Art Dictionary

Dada

Tomoyoshi Murayama,

Tomoyoshi Murayama, "dancing", Berlin, 1923, detail

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In their rebellion against bourgeois standards of art, they preferred incomprehensible and frequently shocking artistic methods: they were known as the Dadaists.

»Gadji beri bimba glandridi laula lonni cadori gadjama gramma berida bimbala glandri galassassa laulitalomini . . .«
(First lines of sound poem by Hugo Ball, 1916)

Visitors to the exhibition entered through a public toilet, where they were greeted by a young girl dressed in a Holy Communion gown and reciting obscene poems. Those who did not immediately turn away in disgust walked from there into the exhibition room, where they were invited to vent their anger in response to the objects presented as art by attacking a wooden exhibit with an axe—an opportunity many people eagerly seized. Although the police closed the show on the grounds of obscenity, it was quickly reopened when it became evident that the bone of contention was a print by Albrecht Dürer. Apparently, the authorities in Cologne were not unduly shocked by the other provocations with which the public was confronted at the 1920 exhibition.

This first Dada exhibition in Cologne was initiated by the artist Max Ernst (1891–1976), who had been introduced to the Dada movement by his friend Hans Arp. The movement actually originated in Zurich. In February 1916, writer Hugo Ball (1886–1927), physician and author Richard Huelsenbeck (1892–1974), poet Tristan Tzara (1896–1963), singer Emmy Hennings (1885–1948), painter and sculptor Hans Arp (1886–1966), and film pioneer Hans Richter (1888–1976) founded the Cabaret Voltaire at a tavern in Zurich.

There are several versions of the story behind the choice of the term »Dada.« According to one, the word was discovered by chance in a French dictionary, where it is defined as a children´s expression for »hobby-horse.« Yet to understand the motivation behind the choice of this name it is enough to consider the provocative contrast between the onomatopoetic word »Dada« and such time-honored historical designations as »Renaissance« or »Classicism.«

Influenced by the shocking events of the First World War, the Dadaists were firmly convinced that it was time for a revolution in social, moral, and cultural values. The radical character of their approach to art can be truly understood only within the context of this historical situation. Dada´s founders never intended it to be a purely aesthetic innovation comparable to Impressionism, for example.

In their statements on art, members of the group defied the classical categories of art presentation. On a typical evening, visitors to the Cabaret Voltaire witnessed such performances as a recital of poems composed of primitive sounds and linguistic inventions. Frequently, two or more individuals would recite different texts simultaneously (simultaneous poetry), or a recitation would be accompanied by noise (Bruitist sound music, from the French bruit for noise, clamor). The presenters were often costumed and staged their performances with special lighting effects or elements of dance.

The focus of the Dada movement shifted in 1917. Huelsenbeck returned to Berlin, where he founded the Club Dada. The Berlin Dadaists included Raoul Hausmann (1886–1971), George Grosz (1893–1959), and Helmut Herzfeld (1891–1968), who changed his name to John Heartfield, Otto Dix (1891–1969), Hannah Höch (1889–1978), and Walter Mehring (1896–1953). In 1920, Hausmann, Heartfield, and Grosz organized the »First International Dada Exposition« at an art gallery in Berlin.

Hans Arp helped the movement gain a foothold in Cologne, where his friend Max Ernst was living at the time. Ernst organized the exhibition described in the opening paragraphs in Cologne. Tristan Tzara´s move to Paris led to the establishment of a Dada group in the French capital, which Arp and Ernst joined in 1922.

Quite independent of European Dadaism, a similar scene emerged in New York in 1915, underscoring just how closely the movement reflected the spirit of the times. New York Dada thrived on the encounters between European and American colleagues at the home of art collector Walter Arensberg and at Alfred Stieglitz´s gallery. It drew much of its inspiration from Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968). Francis Picabia (1879–1953) belonged to the New York Dada group for a brief period of time. One of the movement´s most noteworthy representatives was the film-maker, photographer, sculptor, writer, painter, and architect Man Ray (1890–1976). After Ray moved to Paris, the New York Dada scene fell into disarray, and the members of the Berlin group also began to go their separate ways in 1922. After Max Ernst and Man Ray moved to Paris, Dada blended into the budding Surrealist movement and played an instrumental role in the development of this new current in visual art from its origins in literature.

