Dada emerged amid the brutality of World War I (1914–18)—a conflict that claimed the lives of eight million military personnel and an estimated equal number of civilians. This unprecedented loss of human life was a result of trench warfare and technological advances in weaponry, communications, and transportation systems.
For the disillusioned artists of the Dada movement, the war merely confirmed the degradation of social structures that led to such violence: corrupt and nationalist politics, repressive social values, and unquestioning conformity of culture and thought. From 1916 until the mid-1920s, artists in Zurich, New York, Cologne, Hanover, and Paris declared an all-out assault against not only on conventional definitions of art, but on rational thought itself. “The beginnings of Dada,” poet Tristan Tzara recalled, “were not the beginnings of art, but of disgust.”1
Dada’s subversive and revolutionary ideals emerged from the activities of a small group of artists and poets in Zurich, eventually cohering into a set of strategies and philosophies adopted by a loose international network of artists aiming to create new forms of visual art, performance, and poetry as well as alternative visions of the world. The artists affiliated with Dada did not share a common style or practice so much as the wish, as expressed by French artist Jean (Hans) Arp, “to destroy the hoaxes of reason and to discover an unreasoned order.”2
The climax of Berlin Dada was the International Dada Fair of 1920, the central symbol of which was an effigy of a German officer with the head of a pig that hung from the ceiling. From left to right: Hausmann, Hanna Höch, Dr Burchard, Baader, W. Hetzfelde, the wife, Dr. Oz, George Grosz, John Heartfield. Reproduction opposite page 128, from the book Dada Almanach; im Auftrag des Zentralamts der Deutschen Dada-Bewegung, by Richard Huelsenbeck
The Role of Visual Art in Dada
For Dada artists, the aesthetic of their work was considered secondary to the ideas it conveyed. “For us, art is not an end in itself,” wrote Dada poet Hugo Ball, “but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in.” Dadaists both embraced and critiqued modernity, imbuing their works with references to the technologies, newspapers, films, and advertisements that increasingly defined contemporary life.
They were also experimental, provocatively re-imagining what art and art making could be. Using unorthodoxmaterials and chance-based procedures, they infused their work with spontaneity and irreverence. Wielding scissors and glue, Dada artists innovated withcollage andphotomontage. Still others explored games, experimental theater, and performance. A central figure, Marcel Duchamp, declared common, manufactured goods to be “readymade” artworks, radically challenging the notion of a work of art as something beautiful made by a technically skilled artist.
Richard Boix. Da-da (New York Dada Group). 1921. Ink on paper. 11 1/4″ x 14 1/2″ (28.6 x 36.8 cm). Katherine S. Dreier Bequest
International in scope and diverse in artistic output, both Dada and Surrealism were artistic, literary and intellectual movements of the early 20th century that were instrumental in defining Modernism. The Dada movement, launched in 1916 in Zurich by poets and artists such as Tristan Tzara and Hans Arp, was a direct reaction to the slaughter, propaganda and inanity of World War I. Independent groups linked by common ideas sprung up soon afterwards in New York, Berlin, Paris and elsewhere. These various groups did not share a universal style, but rather were connected by their rejection of idealism, stale artistic and intellectual conventions and modern society’s unchecked embrace of ‘rationalism’ and ‘progress’. They condemned the nationalist and capitalist values that led to the cataclysm of the war and employed unorthodox techniques, performances and provocations to jolt the rest of society into self-awareness. The absurdity of Dada activities created a mirror of the absurdity in the world around them. Dada was anti-aesthetic, anti-rational and anti-idealistic. Key figures such as Marcel Duchamp disturbed the art world with his ready-mades such as Fountain (which is simply a urinal). Dada’s challenge to conventional notions of ‘high art’ radically impacted later developments in conceptual art, performance art and post-modernism among others.
After the war, many of the artists who had participated in the Dada movement began to practice in a Surrealist mode. Surrealism was officially inaugurated in 1924 when the writer André Breton published the Manifesto of Surrealism. Similar to Dada, Surrealism was characterized by a profound disillusionment with and condemnation of the Western emphasis on logic and reason. However, Breton wanted to create something more programmatic out of Dada’s nonsensical and seemingly unfocused activities. Consequently, Surrealist works were bound up with the psychoanalytical theories of Sigmund Freud relating to the irrational and instinctual drives of the unconscious. Through the use of unconventional techniques such as automatism and frottage, Surrealist artists attempted to tap into the dream-world of the subliminal mind, visualizing its secrets and mysteries. Some of these artists include René Magritte, Man Ray, Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí. In its intention to undermine established values, the oppositional stance of both Dada and Surrealism served as an important precursor to late 20th century artistic developments such as Neo-Dada, Nouveau Réalisme and Institutional Critique while still inspiring artists today.