Revelations Amidst the Ruins of Reason

Dada emerged against the devastating backdrop of World War I, which claimed the lives of eight million soldiers and an equal number of civilians. For the artists of the Dada movement, this war epitomized society’s decay, driven by deceitful politics, extreme nationalism, restrictive social norms, and blind cultural conformity.

The roots of Dada’s revolutionary ideals trace back to Zurich, a sanctuary for exiles. Here, in 1916, Hugo Ball and Emmy Hemmings founded the Cabaret Voltaire, a melting pot for radical avant-garde artists. Serving as both a nightclub and an art center, the Cabaret offered a space for artists to showcase their works amidst innovative poetry, music, and dance.

At this Cabaret, Ball vocalized his disdain for the prevailing nationalist and bourgeois mindset through his sound poem Karawane, a composition filled with abstract sounds and emotions reflecting the chaos of war.

Karawane, performed by Hugo Ball in the Cabaret Voltaire (1917)

As for the origin of the name “Dada,” various members have provided different explanations. The most accepted story is from a 1916 meeting at the same Cabaret Voltaire attended by luminaries like Hugo Ball, Jean (Hans) Arp, and Tristan Tzara, among others.

During this meeting, a paper knife randomly landed on the French word “dada” (meaning “hobby horse”) in a French-German dictionary. The group embraced this term. Ball documented in his diary:

Dada comes from the dictionary. It is terribly simple. In French, it means “hobby horse.” In German, it means “good-bye,” “Get off my back,” or “Be seeing you sometime.” In Romanian: “Yes, indeed, you are right, that’s it. But of course, yes, definitely, right.” And so forth.

Tzara, who later claimed to have coined the name, promptly promoted it through posters, journals, and Dada manifestoes, many of which, fittingly, were intentionally nonsensical.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain (1917)

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain (1917)

A standout form within Dada was the readymade, pioneered by Marcel Duchamp. He masterfully repurposed everyday objects into art. In In Advance of the Broken Arm, he presented a hanging snow shovel. Fountain showcased a ceramic urinal. Duchamp redefined objects by moving them from their typical context and presenting them as “art,” both mocking the art world and prompting viewers to rethink their art appreciation. He asserted that any object, whether beautiful or not, becomes art when an artist deems it so.

The Dadaists, as seen with Duchamp, were unafraid to experiment. They actively questioned the traditional role of the artist by adopting techniques like photomontage, collage, and assemblage.

Jean Arp, Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged according to the Laws of Chance) (1916-17)

Jean Arp, Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged according to the Laws of Chance) (1916-17)

Jean Arp, for example, celebrated the unpredictability of art-making with his collages. In Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged according to the Laws of Chance), he gave up artistic control by randomly tearing and letting colored paper fall onto larger canvases.

 Hannah Höch, Cut With a Kitchen Knife (1919)

Hannah Höch, Cut With a Kitchen Knife (1919)

Another prime example is Berlin artist Hannah Höch’s acclaimed work, Cut With a Kitchen Knife. This piece disrupted social norms by juxtaposing diverse cultural elements, challenging the distinction between casual craft and profound art.

From its origins in Zurich, Dada’s influence extended throughout Europe—touching cities like Berlin and Cologne—and reached the shores of the United States, notably New York City. With its emphasis on the unusual, Dada laid the foundation for the emergence of Surrealism in 1924.

Words of wisdom

“No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness.” ―Aristotle

“Poetry is an awareness of the world, a particular way of relating to reality.”―Andrei Tarkovsky

“Conquer the angry one by not getting angry; conquer the wicked by goodness; conquer the stingy by generosity, and the liar by speaking the truth.” ―Siddhartha Gautama

“I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw some things back.” ―Maya Angelou


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