The art movement known as Dada, or Dadaism, has undoubtedly shifted the course of artistic history on multiple fields. Uniting the European avant-garde in the early 20th century, the movement was officially created in Zürich, Switzerland, in 1916 at Cabaret Voltaire, and it celebrates 100 years of existence this year. Nurturing many monumental artists and their artwork that started out as a correspondence to the outbreak of World War I, the movement itself supported chaos and irrationality in art, and Hans Richter went as far as to call it not art, but “anti-art.” It was also very unstable as a form, melding into surrealism, while some call it the beginning of postmodern art. Its artists had been on the verge of artistic expression, going towards other ideas and movements including surrealism, social realism and other forms of modernism, which is why some of the Dadaist artists are arguably placed under this category.
We covered the artwork pieces that shaped its successor, Neo Dada, and now we’ll revisit some of the monumental artists that are considered Dadaists, which have changed the course of art history with their work.
Editors’ Tip: The Dada Artists Collection
The Amazing World of Art Dada Artists Collection, Key works from Dada and other Styles includes the art of pretty much all influential artists of this remarkable movement and recounts the story of how it was created in Zurich, Switzerland in 1916 and spread throughout Europe. Dada has its roots in the prewar Avante Guard movement with Cubism and Collage being the pimary influences. The most immediate precursor to Dada was the style dubbed Anti-Art by Marcel Duchamp. Please enjoy this comprehensive collection of the principal Dada artists and their Dada art along with other styles of the Dada artists.
Born in 1888 in Berlin, Hans Richter was a German painter, graphic artist, avant-gardist, film-experimenter and producer. He strongly believed that any artist should be politically involved, fighting the best way they could on the side of revolution and against the war. He joined the Dada movement during 1916, and one of his biggest contributions to the anti-war politics as an artist in that time was being the co-founder of the Association of Revolutionary Artists (“Artistes Radicaux”) at Zürich, in 1919. He created one of the first abstract films ever, the Rhythmus 21, and although it wasn’t the first one as he claimed, it is considered a very important piece of art history. Later in his career, he directed Dreams That Money Can Buy (1947) and 8 x 8: A Chess Sonata in 8 Movements (1957) films, and made the film Dadascope as well as the first-hand account of the Dada movement titled Dada: Art and Anti-Art.
Francis Picabia was born in 1879, and was known as a French avant-garde painter, poet and typographist. During his artistic life in the early 20th century, his experimental nature tied him to several art movements like Impressionism, Pointillism, Cubism, even Surrealism for a brief period, and of course, Dadaism. Although he denounced the Dada movement in 1921, he has made a number of highly abstract, colorful, planar compositions as one of the major figures of the early Dada movement in the United States and in France. One of his most known creations in these years was the Dada periodical 391, of which he stated: “Every page must explode, whether through seriousness, profundity, turbulence, nausea, the new, the eternal, annihilating nonsense, enthusiasm for principles, or the way it is printed. Art must be unaesthetic in the extreme, useless and impossible to justify.” Embracing abstraction in his work, he used it to evoke strong feelings and mystery, and his influence on Pop Art that emerged and evolved in the post-war years is evident to this day.
Max Ernst was a German painter, sculptor, graphic artist, and poet. Born in 1891, he was drafted for the war, and in 1918 Ernst got demobilized and returned to Cologne. It is here that he founded the Cologne Dada group along with several colleagues, marking him as one of the primary pioneers of the Dada movement. Avoiding the war like many others, he searched for a place to call home in several places, including France and America. The prolific artist has left a lasting impression on both continents, with his influence on the direction of mid-century American art being easily recognizable. Ernst helped inspire the development of Abstract Expressionism through his association with Peggy Guggenheim, as well as his son Jimmy Ernst who became a well-known German/American Abstract Expressionist painter after the war.
Sophie Taeuber-Arp was a Swiss artist, painter, sculptor, textile designer, and dancer, and her legacy, although only recognized after the World War II, lives on to this day. She is the only woman to have her portrait on the current series of Swiss banknotes in Switzerland; a museum honoring her and her husband opened in 2007 in Germany, speaking of the weight of her influence. Learning weaving and other textile arts following her relocation to Zurich in 1915, her work in this field as well as graphic works were some of the first of Constructivist works which a number of artists followed. Influenced by her husband, Jean Arp, she joined the Zurich Dada movement and preformed as a dancer, choreographer, and puppeteer. She designed puppets and costumes, and also made a number of sculptural works such as a set of abstract “Dada Heads,” and though her reputation lagged behind her husband’s for many years, her work is now generally accepted as the first in rank of classical modernism.
