscription - National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Cut with a Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany
Cut with a Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany

Title: Cut with a Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany (1919)

Artist: Hannah Höch

Artwork Description & Analysis: Hannah Höch is known for her collages composed from newspaper and magazine clippings, sketches and texts pulled from her journals. As part of Club Dada in Berlin, Höch unabashedly critiqued culture by literally slicing it apart and reassembling it into vivid, disjointed, emotional depictions of modern life. In Cut with a Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany, Höch pits human against machine. The title refers to the decadence of pre-war German culture, metaphorically criticizing humankind's lack of humanity.

Cut paper collage - National Gallery, State Museum of Berlin

Merzpicture 46A. The Skittle Picture
Merzpicture 46A. The Skittle Picture

Title: Merzpicture 46A. The Skittle Picture (1921)

Artist: Kurt Schwitters

Artwork Description & Analysis: Merzpicture 46A. The Skittle Picture is an early example of assemblage, made just six years after Duchamp's Large Glass. It has a similar sensibility, owing to Schwitters' use of materials and for his investigation of abstracted form to represent expressions of human thought. "Merz," is a nonsensical word, like Dada, but to Schwitters was a word that represented the world's essence. In his Merzpictures, which have been called "psychological collages," he arranged found objects in simple compositions that invited interpretation.

Assemblage of wood, oil, metal, board on board, with artist's frame - National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Dada 6 (Bulletin Dada)
Dada 6 (Bulletin Dada)

Title: Dada 6 (Bulletin Dada) (1920)

Artist: Tristan Tzara

Artwork Description & Analysis: Dada in Zurich was heavily based on performance and printed matter, as can still be seen in the Dada Bulletins that exist in various library archives. In these magazines, for which Tristan Tzara served as editor, poetry and experimental typography was printed to document live happenings. Program bills for events, flyers, posters, and advertisements were also popular amongst Dadaists for disseminating information to the local public.

Printed Matter - Art Institute of Chicago

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.