The irreverent, rowdy revolution set the trajectory of 20th-century art

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In the years before World War I, Europe appeared to be losing its hold on reality. Einstein’s universe seemed like science fiction, Freud’s theories put reason in the grip of the unconscious and Marx’s Communism aimed to turn society upside down, with the proletariat on top. The arts were also coming unglued. Schoenberg’s music was atonal, Mal-larmé’s poems scrambled syntax and scattered words across the page and Picasso’s Cubism made a hash of human anatomy.

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And even more radical ideas were afoot. Anarchists and nihilists inhabited the political fringe, and a new breed of artist was starting to attack the very concept of art itself. In Paris, after trying his hand at Impressionism and Cubism, Marcel Duchamp rejected all painting because it was made for the eye, not the mind.

“In 1913 I had the happy idea to fasten a bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool and watch it turn,” he later wrote, describing the construction he called Bicycle Wheel, a precursor of both kinetic and conceptual art. In 1916, German writer Hugo Ball, who had taken refuge from the war in neutral Switzerland, reflected on the state of contemporary art: “The image of the human form is gradually disappearing from the painting of these times and all objects appear only in fragments....The next step is for poetry to decide to do away with language.”

That same year, Ball recited just such a poem on the stage of the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, a nightspot (named for the 18th-century French philosopher and satirist) that he, Emmy Hennings (a singer and poet he would later marry) and a few expatriate pals had opened as a gathering place for artists and writers. The poem began: “gadji beri bimba / glandridi lauli lonni cadori....” It was utter nonsense, of course, aimed at a public that seemed all too complacent about a senseless war. Politicians of all stripes had proclaimed the war a noble cause—whether it was to defend Germany’s high culture, France’s Enlightenment or Britain’s empire. Ball wanted to shock anyone, he wrote, who regarded “all this civilized carnage as a triumph of European intelligence.” One Cabaret Voltaire performer, Romanian artist Tristan Tzara, described its nightly shows as “explosions of elective imbecility.”

This new, irrational art movement would be named Dada. It got its name, according to Richard Huelsenbeck, a German artist living in Zurich, when he and Ball came upon the word in a French-German dictionary. To Ball, it fit. “Dada is ‘yes, yes’ in Rumanian, ‘rocking horse’ and ‘hobby horse’ in French,” he noted in his diary. “For Germans it is a sign of foolish naiveté, joy in procreation, and preoccupation with the baby carriage.” Tzara, who later claimed that he had coined the term, quickly used it on posters, put out the first Dada journal and wrote one of the first of many Dada manifestoes, few of which, appropriately enough, made much sense.

But the absurdist outlook spread like a pandemic—Tzara called Dada “a virgin microbe”—and there were outbreaks from Berlin to Paris, New York and even Tokyo. And for all its zaniness, the movement would prove to be one of the most influential in modern art, foreshadowing abstract and conceptual art, performance art, op, pop and installation art. But Dada would die out in less than a decade and has not had the kind of major museum retrospective it deserves, until now.

The Dada exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (on view through May 14) presents some 400 paintings, sculptures, photographs, collages, prints, and film and sound recordings by more than 40 artists. The show, which moves to New York’s Museum of Modern Art (June 18 through September 11), is a variation on an even larger exhibition that opened at the Pompidou Center in Paris in the fall of 2005. In an effort to make Dada easier to understand, the American curators, Leah Dickerman, of the National Gallery, and Anne Umland, of MoMA, have organized it around the cities where the movement flourished—Zurich, Berlin, Hanover, Cologne, New York and Paris.

Dickerman traces Dada’s origins to the Great War (1914-18), which left 10 million dead and some 20 million wounded. “For many intellectuals,” she writes in the National Gallery catalog, “World War I produced a collapse of confidence in the rhetoric—if not the principles—of the culture of rationality that had prevailed in Europe since the Enlightenment.” She goes on to quote Freud, who wrote that no event “confused so many of the clearest intelligences, or so thoroughly debased what is highest.” Dada embraced and parodied that confusion. “Dada wished to replace the logical nonsense of the men of today with an illogical nonsense,” wrote Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia, whose artist husband, Francis Picabia, once tacked a stuffed monkey to a board and called it a portrait of Cézanne.

“Total pandemonium,” wrote Hans Arp, a young Alsatian sculptor in Zurich, of the goings-on at the “gaudy, motley, overcrowded” Cabaret Voltaire. “Tzara is wiggling his behind like the belly of an Oriental dancer. Janco is playing an invisible violin and bowing and scraping. Madame Hennings, with a Madonna face, is doing the splits. Huelsenbeck is banging away nonstop on the great drum, with Ball accompanying him on the piano, pale as a chalky ghost.”

These antics struck the Dada crowd as no more absurd than the war itself. A swift German offensive in April 1917 left 120,000 French dead just 150 miles from Paris, and one village witnessed a band of French infantrymen (sent as reinforcements) baa-ing like lambs led to slaughter, in futile protest, as they were marched to the front. “Without World War I there is no Dada,” says Laurent Le Bon, the curator of the Pompidou Center’s show. “But there’s a French saying, ‘Dada explains the war more than the war explains Dada.’”


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