Dada Movement
History, Characteristics, Famous Dadaist Artists.

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Dada (c.1916-24)
Nihilistic Anti-Art Movement


What is Dada?
Who Founded Dada?
History of the Dada Movement
Intro | Zurich | Berlin | Cologne | Hanover | New York | Paris
Dadaist Philosophy Styles and Methods
Famous Dadaists
Arp | Duchamp | Ernst | Raoul Hausmann
Man Ray | Francis Picabia | Tristan Tzara | Schwitters

For details of art movements
and styles, see: History of Art.
For the chronology and dates
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of visual arts around the world
see: History of Art Timeline.

What is Dada? - Characteristics and Aesthetics

The first major anti-art movement, Dada was a revolt against the culture and values which - it was believed - had caused and supported the carnage of The First World War (1914-18). It quickly developed into an anarchistic type of highly avant-garde art whose aim was to subvert and undermine the value system of the ruling establishment which had allowed the war to happen, including the arts establishment which they viewed as inextricably linked to the discredited socio-political status quo. Errupting simultaneously in 1916, in Europe and America, its leaders were typically very young, in their early twenties, and most had "opted out", avoiding conscription in the shelter of neutral cities such as New York, Zurich and Barcelona.


Portrait of Cezanne (1920)
Francis Picabia

LHOOQ (1919), Marcel Duchamp

Fountain (1917). Marcel Duchamp

As an anti-art pressure-group, it resorted to outrageous tactics to attack the established traditions of art, employing a barrage of demonstrations and manifestos, as well as exhibitions of absurdist art deliberately designed to scandalize and shock both the authorities and the general public. Centres of public Dada activities were usually small and intimate: they included the Zurich Cabaret Voltaire; New York's Photo-Secession Gallery owned by the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, the Arensberg's apartment and Marius de Zaya's Modern Gallery, all in New York; and the Club Dada in Berlin.

Ironically, despite its nihilistic mission, Dada led to the emergence and refinement of several important innovations in fine art, including collage and photo-montage, and went on to influence several later modern art movements, such as Surrealism and Pop-Art, as well as contemporary art styles like Nouveau Realisme, Neo-Dada, Fluxus, and several mid- 20th century art forms, such as Installation and Performance.

NOTE: For other important anti-art groups or trends like Dada, see Art Movements, Periods, Schools (from about 100 BCE).

For more about the evolution
of oils, acrylics, watercolours,
see: Fine Art Painting.

For biographies and works
of the best modern painters,
see: Famous painters.

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sculptors: Best Artists of All Time.

Who Founded Dada?

Although Dadaist ideas were already surfacing on both sides of the Atlantic, the actual name Dada was coined in Zurich in 1916. According to the poet Richard Huelsenbeck (1892-1927), the word was selected at random by himself and the painter-musician Hugo Ball (1886-1927) from a German-French dictionary. Essentially (and probably deliberately) a nonsense word, Dada means Yes-Yes in Russian, and There-There in German (universal baby-talk); while in French it means hobbyhorse. Along with Jean Arp (1887-1966) and the Romanian poet and demonic activist Tristan Tzara (1896-1963), the pair also founded the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, an early centre of multi-cultural Dada events and protest shows. Other Zurich Dada supporters included the Romanian Sculptor Marcel Janco (1895-1984), and the German painter and film-maker Hans Richter (1888-1976).



History of the Dada Movement


Dada emerged in the middle of a barbaric war, hard on the heels of the 20th century's first revolutionary art movement - Picasso and Braque's Cubism. Both the nihilism engendered by the war, and the revolutionary spirit released by Cubist art, were key factors behind the movement's growth and appeal. In fact, the first controversial work, "Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2" (1912) by Marcel Duchamp, was a Cubist/Futurist work depicting the descent of a mechanistic nude, similar to a series of photo-stills. It scandalized visitors to the 1913 Armory Show in New York City - officially the International Exhibition of Modern Art and the first major exhibition of the modern trends coming out of Paris - but quickly sold, along with all four of his paintings in the show. However, Duchamp's first major Dadaist work (or protest) was his submission of his "readymade" work (a signed urinal) entitled "Fountain", to the Society of Independent Artists exhibition in Paris, in 1917. The show committee said that Fountain was not art and rejected it from the show causing an uproar amongst the Dadaists and led Duchamp to resign from the board of the Independent Artists. (Note: In 2004, 500 renowned artists and historians named the "Fountain" as "the most influential artwork of the 20th century.")

