Dada: The Thoughtful Irrationality Of Artists

Dada was an international, avant-garde art and literary movement that flourished between 1915 and 1922. The Dadaists’ declared purpose was to protest the senseless violence of World War I, which they believed had made all established moral and aesthetic values meaningless. The term itself means “hobbyhorse” in French and was supposedly chosen at random from the dictionary. Dada promulgated anti-art and non-sense, declaring that art did not depend in any way on established rules or on craftsmanship;  the only law was that of chance, and the only reality that of the imagination. Dada is often viewed as nihilistic, but it can also be seen as a kind of thoughtful irrationality, a way toward liberation achieved by penetrating into the unknown regions of the mind. Dada appeared nearly simultaneously in Zürich, New York City, and Paris, and soon took hold in Germany.  It finally concentrated in Paris.

In Zürich, where political exiles of all kinds took refuge during World War I, Dada was initiated by Hugo Ball, a German actor and playwright;  Jean Arp, an Alsatian painter and poet; Richard Huelsenbeck, a German poet; Marcel Janco, a Romanian artist; and Tristan Tzara, a Romanian poet.  Together they founded the Cabaret Voltaire – a theater, literary gathering place, and exhibition center. They offered scandalous and mysterious entertainments, lectured, and exhibited together a variety of artists such as Arp, Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Pablo Picasso. Arp illustrated the works of Huelsenbeck and Tzara, and created a new type of collage by tearing pieces of colored paper and arranging them according to chance.  In 1918, Tzara wrote the manifesto for the movement.

Marcel Duchamp, who in 1915 had moved to New York City and in the same year coined the term “ready-made,” was the chief anticipator of Dada.  For his ready-mades, Duchamp took mundane objects such as snow shovels, urinals, and bottle racks, gave them titles, and signed them, thus turning their context from utility to aesthetics. Duchamp also invented word games, made an abstract film, and edited several reviews in the United States from 1913. His friend Francis Picabia worked with him and with Man Ray in New York on the Dada Review 291; Picabia founded the Dada Review 391 in Barcelona in 1917.

In 1919 Max Ernst launched Dadaism in Cologne with his friend Arp. Ernst’s type of collage technique was an important contribution to the Dada cause, as was the collage-painting of Kurt Schwitters, the chief figure of Dada in Hanover, Germany, who called Dada Merz, “something cast-off, junk.” Dada emerged as a group activity in Paris when a Dada salon opened at the Montaigne Gallery in 1922.  Dada has had a long and significant influence in art to the present time, and was the subject of a major exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1989. Dada found literary expression in France–principally in the form of nonsense poems and random combinations of words–with the writings of Louis Aragon, Andre Breton, and Paul Eluard. They founded the revue Littérature in 1919;  it was published until 1924. These writers soon abandoned the Dada movement, however, and turned to Surrealism.

Author: The Artist

Artist, Designer & Photographer

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