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Dada or Dadaism is a cultural movement that began in neutral Z?rich, Switzerland during World War I and peaked from 1916 to 1920. The movement primarily involved visual arts, literature (mainly poetry), theatre, and graphic design, and was characterized by absurdism, nihilism, deliberate irrationality, disillusionment, cynicism, chance, randomness, and the rejection of the prevailing standards in art.


Dada activities included public gatherings, demonstrations, and publication of art/literary journals. Passionate coverage of art, politics and culture filled their publications. The movement was a protest against the barbarism of World War I, the bourgeois interests that Dada adherents believed inspired the war, and what they believed was an oppressive intellectual rigidity in both art and everyday society. The movement influenced later styles, movements and groups including surrealism, Pop Art and Fluxus. Dada was an international movement, and it is difficult to classify artists as being from one country or another, as they were constantly moving from one place to another.

What is Dada?

According to its proponents, Dada was not art—it was "anti-art". For everything that art stood for, Dada was to represent the opposite. Where art was concerned with aesthetics, Dada ignored aesthetics. If art were to have at least an implicit or latent message, Dada strove to have no meaning — interpretation of Dada is dependent entirely on the viewer. If art is to appeal to sensibilities, Dada is to offend. It is perhaps then ironic that Dada became an influential movement in modern art. Dada became a commentary on order and carnage they believed it reaped. Through this rejection of traditional culture and aesthetics they hoped to destroy traditional culture and aesthetics. According to Tristan Tzara, "God and my toothbrush are Dada, and New Yorkers can be Dada too, if they are not already." A reviewer from the American Art News stated that "The Dada philosophy is the sickest, most paralyzing and most destructive thing that has ever originated from the brain of man." Art historians have described Dada as being "in reaction to what many of the artists saw as nothing more than an insane spectacle of collective homicide." Years later, Dada artists described the movement as "a phenomenon bursting forth in the midst of the post-war economic and moral crisis, a savior, a monster, which would lay waste to everything in its path. [It was] a systematic work of destruction and demoralization...In the end it became nothing but an act of sacrilege." Dada was "a revolt against a world that was capable of unspeakable horrors." Reason and logic had led people into the horrors of war; the only route to salvation was to reject logic and embrace anarchy and the irrational.



In 1916, Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp, Richard Huelsenbeck, Sophie T?uber&mdash,—along with others discussed art and put on performances in the Cabaret Voltaire expressing their disgust with the war and the interests that inspired it. By some accounts Dada coalesced on October 6 at the cabaret. At the first public soiree at the cabaret on July 14, 1916, Ball recited the first manifesto (see text). Tzara, in 1918, wrote a Dada manifesto considered one of the most important of the Dada writings. Other manifestos followed. Marcel Janco recalled, We had lost confidence in our culture. Everything had to be demolished. We would begin again after the "tabula rasa". At the Cabaret Voltaire we began by shocking common sense, public opinion, education, institutions, museums, good taste, in short, the whole prevailing order. A single issue of Cabaret Voltaire was the first publication to come out of the movement. After the cabaret closed down, activities moved to a new gallery, and Ball left Europe. Tzara began a relentless campaign to spread Dada ideas. He bombarded French and Italian artists and writers with letters, and soon emerged as the Dada leader and master strategist. The Cabaret Voltaire has by now re-opened, and it's still in the same place in the Niederdorf. Z?rich Dada, with Tzara at the helm, published the art and literature review Dada beginning in July 1917, with five editions from Z?rich and the final two from Paris. When World War I ended in 1918, most of the Z?rich Dadaists returned to their home countries, and some began Dada activities in other cities.

Origin of the word Dada

The origin of the name Dada is unclear. Some believe that it is a nonsensical word. Others maintain that it originates from the Romanian artists Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco's frequent use of the words da, da, meaning yes, yes in the Romanian language. Others believe that a group of artists assembled in Z?rich in 1916, wanting a name for their new movement, chose it at random by stabbing a French-German dictionary with a paper knife, and picking the name that the point landed upon. Dada in French is a child's word for hobby-horse. In French the colloquialism, c'est mon dada, means it's my hobby. According to the Dada ideal, the movement would not be called Dadaism, much less designated an art movement.


The groups in Germany were not as strongly anti-art as other groups. Their activity and art was more political and social, with corrosive manifestos and propaganda, biting satire, large public demonstrations and overt political activities. In February 1918, Richard Huelsenbeck gave his first Dada speech in Berlin, and produced a Dada manifesto later in the year. Hannah H?ch and George Grosz used Dada to express post-World War I communist sympathies. Grosz, together with John Heartfield, developed the technique of photomontage during this period. The artists published a series of short-lived political journals, and held an International Dada Fair in 1920. The Berlin group saw much in-fighting; Kurt Schwitters and others were excluded from the group. Schwitters moved to Hanover where he developed his individual type of Dada, which he dubbed Merz. The Berlin group published periodicals such as Club Dada, Der Dada, Everyman His Own Football (Jedermann sein eigner Fussball), and Dada Almanach.