Zurich Dada Movement

The driving force behind Zurich Dada was Tristan Tzara, aided by his volatile henchman Francis Picabia, recently returned from America and Barcelona. Together, Tzara and Picabia preached an increasingly subversive view of art and a nihilistic vision of life itself. From 1917 to 1921, they produced 8 issues of Dada magazine, which appeared in German and French. However, with the war's end, Switzerland's importance as a neutral haven declined. Richard Huelsenbeck (1892-1974), a founding member of Dada left for Berlin, Picabia went to Paris, and when Tzara followed him in 1920, the Zurich phase of Dada was over.

Dada in Berlin

After World War I, Dada activists dispersed across Europe, congregating principally in Paris and Berlin. Huelsenbeck founded the Club Dada in Berlin, whose members included Johannes Baader (1876-1955), George Grosz (1893-1959), Raoul Hausmann (1886-1971) John Heartfield (Helmut Herzfeld) (1891-1968) and Hanna Hoch (1889-1979). Berlin Dada was satirical and highly political: its targets more narrowly and precisely defined than elsewhere, and its main weapons were periodicals, including Club Dada and Der Dada - both of which employed a raucous use of explosive typography and photomontage. Berlin Dada artists were noted for their use of "readymades" - especially photo-montage and early forms of assemblage - as well as their enthusiasm for technology.


Dada in Cologne

Other centres of Dada activities in Germany were Cologne and Hanover. The Cologne branch (1919-20) was less political and more biased towards aesthetics, even if only in the sense of being anti-aesthetics. It included two major artists - Jean Arp and Max Ernst. The latter, along with John Heartfield, exploited satirical collage techniques using popular printed material, depicting the grotesque and the weirdly erotic, in a style which heralded Parisian Surrealism. Cologne witnessed one of the first Dada exhibitions in May 1920: an event held in the glass-roofed courtyard of a public house entered through a men's lavatory. The irreverent show was closed down by the authorities within days due to a suspected pornographic exhibit. However, it quickly reopened when the offending work was discovered to "Adam and Eve" by the great Northern Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer.

Dada in Hanover: Kurt Schwitters' One-Man Band

In 1918, the German artist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) applied to join the Berlin Dadaists but was rebuffed for his unpolitical attitude. As a result he launched his own Hanover branch of Dada, with his ongoing Merz series (the word supposedly came from the German word "Kommerz" meaning commerce) of collages, reliefs and building constructions (Merzbau). Indeed, Schwitters' unique and unadulterated dedication to Dada ideas, led to a prolific output of artworks constructed with urban refuse and found objects (objets trouvés) which had a big influence on later movements like Junk Art, Assemblage and Arte Povera. Somewhat appropriately for an anti-war style of artwork, it was destroyed during an allied bombing raid in 1943.

New York Dada

This branch was set up by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) - see his signature style of "readymades" like Bicycle Wheel (1913, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris) - Man Ray (1890-1976), and the Cubist painter Francis Picabia (1879-1953). Duchamp and Ray also collaborated with Katherine Dreier in setting up Societe Anonyme, an association to promote the growth and appreciation of modern art in America. (It paved the way for New York's Museum of Modern Art). Another New York Dadaist was the Precisionist artist Morton Schamberg (1881-1918).

Paris Dada

By 1921, many of the pioneers of Dada - such as Jean Arp, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Francis Picabia and Tristan Tzara - had arrived in Paris, where they mingled with a number of French poets like Andre Breton (1896-1966) and Louis Aragon. As a result, Paris Dada became noted for its theatrical, multi-cultural, though no less irreverent, activities. But the Dada movement proved unable to contain the diverging ideas and personalities of its members. In particular, the innovative and curious Breton fell out with nihilistic die-hards like Tzara and Picabia, and when he quit Dada to establish a new movement (which became known as Surrealism) many Dadaists followed and the movement dissolved.

Dada Philosophy Styles and Methods

Dadaist philosophy was deliberately negative. It was anti-establishment, anti-art, even anti-social in that it railed against the bourgeois society that sponsored state violence as exemplified by WWI. However, in its determination to present its nihilistic ideas in new ways, uncontaminated by the bourgeois fine art tradition, Dada actually invented a number of experimental art forms and techniques, which have contributed in several ways to the development of that tradition. This was by no means apparent at the time, as the Dada activists began to produce a string of cabaret performances, meetings designed to provoke controversy and even riots in support of their subversive agenda.

