Contextual Studies, Dada

I decided to kick off with Dada and Surrealism.. and then discovered there is a special exhibition on these two in the Dean Gallery which is very handy.

Information here is gathered from the Dean, from Dietmar Elgar’s book ‘Dadaism’, and Matthew Gales’ ‘Dada and Surrealism’, and Fiona Bradley’s ‘Surrealism’, Amy Dempsey’s ‘Style Schools and Movements’ plus web research.

Dada started in 1916 in Zurich and the context is key, it was the middle of World War 1 and Europe was in carnage.  The artists involved at the beginning in Zurich at the Cabaret Voltaire were Hugo Ball and partner Emmy Hennings, Tristan Tsara, Hans Richter, Marcel Janco, Hans Arp, and Richard Huelsenbeck.  They were all seeking refuge in Switzerland, (in fact none of the original Zurich Dada group were Swiss nationals).  As Huelsenbeck put it “None of us had any understanding for the courage that is needed to allow oneself to be shot dead for the idea of the nation, which is at best and interest  group of fur-dealers and leather merchants, at worst an interest-group of psychopaths, who from the German ‘fatherland’, set out with their volumes of Goethe in their kitbags to stick their bayonets into French and Russian bellies” (Elder).

I found it confusing working out what art movements preceded the start of Dada as so many different people and ideas were alluded to but when I looked at a time chart it made more sense.  The first fifteen years of the 20th Century were incredibly busy ferment of different movements and with improved communication there was a lot of cross fermentation.  Fauvism, (Matisse), German Expressionism (Beckmann, Macke and Heckel),  Cubism (Picasso and Braque), Futurism (Boccioni), Der Blaue Reiter (Kandinsky) and Suprematism (Malevich) plus a lot of others were packed into this short period.  Also because some of these movements were short lived and their fields of interest overlapped the same artist could occupy different movements over time.  It seems these movements were all responding to the massive change in the way people perceived the human relationship with the planet, the recognition of the massive impact of industrialisation and how mans’ relationship with nature was changed from being in harmony to one of management and control.  Some groups focused more on spirituality and emotion in their art, whereas others were more enamoured by the potential of the machine.  However it was the total carnage of the First World War and its perceived pointlessness that motivated the development of Dada.

Dada was set up to be anti-establishment, anti-art, to shock and provoke its audience and to challenge the established order which had led to the war.  Max Ernst described Dada as “a rebellious upsurge of vital energy and rage” (Dean).  It operated across all genres, visual art, music and drama performance, literature etc.  It placed a heavy emphasis on the nonsensical, and in fact the word Dada had no meaning .  After the war the Dada movement spread out from Zurich to Berlin and Cologne, to Paris and to New York and in each place developed its own particular character.  In Germany Dada artists were returning to a defeated nation and their anti war posture was therefore very acceptable, but in Paris there was a new victorious nationalistic conservatism holding sway.  In America, much more detached from the actual theatre of war the Dada movement seemed primarily about challenging the established art world.  The consistant feature about  Dada was about shock, and after a while it became predictably shocking, so the nature of the movement spelled its end.  The other major theme I discerned was what I think of as nihilism, a core negativity, and deconstructivist approach.

There were a great many visual artists involved in the Dada movement or on its periphery, the major players were:

Hans Arp  and his partner Sophie Taeuber (Zurich), Raoul Hausmann and Hannah Hoch (Berlin), Kurt Schwitters (Hanover), Max Ernst (Cologne), Duchamps and Picabia (Europe and the USA), Man Ray (New York).


Hans Arp, Rectangles Arranged According to the Laws of Chance.

The principle of chance was important in Arp’s Zurich work.  However the books I read question Arp’s initial description that pieces of paper were allowed to fall on a cardboard sheet and then pasted in position, both suggested that the ramdon positioning of the squares where they fell was only a starting point, they were then pushed around until Arp found a definitive composition.  I suppose the inference behind this work is randomness of order and how chance plays its part.. questionning the divine rightness of the natural order of all areas of life.


Raoul Hausmann, Mechanical Head (The Spirit of our Age)

There is some argument about the date of this sculpture made of found objects by Hausmann, the artist said it was made in 1919 but others said it was later.  Hausmann stated at the time “In Dada you will recognise your own personal state: wonderful configurations in real material, wire, glass, cardboard, cloth, organic in accordance with your own altogether perfect fragility, your battered state.” I have included this sculpture as I like it, however Hausmanns earlier Dadaist work was based around photomontage.. in fact one book said Hausmann considered he had invented the Photomontage technique.


Hannah Hoch – Incision with Dada Pastry Knife through Germany’s Last Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch

Elder writes that being the only woman in the Berlin Dada movement Hoch had a hard time, she was also the mistress of Hausmann who was still living with his wife.  When Hans Richter wrote his memoirs he commented on Hochs ability to rustle up food rather than taking her seriously as a fellow artist.  However this collage which “applies a surgical scalpel to the political events and upheavel of the time” was considered one of the most impressive exhibits on display at the First International Dada Fair in Berlin in 1920.  This is described as being an additive rather than a compositional collage, I find the distinction a bit intriguing.

Marcel Duchamp was an incredibly important figure in the Dada movement in Paris and New York and his work caused huge outrage amongst the critics, “The Fountain”  being the most famous.  I have not dwelt on this as it is already so well covered.  In1921, Man Ray and Duchamp published the only issue of New York Dada. Several months after it appeared, Man Ray wrote Tristan Tzara, complaining that “Dada cannot live in New York. All New York is dada and will not tolerate a rival, will not notice dada.” He followed Duchamp to Paris shortly thereafter.

Dada seems to have moved towards its end in Paris first.  The emphasis on negativity and anti-art became more nihilistic and by the end of the 1921 season artists and writers involved in the Literature Group (a publication organised by the poets  Breton and Aragon and Soupault) were disatisfied.  as Breton wrote ” The 1918 Dada Manifesto seemed to open wide the doors, but we discovered they opened onto a corridor that was going nowhere.”  There were lots of  disputes that became bitter and were carried out in the magazines printed by various factions but the two sides polarized between Tsara and Breton.  Funnily enough, given the anarchic origins of the Dada movement and their insistance on not taking anything seriously, in Paris at this time they took themselves very seriously.   Following this Breton split with the Dada artists but maintained contact with those who shared his interest in surrealism and exploring the potential of the unconscious.

The text books refer to the Dada movement lasting until the mid 1920’s, a realtively short period of operation of less than a decade, although some of its main contributors continued to work in a way that could be considered Dadaist, however its influence was enormous.  It seems to me it opened up the way for pop art, performance art and more obviously neo-dadaism.


2 thoughts on “Contextual Studies, Dada

  1. really engaging work – especially interested in the womens’ art. (writing by Sue Tate is interesting and someone told me about exhibition angels of anarchy). have a look at my website if you have time too… thanks!

  2. Quite thorough article on the Dada movement, thanks for posting! I just came across your article because it was recommended to me after I published an article on Dada – in which I even included the same Hoch, incidentally.

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