Presided over by the poet and essayist Tristan Tzara (1896–1963), who served as its principal spokesman, dada was the first truly international avant-garde movement. Although the term dada was invented in Zurich, the movement's origins were by no means limited to Switzerland. The dada spirit existed previously in several other countries, where it expressed itself in outrageous avant-garde activity. Dada's chief concern was the achievement of total liberty: social, moral, and intellectual. Its members questioned, through their art, poetry, and performance, the basic postulates of rationalism and humanism as few had done before.
The period 1912–1914 witnessed the emergence of two of the movement's influential figures in Paris: Francis Picabia (1879–1953) and Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968). After World War I erupted, the two men moved to New York, where they proved to be important catalysts. The first dada journal had already appeared in print a few months earlier. Entitled 291, it was edited by a group centered around Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) and his review Camera Work. Another contingent met at Walter Conrad Arensberg's apartment at 33 West 67th Street. The two groups welcomed the French artists, who were soon joined by friends and family, and emulated their latest experiments.
Emerging independently in 1916, the Zurich dadaists published an eclectic journal entitled Cabaret Voltaire. Named after the artistic cabaret founded by Hugo Ball, which was notorious for its outrageous productions, the journal was replaced by Dada in 1917. Ball himself was soon eclipsed by the flamboyant Tzara, who became the movement's chief theorist and publicist. Consisting of Romanian expatriates and former German Expressionists, the Zurich group included several accomplished poets and artists but specialized in theatrical performances. A third dada faction was situated in Barcelona during the war. Revolving about the Dalmau Gallery, it included several French expatriates in addition to Catalan artists and writers such as Joan Miró and Josep Maria Junoy. The Barcelona movement gained momentum in 1917 with the arrival of Francis Picabia, who founded the iconoclastic journal 391.
After the War
Following the end of World War I, the dada movement underwent a significant transformation. While the original three groups continued to exist, the balance of power shifted from countries situated at the war's edge to Germany and France. Beginning in 1919, the German branch was composed of three separate factions. Dominated by Richard Huelsenbeck and Raoul Hausmann, Berlin dada was preoccupied with a series of political issues. In addition to satirizing politics in their art, its members sought to create a new social order. Centered around Jean Arp (also known as Hans Arp) and Max Ernst on the one hand and Kurt Schwitters on the other, Cologne dada and Hanover dada were more concerned with aesthetic issues. Despite the three groups' relatively brief lives, they were a potent force for social and artistic change. In Paris, the dada movement coalesced around four future surrealists: André Breton, Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard, and Philippe Soupault. Other participants included Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, and Tristan Tzara, who arrived in 1920. In spite of dada's impressive vitality, the international movement ceased to exist a few years later. Some members, such as Picabia and Schwitters, continued to incarnate the dada spirit in their work, but most became surrealists or developed new interests.
Despite its geographical distribution and diversity, the dada movement was amazingly cohesive. Although there was no central committee to regulate what transpired, there was widespread agreement about dada's methods and goals. Interestingly, André Breton's efforts to organize such a committee in 1922 spelled the death of Paris dada. Paradoxically, as Tristan Tzara explained to the Spanish critic Guillermo de Torre, dada's surprising unity stemmed from its lack of direction. Despite the absence of rules and regulations, the dadaists were united in their opposition to any form of authority. Dada was not an artistic credo, in any case, but a common set of values. Its adherents shared an adventurous lifestyle and a rebellious joie de vivre.
Outraged at the carnage of World War I, which they attributed to the stupidity of bourgeois politicians, the dadaists strove to wipe the slate clean so that they could begin all over. Reducing aesthetic expression to its fundamental elements—sound and typography in poetry; sound, gesture, and action in theater; color and line in art—they experimented with new, uncorrupted genres. Besides reconstructing reality to more accurately reflect modern experience, they adopted an anti-art stance that revolutionized artistic expression. Adopting as their motto Tzara's declaration "Thought is made in your mouth," they strove to liberate language in particular.
