Dada (1916-1930)

Dada was an art movement formed during the First World War in Zurich, has a reaction to the horrors of the war. Art, poetry and performance produced by dada artists was often satirical and meaningless.

Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q., 1919

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Dada was an artistic and literary movement that began in Zürich, Switzerland. It arose as a reaction to World War I and the nationalism that many thought had led to the war. Influenced by other avant-garde movements – Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, and Expressionism – its output was wildly diverse, ranging from performance art to poetry, photography, sculpture, painting, and collage. Dada’s aesthetic, marked by its mockery of materialistic and nationalistic attitudes, proved a powerful influence on artists in many cities, including Berlin, Hanover, Paris, New York, and Cologne, all of which generated their own groups. The movement dissipated with the establishment of Surrealism, but the ideas it gave rise to have become the cornerstones of various categories of modern and contemporary art.

Why “Dada”?

Theo van Doesburg, Kleine Dada Soirée, 1922

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There is no consensus on the origin of the movement’s name; a common story is that the German artist Richard Huelsenbeck slid a paper knife (letter-opener) at random into a dictionary, where it landed on “dada”, a colloquial French term for a hobby horse. Others note that it suggests the first words of a child, evoking a childishness and absurdity that appealed to the group. Still others speculate that the word might have been chosen to evoke a similar meaning (or no meaning at all) in any language, reflecting the movement’s internationalism.

The origin of Dadaism

Hannah Hoch, Da-Dandy, 1919

The central premise behind the Dada art movement was a response to the modern age. Reacting against the rise of capitalist culture, the war, and the concurrent degradation of art, artists in the early 1910s began to explore new art, or an “anti-art”, as described by Marcel Duchamp. They wanted to contemplate the definition of art, and to do so they experimented with the laws of chance and with the found object. Theirs was an art form underpinned by humor and clever turns, but at its very foundation, the Dadaists were asking a very serious question about the role of art in the modern age. This question became even more pertinent as the reach of Dada art spread – by 1915 its ideals had been adopted by artists in New York, Paris, and beyond – and as the world was plunged into the atrocities of World War I.

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The ready-made

Marcel Duchamp, In advance of a Broken Arm, 1915

One of the most iconic forms to emerge amidst this flourish of Dadaist expression was the readymade, a sculptural form perfected by Marcel Duchamp. These were works in which Duchamp repurposed found or factory-made objects into installations. In Advance a Broken Arm(1964), for instance, involved the suspension of a snow shovel from a gallery mount; Fountain(1917), arguably Duchamp’s most recognizable readymade, incorporated a mass-produced ceramic urinal. By taking these objects out of their intended functional space and elevating them to the level of “art,” Duchamp poked fun at the art establishment while also asking the viewer to seriously contemplate how we appreciate art.

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Dada in other arts

As Duchamp’s readymades exemplify, the Dadaists and the Dada movement did not shy away from experimenting with new media. Jean Arp, for example, explored the art of collage and the potential for randomness in its creation. Man Ray also toyed with the arts of photography and airbrushing as practices that distanced the hand of the artist and thus incorporated collaboration with a chance. Beyond these artistic media, the Dadaists also probed the literary and performance arts. Hugo Ball, for instance, the man who penned the unifying manifesto of Dadaism 1916, investigated the liberation of the written word. Freeing text from the conventional constraints of a published page, Ball played with the power of nonsensical syllables presented as a new form of poetry. These Dadaist poems were often transformed into performances, allowing this network of artists to move easily between media.

Hugo Ball, Reciting the Sound Poem “Karawane” , 1916

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