Dadaism: Origins of the literary and artistic movement

Nothing has ever, or will ever, shake the world like World War I. Technology, which had been touted as something that would change the world for the better, was being used to kill people by the thousands instead. Just 150 miles outside of Paris, 120,000 Frenchmen were killed in a deadly German offensive. This led to a separate group of French soldiers being brought in as reinforcements to spend their march baa-ing like lambs being sent off to the abattoir in a poignant, if futile protest.

Amidst this backdrop of tragedy, a profound transformation was underway. Art, constantly intertwined with the fabric of societal unrest, found new expression. Out of the ashes of conflict emerged a radical movement: Dadaism. 

The scale of death and destruction of the war fundamentally altered how artists perceived the world. The frivolous pursuit of entertaining the public took a backseat, replaced by a fervent desire to rebel, to challenge, and to provoke through their art.

With its origins rooted in Zurich, Switzerland, Dadaism spread quickly to New York City and Paris. Dadaism was pivotal in changing the way the world viewed art by challenging traditional ideas and paving the way for surrealism, conceptual art, and performance art.

What is Dadaism? 

Even though Dadaism was truly born in response to World War I and the bourgeois, the building blocks of the movement had been around for years before. Movements like Cubism and Futurism set the stage for Dada art.

While Dadaism would become an international movement, the heart of the entire thing undoubtedly started in Europe. Many Dadaists believed that things like capitalism and consumerism were part of the reason for World War I, and Dada artwork was a form of protest against these sensibilities. 

Dada artwork was believed by many Dadaists to not even really be art at all. Dadaism rejected things like traditional artistic aesthetics and instead, was meant to offend those who observed it.

One Dadaist, Hugo Ball, described the movement, 

“ For us, art is not an end in itself … but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in.”

In Switzerland, Dada was started by a group of artists and intellectuals like Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, and Marcel Janco. These people had swayed towards the unconventional before, but with Dada, they really found their footing. 

Artists that engaged with Dadaism didn’t stick to just painting or pencil on a canvas, or even still art as a whole. Instead, performance art, poetry readings, and everything in between were welcomed and celebrated. 

Other unconventional techniques that Dada was known for were collage, photomontage, readymades, and absurdism. Examples of famous Dada pieces would include things like a urinal, a graffitied Mona Lisa, and a clothing iron with tacks attached. 

Practitioners of Dadaism leaned heavily into the idea of “anti-art”, making work that was nonsensical, irrational, and often dark to criticize the politics of the day and the disillusionment of the public with the war. 

While it was hard to pinpoint exactly what Dada was, the legacy of it remains to this day. Dada was meant to challenge both people and perceptions and in that, it continues to succeed. 

Dada, the Mysterious Moniker 

No one quite knows where the name “Dada” originated from, but there are a few theories that prevail.

The first thought about the name is that Dada was chosen because it’s a nonsense word. The Dada movement itself embraced nonsense and anti-art sensibilities, so it makes sense that a meaningless word would fit the movement best. 

Next is the idea that the term “Dada” came from the Romanian word for yes, “Da”. Two of the founding members of the Dada movement were Romanian, and they would frequently utter the phrase “Da, da,” meaning “Yes, yes.” It’s not known how this phrasing would have become the name for the movement itself.

The third theory for the “Dada” moniker was that a group of Dadaists, in search of a name for their movement, stabbed a paper knife into a French-German dictionary. Their searching knife landed on the word “dada”, which is French for a hobby horse.

Despite these varying theories, there isn’t one that rises above the others. But many consider it fitting that the randomness of the Dada movement would come alongside a mysterious name.

The Birth of Dadaism

Cabaret Voltaire, (1916)

On February 5, 1916, the Cabaret Voltaire opened. While it was only open for a brief amount of time, Cabaret Voltaire would be the origin point of Dadaism. The club was in Zurich, Switzerland, and was founded by Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Tristan Tzara, and others. The beginning of the movement was highlighted by artistic pursuits such as provocative shows and poetry readings. 

Zurich was perfectly set to become the nucleus of a movement like Dada. Since Switzerland was neutral during World War I, it was the perfect place for artists to flee. Becoming a melting pot of different forms of artistic expression, Cabaret Voltaire was a place where refugee artists could explore and experiment. Within those walls, shock art and scandal were prevalent.

Sadly, the Cabaret was just a flash in the pan, and it closed the same year it opened, in the summer of 1916.

The Dueling Dada Manifestos, (1916-1918) 

Hugo Ball, one of the founders of Cabaret Voltaire, also wrote a text that described the Dada movement for the masses. He presented it only on July 14th, 1916, on Bastille Day. His manifesto tried to give the definition of Dada in various languages and ended with an absurd and dramatic tone. 

Despite being well-meaning, Hugo Ball’s Dada Manifesto sparked anger in other Dadaists, causing them to release manifestos of their own. The idea of Dada as something that could be easily understood was the antithesis of the movement in the opinion of a lot of artists. Most notable was Tristan Tzara, who articulated his rejection of traditional aesthetics, nationalism, and societal norms through his own writings. These manifestos became the intellectual foundation of the movement, emphasizing the importance of randomness, absurdity, and anti-art.

