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Definition. Historical background

Dadaism (or dada) – is a cultural movement that emerged in Zurich during WWI. It embraced mainly fine arts, literature (poetry in particular), music, theater and graphical design. Philosophy of Dadaism was spread through collective gatherings, artistic manifestations, publishing of magazines about art and literature.
Dadaism was an informal movement that spread to the both sides of the Atlantic ocean – in Europe and North America. As many other cultural phenomenons of 1910s, it was a reaction on the outbreak of World war I. Witnessing all cruelty and asperities, brought by nationalism and fight for colonies, many people lost their existential orienteers. Instead of obsolete concepts, Dadaists propose art without morality and logic. The essence of the activity was provocation as the only way of life. Feeling helpless, they suggested being concerned only with now, forgetting about tomorrow.

Their postulates contained no positive ideas and was fully penetrated with pessimism. Major principles of Dada may be all reduced to break up with traditions of the world culture and rejection of any values; attitude towards the world as a reckless Chaos set off by creative insanity; alogism of mentality and expanding art beyond the bounds of seriousness, adding fun and laugh to it.

Origin of term

One of the founders of the movement, poet Tristan Tzara explained its name in the manifest of 1918: “If we consider it futile, and if we don’t waste our time over a word that doesn’t mean anything … The first thought that comes to these minds is of a bacteriological order: at least to discover its etymological, historical or psychological meaning. We read in the papers that the negroes of the Kroo race call the tail of a sacred cow: DADA. A cube, and a mother, in a certain region of Italy, are called: DADA. The word for a hobbyhorse, a children’s nurse, a double affirmative in Russian and Roumanian, is also: DADA”.

Main features of Dadaism

For its adherents Dada wasn’t art, it was absolutely “anti-art”. In cases where art was preoccupied with aesthetics, Dadaists ignored it. If art referred to feelings, Dadaists saw the target in insulting them. By repudiation of traditional culture and notions of beauty, artists hoped to tear up their foundations. They though the old world didn’t justify its ideals and led to the war. However, at the same time those masters didn’t want to create new system. Dadaism was anarchic by its nature, seeing the utmost individualism as the only possible solution. Already mentioned Tristan Tzara wrote: “I am against systems, the most acceptable system is on principle to have none. To complete oneself, to perfect oneself in one’s own littleness, to fill the vessel with one’s individuality, to have the courage to fight for and against thought”.

At the same time, Dadaists were aware of the connections between artists and their time, their duty to the society. Unlike Impressionism, Post-Impressionism or Art Nouveau, which concentrated solely of the visual issues and eliminated social context, Dada affirmed necessity to realize the power of art for indicating the most actual issues of the epoch. A quote by Richard Huelsenbeck brightly illustrate this thesis: “Art in its execution and direction is dependent on the time in which it lives, and artists are creatures of their epoch”. One could say Expressionists also realized the social mission, but Dadaists criticized this movement for being stuck with outdated values and tenets.

Dada in Zurich (1916-1919)

1916 is believed to be the birthdate of the movement. It was the year, when Hugo Ball, Richard Huelsenbeck, Marcel Janco, Jean Arp and Tristan Tzara gathered in “Cabaret Voltaire”, feigned a name for their group and wrote “Manifest of Dada”. The main form of self-expression for Dadaists were various actions – sensational night performances, planned “events” that hoaxed public and provoked its response. Apart from these, they used typical methods of promotion: published magazine “Dada”, whose chief editor was Ball, delivered lectures, recited their poetry, distributed numerous brochures, written in a form of chants and incantations. In case of visual art (as well as in literature) Dadaists made randomness their main instrument. For instance, Jean Arp created his collages (technique he borrowed from Cubism), scattering quadrangle pieces of colored paper on a carton and sticking them as they fell on it.
In 1917 Ball and Huelsenbeck left the group. It stopped its existence and was replaced with a Berlin union.

