What is Dada?
Dada was a European avant-garde art and literary movement that spanned from roughly 1916 to 1924. Founded as a reaction to the horrors of the First World War and the nationalism that many perceived to be a catalyst to the conflict, it espoused a new approach to art that rejected traditional, bourgeois values such as rationalism in favour of chance and the absurd. It began with a group of artists and poets in Zurich’s bohemian Cabaret Voltaire, and went on to include groups in New York, Paris, Hanover, Cologne and Berlin. While philosophies varied across these factions, all were underpinned by a penchant for experimentation that challenged conventional notions of what art should be.
Dada represented a critical juncture in art history: its radical conceptual identity, embrace of popular culture and participatory performance, and pioneering use of materials directly influenced movements throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.
Characteristics & Style of Dada
On the whole, Dada’s artists prioritised concept over style, employing chance-based techniques and unconventional materials to critique long-held bourgeois ideas and forge a new, revolutionary understanding of art. Forgoing the established mediums of sculpture and painting, they turned instead to collage, performance, photomontage and assemblage, often formed out of random text and materials (as seen in Marcel Duchamp’s combinations of miscellaneous everyday, manufactured objects, or “readymades”, as he called them, and Tristan Tzara’s poems made by cutting out words from newspapers, jumbling them up and releasing them onto a surface). Dada works, in this way, were frequently makeshift in appearance, with irony and satire common features.
Not all Dadaists were unified in their style and character, however. Those in the Berlin group were more political than their New York counterparts, who focused on making work that mocked the art establishment rather than the government, and artists across the divide variously employed representational and abstract techniques in their search to undermine societal norms. Dada is best understood, therefore as an eclectic, internationalist movement united by a reasonably broad artistic and moral quest rather than aesthetic interests.
Legacy of Dada
Many Dada artists were simultaneously involved in Surrealism in its early stages, and by 1924 Dada was absorbed and superseded by this newer movement. Dada’s impact on art across the following century, however, cannot be understated. Widely seen as a direct precursor to Conceptualism, its influence can also be traced through Surrealism, Minimalism, Pop Art, Fluxus and many other movements, as well as in music and commercial advertising. Dada’s disruption of bourgeois tradition recalibrated what art could be, and the world of visual – and non-visual – culture has never been the same since.
Timeline & History of Dada
1913Marcel Duchamp coins the term "anti-art" around this time, referring to works that disrupt traditional notions of art, and begins making readymades that embody this idea.
(pictured) Marcel Duchamp, photograph published in Les Peintres cubistes by Guillaume Apollinaire, 1913
1916Cabaret Voltaire is founded, and the first Dada event is held in the summer, where German author and poet Hugo Ball reads the original manifesto. The name Dada has various rumours connected to it: one claims it to be a result of German writer, poet, and psychoanalyst Richard Huelsenbeck placing a knife at a random point in a German-French dictionary, while another states it was chosen due to its meaning in different languages, such as “yes, yes” in Romanian and Russian.
(pictured) A poster for the opening of the Cabaret Voltaire on 5 February 1916, featuring a lithograph by Marcel Slodki
1917Dada has been established in Berlin and New York by now, and publications such as The Blind Man, published by the New York Dadaists, and French painter Francis Picabia’s 391 make their debut. Duchamp submits his now-famous readymade Fountain, which comprises a porcelain urinal signed with the false name “R. Mutt”, to the inaugural Society of Independent Artists exhibition in New York.
(pictured) Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917, photographed by Alfred Stieglitz at 291 art gallery following the 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibition. Marsden Hartley, The Warriors, 1913 is in the background. © Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020
1918The First World War ends, and Dada artists return home, spreading the movement to new cities in the process. A group is founded in Cologne, followed by Hanover and Paris. Meanwhile, Tristan Tzara published his Dada Manifesto.
(pictured) Robert Delaunay, Portrait of Tristan Tzara, 1923
1920The first (and last) International Dada Fair is held in Berlin, with exhibiting artists including Hannah Höch, Raol Hausman, George Grosz and John Heartfield. Heartfield and artist Rudolf Schlichter hang Prussian Angel, a sculpture of a pig in a German military uniform, from the ceiling; they are later charged for defamation.
(pictured) The First International Dada Fair, Berlin, 1920. Left to right: Raoul Hausmann, Hannah Höch (seated), Dr Otto Burchard, Johannes Baader, Wieland Herzfelde, Margarete Herzfelde, Otto Schmalhausen (seated), George Grosz and John Heartfield. Photo: adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images
1921Picabia renounces Dada, writing a critical piece in 391 that he would later follow up, in the final issue three years later, with a diatribe against André Breton, who would go on to be the principal theorist of Surrealism.
(pictured) Francis Picabia in his studio, circa 1912
1924Breton publishes the Surrealist manifesto, and a large number of Dadaists join this movement – marking the end of Dada.
(pictured) André Breton, Manifeste du surréalisme, 1924, published by Éditions du Sagittaire
Who are the Dada Artists?
The original Swiss group of Dadaists established at the Cabaret Voltaire included poet Hugo Ball, poet and performer Emmy Hemmings, and artists Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco and Hans Arp. Together they published the journal Dada and hosted events such as performances, poetry readings and exhibitions, with Tzara eventually becoming leader of the movement.
In Berlin, meanwhile, a group spearheaded by Raoul Hausmann and Richard Huelsenbeck emerged. Kurt Schwitters pioneered a one-man Dada movement in Hanover, making collages using materials he found by chance around the city and establishing a journal, Merz. Other key artists across Dada’s various international outposts are Francis Picabia, Hans Arp, Max Ernst, Hannah Höch, Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, the latter whose 1917 readymade Fountain became an icon of modern art.
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