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Tickets, Francis Picabia, 1920
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Dadaism was a subversive cultural movement which began during the First World War.  It included  literature and theatre as well as the visual arts and music  and set out to challenge and question existing aesthetic values and the more traditional art forms by means  of nonsense poetry, illogical imagery and bizarre performances.   The movement can be seen as a collective protest by artists against  the horrors of the war and the authorities responsible for it.

Dadaism  began in Zurich in February 1916 in the Cabaret Voltaire, a music/performance space established by the actor, musician and playwright Hugo Ball.   In exile from Germany, Ball was joined by other immigrants such as Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp, Marcel Junco  and Sophie Taeuber  among others. 

The word Dada was selected randomly from the dictionary and is the French word for ‘hobby horse’.    Dada represented the freedom to experiment and express oneself through art.  The art,  poetry and performances  of the Dadaists  were designed to shock  audiences and challenge the bourgeois conventions of the time.  For the Dadaists,  this was a way to wipe out  the old and to begin again with a clean slate.

Disfigured  masks created by Marcel Junco were the inspiration behind some of the strange and wacky costumes favoured by these first Zurich Dadaists.  Wearing both masks and costumes,  they put on absurd performances whilst reciting nonsense verse.  Dada painters mounted subversive art exhibitions, some made up of abstract images, others consisting of typography and collage. Tristan Tzara, a co-founder of the movement with Hugo Ball, published the Dada magazine between 1917 and 1920.

Kurt Schwitters, UndBild 1919 (dadaism)
UndBild, Kurt Schwitters 1919
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The movement  quickly spread across Northern Europe to Cologne, Berlin, Vienna and Paris.  Artists such as Max Ernst,  Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia were also actively involved.  Duchamp famously presented an upturned urinal signed R. Mutt and entitled ‘Fountain’ to a New York exhibition in 1917 but it was rejected. 

Kurt Schwitters used Dada ideas in his work  although he wasn’t officially part of the movement.  He wrote his own form of Dadaist poetry and is associated with Merz, a term he coined to describe a form of collage using discarded materials often nailed to a painting.  He also published  a Merz magazine on the subject .

By 1921, Dadaism had run its course and served its purpose.  The Dadaist form of protest was no longer necessary or relevant.  Arguments and disagreements led to its inevitable breakdown and artists moved on to new ideas and many of them joined the Surrealist movement.  

Despite its relatively short life, the Dada movement did push the boundaries of art and challenge accepted conventions in such a way as to make it possible for a new type of art to flourish.  The work of the Dadaists broke down barriers and created a culture in which Surrealism and other avant-garde movements such as conceptual art and pop art could thrive.

The leading members of the movement were:

  • Marcel Duchamp
  • Jean (Hans) Arp
  • Max Ernst
  • Hugo Ball
  • Francis Picabia
  • Raoul Hausmann
  • Man Ray
  • John Heartfield
  • Marcel Janco
  • Kurt Schwitters
  • Sophie Taueber-Arp