In Cologne (K?ln), Max Ernst, Johannes Theodor Baargeld and Arp launched a controversial Dada exhibition in 1920 which focused on nonsense and anti-bourgeois sentiments.

New York

Like Z?rich, New York was a refuge for writers and artists from World War I. Soon after arriving from France, Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia met American artist Man Ray after arriving only days apart in June of 1915. By 1916 the three of them became the center of radical anti-art activities in the United States. American Beatrice Wood, who had been studying in France, soon joined them. Much of their activity centered in Alfred Stieglitz's gallery, 291, and the studio of Walter and Louise Arensberg. The New Yorkers did not label themselves Dada, nor did they issue manifestos or organize riotous events. However, they issued challenges to art and culture through publications such as The Blind Man, Rongwrong, and New York Dada in which they criticized the traditionalist basis for museum art. New York Dada lacked the disillusionment of European Dada. New York Dada was driven by a sense of irony and humor. During this time Duchamp began exhibiting readymades (found objects) such as a bottle rack, and got involved with the Society of Independent Artists. In 1917 he submitted his famous Fountain, a urinal signed R. Mutt, to the Society of Independent Artists show only to have the piece rejected. First an object of scorn within the arts community, it has since been canonized, ironically, and often considered a watershed work of modern art; the committee presiding over Britain's prestigious Turner Prize in 2004, for example, called it "the most influential work of modern art.""Duchamp's urinal tops art survey" Picabia's travels tied New York, Z?rich and Paris groups together. For seven years he also published the Dada periodical 391 in Barcelona, New York City, Z?rich, and Paris from 1917 through 1924. By 1921, most of the original players moved to Paris where Dada experienced its last major incarnation (see Neo-Dada for later activity).


The French avant-garde kept abreast of Dada activities in Z?rich with regular communications from Tristan Tzara (whose pseudonym means "sad in country," a name chosen to protest the treatment of Jews in his native Romania), who exchanged letters, poems, and magazines with Guillaume Apollinaire, Andr? Breton, Max Jacob, and other French writers, critics and artists. Dada in Paris surged in 1920 when many of the originators converged there. Inspired by Tzara, Paris Dada soon issued manifestos, organized demonstrations, staged performances and produced a number of journals (the final two editions of Dada, Le Cannibale, and Litt?rature featured Dada in several editions.) The first introduction of Dada artwork to the Parisian public was at the Salon des Ind?pendants in 1921. Jean Crotti exhibited works associated with Dada including a work entitled, Explicatif bearing the word Tabu.

The Netherlands

In The Netherlands the Dada movement centered mainly around Theo van Doesburg, most well known for establishing the De Stijl movement and magazine of the same name. Van Doesburg mainly focused on poetry, and included poems from many well-known Dada writers in De Stijl such as Hugo Ball, Hans Arp and Kurt Schwitters. Van Doesburg became a friend of Schwitters, and together they organized the so-called Dutch Dada campaign in 1923, where Van Doesburg promoted a leaflet about Dada (called What is Dada?), Schwitters read his poems, Vilmos Husz?r demonstrated a mechanical dancing doll and Van Doesburg's wife, Nelly, played avant-garde compositions on piano. Van Doesburg wrote Dada poetry himself in De Stijl, although under a pseudonym, I.K. Bonset, which was only revealed after his tragic death in 1931. 'Together' with I.K. Bonset, he also published a short-lived Dutch Dada magazine called M?cano....

Poetry, music and sound

Not strictly a visual arts or literary movement, Dada influence reached into sound and music. Kurt Schwitters developed what he called sound poems and composers such as Erwin Schulhoff, Hans Heusser and Albert Savinio wrote Dada music, while members of Les Six collaborated with Dada movement members and their pieces played at Dada gatherings. In the very first Dada Publication, Hugo Ball describes a "balalaika orchestra playing delightful folk-songs." African music was common at dada gatherings, signaling a return to nature.


While broad, the movement was unstable. By 1924, Dada was melding into surrealism, and artists had gone on to other ideas and movements, including socialist realism and other forms of modernism. By the dawn of World War II, many of the European Dadaists had fled or emigrated to the United States. Some died in death camps under Hitler, who disliked the kind of radical art that Dada represented. The movement became less active as post-World War II optimism led to new movements in art and literature. In 1967, a large Dada retrospective was held in Paris, France. At the same time that the Z?rich Dadaists made noise and spectacle at the Cabaret Voltaire, Vladimir Lenin wrote his revolutionary plans for Russia in a nearby apartment. He was unappreciative of the artistic revolutionary activity near him. Tom Stoppard used this coincidence as a premise for his play Travesties (1974), which includes Tzara, Lenin, and James Joyce as characters. The Cabaret Voltaire fell into disrepair until it was occupied by a group claiming to be neo-Dadaists, led by Mark Divo, in January to March of 2002. Many of their activities received as much public attention as the original Dada movement. After their eviction the Cabaret Voltaire, Z?rich became a museum dedicated to the history of Dada. Some have seen the Synaesthesia events as reflecting, or even superseding, dada.

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