Hugo Ball 1886 - 1927
Emmy Hennings 1919 - 1953
Tristan Tzara 1886 - 1963
Richard Huelsenbeck 1892 - 1974
Marcel Janco 1895 - 1984
Hans (Jean) Arp 1887 - 1966
Sophie Tauber-Arp 1889 - 1943
Hans Richter 1888 - 1976
Marcel Slodski 1892 - 1943
Francis Picabia 1879 - 1953
Kurt Schwitters 1887 - 1948
George Grosz 1893 - 1959
Otto Dix 1891 - 1969
John Heartfield 1891 - 1968
Max Ernst 1890 - 1976
Hannah Hoch 1889 - 1978
Dada was an art movement stimulated by the experience of many European artists in the First World War. The conflagration produced not only physical destruction but also a deep crisis at the psychological and aesthetic level of European thought. In artistic circles this led to a revolt against the norms of bourgeois culture in many centres of Europe but more especially in Switzerland, which became a haven for refugees and artists escaping the conflict.
The origins of the term Dada are not clear but disputed origins are that it arose as a random selection of words from a dictionary; the term was used to mean a hobbyhorse in French or a baby carriage in German. It has been said to derive from the Russian word 'yes' - Da - expressing an affirmation of life in a negative time and also from the profound and simple ‘da-da’ noise said by small children. Or, as Hans Arp was to report " I hereby declare that Tristan Tzara invented the word dada on 6 February 1916 at 6.pm - I was there with my twelve children, when Tzara first offered the word.....it happened in the Café de Terrace in Zurich, and I was wearing a brioche in my left nostril".
As Hans Arp stated
"Revolted by the butchery of the 1914 war, we in Zurich devoted ourselves to the arts; while the guns rumbled in the distance we sang, painted, made collages and wrote poems with all our might. We were seeking an art based on the fundamentals, to cure the madness of the age, and create a new order of things that would restore the balance between heaven and hell. We had a dim premonition that power mad gangsters would one day use art itself as a way of deadening men's minds"
or as Marcel Janco put it
" we had lost the hope that art would one day achieve its just place in our society; we were beside ourselves with rage and grief at the suffering and humiliation of mankind"
The initial focus for the artistic rebellion was 1 Spiegelgasse, in Zurich, a few doors up from the exiled Lenin, where Hugo Ball, a philosopher, thinker, novelist, journalist and mystic and Emmy Hennings formed The Cabaret Voltaire. Persuading the owner, a publican, that he would sell more beer, if he let the premises to them.
At the Cabaret Voltaire the Dadaists held Soirées similar to the performances of the Futurists. They performed plays, sang songs, read poems, whistled and shouted, each with his or her own brand of provocation. The resulting cacophony was sometimes elegiac, funny, or bizarre and through its brutal delivery became known as ‘Brutism’. Exhibitions of visual equivalents were also put on display. Major influences included the radical movements in art of Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism, as well as the influence of the examples from more distant sources such as Africa and Oceania.
However, the Dadaists were less programmatic than other movements of that time, they did not have a shared idea of the development of any style or formal theory, tapping instead into what they considered the primal emotional responses to the world. Dada has been said to be a state of mind.
‘Dada's only programme was to have no programme, and at that moment in history, it was just this that gave the movement its explosive power to unfold in all directions free of aesthetic and social constraints. This absolute freedom from preconceptions was something quite new...which might, and did, lead either to a new art - or to nothing’. -Hans Richter, Dadaist
Many of the works produced by the Dadaist were made using random or chance effects. Using the ideas of the cubists; "you can paint with whatever you like, with pipes, stamps, postcards, or even playing cards, candlesticks, waxed cloth, collars, painted paper, newspaper" (Apollinaire – ‘Meditations Aesthetiques’) Arp produced drawings arranged according to the laws of chance, by dropping collage material from a height and fixing them where they fell; Marcel Janco made poems from press cuttings or by cutting words out of a book and drawing them out of a hat. The only decision involved in such work was that of the artists deciding to let them be. In this way everything that comes into being or is made by man is art.
