DADA 1916 – 1922

Posted: August 16, 2012 in Art & Art History
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DADA 1916-1922

LHOOQ_Marcel Duchamp

Dada was an art movement born out of reaction to the First World War. Dada was a major influence on Surrealism, and both these movements had dramatic influences on the art movements that were to follow. Both these movements challenged and scorned traditional norms of society.

During WWI Zurich, Switzerland, remained neutral. This then became the first important art centre for the new movement, because of the young men and women who fled here as exiles and protestors against the war that was sweeping Europe.  Among them was the German writers Hugo Ball and Richard Huelsenbeck, Rumanian Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco, Alsatian painter, sculptor and writer Jean Arp, and the German painter Hans Richter. These artists are mainly associated with Zurich Dada.

The Zurich artists began doing an important re-evaluation of traditions, norms and logic, and even of the accepted ideas of beauty and order, that had for centuries now dominated art. They began expressing their reactions to and the “madness” of the War.

The main aim of Dada was to shock traditional society and with this shock-value, carry out their message of anti-reason and anti-war. Dada was a state of mind rather than a true art movement, and Dadaists felt that logic and reason had caused the war, therefore they were against it.

This led to the establishment of the notorious “Cabaret Voltaire”, which often police had to be called in to stop riots! In 1916, Hugo Ball introduced abstract poetry with his poem “Gadi Beri Bimba”, which almost caused a riot. He maintained that conventional language had no more place in poetry, than the human figure had anymore in painting. His poetry consisted of a chant of melodic syllables without any logical meaning.

During meetings at the Cabaret Voltaire demonstrations were held, abstract poetry was recited, noise concerts were held, once 80 speakers lectured the audience simultaneously – each speaking about a different subject! Paintings were created relying purely on instinct, without any logical restraint. At another meeting, everyone in the audience received a hammer and chisel, and was told to destroy the sculptures which were being exhibited. What was the point of all this madness? The Dadaists were criticizing the logical and rational state of mind that had lead to the war. Even Picasso took part in these absurd meetings.

Dadaists held that the only solution and salvation out of this state of mind (human reasoning and logic, which according to them, had lead to the WWI) was absolute political anarchy, to return to humane emotions as well as the intuitive and irrational. They created their art to shock and ridicule society. To illustrate this, Dadaist Marcel Duchamp took the epitome of traditional Western, Renaissance art – the Mona Lisa – copied her, and added a moustache! He called this “L.H.O.O.Q”, which is French slang for “She has hot pants on”. With this, Dadaists aimed to show their contempt for what they called “retinal painting” (Marcel Duchamp coined this phrase), which is representational painting. Duchamp, one of the main artists of the movement, considered “retinal painting” or art that appeals to the eye, inferior to art which appeals to the mind. He said, “I am interested in ideas not merely visual products.”

Dada can be described as anti-tradition, anti-art and anti-establishment. Originally a “wrecking enterprise”, Dada loudly proclaimed the uselessness of social action, and made art of their protest against the insane spectacle of collective homicide playing out on the battlefields. Dada’s destructive energy can however be viewed as a “purifying action”, which conclusively destroyed what was left over of 19th century traditional art.

Characteristics of Dada was that it incorporated many different forms of art, such as poetry, painting, literature, sculpture, music and theatre. Dada criticized and attacked all traditional Western values in terms of art. It therefore had no traditional style. Artists’ approach to Dada was therefore diverse. Dadaists were opposed to permanence and the thought that artworks had to exists for future generations. They believed the moment and the process of making the art to be more important. Irony, humour and shock-value was used widely in the creation of their artworks. The rules of chance played an important role – this later influenced Surrealism. Dada art was often a gesture or an action – which blurred the lines between art disciplines. Art could now possibly be the simultaneous reading of illogical poetry consisting of non-words, together with random noise and someone playing the drums!

Kurt Scwhitters, German Dadaist from Hanover, was famously quoted as saying “Anything an artist spits on is art”. This means that anything that you as the artist, decide to name art, is “art.” Here Marcel Duchamp’s “ready-mades” is a fine example: he chose mass-produced objects like a shovel, bicycle wheel or a urinal, and exhibited them as sculptures, giving them ridiculous titles, like the urinal entitled “Fountain”. He maintained the art act was the act of choice, and that an ordinary object takes on a new meaning when chosen and exhibited by the artist as “art”. Through this, the inherent value of an artwork, as well as the aesthetic norms (traditional) by which art is judged by society, is challenged and questioned.


Duchamp and Francis Picabia tried to launch Dada in Paris, but the Parisians are far more avant-garde and were not as shocked by the outrageous performances as were New York and Zurich. The Parisian movement became more literary, and eventually most of the artists turned to Surrealism.

Eventually Dadaists realized that their movement was self-destructive, since one cannot base an art movement on the negation of everything. However, Dada did have a great influence on typography (lettering), films, music, theatre and architecture. Also, Surrealism and Pop Art owe much to the influence of Dada, “Late Modern Art”, a movement where the conceptual idea is more important than the object.


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