A Brief History of Dada

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

In 1919 Marcel Duchamp penciled a mustache and goatee on a print of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa and inscribed the work "L.H.O.O.Q." Spelled out in French these letters form a risqué pun: Elle a chaud au cul, or "She has hot pants." Intentionally disrespectful, Duchamp's defacement was meant to express the Dadaists' rejection of both artistic and cultural authority. Private Collection
A number of the Dadaists were preoccupied with optical effects. Man Ray's 1920 photograph Marcel Duchamp with His Rotary Glass Plates Machine (in Motion), documents one of Duchamp's experiments in optics Timothy Baum, New York; Private Collection
Biomorphic painted-wood wall reliefs Lorene Emerson
Artist Raoul Hausmann's c. 1920 assemblage, Mechanical Head (The Spirit of Our Age), was meant to symbolize the empty spirit of the post-World War I era. Edward Steichen, Philadelphia Museum of Art

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.

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.’”

Two of Germany’s military leaders had dubbed the war “Materialschlacht,” or “the battle of equipment.” But the dadas, as they called themselves, begged to differ. “The war is based on a crass error,” Hugo Ball wrote in his diary on June 26, 1915. “Men have been mistaken for machines.”

It was not only the war but the impact of modern media and the emerging industrial age of science and technology that provoked the Dada artists. As Arp once complained, “Today’s representative of man is only a tiny button on a giant senseless machine.” The dadas mocked that dehumanization with elaborate pseudodiagrams—chockablock with gears, pulleys, dials, wheels, levers, pistons and clockworks—that explained nothing. The typographer’s symbol of a pointing hand appeared frequently in Dada art and became an emblem for the movement—making a pointless gesture. Arp created abstract compositions from cutout paper shapes, which he dropped randomly onto a background and glued down where they fell. He argued for this kind of chance abstraction as a way to rid art of any subjectivity. Duchamp found a different way to make his art impersonal—drawing like a mechanical engineer rather than an artist. He preferred mechanical drawing, he said, because “it’s outside all pictorial convention.”

When Dadaists did choose to represent the human form, it was often mutilated or made to look manufactured or mechanical. The multitude of severely crippled veterans and the growth of a prosthetics industry, says curator Leah Dickerman, “struck contemporaries as creating a race of half-mechanical men.” Berlin artist Raoul Hausmann fabricated a Dada icon out of a wig-maker’s dummy and various oddments—a crocodile-skin wallet, a ruler, the mechanism of a pocket watch—and titled it Mechanical Head (The Spirit of Our Age). Two other Berlin artists, George Grosz and John Heartfield, turned a life-size tailor’s dummy into a sculpture by adding a revolver, a doorbell, a knife and fork and a German Army Iron Cross; they gave it a working light bulb for a head, a pair of dentures at the crotch and a lamp stand as an artificial leg.

Duchamp traced the roots of Dada’s farcical spirit back to the fifth-century b.c. Greek satirical playwright Aristophanes, says the Pompidou Center’s Le Bon. A more immediate source, however, was the absurdist French playwright Alfred Jarry, whose 1895 farce Ubu Roi (King Ubu) introduced “’Pataphysics”—“the science of imaginary solutions.” It was the kind of science that Dada applauded. Erik Satie, an avant-garde composer who collaborated with Picasso on stage productions and took part in Dada soirees, claimed that his sound collages—an orchestral suite with passages for piano and siren, for example—were “dominated by scientific thought.”

Duchamp probably had the most success turning the tools of science into art. Born near Rouen in 1887, he had grown up in a bourgeois family that encouraged art—two older brothers and his younger sister also became artists. His early paintings were influenced by Manet, Matisse and Picasso, but his Nude Descending a Staircase no. 2 (1912)—inspired by early stop-action photographic studies of motion—was entirely his own. In the painting, the female nude figure seems to take on the anatomy of a machine.

Rejected by the jury for the Salon des Independants of 1912 in Paris, the painting created a sensation in America when it was exhibited in New York City at the 1913 Armory Show (the country’s first large-scale international exposition of modern art). Cartoon parodies of the work appeared in local papers, and one critic mocked it as “an explosion in a shingle factory.” The Nude was snapped up (for $240) by a collector, as were three other Duchamps. Two years after the show, Duchamp and Picabia, whose paintings had also sold at the Armory Show, traded Paris for Manhattan. Duchamp filled his studio on West 67th Street with store-bought objects that he called “readymades”—a snow shovel, a hatrack, a metal dog comb. Explaining his selections some years later, he said: “You have to approach something with an indifference, as if you had no aesthetic emotion. The choice of readymades is always based on visual indifference and, at the same time, on the total absence of good or bad taste.” Duchamp didn’t exhibit his readymades at first, but he saw in them yet another way to undermine conventional ideas about art.

In 1917, he bought a porcelain urinal at a Fifth Avenue plumbing supply shop, titled it Fountain, signed it R. Mutt and submitted it to a Society of Independent Artists exhibition in New York City. Some of the show’s organizers were aghast (“the poor fellows couldn’t sleep for three days,” Duchamp later recalled), and the piece was rejected. Duchamp resigned as chairman of the exhibition committee in support of Mutt and published a defense of the work. The ensuing publicity helped make Fountain one of Dada’s most notorious symbols, along with the print of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa the following year, to which Duchamp had added a penciled mustache and goatee.

Parodying the scientific method, Duchamp made voluminous notes, diagrams and studies for his most enigmatic work, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (or The Large Glass)—a nine-foot-tall assemblage of metal foil, wires, oil, varnish and dust, sandwiched between glass panels. Art historian Michael Taylor describes the work as “a complex allegory of frustrated desire in which the nine uniformed bachelors in the lower panel are perpetually thwarted from copulating with the wasplike, biomechanical bride above.”

Duchamp’s irreverence toward science was shared by two of his New York companions, Picabia and a young American photographer, Man Ray. Picabia could draw with the precision of a commercial artist, making his nonsensical diagrams seem particularly convincing. While Duchamp built machines with spinning disks that created surprising spiral patterns, Picabia covered canvases with disorienting stripes and concentric circles—an early form of optical experimentation in modern painting. Man Ray, whose photographs documented Duchamp’s optical machines, put his own stamp on photography by manipulating images in the darkroom to create illusions on film.

After the war ended in 1918, Dada disturbed the peace in Berlin, Cologne, Hanover and Paris. In Berlin, artist Hannah Höch gave an ironic domestic touch to Dada with collages that incorporated sewing patterns, cut-up photographs taken from fashion magazines and images of a German military and industrial society in ruins.

In Cologne, in 1920, German artist Max Ernst and a band of local dadas, excluded from a museum exhibition, organized their own—“Dada Early Spring”—in the courtyard of a pub. Out past the men’s room, a girl wearing a “communion dress recited lewd poetry, thus assaulting both the sanctity of high art and of religion,” art historian Sabine Kriebel notes in the current exhibition’s catalog. In the courtyard, “viewers were encouraged to destroy an Ernst sculpture, to which he had attached a hatchet.” The Cologne police shut down the show, charging the artists with obscenity for a display of nudity. But the charge was dropped when the obscenity turned out to be a print of a 1504 engraving by Albrecht Dürer titled Adam and Eve, which Ernst had incorporated into one of his sculptures.

In Hanover, artist Kurt Schwitters began making art out of the detritus of postwar Germany. “Out of parsimony I took whatever I found to do this,” he wrote of the trash he picked up off the streets and turned into collages and sculptural assemblages. “One can even shout with refuse, and this is what I did, nailing and gluing it together.” Born the same year as Duchamp—1887—Schwitters had trained as a traditional painter and spent the war years as a mechanical draftsman in a local ironworks. At the war’s end, however, he discovered the Dadaist movement, though he rejected the name Dada and came up with his own, Merz, a word that he cut out of an advertising poster for Hanover’s Kommerz-und Privatbank (a commercial bank) and glued into a collage. As the National Gallery’s Dickerman points out, the word invoked not only money but also the German word for pain, Schmerz, and the French word for excrement, merde. “A little money, a little pain, a little sh-t,” she says, “are the essence of Schwitters’ art.” The free-form construction built out of found objects and geometric forms that the artist called the Merzbau began as a couple of three-dimensional collages, or assemblages, and grew until his house had become a construction site of columns, niches and grottoes. In time, the sculpture actually broke through the building’s roof and outer walls; he was still working on it when he was forced to flee Germany by the Nazis’ rise to power. In the end, the work was destroyed by Allied bombers during World War II.

Dada’s last hurrah was sounded in Paris in the early 1920s, when Tzara, Ernst, Duchamp and other Dada pioneers took part in a series of exhibitions of provocative art, nude performances, rowdy stage productions and incomprehensible manifestoes. But the movement was falling apart. The French critic and poet André Breton issued his own Dada manifestoes, but fell to feuding with Tzara, as Picabia, fed up with all the infighting, fled the scene. By the early 1920s Breton was already hatching the next great avant-garde idea, Surrealism. “Dada,” he gloated, “very fortunately, is no longer an issue and its funeral, about May 1921, caused no rioting.”

But Dada, which wasn’t quite dead yet, would soon leap from the grave. Arp’s abstractions, Schwitters’ constructions, Picabia’s targets and stripes and Duchamp’s readymades were soon turning up in the work of major 20th-century artists and art movements. From Stuart Davis’ abstractions to Andy Warhol’s Pop Art, from Jasper Johns’ targets and flags to Robert Rauschenberg’s collages and combines—almost anywhere you look in modern and contemporary art, Dada did it first. Even Breton, who died in 1966, recanted his disdain for Dada. “Fundamentally, since Dada,” he wrote, not long before his death, “we have done nothing.”

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