The Idea is More Important Than the Work of Art Itself

Many Dadaist events had much in common with 1960s "Happenings" and "Performance Art", and illustrated the basic motto of today's Conceptual Art that the "idea" behind a work of art is more important than the physical work itself. Hence the description of Dada as more of an "attitude" than a movement.

Early famous Dadaist works included Picabia's stuffed-monkey Portrait of Cezanne, Renoir and Rembrandt (1920), and Duchamp's picture of Leonardo's portrait of the Mona Lisa complete with beard and moustache - LHOOQ (1919) - whose name derived from the phonetic version of the French phrase "Elle a chaud au cul" - she's got a hot ass. Other scandalous items included Schamberg's "God" (1917) and Man Ray's "Gift" (1921).


Art Can Be Made of Anything

Duchamp's "readymades" ("works of art" made from "found" objects: viz, anything that comes to hand!) illustrated the Dadaist idea that art could be made from anything, no matter how ordinary. Duchamp produced his first "readymade" in 1914 when he exhibited a bottle rack, while his most famous work was his signed urinal (entitled Fountain) which he submitted to a major Parisian show in 1917. This Dadist technique of dislocating objects from their normal context and representing them as art - was used widely by later assemblage and Pop-artists.

Another Dadaist technique was photomontage - used especially by Berlin Dadaists like Raoul Hausmann - which employed illustrations and advertisements clipped from popular magazines. Refining the Cubist idea of collage, Dada artists used these clippings to construct puzzling or strikingly incongruous juxtapositions of images and letters. The ultimate Dada collage artist was Kurt Schwitters in Hanover, whose works were made from urban detritus like litter, bus tickets, sweet wrappings and other scraps.

Famous Dadaists

Note: many of the most important Dadaists became surrealist artists.

Jean Arp (1887-1966): Poet and Sculptor

A former student at the Strasbourg School of Arts and Crafts (1905-7) and at the Academie Julian, Paris (1908), Arp went to Munich in 1912 where he knew Kandinsky and showed a number of semi-figurative expressionist drawings at the second Der Blaue Reiter exhibition. The following year in 1913, he exhibited at the first Autumn Salon in Berlin. In 1914, influenced by the Parisian avant-garde, via critics and artists like Guillaume Apollinaire (shortly to invent the word "Surrealism"), Max Jacob and Robert Delaunay, Arp showcased his first abstracts and paper cut-outs, and started creating shallow wooden reliefs and compositions with canvas and string. In 1916, he became a pioneer member of Zurich Dada in Zurich, participated in the 1920 Berlin Dada exhibition and later went to Hanover to visit Schwitters. Highly experimental, he explored geometric abstraction as well as Dadaist styles, and later joined the Surrealist movement.

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968): Avant-Garde Artist

One of Europe's most radical 20th century painters, and a founder of Junk Art, Duchamp's first outstanding if controversial work was "Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2" (1912), which exemplified the style of analytical Cubism in a manner which anticipated later Futurist forms. Exempted from wartime conscription, he fled to New York where his blasphemous "Fountain" (1917) and LHOOQ (1919) became classic Dada works, as did his ever more complex "readymades" including "The Large Glass." His reputation as the leading European contemporary artist led Peggy Guggenheim and other influential buyers to rely on him for advice about art investments. He also met the versatile genius Man Ray, and together with Henri-Pierre Roché and Beatrice Wood, published the New York Dadaist periodical "The Blind Man." In 1918, Duchamp quit the art scene, and travelled to Buenos Aires for several months where he played chess. In 1923 he returned to Paris, but neither participated in Dada, nor continued as a full-time artist. Instead, he devoted himself to chess, and some collaborative projects, dividing his time between France and America.

Max Ernst (1891-1976): Painter, Sculptor, Graphic artist, Poet

A lifelong friend of Jean Arp, Ernst was a prolific, highly experimental artist and, after serving in World War I, he became one of the pioneers of both Dada (he founded the Cologne branch) and Surrealism. During his Surrealist phase he was noted for his invention of frottage (rubbing textured surfaces) and decalcomania (liquid paint patterns). For details, see: Surrealism.


Raoul Hausmann (1886-1971): Painter, Photographer

Raoul Hausmann was a leading member of the satirical and highly political Berlin branch of Dada, where in 1918 he pioneered the technique of photomontage - the art of affixing and juxtaposing photographs or other "found" illustrative material onto a flat surface, not unlike an embellished type of collage. Hausmann eventually quit painting towards the end of the Dada movement in favour of fine art photography. See also: Is Photography Art?