Hannah Höch didn’t only leave her mark as a Dadaist artist, she promoted the idea of women contributing more actively to creative society. As one of rare females in Berlin Dada group, she referenced their hypocrisy as well as that of German society as a whole in her photomontage Da-Dandy. Hans Richter went as far as to describe her contribution to the Dada movement as the “sandwiches, beer and coffee she managed somehow to conjure up despite the shortage of money,” but her method of combining diverse photographic elements to make art got adopted by a lot of her colleagues and Surrealist artists. Known as one of pioneers of photomontage, she continued to produce and exhibit them until her death in 1978 in Berlin.
German-born, Kurt Schwitters is another highly versatile artist who worked in several media, including poetry, sound, painting, sculpture, graphic design and typography. His work is associated with Constructivism, Surrealism and Dada, a group he was allegedly rejected by due to his links to Expressionism. Schwitters’ contribution to the Dada movement came in the form of employing Dadaist ideas in his work, creating a lot of recitals that Dadaists used throughout Europe. He even used the word itself on the cover of An Anna Blume (translated as “To Anna Flower”, or “To Eve Blossom”), his famous poem from 1919. Although there is no evidence of him being the inventor of Merz, a series of works of abstract collages, it is explicitly mentioned in his first overtures to Zurich and Berlin Dada. His distinct pieces left a lasting mark and even today’s artists have cited Schwitters as a major influence, seeing him as the grandfather of Pop Art, Happenings, Concept Art, Multimedia Art and Post-modernism.
Jean Arp, the husband of Sophie Taeuber-Arp, would refer to himself as “Hans” when speaking in German, and “Jean” when speaking in French. Born in 1886, he was a master of sculpture, painting, poetry, and abstract art. His work is firmly rooted in nature, his curvy lines suggesting plants and natural motifs while remaining completely abstract. Being one of the founders of the Cologne Dada group (along with Max Ernst, and other colleagues), his influence on the artistic world is obvious. As he practiced Surrealism as well, his work represents a bridge between these two major movements of the early 20th century. One of the first artists to use randomness and chance as part of the art piece, Arp contradicted the existing need for control and created a new level of visual art.
Although his artistic career hasn’t been as rich with material as the previous artists, Hugo Ball was a central figure in creating the Dada movement. Soon after the outbreak of World War I, Hugo Ball fled to Zürich along with Emmy Hennings (whom he would marry in 1920), and in 1916 created the Dada Manifesto and Cabaret Voltaire, thus making a public statement of his view of the terrible state of society. The Cabaret served for artistic and political purposes, and it proved to be a pivotal point in the founding of the anarchic art movement known as Dada. His artistic work included poems, memoires and other forms of literal writings, one of which is his poem Karawane, whose meaning resides in its meaninglessness, reflecting the chief principle behind Dadaism.
Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky) provided immense contribution to the Dada and Surrealism movements in the early and mid 1990s. Distinctive by the fact that he made a name for himself both in Europe and America, he was a successful painter and a sought-after fashion photographer. Although known for his work with photograms, which he called “rayographs,” he regarded himself first and foremost as a painter, and Dadaism and Surrealism supported this constant shifting between different forms. This hasn’t reduced the quality of his work in either fields, which left a resonating influence on Modern Photography and its development, as well as Pop Art and Conceptual Art. Man Ray was pronounced one of the 25 most influential artists of the 20th century by ARTnews in 1999, marking his photographic work as groundbreaking.
Born in 1896 in Romania, Tristan Tzara (Samy Rosenstock) was an avant-garde poet, essayist and performance artist that can be credited as one of the founders of the Dada movement. Throughout his school years, he was very interested in French poetry, which influenced his own writing. Attending the opening night at Cabaret Voltaire, he started reading his poems which over time turned from literary gatherings into public performances that generated enormous publicity. Described as embodying the migratory quality of Dada, he was a pivotal figure in its international development, both managerial and artistic. Also known for contributing to the definition of surrealist activities and ideology, his extensive artistic oeuvre includes writings like the first Dada texts, The First Heavenly Adventure of Mr. Antipyrine (1916), Twenty-Five Poems (1918), Seven Dada Manifestos (1924), and others.
Born in 1887, Marcel Duchamp is truly one of the artists that has changed the course of artistic history. As a painter, sculptor, chess player and writer he spearheaded the American Dada movement together with his friends and collaborators Picabia and Man Ray. His refusal to be repetitive in his work manifested in the form of a limited oeuvre, but he was none the less responsible for significant developments in painting and sculpture, being placed along Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse when it comes to developing plastic arts with such techniques. Duchamp was introduced to Dada through his friend Picabia, who carried the European version of the movement across the ocean. In New York, Dada had a less serious tone, and Duchamp was careful about his use of the term. His most notorious of the readymades, found objects that he presented as art, was the Fountain. It was made during his participation to the Dada group, and it caused a lot of controversy in its time, proving to be one of the most influential artworks of the 20th century. Duchamp’s other monumental pieces include Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 which scandalized the Americans at the Armory Show, The Large Glass, Bottle Rack which was his first “pure” readymade, and others.