Like their artist colleagues, the dada poets wished to stimulate thought and to achieve new states of consciousness by exploring their medium. While the dadaists valued scandal above all else, they also prized spontaneity. Both tenets derived from the fanatical devotion to freedom that characterized the dada adventure. Just as the dadaists were interested in the activity of the mind, so their preoccupation with spontaneity and the gratuitous reflected their fascination with prelogical experience and thought. In attempting to grasp our being in its primitive coherence (or incoherence), they strove to discover absolute psychological reality. In particular, the dadaists believed that the playful dimension of art offered a path to liberation. Although their poetry was necessarily verbal, it communicated on a primal level by means of images, emotions, and rhythms. Combining discursive and nondiscursive strategies, the dadaists discovered that words could be used to convey information situated outside the linguistic arena.
At first glance, many dada works seem impervious to critical analysis. For one thing, they contain an irrational streak that was intensified by the war and by the accompanying decay of social values. For another, their aesthetic strategies exploit the calculated misuse of convention. Employing the techniques of subversion, distortion, and disruption, dada compositions are fervently antilogical. Rejecting bourgeois values in life and in art, the dadaists considered logic to be a correlative of traditional authority. Like the latter, it was reviled for confining and debasing mankind. Because the dadaists deliberately cultivated scandalous behavior, their readers and viewers tended to react to them with hostility. Like the hapless members of the audience, contemporary critics assumed that the dada movement was a hoax. Dada was a purely destructive phenomenon, they declared, whose sole virtue was to have prepared the way for surrealism.
By contrast, the 1960s witnessed an enthusiastic neo-dadaist revival that permeated art, literature, music, and the theater. Inspired by the Cabaret Voltaire and similar ventures, performance artists invented a new postmodern genre: the happening. The latest in a long series of dada derivatives, including the Theater of the Absurd and abstract expressionism, the neo-dada movement shows no signs of abating. While current audiences have grown used to pop, op, and kinetic art, they continue to be scandalized by sound poets like Henri Chopin, visual poets like Fabio Doctorovich, junkyard sculptors like Robert Rauschenberg, aleatory composers like John Cage, and experimental choreographers like Alwin Nikolais. With the rediscovery of dada in a sympathetic light, the movement's positive aspects have become more apparent. The end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first have witnessed a steadily increasing interest in dada and a series of benchmark studies by scholars such as Mary Ann Caws, J. H. Matthews, Michel Sanouillet, and Henri Béhar. Although the movement is as resistant to logical analysis as ever, it has acquired a certain respectability that threatens, ironically, to undermine its basic premises.
See also Arts ; Avant-Garde ; Language, Linguistics, and Literacy ; Poetry and Poetics ; Theater and Performance .
Caws, Mary Ann. The Poetry of Dada and Surrealism: Aragon, Breton, Tzara, Éluard and Desnos. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970.
Dachy, Marc. The Dada Movement, 1915–1923. New York: Rizzoli, 1990.
Foster, Stephen, and Rudolf Kuenzli, eds. Dada Spectrum: The Dialectics of Revolt. Iowa City: University of Iowa, 1978. Incisive and wide-ranging study.
Gale, Matthew. Dada and Surrealism. London: Phaidon, 1997. Primarily devoted to art.
Matthews, J. H. Theatre in Dada and Surrealism. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1974.
Motherwell, Robert, ed. The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 1989. A valuable collection of essays, manifestos, and illustrations.
Richter, Hans. Dada: Art and Anti-Art. London: Thames and Hudson, 1965. A classic study by a former participant.
DADA.DADA IN ZURICH
DADA IN GERMANY
DADA IN PARIS AND THE
SHIFT TO SURREALISM
"Let us rewrite life every day. What we are celebrating is both buffoonery and a requiem mass" (Ball, p. 56). When the German poet Hugo Ball set down those lines in his diary on 12 March 1916, he invoked both Christian liturgical prayers for the salvation of the souls of the dead ("requiem mass") and the comic performances of clowns and acrobats ("buffoonery") as points of reference for what he and a group of fellow poets and artists had been doing of late in the newly established Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, Switzerland.