Art can be evil, boring, wild, sweet, dangerous, ugly or a feast for the eyes. Art could encompass the absurd, the fantastic, the marvellous, the irrational, chance and automatism using the methods of burlesque, parody and ridicule in a total rejection of religious beliefs, moral principles and a creative nihilism denying materialism and the aesthetics of art for arts sake - a programme of using art for revolution.
Other techniques involved automatic drawing in an attempt to create a rendezvous between the conscious and subconscious mind 'to produce new constellations of forms such as nature never stops producing' (Arp) working not at the level of copying nature but by working at the level of analogy rather than mimicry.
In March 1917 Cabaret Voltaire had to quit 1 Spiegelegasse because of public complaints and moved to a gallery in Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich, where it held larger exhibitions including the work of artists from other parts of Europe. Ball left Zurich and became a religious recluse in Ticino. Huelsenbeck returned to Berlin.
Through the magazine Dada edited by Tristan Tzara, Dada ideas spread to many other centres. In Berlin Huelsenbeck, Heartfield, Grosz, Hoch and Dix formed the Club Dada with an overtly political agenda utilising the technique of photomontage to great effect. Berlin Dada culminated in the first international Dada fair and published its own periodicals such as the Dada Almanac, Deadly Earnest (Der Blutige Ernst) and Everyman his own Football.
In Hanover, Schwitters created his own art movement called ‘Merz’, a term extracted from the centre of the word Kommerzbank on the German banknote. Schwitters created his own environments called Merzbau with ‘reliquaries’ including the urine, teeth, hair and ephemera of his friends. and made collages out of posters and timetables on railway stations.
In Cologne, Dada had a short flowering under the influence of Max Ernst and Jean Arp who put on an exhibition that had to be entered via the latrine of the local beer hall; in an attempt to create other forms of automatic drawing Max Ernst took rubbings from the floor in order 'to act on the intensification of the irritability of the mind'.
Eventually most of the Dada artists were drawn to Paris where they found the support of Andre Breton who organised an exhibition for them. Ready apostles were found in the person of Marcel Duchamp, perhaps the most influential conceptualist of the twentieth century, Man Ray, the argent provocateur Arthur Cravan who challenged the world heavy weight boxing champion Jack Johnson to a contest in Madrid on 23 April 1916 and was knocked out in the first round and Francis Picabia whose wife described his work as being utterly gratuitous, spontaneous and without programme or articles of faith. Picabia himself stated that art must be un-aesthetic in the extreme and impossible to justify.
Duchamp and Picabia also spread Dada to Spain and the United States when they became aligned with the Gallery 291 of Edward Steiglitz, publisher of ‘Camerawork’ and organiser of the first modern art show in America-The Armoury Show (so called because it was held in the Armoury of the 69th Infantry Regiment, Lexington Avenue NY) on 17 February 1913, which included work of the Cubists, Futurists, Expressionists and Duchamp's ‘Nude descending a Staircase’.
Duchamp invented another of Dada's most provocative art concepts, ‘The Ready Made’. As a parody to the French rationalist tradition of ‘I think therefore I am’, Duchamp with spectacular visual indifference speculated that artists make art, ‘I am an artist therefore everything I make is art’. In effect, as a development of the French term: ‘objet trouve’ of cubism, he simply placed objects in a gallery situation and asked the audience to see them, as art e.g. ‘Fountain’. If in so doing he altered the object at all it was termed a ready-made aided e.g. see Mona Lisa with L.H.O.O.Q. Reciprocal ‘ready-mades’ consisted of using an object for a different purpose e.g. by using a Rembrandt as an ironing board. According to Duchamp because pigment is manufactured and therefore ‘ready-made, all paintings are ready-mades?
By 1924 the impetus for Dada had either died out or developed into the more programmatic Surrealism. This was to be propagated by Andre Breton in Paris. However, many of the working practices and ideas as well as the deep questioning of the nature and function of the work of art of the Dadaists re-appeared in the 1950’s in the ‘Neo-Dada’ work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg and the movement known as Fluxus and the spirit is still present in Conceptual Art, Performance Art, Installation and ‘new media’ art forms as well as in Young British Art from the late 20th Century.