Spread and Influence (1917-1920)

Dada in Berlin and the First International Dada Fair

Berlin was the next big city to be infected by the Dada bug, and unlike Zurich, Berlin was vulnerable to the war. This overarching threat led to Berlin’s Dada movement being more focused and less anti-art. The Dadaism of Berlin was scorchingly political and included manifestos, shocking visual art, and even public demonstrations. 

As Dadaism transcended the national boundaries of Switzerland and found a home in Berlin, artists like Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann embraced its principles. The Berlin Dadaists pushed the movement further, exploring photomontage and collage as significant art forms. Belin’s Dadaism movement peaked with the First International Dada Fair, which took place in the city in 1920, featuring more than 200 pieces. This Dada Fair featured significantly in the showing of degenerate art put on by the Nazis 17 years later.

Dada in New York City and the Infamous Fountain

Dadaism crossed the Atlantic in 1915 as New York City, like Zurich, became a safe haven for artists fleeing World War I. 

Dada from Europe had already influenced American artists, notably Man Ray, by the time the first Dadaists began to arrive. Joining up with French artists Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia, the trio spawned the American wave of anti-art. Duchamp’s readymade, especially, truly challenged what art really was. These readymades used everyday objects and presented them in their unchanged forms as a piece of artwork to be appreciated.

With these readymades, Duchamp unknowingly produced a piece of artwork that would eventually come to represent Dada as a whole: Fountain. 

The Impact of Fountain 

There is no conversation about Dada without a deep look into Marcel Duchamp’s most famous work, and arguably the most famous piece of Dada artwork ever, Fountain.

Duchamp had only been in the United States for a mere 2 years when he created Fountain, which was simply a porcelain urinal with the signature “R. Mutt 1917” on the side of it. He submitted it for an exhibition in the Society of Independent Artists, and while it wasn’t outright rejected, it was never displayed. 

Fountain was stunningly unpopular with the members of the Society’s board, except for, of course, Duchamp himself. When Fountain was rejected, Duchamp resigned to protest his piece being shunned. 

Even today, arguments persist on both sides of the question about Fountain’s significance as art. Fountain still fascinates people because of the idea that it puts forth–that art is a concept, not an object. 

Fountain, simply by existing, railed against many people’s idea of what art truly is. It’s because of this that it became the poster child for Dada, even now. 

Dada in Cologne

Near the end of the Dada movement, it found a foothold in Cologne, Germany. There, the focus was primarily on anti-bourgeois ideas and going against the grain of appropriateness. 

There, a shocking Dada exhibit called the Early Spring Exhibition, was put on in a pub. It featured performance art such as pathways lined with urinals and participants being forced to walk past a woman reading lewd poems while dressed in a communion dress. 

Like many Dada installations, the Early Spring Exhibit was met with anger, and it was swiftly shut down by local police for obscenity. Later, when the charges were dropped, it reopened. 

Dada in Paris and The Gas Heart Riot

The next stronghold of the Dada movement would be Paris, France. At the time, France was the heart of the avant-garde scene. Dada artwork was closely linked to the avant-garde movement, and because of this, members of both movements kept track of one another. 

Dadaism really started to take off in Paris in 1920, when many of the original members of the movement began to migrate to the city. It was there that works of Dadaist theater started to take the stage. These productions made audiences quite upset, to the point that one production, The Gas Heart, started a riot. 

Dadaism’s Evolution (1920s-1930s)

As World War I and the 1920s both came to an end, Dadaism started to lose steam in a lot of artistic circles. Protests against capitalism and the perceived gluttony it represented fell on deaf ears, but the eventual impact of the Dada movement would ultimately be incredibly far-reaching. 

One of the most striking impacts of Dadaism can be seen in the Surrealist movement. Surrealist artists like Salvador Dalí and René Magritte drew inspiration from Dada’s rebellious spirit, incorporating elements of chance and irrationality into their works. Some former Dada artists even became Surrealists as the new movement began to see success.

The Dada ethos resurfaced in the form of neo-Dada movements, characterized by artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Even though Dadaism was so short-lived, only 2 years, its influence can be seen in all sorts of music, theater, visual art, and even music. 

Dadaism, as a whole, demands that audiences question established artistic norms. Through Dadaism, anything can be art and can challenge us to think beyond the outward appearance of a piece of artwork. 

Some artists that cited Dadaism as an influence are:

  • Pop band Chumbawamba 
  • Musician Frank Zappa
  • Musician Kurt Cobain
  • Musician David Bowie 
  • Playwright Tom Stoppard 
  • Conceptual artist Mark Divo

Characteristics of Dadaism

  • Absurdity and Anti-Art: Dada artists rejected traditional artistic techniques, which led them to describe the movement as “anti-art”. Instead, absurdity and randomness were embraced. 
  • Collage and Photomontage: Dadaists were some of the first artists to really use collage and photomontage in their works. These two techniques use the cutting up of other pictures or writings and combining them in new and thought-provoking ways. 
  • Found Objects and Readymades: A big part of Dada was changing everyday objects into art, with little to no changes. Readymade pieces like Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain displayed this approach, to varying degrees of popularity and success. 
  • Performance and Poetry: Dada performances often involved nonsensical poetry readings, sound poetry, and provocative acts.


“How Duchamp’s Urinal Changed Art Forever”


“A Brief History of Dada”

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