I’ve been meaning to write this piece about Dadaism over the last few months because my eldest daughter (14, going 15 in a couple of months) had casually told me some time ago that my sense of humor was ” kind of weird”. “Surely,” I answered, “you mean a little warped, don’t you?” She responded calmly: “you’re so Monty Python!” It got me thinking: where did I get my looniness from? Dada may be the obvious answer. That movement fitted perfectly in my cerebral cortex. It also helped that one of my uncle, a self confessed lunatic and globetrotter, had an extensive collection of Dada art prints which I admired and secretly coveted. Alas, he fell on hard times during my sojourn in Australia and had to sell most of his belongings to cover the cost of an expensive divorce.


Dada or Dadaism (French from dada, child’s word for a horse, don’t ask me why it was named as such) was a near nihilistic movement in the arts that flourished in France, Switzerland, and Germany from about 1916 to 1920 and slowly morphed into surrealism later.

As you might expect with a zany movement, it was based on the principles of deliberate irrationality and cynicism with a tad of anarchistic tendencies thrown in. It began as a cultural movement in Zürich, Switzerland, during World War I as a rejection of the prevailing standards in art through anti-art cultural works and primarily involved visual arts, literature/poetry, art manifestos and graphic design, a lot of graphic design! The movement was, among other things, a protest against the barbarism of the war and what Dadaists believed was an oppressive intellectual rigidity in both art and everyday society. It is not surprising that it influenced later movements including Surrealism.


But its real purpose was to ridicule what its participants considered to be the meaninglessness of the modern world. In addition to being anti-war, dada was also deeply anti-bourgeois. In 1916 Hugo Ball, a German poet self-exiled himself and set up a café in Zurich called the Cabaret Voltaire. He defined his “philosophy” in the following words: “It is necessary to clarify the intentions of this cabaret. It is its aim to remind the world that there are people of independent minds – beyond war and nationalism – who live for different ideals.” Quickly, noted bohemians, musicians and writers frequented the cafe creating havoc in an atmosphere that emphasized artistic lunacy. Early Monty Python? Below, Hugo Ball, wonderfully colored in, reading the sound poem “Karavane,” Cabaret Voltaire, 1916.


Its dark premises were artists’ club, exhibition room, pub, and theater, all rolled into one. The artists’ performances consisted of the oddest works which had never before been seen or heard. Noise music, simultaneous poems recited by 4 to 7 voices speaking all at once, bizarre dances in grotesque masks and fancy costumes, interrupted by readings of German and French sound verses sounding like nothing on Earth, and solemn incantations of texts by the mystic Jacob Böhme and of Lao-Tse. On the walls had been hung pictures by artists whose names had been unknown until then: Arp, Paolo Buzzi, Cangiullo, Janco, Kisling, Macke, Marinetti, Modigliani, Mopp, Picasso, van Rees, Slodki, Segal, Wabel, and others.


In Paris Dada took on a literary emphasis under one of its founders, the poet Tristan Tzara. Most notable among Dada pamphlets and reviews was Littérature (published 1919-24), which contained writings by André Breton, Louis Aragon, Philippe Soupault, and Paul Éluard (more on this below). Tristan Tzara in pic below.


For everything that art stood for, Dada was to represent the exact opposite. Where art was concerned with aesthetics, Dada ignored them, in other words, fight art with art. A great example is Marcel Duchamp’s ‘L.H.O.O.Q’ which mocks the mona Lisa by installing a mustache on her face (see intro). Pic below is Marcel Duchamp’s aptly named “Nudes descending a Staircase”.


Another main player in this “passion play” was Hans Arp, co-founder of the Zürich Dada movement: he illustrated Tristan Tzara’s “25 Poems” and Huelsenbeck’s “Fantastic Prayers,” the latter with woodcuts which he called “Studies in Symmetry.” In his reminiscences, “Dadaland,” Arp writes,

“I met Tzara and Serner at the ‘Odeon’ and the ‘Café Terasse’ in Zürich, where we were writing a cycle of poems called ‘Hyperbole of the Crocodile-Hairdresser and the Walking-Stick. This kind of poem was later called ‘Automatic Poetry.’”


When Tristan Tzara came to Paris, André Breton, a noted poet (and founder of the Surrealist movement later) joined the Paris Dada movement together with his friends Paul Eluard and Phillipe Soupalt. The periodical “Littérature,” of which Breton was co-founder, served the cause of the Dadaists. (Btw, the Littérature link is worth checking: all of its editions are archived there. This is a great insight into Dadaism)

One cannot talk about the Dada movement without mentioning Max Ernst: painter, poet, he took part in the dada-meeting in Tyrol 1921, together with Arp, Breton and Tzara. In 1919 he founded, together with Arp and Baargeld, the Cologne dada group and collaborated with Arp in the creation of the “Fatagaga” collages.


To surmise, there were many more participants in this most excellent artistic adventure, surely not to be duplicated ever again. For all of its outrageous behavior, chaotic imagery, cacophonous sounds, and humorous wordplay, Dada held at its core a serious ethical stance against contemporary social and political conditions.

I wrote this for my daughter, naturally.

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