Dadaism

In 1917 a man submitted a urinal to an exhibition in New York. He labelled it 'Fountain' and signed it 'R.Mutt'. It was rejected, but word was already spreading of an entirely new movement called Dadaism. 'R. Mutt' was Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) who, together with artists, writers and thinkers like Tristan Tzara (1896-1963), Hans Arp (1886-1966), and André Breton (1896-1966), heralded a change in the art world. They helped develop the Dada movement, which had a long-lasting impact and fathered the Surrealist movement. But what is Dadaism? Why and how did Dadaism come into being in the first place? Let's explore the history and characteristics of Dadaism and look at some examples of Dadaism in literature.

Dadaism Dadaism

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Table of contents

    Dadaism: the deliberate denial or subversion of traditional art conventions.

    Surrealism: freeing up the mind's creative potential by tapping into the subliminal, unconscious and/or subconscious mind. Surreal is synonymous with: unearthly, bizarre, unreal, of a dreamlike quality.

    History of Dadaism

    Dadaism began in 1916. Its key founders were Tristan Tzara and Hans Arp (known as Jean Arp in English). The first world war had been going on for two years, and part of the Dadaist movement was in direct response to the atrocities of war. Much of Dadaist thought, however, had already come into being pre-war: a general disgust with bourgeoise society and its repressive values and traditional high art with its narrow conventions.

    Like everything else, Dadaism is useless.

    Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto, 1918

    Dadaism was an art movement that rebelled against everything connected with the society and art world of its time: it was anti-logic, anti-aesthetic, and anti-idealistic. Dadaism was born out of chaos: it responded to the horrors of Worl War I (WWI), its carnage and brutality. As the movement was anti-rational, much of its creativity centred around the absurd and the irrational. Because Dadaism broke with tradition, it is considered a part of Modernism.

    Bourgeoise refers to the classes of society that were usually seen as possessing conservative and materialistic values.

    Modernism is a movement in art and philosophy which emerged in Europe at the end of the 19th century and continued until after the second world war. Modernism sought to capture the fast-paced development of the modern world. Works of modernist art and literature used new forms of expression that were radically different from what was known before.

    Origins

    Dada has various meanings in different languages. It is French for 'hobby horse'. It can also be German for 'goodbye' or 'get off my back'. 'Dada' can also be baby-talk for 'father'. Or it can be meaningless.

    The word Dada was 'discovered' by randomly opening a dictionary and choosing the first word that met the eye:

    I affirm that Tristan Tzara discovered the word Dada on the 8th of February 1916, at six o'clock in the evening. I was there with my twelve children when Tzara pronounced for the first time this word, which aroused a legitimate enthusiasm in all of us. This took place in the Terrace Café in Zurich, and I had a roll of bread up my left nostril. I am persuaded that only imbeciles and Spanish professors can be interested in dates. What interests us is the Dada spirit, and we were all Dada before Dada began.

    Hans Arp (from: A Short Survey of Surrealism, David Gascoyne, 1970)

    Note: Several artists of the Dadaist movement developed the Surrealist movement (led by André Breton) as a reaction to the absurdism of Dadaism.

    The Dadaists were protesting against society, art, culture, and life itself. At the time, war engulfed the world on a scale unlike anything experienced before, with no apparent end in sight. The Dadaist movement was, in part:

    • a reaction to the futility of war,

    • a criticism of the bourgeoise values of the time.

    • a response to the apparent emptiness of life surrounded by death.

    Life is a disgusting riddle, but we can ask harder ones, was the Dadaist attitude. To many intelligent men at this time, suicide seemed to be the one remaining solution to living, and Dada was a spectacular form of suicide, a manifestation of almost lunatic despair.

    David Gascoyne, A Short Survey of Surrealism, 1970

    As mentioned earlier, the Dadaist movement was born in Zurich. The city of Zurich during WWI was a boiling pot of European refugees, pacifists and revolutionaries, writers, and artists, including futurists, expressionists and cubists.

    Futurism: an art movement originating in Italy that focussed on dynamism, energy, and technology.

    Expressionism: an art movement originating in Northern Europe that focussed on expressing emotions, often through image distortion.

    Cubism: an avant-garde art movement that focussed on breaking down scenes, objects and people into fragmented, abstract forms.

    In 1915 Tristan Tzara and Frans Arp met in Zurich and were later joined by Hugo Ball (1886-1927), Emmy Hennings (1885-1948), Richard Huelsenbeck (1892-1974) and Marcel Janko (1895-1984). In 1916 they formed the Dadaist movement, led by Tzara.

    1916 - Cabaret Voltaire

    The Dada group opened the Cabaret Voltaire in early 1916. The shows ran nightly for four months and included:

    • poetry readings
    • cubist dances
    • short plays
    • sketches.

