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What is Dadaism, Dada Art, or a Dadaist?

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917.
Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917.

Art Movement: Dadaism

During the First World War, countless artists, writers and intellectuals who opposed the war sought refuge in Switzerland. Zurich, in particular, was a hub for people in exile, and it was here that Hugo Ball and Emmy Hemmings opened the Cabaret Voltaire on 5 February 1916. The Cabaret was a meeting spot for the more radical avant-garde artists. A cross between a nightclub and an arts centre, artists could exhibit their work there among cutting-edge poetry, music, and dance. Hans (Jean) Arp, Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco and Richard Huelsenbeck were among the original contributors to the Cabaret Voltaire. As the war raged on, their art and performances became increasingly experimental, dissident and anarchic. Together, they protested against the pointlessness and horrors of the war under the battle cry of DADA.


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What is Dadaism, Dada, or a Dadaist?

As a word, it is nonsense. As a movement, however, Dada art proved to be one of the revolutionary movements in the early twentieth century. Initially conceived by a loose band of avant-garde modernists in the prelude to World War I but adopted more fully in its wake, the Dadaist celebrated luck in place of logic and irrationality instead of calculated intent.

Key dates: 1916-1924
Key regions: Switzerland, Paris, New York
Key words: chance, luck, nonsense, anti-art, readymade
Key artists: Hugo Ball, Marcel Duchamp, Hans (Jean) Arp, Hannah Höch, Man Ray, Francois Picabia

Origin of Dadaism

The central premise behind the Dada art movement (Dada is a colloquial French term for a hobby horse) was a response to the modern age. Reacting against the rise of capitalist culture, the war, and the concurrent degradation of art, artists in the early 1910s began to explore new art, or an “anti-art”, as described by Marcel Duchamp. They wanted to contemplate the definition of art, and to do so they experimented with the laws of chance and with the found object. Theirs was an art form underpinned by humor and clever turns, but at its very foundation, the Dadaists were asking a very serious question about the role of art in the modern age. This question became even more pertinent as the reach of Dada art spread – by 1915 its ideals had been adopted by artists in New York, Paris, and beyond – and as the world was plunged into the atrocities of World War I.

Dadaism: Jean Arp, Constellation with Five White Forms and Two Black, Variation III, 1932, courtesy of Guggenheim.
Jean Arp, Constellation with Five White Forms and Two Black, Variation III, 1932, courtesy of Guggenheim

Advent of the Readymade

One of the most iconic forms to emerge amidst this flourish of Dadaist expression was the readymade, a sculptural form perfected by Marcel Duchamp. These were works in which Duchamp repurposed found or factory-made objects into installations. In Advance a Broken Arm(1964), for instance, involved the suspension of a snow shovel from a gallery mount; Fountain(1917), arguably Duchamp’s most recognizable readymade, incorporated a mass-produced ceramic urinal. By taking these objects out of their intended functional space and elevating them to the level of “art,” Duchamp poked fun at the art establishment while also asking the viewer to seriously contemplate how we appreciate art.

Different modes of Dadaism

As Duchamp’s readymades exemplify, the Dadaists and the Dada movement did not shy away from experimenting with new media. Jean Arp, for example, explored the art of collage and the potential for randomness in its creation. Man Ray also toyed with the arts of photography and airbrushing as practices that distanced the hand of the artist and thus incorporated collaboration with a chance. Beyond these artistic media, the Dadaists also probed the literary and performance arts. Hugo Ball, for instance, the man who penned the unifying manifesto of Dadaismin 1916, investigated the liberation of the written word. Freeing text from the conventional constraints of a published page, Ball played with the power of nonsensical syllables presented as a new form of poetry. These Dadaist poems were often transformed into performances, allowing this network of artists to move easily between media.

Hugo Ball, Cabaret Voltaire, 1916
Hugo Ball, Cabaret Voltaire, 1916

Famous Dada Artworks

1. Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917)

In 1917, Marcel Duchamp submitted a urinal to the Society of Independent Artists. The Society refused Fountain because they believed it could not be considered a work of art. Duchamp’sFountainraised countless important questions about what makes art art and is considered a major landmark in 20th-century art.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917
Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917

2. Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913)

“In 1913, I had the happy idea to fasten a bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool and watch it turn,” said Marcel Duchamp about his famous work Bicycle Wheel. Bicycle Wheel is the first of Duchamp’s readymade objects. Readymades were individual objects that Duchamp repositioned or signed and called art. He called Bicycle Wheel an “assisted readymade,” made by combining more than one utilitarian item to form a work of art.

