Ball, Hugo (1886–1927)

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BALL, HUGO (1886–1927)


German writer and performer, leading figure in the Dada movement.

After studying German literature, history, and philosophy at the universities of Munich and Heidelberg, Hugo Ball enrolled at the Max Reinhardt (1873–1943) school for stage design and acting at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. In 1911, he worked briefly at the municipal theater in Plauen before becoming the artistic director of the Munich Kammerspiele in 1912. He also wrote provocative poems, some in collaboration with his friend Hans Leybold, which were published in the expressionist periodicals Die Aktion and Revolution. In 1913, Ball was charged with obscenity for his violent poem "Der Henker" (The Hangman), but later acquitted on account of its "unintelligibility." In addition to writing, acting, and directing, he was interested in music, dance, and the visual arts. His plans to form with Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) an experimental, multimedia theater in Munich were interrupted by the beginning of World War I. Ball volunteered to serve in the German army but was rejected for health reasons. Having briefly witnessed trench warfare action in Belgium, he reacted in horror and became a pacifist, organizing expressionist and antiwar readings in Berlin. In May 1915, he emigrated with the singer and cabaret artist Emmy Hennings (1885–1948), whom he later married, to Zurich.

Ball became a leading figure in the Dada movement. On 5 February 1916, he and Hennings formed the Cabaret Voltaire, which became the main public platform of the Zurich Dada group. Alongside Jean Arp (or Hans Arp), Richard Huelsenbeck, Marcel Janco, and Tristan Tzara, Ball and Hennings engaged in anarchic performances of music and poetry, including deafening recitals of "bruitist" (noise) and "simultaneous" poems. Ball is also credited with inventing the term Dada, which makes its first appearance in his diary on 18 April 1916. This word was found by randomly leafing through a dictionary, and its apparent meaninglessness, or rather, its openness to a variety of meanings, testifies to the spontaneity and provocative nihilism of the group. In June 1916, Ball edited one issue of the periodical Cabaret Voltaire, which contained work by the Zurich Dadas and, among others, Guillaume Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars, Kandinsky, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Amedeo Modigliani, and Pablo Picasso. In a preface dated 15 May 1916, Ball publicly introduced the term Dada to describe the stylistic pluralism and cultural internationalism of artists united against war and nationalism.

Ball's reputation as a poet rests largely on his astonishing Lautgedichte (sound poems), some of which he performed at a Dada soirée on 14 July 1916 (Bastille Day). These poems, which include "Karawane" (Caravan) and "gadji beri bimba," were composed from invented words that have no obvious referential meaning, but create an intense emotional power. He intended these poems in part as a protest against the "misuse" of language during the war, and the way in which the languages of art and culture had been perverted in the West to uphold dangerous values and murderous societies. Wearing an exotic costume made of cardboard, with a giant collar suggesting wings, and a cylindrical shaman's hat, Ball recited the sound poems in the style of "priestly lamentations." As a self-styled "magic bishop," Ball sought to convey in language "primeval strata" of experience untouched by reason or logic. Deliberately undermining "meaning," his performance was an attempt to reintegrate body and mind, the physical and the spiritual. For Ball, Dada's mix of" buffoonery and requiem mass" was meant to become a therapeutic creativity with which to heal modernity.

Following a nervous breakdown, Ball broke with Dada in the summer of 1916 and moved to the artist colony of Ascona, and later settled in Agnuzzo. He wrote many political articles for Die Freie Zeitung in Berne between September 1917 and February 1920, and continued to work on several books, including a sharp indictment of the German intellectual tradition from Martin Luther to the twentieth century, and the prose work Tenderenda, which is written in a multilayered experimental style. Disappointed with the outcome of the revolution in Germany in 1918–1919, he turned away from politics and his stance became increasingly religious. In 1920, he rejoined the Catholic Church and subsequently wrote on Byzantine Christianity and on the Reformation. In 1924, he stayed in Rome to study psychoanalysis, in particular the works of Carl Gustav Jung. In 1927, shortly before his death, he published Flight Out of Time, his autobiography in the form of a diary, which offers much information on Dada. His home city of Pirmasens has established a Hugo Ball archive and publishes, since 1977, an annual almanac devoted to his life and work. Wallstein Verlag is publishing a critical edition of his writings; the first volume appeared in 2003. While Ball's Dada texts and activities continue to attract scholarly attention, recent research has highlighted the wide (and perhaps eclectic) range of his interests across artistic and intellectual boundaries, and suggested ways in which Ball's self-transformations in his life and work betray a male subjectivity attempting to respond to the challenges of modernity.

See alsoApollinaire, Guillaume; Arp, Jean; Cabaret; Dada; Expressionism; Kandinsky, Wassily; Marinetti, F. T.; Picasso, Pablo; Tzara, Tristan.


Bähr, Hans-Joachim. Die Funktion des Theaters im Leben Hugo Balls. Frankfurt, 1982.

Ball-Hemmings, Emmy. Hugo Ball: Sein Leben in Briefen und Gedichten. Berlin, 1930.

——. Hugo Balls Weg zu Gott: Ein Buch der Erinnerung. Munich, 1931.

Egger, Eugen. Hugo Ball: Ein Weg aus dem Chaos. Olten, Switzerland, 1951.

Last, Rex W. German Dadaist Literature: Kurt Schwitters, Hugo Ball, Hans Arp. New York, 1973.

Mann, Philip. Hugo Ball: An Intellectual Biography. London, 1987.

Schmidt, Christoph. Die Apokalypse des Subjekts: Ästhetische Subjektivität und politische Theologie bei Hugo Ball. Bielefeld, Germany, 2003.

Stein, Gerd. Die Inflation der Sprache: Dadaistische Rebellion und mystische Versenkung bei Hugo Ball. Frankfurt, 1975.

Steinbrenner, Manfred. "Flucht aus der Zeit?": Anarchismus, Kulturkritik, und christliche Mystik—Hugo Balls "Konversionen." Frankfurt, 1985.

Steinke, Gerhardt Edward. The Life and Work of Hugo Ball: Founder of Dadaism. The Hague, Netherlands, 1967.

Süllwold, Erika. Das gezeichnete und das ausgezeichnete Subjekt: Kritik der Moderne bei Emmy Hennings und Hugo Ball. Stuttgart, Germany, 1999.

Teubner, Ernst. Hugo Ball: Eine Bibliographie. Mainz, Germany, 1992.

Teubner, Ernst, ed. Hugo Ball (1886–1986): Leben und Werk. Berlin, 1986. Exhibition catalog.

Wacker, Bernd, ed. Dionysius DADA Areopagita: Hugo Ball und die Kritik der Moderne. Paderborn, Germany, 1996.

White, Erdmunde Wenzel. The Magic Bishop: Hugo Ball, Dada Poet. Columbia, S.C., 1998.

Wild, Peter. Hugo Ball, Tenderenda der Phantast: Untersuchungen zu Sprache und Stil. Bonn, Germany, 1987.

Zehetner, Cornelius. Hugo Ball: Portrait einer Philosophie. Vienna, 2000.

Andreas Kramer