Modern Art Miniseries: 13/20

Dadaism

The beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of art, but the beginnings of disgust.” — Tristan Tzara, a French poet associated with the Dada movement

According to tradition, the term “Dada” originated when a group of anti-war students and artists met together in Zürich, Switzerland in 1916. Someone turned to a random page in a French-German dictionary, and pointed a knife at a random word, Dada, which is French for ‘hobby horse’. The absurdity of the word stuck with the group and gave the movement its name. 

Dadaism was a movement against everything—against rationality, order, and especially traditional values like nationalism, war, art, and religion. The decadence of the 1920’s that followed the first years of this movement and the contempt for the bourgeoisie classes are also important in studying Dadaist art. 

Dadaism was more of a group of thinkers creating objects to criticize political and social structures than an art movement; the meaning of the object was more important than its artistic value; “intellectual expression” was more important than the artwork or art object. Non-traditional mediums like photo montages became popular at this time, as did ‘ready made objects’, or every day objects that were assigned artistic values. This helped create a dialogue for what art could and couldn’t be—the infamous French artist Marcel Duchamp’s submission of an overturned urinal as a ‘Fountain’ outraged many; he is now seen as an important pioneer in the field of modern art. The Dadaists greatly impacted many later art movements, including surrealism, abstract expressionism, and conceptual art. 

Dadaism was popular in several major cities, including New York City, Berlin, Paris, Hannover, and Zürich in the 1910’s and 1920’s. Dadaism was perhaps the most powerful in Germany, where many were recovering from the humiliating losses and penalties inflicted on it by the victors of the First World War, and many more were full of resentment towards the German government and corrupt Weimar Republic. Bloated, corrupt German politicians are frequently depicted in Berlin Dadaist art, particularly in the work of Hannah Höch. In an anti-nationalist sentiment, many German artists Anglicized their names to further distance themselves from their country.

Important Dadaists artists and thinkers include: Man Ray; Marcel Duchamp; Hannah Höch; George Grosz; and Max Ernst. 

The Fountain, Marcel Duchamp. 1917. Photograph by Alfred Stieglitz

Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, Hannah Höch. 1919.

Photograph from the International Dada Fair of 1920, featuring Hannah Höch, George Grosz, and others. 

The Eclipse of the Sun, George Grosz. 1926.

Glass Tears, Man Ray. 1932.