    Hans Arp described it:

    Total Pandemonium. The people around us are shouting, laughing and gesticulating. Our replies are sighs of love, volleys of hiccups, poems, moos and meowing… Tzara is wriggling his behind like the belly of an Oriental dancer. Janco is playing an invisible violin and Madame Hennings with a Madonna face, is doing the splits. Huelsenbeck is banging away nonstop on the great drum, with Ball accompanying him on the piano, pale as a chalky ghost.

    Hans Arp, Dadaland, 1938

    In June of 1916, the Cabaret Voltaire published its first review containing poems by Tzara, Ball, Hennings, Janko, and Huelsenbeck.

    Cabaret Voltaire had to close and was replaced soon after by the Dada Gallery.

    Dada Gallery

    The Dada gallery exhibited paintings by artists like Paul Klee (1879-1940), Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Hans Arp, Max Ernst (1891-1976), Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) and Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920).

    On the 14th of July 1916, Tzara read his first Manifesto of Dadaism at the gallery. Tzara attacked and derided the conventional arts, science, philosophy and psychology of the time.

    In 1917 a second review was published, called Dada 1, Miscellany of Art and Literature.

    Dadaism, Dada 1, Miscellany of Art and Literature, StudySmarter

    Fig. 1 - This is the original cover of the review Dada 1, Miscellany of Art and Literature.

    By 1919 Dadaism was in full flow in Zurich, with Dadaist publications, exhibitions and soirees.

    There was a notorious public soiree in April of 1919. On this occasion, five Dadaists dressed up in stovepipes and danced. Then a poetry reading was announced. The 'reading' involved the poet going on stage with a bunch of flowers, which he placed at the foot of a dummy. Tzara got up to make a statement on Dadaism, but by then, there was so much noise that nobody could hear a word.

    In May, a Dada anthology was published, containing works by most Dada artists then known.

    At the same time that the Dadaists were growing in Zurich, something similar was happening in New York. Marcel Duchamp was already there, teaching French. Duchamp, disgusted with 'high' or traditional art, devised a new form of expression he called 'ready-made'. By this, Duchamp meant any manufactured item could serve the artist in self-expression. This was when he sent a urinal entitled Fountain to the New York Art Exhibition of 1917.

    Meanwhile, a form of Dadaism was also growing in Paris. André Breton contacted Tzara and encouraged him to come to Paris. Tzara moved there at the end of 1919.

    1920 Paris

    Paris, at this time, was a melting pot of experimental writing and painting. Various reviews had already been published that were very Dadaist in their outlook. Contributors included future Surrealist André Breton and Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918). In 1917 Apollinaire had shown Breton the published material of the Zurich Dadaists. Breton felt inspired by Dadaism and contacted Tzara.

    Breton and his friends warmly welcomed Tzara, and a Dada matinée was performed soon after. This opened with some poetry readings. Then Breton brought on stage a blackboard with a drawing of a machine on it. Breton immediately wiped this drawing off with a cloth. Next, he produced a picture by Marcel Duchamp. This was a print of the Mona Lisa (1503) by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), with a moustache drawn on it by Duchamp.

    Dada Example

    Duchamp's Mona Lisa is an example of his 'found' or 'ready-made' form of expression. Duchamp took a ready-printed copy of Leonardo da Vinci's painting Mona Lisa and drew a moustache on her face. He then titled this work L.H.O.O.Q. When pronounced in French, these letters sound like the phrase 'Elle ha Chaud au Cul' or 'She has a hot a**.'

    Duchamp's Mona Lisa has become a symbol of rebellion against all art. However, its first appearance in 1920 was not well received. This was followed by Tzara's announcement of a Dada manifesto, which consisted of Tzara reading out a newspaper article accompanied by the sound of ringing bells. The audience lost patience, and the performance ended in furore.

    1920 Expulsion

    Meanwhile, many artists in Paris were worried by the Dadaist movement and its influence. If Dadaism took over, then 'serious' art and its artists would be negatively affected. Many of these artists belonged to a group called the Section d'Or (the Golden Section).

    On the 25th of February of 1920, the Section d'Or called a meeting with the Dadaists at the Café La Closerie de Lilas. The Section d'Or attempted to formally 'expel' the Dadaists. The Dadaists had no intention of being expelled, and the scene quickly became noisy and disruptive. The noise got so bad that the cafe owner turned out the lights. This made no difference to the noise, and one of the 'expellers', Leopold Survage (1879-1968), got on a chair and continued to shout, 'Expelled! You are all expelled!'.

    The Dadaists did not care one way or the other, and this scene could be considered a part of Dada expression.

    Dadaism had become very fashionable, only people didn't understand and wanted explanations - was it serious or a huge prank? Dadaism was both and neither of these things. It was all about rebellion, revolt, and anarchy:

    ...it was a delirium, the public could never understand it unless they felt the same way themselves.