Dadaism example: Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1913.
Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1913

3. Man Ray’s Ingres’s Violin (1924)

By painting f-holes of a stringed instrument onto the photographic print of his nude model Kiki de Montparnasse and rephotographing the print, Man Ray altered what was originally a classical nude. The female body was now transformed into a musical instrument. He also added the title Le Violon d’Ingres, a French idiom that means “hobby.”

Dadaism example: Man Ray, Ingres’s Violin, 1924.
Man Ray, Ingres’s Violin, 1924

4. Hugo Ball’s Sound Poem Karawane (1916)

Founder of the Cabaret Voltaire and writer of the first Dadaist Manifesto in 1916, most of Ball’s work was in the genre of sound poetry. In 1916, the same year in which the published the first Dadaist Manifesto, Ball performed the sound poem Karawane. The opening lines were:

“jolifanto bambla o falli bambla
großiga m’pfa habla horem”

The rest of the poem continued much along the same lines. Though the poem could be confused with random, mad ramblings, sound-poetry was really a deeply considered method in the experimental literature. The idea was to bring the sounds of human vocalization to the foreground by removing everything else.

Hugo Ball, Karawane, 1916
Hugo Ball, Karawane, 1916

5. Raoul Hausmann’s Mechanical Head (The Spirit of our Time) (1920)

Raoul Hausmann was a poet, collagist, and performance artist, who is best known for his sculpture entitled Mechanical Head (The Spirit of Our Time). The manikin head made from a solid wooden block is a reversal of Hegel’s assertion that “everything is mind.” For Hausmann, man is empty-headed “with no more capabilities than that which chance has glued to the outside of his skull.” By raising these topics, Hausmann wanted to compose an image that would shatter the mainstream Western conventions that the head is the seat of reason.

Raoul Hausmann, Mechanical Head (The Spirit of our Time), 1920
Raoul Hausmann, Mechanical Head (The Spirit of our Time), 1920

Reception, Downfall, and Dissemination of Dadaist Ideals

The bold new approaches of the Dadaists stirred controversy within contemporary culture. Their swift break from tradition, their impassioned pursuit of a new mode of expression, and their willingness to bring the revered world of “fine art” back to a more level and egalitarian playing field through both humor and inquisitive investigation allowed Dada artists to attract both fans and foes of their work. Some saw Dadaist expression as the next step forward in the avant-garde march; others missed the significance and instead saw works, such as Duchamp’s readymades, as not art but simply their constituent objects (leading to some of the originals being relegated to the refuse pile).

Dadaism gripped audiences into the 1920s, but the movement as a whole was destined to crumble. Some, like Man Ray, found their inclinations moving into the subconscious realm of Surrealism; others found the pressures on the modern European artist too weighty to bear. The rise to power of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s dealt a powerful blow to the modern art world, as the maniacal despot sought to rout out the roots of modern art, a field he considered “degenerate.” As a result, Dada artists witnessed their works mocked or destroyed and thus chose to escape the stifling air of Europe for the more liberated artistic climate of the United States and beyond.

Thought many of these initial members scattered, the ideals of Dadaism remained alive and well among contemporary artists. In many regards, one can see the threads of Dada revived, for example, during the Pop Art era, when repurposed motifs and cultural commentaries emerging from the studios of artists such as Andy Warhol resonated with a hint of Dadaist intrigue. It was in the latter half of the twentieth century that the full impact of the Dadaist moment was realized. In addition to the two major international retrospectives dissecting the Dadaist oeuvre (one in 1967 in Paris and another in 2006 at various international venues), greater research was lavished on the comprehension and preservation of their legacy.

Dadaism: Hannah Höch, Da-Dandy, 1919.
Hannah Höch, Da-Dandy, 1919

Collecting Dada Art

Though offering a universal appeal, Dadaist works can prove a challenge to collect. Beyond issues of authenticity, it is difficult to chart or project the prices such works will achieve, a problem owed to the sheer variety of media. That being said, one can note the consistency with which Dadaist works have exceeded expectations at auction. The notable sale of Marcel Duchamp’s Nu sur nu (1910-1911) for more than $1.4 million in June 2016 doubled the estimated sales price of between $555,000 – $775,000. François Picabia’s Ventilateur (1928) sold at Sotheby’s in February 2016 for more than $3.1 million at the higher end of its predicted sales range. What this trend seems to suggest is that the interest in Dada art expression and the Dada movement is still alive and well, with collectors knowledgeable with regards to the good deals that might pop up at auction.

Interested in other art movements and styles than Dadaism? Read our article on Top 25 Art Movements and Styles.


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