Named in honor of the eighteenth-century French philosopher Voltaire, author of the satirical novel Candide, or Optimism (1759), and founded by Ball, along with the German poet and cabaret singer Emmy Hennings, the Alsatian artist Jean Arp, the Romanian poet Tristan Tzara, and the Romanian artist Marcel Janco, the Cabaret Voltaire opened on 5 February 1916 and lasted only until late June of that year. The naming of the Cabaret Voltaire was a gesture that acknowledged the political and philosophical despair as well as the artistic ambitions of Ball and his collaborators, including, in addition to those named above, the Swiss artist Sophie Taeuber, the German poet and medical student Richard Huelsenbeck, and the German artist, writer, and filmmaker Hans Richter. "The ideals of culture and of art as a program for a variety show—that is our kind of Candide against the times," wrote Ball (p. 67). As a group, Ball and the others sought to invent new ways of composing both art and life in neutral Switzerland, a location in which they were at once insulated from and haunted by the perils and terrors of World War I. Speaking of the effects of their performances and exhibitions, Ball wrote: "The horror of our time, the paralyzing background of events, is made visible" (p. 65).
As announced in a press notice in the Zurich papers of 2 February 1916 that Ball cites in his diary, the Cabaret Voltaire was founded as an experiment intended "to create a center for artistic entertainment" that would be open to "suggestions and contributions of all kinds" from the "young artists of Zurich" (p. 50). Arp, Ball, Hennings, Huelsenbeck, Janco, Richter, Taeuber, and Tzara variously contributed paintings, masks, and other objects that were exhibited on the walls of the nightclub's cramped rooms; so-called sound-poems or verses without words, including Ball's "Gadji beri bimba" (1916), that were recited on the nightclub's makeshift stage by authors in outlandish masks and costumes, often accompanied by drumming that was meant to evoke African musical traditions; simultaneous poems that were declaimed by several performers at once ("L'amiral cherche une maison à louer"  by Huelsenbeck, Janco, and Tzara being the most famous of those); and experimental dance performances that drew on new theories of expressive movement promulgated by the choreographer Rudolf von Laban, with whom Taeuber and the German dancer Mary Wigman, herself a pioneer of modern dance and occasional Cabaret Voltaire performer, studied.
A journal called Cabaret Voltaire that was published on 4 June 1916 contained the first appearance in print of the word Dada in connection with the Zurich group's avant-garde art, poetry, and performances. The title Dada was soon attached to a periodical, collections of poetry by Huelsenbeck, and exhibitions of art by Arp, Richter, Janco, and others. Precisely how or when the word Dada was discovered or invented as a name for the performances, poems, and works of art produced by the Zurich group in spring 1916 has not been established, but it is clear that part of the word's appeal was its multi-lingual evocativeness: "Dada," wrote Ball on 18 April 1916, "is 'yes, yes' in Rumanian, 'rocking horse' and 'hobbyhorse' in French. For Germans it is a sign of foolish naïveté, joy in procreation, and preoccupation with the baby carriage" (p. 63). March 1917 saw the opening of an art gallery, the Galerie Dada, that succeeded the Cabaret Voltaire as the center of Zurich Dada activities. At around that same time, Huelsenbeck returned to Berlin and quickly sought to establish the German capital as a center of Dada activity.
In the midst of the acute material deprivation and increasing social and political tension brought on by World War I, Huelsenbeck began to collaborate in Berlin with the artists George Grosz and John Heartfield and the writers Wieland Herzfelde and Franz Jung, and in early 1918 they joined him in founding the "Club Dada," which also counted the architect and writer Johannes Baader, the artists Raoul Hausmann, Hannah Höch, and Otto Schmalhausen, and the writer Walter Mehring among its members. In Germany Dada took on a more aggressively political character, with the Berlin dadaists and their counterparts in Cologne, prominent among the latter the artists Max Ernst and Johannes Theodor Baargeld, advocating radical political change in the wake of the abdication of Kaiser William II and the November Revolution of 1918. Grosz, Heartfield, Herzfelde, and Jung were all founding members of the German Communist Party, and German Dada journals (including Der Ventilator [The fan], published in Cologne, and Jedermann sein eigner Fussball [Every man his own football], published in Berlin) as well as several major Dada exhibitions held in Cologne and Berlin in 1919–1920, addressed contemporary political events and attempted to establish connections between the German dadaists' experimental artistic techniques, most prominent among them collage and photomontage, and their critiques of contemporary politics and culture. A spring 1920 exhibition in Cologne was temporarily shut down by the police in connection with charges of obscenity, and the largest of the German Dada exhibitions, the so-called Erste Internationale Dada-Messe (First International Dada Fair), which was held in Berlin in summer 1920, resulted in the trial of several of its organizers on charges of having "insulted the military" with the inclusion of works such as Grosz's portfolio of lithographs, Gott mit uns (God with us; 1920), which satirized the practices of military authorities during and after World War I, and a sculptural assemblage consisting of a stuffed German officer's uniform with a plaster pig's head that hung from the ceiling in the exhibition and bore the name Prussian Archangel (1920).
Just as Huelsenbeck bore the word Dada to Berlin, Tzara carried it to Paris, arriving there from Zurich in January 1920. Through personal correspondences, the collaborative production and international dissemination of Dada publications, and word of mouth, key players in what would become the Paris Dada movement were already aware of much of what had gone on at the Cabaret Voltaire and the Galerie Dada in Zurich, and they were even more familiar with the events and inventions of the New York Dada movement, in which the Parisian artists Marcel Duchamp, Jean Crotti, and Francis Picabia had participated, along with the American artist Man Ray and others, while living in the United States during World War I. Early in 1919, Picabia collaborated with Tzara in Zurich on the publication of issues of the journals Dada and 391. Around the same time, the Parisian poet AndréBreton made contact with Tzara to praise his 1918 "Dada Manifesto." Several months later, Breton and fellow poets Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupault published the first issue of Littérature, which would become a key organ of Paris Dada and, eventually, one of the major journals of the surrealist movement that would succeed Dada in Paris as the French capital's primary avant-garde movement in literature and the arts. Dada in Paris was more oriented to literature and the making of art-world scandals than to politics and the visual arts, and one of its centers of activity was the bookstore Au Sans Pareil, site of several key Dada exhibitions, including an important show of Ernst's Dada works in late spring 1921.
By 1923 the various European Dada movements—which had spread from Zurich, Berlin, Cologne, and Paris to Hanover and elsewhere in Germany, and to Holland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Russia—had more or less come to an end. Ball had retreated from Dada and from public life in general in 1920, turning his attention instead to the study of early Christian saints and pursuing his own devotion to Catholicism; the Berlin dadaists variously oriented their work toward politics and the so-called new objectivity in painting; Baargeld studied for a doctorate in philosophy and economics; and Ernst moved to Paris, where he became a key participant in the surrealist movement.
Ball, Hugo. Flight Out of Time: A Dada Diary. Edited and with an introduction by John Elderfield. Translated by Ann Raimes. Berkeley, Calif., Los Angeles, and London, 1996.
Dickerman, Leah, ed. Dada: Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, Paris. New York, 2005.
Huelsenbeck, Richard. Memoirs of a Dada Drummer. Edited by Hans J. Kleinschmidt. Translated by Joachim Neugroschel. Berkeley, Calif., Los Angeles, and London, 1991.
Motherwell, Robert, ed. The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Cambridge, Mass., 1989.
Richter, Hans. Dada: Art and Anti-Art. Translated by David Britt. London and New York, 1997.
Tzara, Tristan. Seven Dada Manifestos and Lampisteries. Translated by Barbara Wright. London, 1981.
Da·da / ˈdädä/ • n. an early-20th-century arts movement, repudiating and mocking conventions and emphasizing the illogical and absurd. DERIVATIVES: Da·da·ism / -ˌizəm/ n. Da·da·ist / -ist/ n. & adj. Da·da·is·tic / ˌdädäˈistik/ adj.