Man Ray (1890–1976): Painter, Photographer

Born Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia and raised in New York, Man Ray had his first solo show of paintings and drawings in 1915. His first Dada-style work, an assemblage he called "Self-Portrait", was shown in 1916. After meeting Marcel Duchamp, he founded the American branch of the Dada movement, and co-founded a contemporary arts group known as the Others. In 1921, disillusioned with the reception given to Dadaist ideas by New Yorkers he left America to live and work in Paris, where he created one of his best known Dadaist artworks: "Indestructible Object" (1923), a metronome with a photo of an eye attached to its clicking arm. He also taught himself the art of photography, rapidly becoming one of the greatest photographers in Europe. By the time Dada dissolved, Ray was already an active Surrealist.

Francis Picabia (1879-1953): Painter, Avant-Garde Artist

A volatile, anarchic character, François Marie Martinez Picabia was (ironically) one of the few avant-garde artists to be financially independent, due to his father's wealth and position as a Cuban diplomat. In 1911, after flirting with Impressionism and Cubism, he joined the Puteaux and Section d'Or group, becoming friends with Marcel Duchamp and Guillaume Apollinaire. Other members of the group included the Cubists Albert Gleizes, Roger de La Fresnaye, Fernand Léger and Jean Metzinger. In 1913, Picabia travelled to New York where his work was included in the Armory Show. Afterwards Alfred Stieglitz staged a solo exhibition for him, at Gallery 291. Around this time Picabia began making satirical mechanistic images (his noted "portraits mécaniques"), a series he continued with during the war which he spent mainly in Barcelona, although he made contact with Dadaists in Zurich. As a result of his attraction to the Zurich avant-garde, he launched his Dada periodical "391". After the war, Picabia became a convinced Dadaist: first in Zurich alongside Tristan Tzara, then in Paris. However, his enthusiasm for its nihilistic stance eventually waned, and when he fell out with Tzara and joined the Surrealism school, Dada dissolved.

Tristan Tzara (1896-1963): Avant-Garde Activist

The nihilist Tristan Tzara (aka Samuel Rosenstock) was an avant-garde Romanian poet and performance artist, as well as a journalist, playwright, art critic, and film director. He became one of the pioneer activists of Dada in Zurich, where his shows at the Cabaret Voltaire and Zunfthaus zur Waag, as well as his writings and manifestos, were the driving features of extremist Dadaism. In 1919, Tzara moved to Paris where he joined the staff of Littérature magazine. Unfortunately, his heated personality and uncompromising activism led him into a series of conflicts within the Dada movement, both in France and Romania. Although he never actually left Dada (it dissolved while he was still a member), he too eventually took up Surrealism.

Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948): Collage Artist

The pioneering, poetic, romantic loner Kurt Schwitters was one of the few purists in the Dada movement. Based in Hanover, where he founded his own branch of Dada, he became renowned for using fragments of refuse with which to make sense of a world that he found politically, culturally and socially mad. Despite this, he had no political views, and almost all his work was personal or autobiographical. Although he produced a few high quality traditional paintings and sculptures, he never really deviated from his avant-garde Dadaist-style collages and paper constructions, which eventually took over his house.


Noted Dada collections can be seen at:

- Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
- Tate Modern Gallery, London
- Museum of Modern Art, New York
- Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

For Neo-Dada works and other avant-garde postmodernist works, see: Best Contemporary Art Festivals.


Dada styles and ideas affected numerous other 20th century movements, including Surrealism, Pop-Art and Fluxus, as well as several contemporary artforms like assemblage, installation and performance. It may also be said to have anticipated several key concepts of postmodernist art. In the 1950s and 1960s, some American artists like Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), Claes Oldenburg (b.1929), Jasper Johns (b.1930) and Jim Dine (b.1935) even used the term "Neo-Dada art" to describe their "anti-aesthetic" works which used modern materials, popular iconography, and absurdist content. See also the work of some European artists, like the Swiss kinetic sculptor Jean Tinguely (1925-1991). In early 2002, an international group of anarchic artists (the Kroesos foundation) were also dubbed "Neo-Dadaists" when they took over the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich until their eviction three months later.

• For post-1860 artworks, see Modern Art.
• For more about the evolution of painting/sculpture, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.

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