    David Gascoyne, A Short Survey of Surrealism, 1970

    In May of 1920, the Dadaists held a festival. The advertisement for it announced that Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977) would appear and that the Dadaists would pull out their hair. Neither of these things happened. Instead, the programme included titles such as:

    • The Interloping Navel, music by G. Ribemont-Dessaignes
    • The International Crook, by André Breton
    • You Will Forget Me, by André Breton and Philippe Soupault
    • The American Nurse, music by Francis Picabia
    • Symphonic Vaseline, by Tristan Tzara, played by 20 people

    As with previous performances, the Festival was an excuse for the Dadaists to attack the audience verbally; this time, the audience responded in kind. During intervals, some of the audience fetched meat from a nearby butcher to throw at the Dadaists during the performance; others threw tomatoes.

    The response delighted the Dadaists, and the whole show soon descended into an all-out brawl. For the Dadaists, the audience's behaviour on such occasions was part of Dada.

    By mid-1921, there was division growing inside the Dada group in Paris. Breton disassociated himself. Some Dadaists followed Breton; others stayed with Tzara.

    In June 1922, the Dadaists held a large international exhibition at Galerie Montaigne. Another group of artists were exhibiting at a Paris theatre. The Dadaists caused a riot at the theatre. The theatre owner also owned the Galerie and closed the Dada exhibition down. Tzara tried to keep Dadaism going by putting on a play, The Bearded Heart (1922). Breton led a protest at the first performance, which turned into another riot, and Tzara called the police.

    The only way for Dadaism to continue is for it to cease to exist.

    André Breton, from A Short Survey of Surrealism, David Gascoyne, 1970

    The incident of The Bearded Heart signalled the death of Dadaism. Breton and his followers broke with Dadaism to develop Surrealism, which Tzara later joined.

    Dadaism characteristics

    Dadaism aimed to subvert traditional perceptions of the arts and society. It used various methods, including found objects, collage, photography and photomontage.

    An important aspect of Dadaist expression was its randomness. For example, a collage would consist of randomly torn printed materials without order and method. The pieces would be rearranged to create humorous and/or disturbing images.

    Key characteristics of Dadaism included:

    • Humour/fun/mockery

    • Spontaneity

    • Freedom of expression

    • Irrationality/nonsense/absurdism

    Dadaism in literature

    In literature, the Dadaist focus tended to be on poetry, in which Dadaists also sought new forms of expression.

    Tzara's method of writing a poem involved cutting words out of a newspaper article, shaking them in a bag, and then taking the words out one by one and arranging them in sequence.

    Dadaism: examples

    Hugo Ball created Six Sound Poems (1916) that he would recite/perform while dressed in a paper and cardboard costume. The poems were intentionally incoherent, and Ball invented his own language to write them in.

    jolifanto bambla o falli bambla

    großiga m'pfa habla horem

    egiga goramen

    higo bloiko russula huju

    hollaka hollala

    anlogo bung

    blago bung blago bung

    bosso fataka

    ü üü ü

    schampa wulla wussa olobo

    hej tatta gorem

    eschige zunbada

    wulubu ssubudu uluwu ssubudu

    –umf kusa gauma

    ba–umf

    'Karawane', Hugo Ball, 191

    Another example of Dadaism in literature is Tzara's play The Bearded Heart. As with all other Dada works, Dada plays were intended to be 'anti-plays', a complete reversal of what theatre audiences expected. Tzara's The Bearded Heart was no exception. There was no storyline and little or no coherence. Dialogues were held in a nonsense language between a Nose, Ear, Mouth, Eye, Neck and Eyebrow, accompanied by confusing ballet and music.

    Dadaism (1926-1922) - Key takeaways

    • Dadaism began in 1916. Dadaism is the deliberate denial or subversion of traditional art conventions.
    • Dadaism was founded in Zurich by Tristan Tzara and Hans Arp.
    • Dadaism appeared in various forms in Zurich, Paris, Cologne, New York, and Berlin.
    • In Tzara's first Manifesto of Dadaism in 1916, he attacked and derided the arts, science, philosophy and psychology.
    • Characteristics of Dadaism include:
      • Humour
      • Spontaneity
      • Freedom of expression
      • Irrationality
    Frequently Asked Questions about Dadaism

    What is Dadaism?

    Dadaism is the deliberate denial or subversion of traditional art conventions.

    What are the characteristics of Dadaism?

    Humor, spontaneity, irrationality.

    Who are the main Dadaist artists?

    Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, André Breton.

    What was the purpose of Dadaism?

    Dadaism sought to challenge and rebel against everything.

    When did Dadaism start?

    Dadaism began in 1916. 

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