Do you know what Dada means? That’s a trick question – it purposefully has no meaning. In the early 20th century a new, irrational and irreverent art movement needed a name to fit its philosophy, so, as the story goes, German artist Richard Huelsenbeck flicked through a dictionary and plunged a knife in randomly. It landed on the word “dada”, a colloquial French term for hobby horse – a word so arbitrary it was perfect.
In his 1918 Dada Manifesto, Tristan Tzara took things a step further, stating in emphatic capitals “DADA DOES NOT MEAN ANYTHING”. While the very lack of meaning of the word “Dada” indicates its preoccupation with the random and absurd, the name ‘Tristan Tzara’ speaks to the underlying motivation behind the movement. The Romanian artist chose the pseudonym ‘Tristan Tzara’, meaning ‘sad in a country’, in protest of the treatment of Jews in his homeland. For all its bizarre silliness, Dadaism was, from the outset, a politically-engaged movement. According to Tzara, it was born out of “disgust”; a reaction to the “culture of rationality” that gave the world capitalism and the bourgeoisie, and had ultimately led to the First World War that was raging at the time.
In rejecting the prevailing ideology, Dada rejected logic, reason and meaning. It was an art movement that even rejected art, or at least the accepted notion of art. Dada artists created “anti-art”; works that were adamantly not about aesthetics but were rather a vehicle for radical protest. As Tzara put it, “A work of art should not be beauty in itself, for beauty is dead”. Welcome to the birth of post-modernism.
It may seem strange that such a politically-charged movement was formed in the most politically-neutral country in Europe. But Switzerland is where this group of exiles sought refuge from military draughts and where Dadaism was born. They flocked to the back room of a tavern in a seedy part of Zurich, where, on 5 February 1916, German poet and playwright Hugo Ball founded the Cabaret Voltaire. This club was the anarchic epicentre of innovation, where wild performance art and the meaningless noise of ‘sound poems’ were performed, and where disruptive visual art was exhibited.
Cabaret Voltaire (1916) by Marcel Janco
Image source: http://www.dadawatch.com/
The painting Cabaret Voltaire (1916) by Dadaist Marcel Janco conveys the chaotic energy of a night at the club, while the style reveals the movement’s Cubist and Futurist roots. But most Dadaists wanted to move beyond these established styles, these “laboratories of formal ideas”, as Tzara called them. Much of the visual art associated with Dada rejects painting, and the simple act of creation. This was a movement preoccupied with destruction, after all they were working in the midst of one of mankind’s most destructive periods. Tzara’s manifesto asserts: “The new artist protests: he no longer paints (symbolic and illusionist reproduction) but creates directly in stone, wood, iron, tin, boulders…” You can see this ethos in action in the work of German artist Kurt Schwitters, who used the rubbish of everyday life in his collages and constructions. Revolving (1919) is made of scrap wood, cord, cardboard, wool, leather and wire mesh, ultimately turning this detritus into a harmonious work.
Revolving (1919) by Kurt Schwitters
Image source: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-schwitters-kurt-artworks.htm
The work of Hannah Hoch, one of the only women associated with Dada, was distinctly less harmonious. A pioneer of photomontage, Hoch cut images and text from mass-media, re-appropriating them for statements of political satire. Her best-known work from this period is Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany (1919). This snappy-titled piece is a direct criticism of the patriarchal Weimar republic and German military.
Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany (1919) by Hannah Hoch
Image source: https://www.artsy.net/artwork/hannah-hoch-cut-with-the-dada-kitchen-knife-through-the-last-weimar-beer-belly-cultural-epoch-in-germany
Some Dada works disregarded the act of creation entirely. Take Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), an upturned urinal signed ‘R.Mutt’; one of the most notorious (and arguably influential) works of the twentieth century. It’s part of his ‘readymades’ series, based on quintessentially Dada principles; Duchamp takes mass-produced items and elevates them to the status of art just because he chose them. Assumptions about what constitutes art are abandoned; beauty doesn’t factor here, creative talent is not on the table. Duchamp submitted Fountain to the first exhibition of The Society of Independent Artists in New York that year. It did not go down well. Despite the society’s claim to accept art from anyone who paid the nominal membership fee, the organisers were outraged by Duchamp’s indecent submission – as he recalled “the poor fellows couldn’t sleep for three days”. His submission may have been rejected by the establishment, but that didn’t impact its significance as one of the pieces that paved the way for conceptual art.
Fountain (1917) by Marcel Duchamp
Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fountain_(Duchamp)
From its origins in Switzerland, Dada swept across Europe and reached New York thanks to Man Ray, a young photographer and friend of Duchamp’s. But Dada could not survive there – as Man Ray wrote “All New York is dada, and will not tolerate a rival.” In fact, beyond Cabaret Voltaire, Dada was never really a coherent movement, and many of the artists we associate most with it would never have called themselves Dada disciples. Even as he tries to define the movement in his manifesto, Tzara recognises that its inherent disobedience will resist such constraints: “I speak only of myself since I do not wish to convince, I have no right to drag others into my river, I oblige no one to follow me and everybody practices his art in his own way”.
By 1922, this chaotic and anarchic force had dissolved, with key players moving on to Surrealism. But a fundamental shift had taken place; now the idea behind a work of art could be considered more important than the work itself. If we consider Dada as a state of mind, a need for art to provoke and disrupt, we see that its legacy endures. From Pop Art to Punk Rock, Dada sparked a rebellious spirit that has carried throughout contemporary culture.
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