Dada in Berlin ( 1917-1920)

Huelsenbeck headed a new Dadaistic group that appeared in Berlin in 1917. The activity of this group had a clear socially critical and anti-militaristic direction, as it joined together mostly artists, who were openly opposed to the government – George Grosz, John Heartfield, Johannes Baader. Pamphlet, political poster, caricature, photomontage, leaflets became the main means of expression and allowed communistic and anarchistic ideas to replace the spirit of spontaneity of Zurich group.

In 1918 Raoul Haussmann created his first photomontages. He compared that process with the labor of working men and declined a specific status of an artist: “We regarded ourselves as engineers, and our work as construction: we assembled (in French: monteur) our work, like a fitter”. Dadaists’ pieces were full of mockery and sarcasm. Their collages and photomontages leave the flavor of grotesque aimed at bourgeois vulgarity of then-contemporary mode of life. Haussmann forestalled the idea of Marcel Duchamp of using readymade objects in his work and in 1918 created sculpture “The Spirit of Our Age” from a hairdresser’s dummy, parts of a pocket watch, details of a camera, tape measure and others.

Dada in Hannover (1919 – 1923)

Dadaism in Hannover was prompted exclusively by Dutch artists Kurt Schwitters, famous for his unusual Merz-collages. Claiming borders between kinds of art being gradually vanished in contemporary world (so they would soon disappear) Kurt introduced a new definition – “Merz”. According to him, it is a unifying ground in culture, which breaks any artistic limitations and gives absolute freedom in creative endeavors.

Dada in Cologne ( 1919-1922)

The key figures of Cologne group, who formed its unique image, were artists Max Ernst and Jean Arp. Performances, patterned after Zurich ones, and exhibitions made the major part of their activity. In 1920 one of the most scandalous exhibitions in history of art was held. It was called “Early Spring Exhibition” and took place in a pub. Visitors could enter it only walking past urinals In the center of the hall a girl in the communion dress recited obscene poetry. Visitors were even permitted to destroy exhibits. That corresponded to the principle of Dada, which denied worth of art.

Dada in New-York (1913- 1921)

History of American Dadaism started with infamous exhibition “Armory Show” in 1913. Apart from local artists, works of such European masters and Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia were represented at it. They in cooperation Man Ray became the leading force in shaping up of avant-gardism in the USA.
Picabia created fantastic structures, which titles and biomechanical appearance were simultaneously hymn and verdict to the industrial society. Arp and Ernst were highly impressed by them. Duchamp became famous as the inventor of “ready made” conception – everyday things of industrial production that were transformed into artistic objects merely by the will of the author. This theory demonstrated that art is an Idea, which could be contained in a simple ready item, not necessarily constructed by a painter or a sculptor.

Journeys of Picabia to Zurich and Paris connected groups of Dadaists during all years of the movement’s existence. During 7 years (1917 – 1924) 391 issues of “Dada” magazine were published in Barcelona, New-York and other big cultural centers. Most participants of the group had moved to Paris by 1921.

Dada in Paris (1919- 1924)

In 1919 Duchamp and Picabia got acquainted with Tzara and together moved to Paris, where got involved in a bunch of young poets and artists, gathered around Andre Breton. Parisian period of 1920 – 1922 was time of a new flourishing of Dadaism – various scandalous performances, exhibitions, declarations and manifestations attracted attention to them. However, a conflict was brewing inside the group: Breton and his followers weren’t satisfied with scandal for scandal’s sake and spirit of total negation anymore. He was generating plan of creating a new association with specifically formulated tasks and clear perspectives. In 1923, final break up between Dadaists let a new movement come to the fore. It was surrealism. Dada paled into insignificance and was supplanted from the artistic life.

Formally, Dadaism ended in 1924, however, it formed a background for further development of art and had a significant influence on avant-gardism, abstract art and sound poetry, surrealism and pop-art. It was a reference point for the art of performance, prelude to postmodernism and punck-rock.

Random Dadaist Artists

Man Ray


Jean Arp

Jean Arp


Max Ernst

Max Ernst


Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp


Random Dadaist Paintings

Eve, the Only One Left to Us
Oedipus Rex
Long Live Love
La Fortune
Le Beau Temps

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