It was February 5th, 1916. World War I was in full swing, spreading terror and fear. Zurich, ”a birdcage surrounded by roaring lions”, small and neutral, became a sanctuary for many. At Cabaret Voltaire, a group of like-minded cosmopolitan creatives and bohemians staged the first ever Dadaist performance: expressionist dance, acts, skits and pranks that made everything but sense and seemed lunatic, a poem recital in three languages at once, Tristan Tzara singing a Maori song while wearing a monocle and performing epileptic-like spasms. Something radical was happening, and the then steady world of art was shaken to its core. These artists were ready to start a revolution against the social, political and cultural ideas of their time, using the means of life itself. Because DADA was senseless and DADA was everything simultaneously; you’ve never seen anything like it.
Freedom: DADA DADA DADA, a roaring of tense colors, and interlacing of opposites and of all contradictions, grotesques, inconsistencies: LIFE. Taken from Tristan Tzara’s 1917 DADA Manifesto, the statement does describe best what the movement is all about. You won’t find paintings, sculptures or drawings among the artworks here, because it was not about the visual product, but the idea behind it, and the way it’s made. DADA was a rebel, an anti-artist, the one that takes a urinal and declares it an artwork. It turned everyday objects into art, a brand new kind of it, paving the way for a series of other movements that strived to be different, provoking, original.
Surely the one who started it all was Marcel Duchamp, as he introduced us to the readymades: mass-produced, commercially available, utilitarian objects that turned everything upside down. The long-established definition of an artist was thrown into confusion, and just like that, life became art. Duchamp had managed to elevate an ordinary object to the dignity of an artwork by mere choice and by adding a title and a name to it. He also dismissed the idea that art must be beautiful - certainly not in the traditional way. Thus, we have the “rectified readymade” of the Mona Lisa with a moustache, or the scandalous, R.Mutt-signed Fountain. Oh, what a horror this must have been for the conservative Modernists!
For Dadaists, tradition was the enemy and the reason of the destruction they were facing on a daily basis. Deeply shaken by the World War I, they wanted, and needed, to protest, and as nothing about Dada is rational, their artworks and techniques weren’t either. The artists relied on chance and accident, improvising and innovating every step of the way, using society’s own means of communication. For their pieces, the Dadaists used imagery from magazines, newspapers and other printed media, that way creating collage, which was already introduced by the Cubists, but in a less developed manner. Works of Kurt Schwitters even consisted of transportation tickets, candy wrappers, calendars, flyers and maps, as he collected them throughout his hometown of Hannover. In Cologne, Max Ernst painted and drew over pages of printed material, embellished wallpapers, knitting instructions sheets and catalogues.
Adding another dimension to it all was assemblage, a technique that literally brought many found objects together by nails, screws, glue, lace, you name it. Sometimes they would be obviously critical, featuring military medals and equipment, and sometimes it would simply be made of pieces of rubbish. Another popular technique, invented by the Surrealists, was cadavre exquis, or “exquisite corpse”, collecting words and images into one great work. This method emphasised the importance of collaboration in the world of Dada, as each collaborator contributed to its making by adding another element to it.
In Berlin, one of the most popular mediums among the Dadaists was photography. Using their favourite tools, scissors and glue, they made photomontage, with real or reproduced photographic images taken from the press. The realism of these images helped transmit the dreadful scenery of combat and death accurately and effectively, and as such were often seen in photomontages. However, photography also found sanctuary in Dada, often being denied the status of an art form. The movement brought forward the medium’s creative side, until then overshadowed by its technological aspects. Like Surrealists, Dadaists experimented with exposure, perspective and unconventional objects placed directly onto photographic paper sensitive to light, that way distancing photography from its role of capturing the world by fact and giving it room for imagination.
With such innovative techniques, Dada had an immense influence on the European avant-garde and beyond. Its legacy was picked up by the Neo-Dadaists in the 1950s, who adopted the notions of the readymade in order to keep figuration flowing among the dominating Abstract Expressionist works. At the same time, it inspired the birth of Pop Art, with its popular culture collages and the idea of a critique. Dada gave way to movements like Fluxus, Nouveau réalisme, Performance art and just Conceptual art in general, all thanks to the originality of the thought behind their artworks, and the unique, unprecedented way of making them.
Editors’ Tip: Marcel Duchamp: The Failed Messiah
”The approach I take to Marcel Duchamp is radical—to radical for the run-of-the-mill art historian, or the timid critic of modern art. Reading this book will be a test of one’s tolerance or forbearance, as the case may be…” Author Wayne Andersen exposes and holds accountable the artists and curators who ushered in the post-Abstract Expressionist art world that flourishes under the Duchamp brand. His critical biography of Marcel Duchamp is a journey into darkness and a successful effort to expose and pop the bubbles that Duchamp and the post-modern art world created. ”It was the curators and academics that made Duchamp a messianic anti-master, whose nihiism was eagerly adopted as artistic freedom.”
Featured images in slider: Kurt Schwitters - Das Bäumerbild, 1920; Left: Man Ray - The Gift, 1921 / Right: Marcel Duchamp - Bicycle Wheel; Max Ernst - The Hat Makes the Man, 1923. All images used for illustrative purposes only.