In terms of historical times, Dada was a short-lived protest movement. Yet its impact on twentieth-century and contemporary art was immense nonetheless. The dissolution of aesthetic categories and the discovery of new forms of creativity and artistic expression provided impulses that were crucial to the growth of major lines of development in contemporary art. And what is more, the Dadaists opened the door to aesthetic potentials in art that have yet to be exhausted today. Dada is a direct precursor of Pop Art, Conceptual Art and Object Art.

The Dadaists were the first artists to abandon conventional materials and techniques. Hausmann, Heartfield, and Höch invented photo-montage. Dada artists developed new techniques of collage and montage and pioneered the use of such trivial materials as newspaper clippings and postcards in their works. They experimented with the power of chance and the subconscious—and thus laid the essential groundwork for Surrealism. They presented their works as staged scenes that may reasonably be regarded as early forms of happenings and performances. They confronted the public as a group and thus undermined the status of the artist as an individual genius. They showed their works in presentations that were more like modern spatial installations than classical exhibitions. They sought dialogue with the public—in actions, with posters, and through published manifestos and journals. They displayed their new montage techniques and experimented with typography in their publications.

The Zurich Dadaists liberated the word from its traditional framework of meaning by taking texts apart and reassembling them at random, presenting the products as poems. Hans Arp applied the principle of chance to his pictures, dropping scraps of paper to the surface and affixing them wherever they came to rest. Familiar works include his colorful wood reliefs—a combination of painting, sculpture, and collage—whose amorphous forms Arp sketched spontaneously. Later on, Raoul Hausmann also used montage techniques in his sculpture. One well-known example is his Dada Head of 1919/20, a work composed of a wooden wig stand adorned with a variety of found objects. Max Ernst gave the principle of chance an entirely new look. He developed the frottage technique, a method of color contact printing, and even allowed paint to drip onto his canvases in the manner later employed by exponents of Action Painting.

Kurt Schwitters (1887–1948) was the father of Conceptual Art. He began with material collages and assemblages in 1918, works in which he incorporated found objects of all kinds—train tickets, scraps of fabric, buttons, packaging material, waste wood, newspaper clippings, etc. In one such piece, he introduced the word MERZ, which eventually became of the hallmark of his art. He wrote MERZ poems and even went so far as to call himself MERZ. Between 1923 and 1927, he built the first MERZbau, for which he converted rooms of his house into a walk-in total work of art whose individual elements can be linked to generate complex meanings.

The Dadaists also developed new techniques and forms of expression in photography and cinematic art. Hans Richter made the first films composed solely of abstract elements. Man Ray experimented with photographic techniques, developed the Rayogram (photographs produced in the darkroom without the use of a camera) and the aerograph (paintings done with a spray gun). Like Schwitters, he also worked with found objects, separating them from their ordinary contexts, altering them ironically and declaring them as works of art.

The Dadaists questioned the classical concept of art more rigorously than any other movement before them. The most radical of them all was Marcel Duchamp, who presented his first Readymades in 1913. They have since become a fixed aesthetic category in contemporary art—and are still potentially as provocative as ever. However, none of this has kept the art business from profiting from Dada. A remake of Fountain produced by Duchamp in 1964 was auctioned by Sotheby´s for nearly two million dollars in 1999.

Although the heyday of Dada was brief, the movement generated a wealth of new impulses from which art drew inspiration for decades and continues to do so to a limited extent even today. The Dada artists themselves were well aware that the shock effects would soon wear off, and they did not mourn the passing of Dada in its organized form. As Richard Huelsenbeck wrote as early as 1920, »Dada sees its end nearing and is laughing about it.«

30.03.2004 Andrea Gern

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