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A Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art

Ian Chilvers,

John Glaves-Smith


An international movement in art, c.1915–c.1922, characterized by a spirit of revolt against traditional values. Originally, Dada appeared in two countries that were neutral during the First World War (Switzerland and the USA), but near the end of the war it spread to Germany and subsequently to other countries. The extent to which overall coherence can be ascribed to Dada is questionable. It took on board as it travelled a range of contradictory ideologies, including nihilism, individualist anarchism, and Communism. It was unified more by what it rejected than what it believed, but all of its manifestations arose from a mood of disillusionment engendered by the war. One of its prime targets was the institutionalized art world, with its bourgeois ideas of taste and concern with market values. The Dadaists deliberately flouted accepted standards of beauty and emphasized the role of chance in artistic creation. The unprecedented carnage of the war led the Dadaists to question the values of the society that had created it and to find them morally bankrupt. Their response was to go to extremes of buffoonery and provocative behaviour to shock people out of corrupt complacency. Group activity was regarded as more important than individual works, and traditional media such as painting and sculpture were largely abandoned in favour of techniques and devices such as collage, photomontage, objects, and ready-mades, in which there was no concern for fine materials or craftsmanship. Although they scorned the art of the past, the Dadaists' methods and manifestos—particularly the techniques of outrage and provocation—owed much to Futurism; however Dada's nihilism was very different from Futurism's militant optimism. Marcel Janco wrote, ‘We had lost the hope that art would one day achieve its just place in our society. We were beside ourselves with rage and grief at the sufferings and humiliation of mankind.’

Although certain works produced in Paris before the war by Duchamp and Picabia are sometimes regarded as ‘proto-Dada’, European Dada was founded formally in Zurich in 1915 by a group of artists and writers including Jean Arp, Hans Richter, and the Romanian poet Tristan Tzara (1896–1963). According to the most frequently cited of several accounts of how the name (French for ‘hobby-horse’) originated, it was chosen by inserting a penknife at random in the pages of a dictionary, thus symbolizing the movement's anti-rational stance. The name was first used in 1916, and Arp later wrote: ‘I hereby declare that Tzara invented the word Dada on 6 February 1916, at 6 p.m.…it happened in the Café de la Terrasse in Zurich, and I was wearing a brioche in my left nostril.’ The main centre of Dada activities in Zurich was the Cabaret Voltaire and it was primarily a literary movement, typical manifestations including the recitation of nonsense poems (sometimes several simultaneously and to a background of cacophonous noise). Tzara edited the movement's first periodical Dada, the first issue of which appeared in July 1917; the last issue (number eight) was published in September 1921 at Tarrenz in Austria, entitled Dada Intirol. This was an unusually long life, for the many other Dada periodicals that appeared were very ephemeral. The spirit of the movement often comes out not only in the contents of these journals, but also in the eccentric typography that was typical of them, different typefaces being freely mixed together in defiance of traditional notions of design.

By the end of the war Dada was spreading to Germany, and there were significant Dada activities in three German cities: Berlin, Cologne, and Hanover. In Berlin the movement had a strong political dimension (participants were close to the Communist party during a period of violence and revolution), expressed particularly through the brilliant photomontages of Hausmann, Höch, and Heartfield and through the biting social satire of Grosz. The culminating event in Berlin was the Dada Fair held in 1920, in which a figure with a pig's head in an officer's uniform was hung from the ceiling. This resulted in a criminal charge against the organizers. The Fair also included paintings by Otto Dix, whose work at this point combined painting with collage and had little of the technical refinement of his later work. The event also made clear the links which existed between Dada and the Constructivist tendencies in modern art. A placard proclaimed ‘Art is dead. Long live the machine art of Tatlin’, as though the nihilism of Dada had as its ultimate destiny the establishment of a new collective art on the ruins of the old individualist culture. Dix and Grosz were to become leading figures of Neue Sachlichkeit and, if their later work was less technically novel, it continued the social criticism of the Dada period. In Cologne a brief Dada movement (1919–20) was centred on two figures: Arp, who moved there from Zurich when the war ended; and Max Ernst, who made witty and provocative use of collage in works which anticipate the dream-like atmosphere of Surrealism and who organized one of Dada's most notorious exhibitions, at which axes were provided for visitors to smash the works on show. In Hanover Kurt Schwitters was the only important Dada exponent but one of the most dedicated of all.

