Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, February 19, 2017

DADA: World War One's Lasting Contribution to Art

World War I began in 1914 and lasted four long years. A war fought to "make the world safe for democracy" resulted in ceaseless death and destruction. Everything the radicals claimed was hidden by the old lineup of art, life, and morals burst forth in the trenches. Men were beasts. The individual counted for nothing. The mangled bodies of victims and veterans made the most distorted prewar paintings seem tame. Even more haunting were the trenches themselves—they turned the landscape of Europe into a cubist canvas. If few saw the link at the time, many sensed that the defenders of the old morals were horribly wrong, and the radical artists—whose work had seemed to deny normal reality—so very right. In its greatest moment of glory, the avant-garde predicted the future, only to be consumed in the very flames it foresaw.

On 1 Feb 1916, a German playwright named Hugo Ball opened a combined café, theater, and art exhibition space in Zürich, Switzerland—the cabaret of a movement of art and anti-art that is still strong to this day. Or it was a birthplace. DADA could have no single origin. A good case could be made for the Futurists in Italy just before the war or for Duchamp and his friends in New York in the earlier teens. Paris has to be part of any avant-garde mix, and soon Germany would add its claims. Some even think of Mark Twain as DADA's spiritual father. Let's start at Zürich's Cabaret Voltaire. 

A Collage of DADA—Collage Is One of the Lasting Techniques of DADA

Of an evening, Emily Hennings, Hugo Ball's lover and an avant-garde performer in her own right, sang. A Romanian poet named Tristan Tzara recited. On display were the latest and most provocative paintings by people such as the metaphysical Italian Giorgio de Chirico or the ever-challenging Picasso. Soon artists began to gather and hold evenings devoted first to Russian and later French literature. These were no sedate poetry readings. Huelsenbeck was passionate about what he thought of as "Negro music," especially the tom-tom drum. According to Ball, he wanted to "drum literature into the ground." And, as Ball wrote in his diary on 15 May 15, the group was starting a magazine with an unusual name.  "'DADA' ('Dada'). Dada Dada Dada Dada."
Marc Aronson, Over the Top, July 2007

New York City 2007, Graffiti Incorporating Multiple Elements of DADA

DADA promised, in the words of its mercurial chatterbox poet, Tristan Tzara, "to destroy the drawers of the brain, and those of social organization; to sow demoralization everywhere." DADA was the child of trauma; the first World War, that cultural chasm, had revealed — in the sheer incapacity of words to convey its degree of lethal absurdity — the extent to which language itself was owned by the officer classes of Europe. One did not have to be a combatant (and few of the Dadaists were) to see that. The task, then, was to free language from its weight of inherited content, in the hope of freeing life itself. Chance, ambiguity, insult, nonsense, anything would serve, if it promised to break the crust. Above all, there was irony: the indifference of Duchamp, the attacks on the social jugular perpetrated by German Dadaists like George Grosz and John Heartfield, and Picabia's drawings, which make mock of the cult of the machine.
Robert Hughes, Time, 6 February 1978


  1. Please pardon the self-promotion, but here's a link to a voluminously illustrated introduction to DADA -- a student guide aimed at high school and college students --that I wrote for the National Gallery of Art exhibition in 2006. It situates DADA squarely in relation to the war -- not just the carnage, but also the mass media and propaganda to which the war gave rise: