World War I and Dada
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
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
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 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.
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
They were also experimental, provocatively re-imagining what art and art making could be. Using unorthodox materials and chance-based procedures, they infused their work with spontaneity and irreverence. Wielding scissors and glue, Dada artists innovated with collage and photomontage. 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.
William Rubin, Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1968), 12
What’s in a Name?
Participants claimed various, often humorous definitions of “Dada”—“Dada is irony,” “Dada is anti-art,” “Dada will kick you in the behind”—though the word itself is a nonsense utterance. As the story goes, the name Dada was either chosen at random by stabbing a knife into a dictionary, or consciously selected for a variety of connotations in different languages—French for “hobbyhorse” or Russian for “yes, yes.”
Related Artists:Jean (Hans) Arp, Johannes Baader, Theo van Doesburg (Christian Emil Marie Küpper) with Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, El Lissitzky, Man Ray, Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky), Francis Picabia, Kurt Schwitters, Kurt Schwitters, Theo van Doesburg (Christian Emil Marie Küpper)
The customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.
A distinctive or characteristic manner of expression.
A term coined by Marcel Duchamp in 1915 to describe prefabricated, often mass-produced objects isolated from their functional context and elevated to the status of art by the mere act of an artist’s selection and designation.
Cultural activities, ideas, or products that reflect or target the tastes of the general population of any society.
A collage work that includes cut- or torn-and-pasted photographs or photographic reproductions.
Modern can mean related to current times, but it can also indicate a relationship to a particular set of ideas that, at the time of their development, were new or even experimental.
An element or substance out of which something can be made or composed.
An artistic and literary movement that grew out of dissatisfaction with traditional social values and conventional artistic practices during World War I (1914–18). Dada artists were disillusioned by the social values that led to the war and sought to expose accepted and often repressive conventions of order and logic by shocking people into self-awareness.
The technique and resulting work of art in which fragments of paper and other materials are arranged and glued to a supporting surface.
Relating to or characterized by a concern with beauty or good taste (adjective); a particular taste or approach to the visual qualities of an object (noun).
Questions & Activities
Artists and Their Time
Dadaists were not the only artists disillusioned by current events. Research the work of an artist (historical or contemporary) whose work responds to the politics, social mores, or significant local or international events of their time. (Ideas include Ai Weiwei, Diego Rivera, Jacob Lawrence, Harun Farocki, Martha Rosler, and Sanja Iveković.)
Consider the various ways in which artists have expressed their critiques of war, including style and subject matter. How were these works of art received? Summarize your research and thoughts in a 500-word essay.
Research Dada Cities
Dada was active from 1916 to roughly 1924 in Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, Paris, and New York. Choose and research important aspects of one of these cities, including information on population, political leadership, industry, literature, and popular culture.
Are there particular aspects of the city that fostered Dada activities and ideas? In a 500-word essay, outline your theory as to why your chosen city became a hub of Dada activities. Cite your research as supporting evidence.
Visual forms of knowledge production and representation — examples of the practice Johanna Drucker calls graphesis — appear in the work of almost every important twentieth-century avant-garde movement. Many of the most compelling compositions of Italian Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, Fluxus, Situationist and Concrete poetics, and Pop and Conceptual Art throw maps and counter-maps into their multimedia mix.
In his “Zurich Chronicle,” penned in February 1916, Tristan Tzara reports magnificent goings on at the Cabaret Voltaire. Performances by Hugo Ball, Mme Hennings, and Tzara entertain the crowd, behind the audience paintings by Pablo Picasso and Hans Arp adorn the walls, along with F. T. Marinetti’s “geographic futurist map-poems.” Tzara likely has in mind the Italian Futurist’s “Examples of Words in Freedom” (e.g., “After the Marne”), which, although not maps per se, were nonetheless spatial compositions. In Marinetti’s “typographic revolution” and the painting of Picasso and Arp, page and canvas alike are multi-sensorial zones of dynamic force.
German Dadaists were among the earliest artists to make sustained use of maps as artistic material. Hannah Hoch, Raoul Hausmann, and Kurt Schwitters all experimented with cartographic inserts, and maps feature prominently in four of the best known early examples of photomontage: Hoch’s Cut with the Kitchen Knife (1920) and Hausmann’s Dada Siegt!/Dada Conquers! (1920), Tatlin lebt zu Hause/Tatlin at Home (1920), and ABCD (1923-24).
On April 12, 1918, the German Dadaists gave a rousing performance at the Berlin Sezession, at which Hausmann delivered a speech calling for “new materials in painting” to capture the ethos of the city. “In Dada,” he proclaimed, “you will recognize our real situation: miraculous constellations in real material, wire, glass, cardboard, fabric … your own utterly brittle fragility, your bagginess.” War-torn Berlin differed radically from neutral Zurich. After Germany’s military defeat in November 1918, a succession of crises — the Kaiser’s abdication, the West’s retributive postwar sanctions, soaring inflation, and the popular but largely ineffectual Sparticist revolution — led to the ascendency of a precarious Weimar Republic in 1920. Just as Zurich Dada wanted to rebuild language from the letter up, “Club Dada” allied itself with anti-State communists who aimed to remake the outlines of the map of Europe.
Photomontage was itself a cut-and-paste mix of Cubist collage, Zurich Dada performance, Futurist typography, and a Constructivist machine aesthetic. In a spirit Hausmann termed “perfectly kindhearted malice,” the Berlin cadre assembled this unholy hybrid into the best of political satire.
Innovations in mass publishing were essential to this work. With the explosion of photojournalism, maps — like the photographs, graphs, posters, and advertisements littering the works of “Club Dada” — became a standard feature of newspapers, illustrated magazines, and other affordable reading materials. Consider ABCD (1923-24) pictured above.
Much is rightly made of the text’s visualization of sound, as letters of the alphabet project loudly from between Hausmann’s teeth. The artist-poet called these “optophonetic” poster-poems, thus subtending the border between page and canvas, looking and reading, art and poetry, but language also weaves in and out of a photograph of outer space, a Czech banknote, an advertisement designed by El Lissitzky for a 1923 Merz evening in Hanover, and a map of Harrar, Ethiopia, which the poet Arthur Rimbaud once called home. That Hausmann employed maps in (self)-portraiture was no anomaly. As portraiture, ABCD captures not the singular essence of the individual but his travels, associations, and actions.
Hausmann’s photomontage also saluted the development of an international avant-garde. By 1923, Dada had established centers in Zurich, New York, Berlin, Cologne, Hanover, Paris, and elsewhere. More politically militant than their Zurich siblings, members of Berlin Dada decorated the First International Dada Fair (1920) by suspending an effigy of a German officer with the head of a pig and prominently displaying Hausmann’s Dada Conquers! (also known as A Bourgeois Precision Brain Incites a World Movement):
International Dada Fair, Berlin, 1920. Left to right: Raoul Hausmann, Hanna Höch, Dr. Otto Burchard, Johannes Baader, Wieland Herzfelde, Margarite Herzfelde, Otto Schmalhausen, George Grosz, John Heartfield. Dada Almanach by Richard Huelsenbeck, pg. 129.
Raoul Hausmann, Dada Siegt! 1920. Photomontage. 23.5 x 17 in.
Hausmann appears center-right beside an easel bearing the image of the Wenzelplatz in Prague (a stop on the 1920 Dada Tour organized by Hausmann, Richard Huelsenbeck, and Johannes Baader). The pictorial equivalent of the work’s subtitle, Hausmann appears as a dandyish and monocled bourgeois sophisticate poised to lecture the room. “D A D A” now paves the street anew, while the number 391 invokes the title of Francis Picabia’s influential magazine. Above the easel, a map of the Northern hemisphere similarly features the stamp of DADA; below center foreground, an exposed cranium reveals a man with DADA on the brain. Art, we are shown, permeates the mind, the city, the world.
Notable are the intertextual references to Huelsenbeck’s manifesto (also titled Dada Siegt), a snippet of which connects the mouth to the typewriter. Just above this text, a soccer ball playfully alludes to a four-page satirical broadsheet, Jedermann sein eigner Fussball(Everyone his own soccer ball), a pamphlet distributed in February 1920 by Wieland Herzfelde’s Leftist publishing house Malik Verlag and promptly censored the same day. Photomontage expresses a collectivist spirit subtending private property while reaffirming a common bond through an art practice emphasizing play, egalitarianism, and provocation.
Hausmann understood perfectly well the point Denis Wood would make decades later: cartography is not an innocent mimetic practice but a central player in the modern State’s military conquests, a marker of its dependence upon colonial enslavement and resource extraction, and a carrier of the ideologies of nationhood deployed to justify imperialist aims.
The “miraculous constellations” of photomontage mischievously redeploy the “real materials” of everyday life. At some of the most important scenes in twentieth century art history, the counter-map — like Byron the Bulb in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow — loiters in the background plotting a revolution.
Hausmann, Raoul. “Synthetic Cinema of Painting.” Ed. Lucy Lippard. Dadas on Art: Tzara, Arp, Duchamp and Others. New York: Dover Pub., 2007. 59–61.
Tzara, Tristan. “Zurich Chronicle, 1915–1919.” Ed. Hans Richter. Dada: Art and Anti-Art. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997. 223–24.