Dada in New York arose independently of the European movement and virtually simultaneously, and was initially associated with Alfred Stieglitz's 291 Gallery. The anti-bourgeois stance of the leading figures, Duchamp, Man Ray, and Picabia, was rooted in an extreme individualist anarchism, quite distinct from the Marxism of the Berlin group or the nihilism of Zurich. The relative isolation from the war of the participants accounts for the generally more ironic and detached stance of New York. The fascination with the machine and the mass-produced object, as in the ready-mades of Duchamp, was, in part, a nod to the culture of their adopted country in opposition to the ‘old Europe’ which had embarked on a course of self-destruction. However, some of the deliberate shock value of the European version was still cultivated. In 1917, for example, Duchamp and Picabia arranged for Arthur Cravan (1887–1919?), who combined the careers of poet, art critic, and professional heavyweight boxer, to give a lecture on modern art to a large audience including many society ladies; Cravan arrived late and drunk, and after mounting the platform unsteadily, he proceeded to undress and shout obscenities at the audience. Eventually he was subdued by the police. Cravan was the nephew of Oscar Wilde, whom he claimed to have met in 1913, long after everyone else thought he was dead. Cravan disappeared at sea, but there have been persistent speculations about his survival; he has even been identified as the author B. Traven, an equally mysterious figure who wrote The Treasure of Sierra Madre. Another remarkable figure associated with New York Dada was Elsa, Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874–1927), poet, artist's model, creator of assemblages, and living art work, who shellacked her shaven skull, painted it vermilion, and wore objects such as metal teaballs as adornments.

Picabia was the most important link between European and American Dada. He founded his Dada periodical 391 in Barcelona in 1917 and he introduced the movement to Paris in 1919. In Paris the movement was mainly literary in its emphasis. Many of its participants were involved in the foundation of the Surrealist movement, which was officially launched there in 1924. Other Dada groups appeared in Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. There was a Dada festival in Prague in 1921, in which Hausmann and Schwitters participated, and an international Dada exhibition was held in Paris in 1922. However, by this time the impetus was flagging, and at a meeting in Weimar in 1922, attended by Arp, Schwitters, and others, Tzara delivered a funeral oration on the movement. The first Surrealists, in particular André Breton, believed that the anarchic spirit of Dada was becoming a pretext for absurdity and whimsicality for its own sake and had thus lost any critical or subversive force.

Although it was fairly short-lived and confined to a few main centres, Dada was highly influential, establishing the ‘anti-art’ vein in modern culture. Dada stands for the moment in modern art when the questioning of traditional forms becomes a wider critique of the institutions in which art operates. Its creative techniques involving accident and chance were of great importance to the Surrealists (see automatism) and were also later exploited by the Abstract Expressionists. Its fascination with machine imagery was one source for Precisionism. The spirit of the Dadaists, in fact, has never completely disappeared, and its tradition has been sustained in, for example, Junk sculpture and aspects of Pop art, which in the USA was sometimes known as Neo-Dada, not always to the satisfaction of ex-Dadas. One of them, Hans Richter, ended his book on Dada with a withering attack on Pop. The critique of traditional conceptions of the role of the artist and the art object was of enormous importance to Conceptual art. True to the varied nature of its activities, its example could validate both highly cerebral artists such as Kosuth and self-conscious ‘bad boys’ like Jeff Koons.

Further Reading

R. Motherwell (ed.), The Dada Painters and Poets (1981)Find this resource:

F. M. Nauman (ed.), Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York (1996)Find this resource:

H. Richter, Dada: Art and Anti-Art (1966)Find this resource: