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Dadaism or Dada is a post-World War I cultural movement in visual art as well as literature (mainly poetry), theatre and graphic design. The movement was, among other things, a protest against the barbarism of the War and what Dadaists believed was an oppressive intellectual rigidity in both art and everyday society; its works were characterized by a deliberate irrationality and the rejection of the prevailing standards of art.



Dada probably began in the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916 (by some accounts on October 6), and there were active dadaists in New York such as Marcel Duchamp and the Liberian art student, Beatrice Wood, who had left France at the onset of World War I. At around the same time there had been a dadaist movement in Berlin. Slightly later there were also dadaist un-communities in Hanover (Kurt Schwitters), Cologne, and Paris. In 1920, Max Ernst, Hans Arp and social activist Alfred Grunwald set up the Cologne Dada group.

The French avant-garde kept abreast of Dada activities in Zürich due to the regular communications from Tristan Tzara, who exchanged letters, poems, and magazines with Guillaume Apollinaire, André Breton, Max Jacob, and other French writers, critics and artists. The first introduction of Dada artwork to the Parisian public was at the Salon des Indépendants in 1921. Jean Crotti exhibited works associated with Dada including a work entitled, "Explicatif" bearing the word Tabu.

By the dawn of World War II, many of the European Dadaists had fled or been forced into exile in the United States. The movement became less active as the founders died off and post-World War II optimism led to new movements in art and literature.

The Cabaret Voltaire fell into disrepair until it was occupied by a group claiming to be neo-dadaists in June-August of 2002. After their eviction the Cabaret Voltaire became a museum dedicated to the history of Dada and the Dada movement.

Origins of the word Dada

The origins of the name "Dada" are unclear. Some believe that it is a nonsensical word. Some believe it originates from the Romanian artists Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco's frequent use of the words "da, da", meaning "yes, yes" in the Romanian language. Others believe that a group of artists assembled in Zürich in 1916, wanting to form a movement, chose a name at random by stabbing a French-German dictionary, and picking the name that the point landed upon. "Dada" in French is a child's word for "hobby-horse". French also has the colloquialism "c'est mon dada" meaning "it's my hobby".

An anti-art movement?

According to its proponents, Dada was not art; it was anti-art. For everything that art stood for, Dada was to represent the opposite. Where art was concerned with aesthetics, Dada ignored them. If art is to have at least an implicit or latent message, Dada strives to have no meaning--interpretation of Dada is dependent entirely on the viewer. If art is to appeal to sensibilities, Dada offends. Perhaps it is then ironic that Dada is a precursor to Modern art. Dada became a commentary on art and the world, thus becoming art itself.

Dada and nihilism

The artists of the Dada movement had become disillusioned by art, art history and history in general. Many of them were veterans of World War I and had grown cynical of humanity after seeing what men were capable of doing to each other on the battlefields of Europe. Thus they became attracted to a nihilistic view of the world and created art in which chance and randomness formed the basis of creation.

The basis of Dada is nonsense. With the order of the world destroyed by World War I, Dada was a way to express the confusion that was felt by many people as their world was turned upside down. There is not an attempt to find meaning in disorder, but rather to accept disorder as the nature of the world. Many embraced this disorder through Dada, using it as a means to express their distaste for the aesthetics of the previous order and carnage it reaped. Through this rejection of traditional culture and aesthetics they hoped to reach a personal understanding of the true nature of the world around them.

Early practitioners

For a more complete list of Dadaists, see List of Dadaists.

A Dada coincidence

Interestingly, at the same time that the Zürich dadaists were busy making noise and spectacle at the Cabaret Voltaire, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was writing his revolutionary plans for Russia in a nearby apartment. It is known that he was unappreciative of the real revolutionary activity occurring next to him. Tom Stoppard used this coincidence as a premise for his play Travesties, which includes Tzara, Lenin, and James Joyce as characters.

Modern developments

In 1967, a large Dada retrospective was held in Paris, France.


  • Richard Huelsenbeck, Memoirs of a Dada Drummer, (University of California Press) (paperback)
  • Greil Marcus, "Lipstick Traces," (Harvard Press)

See also

External links

  • Dada Manifesto
  • Dada Online
    • Definition of Dadaism
    • Chronology of Dadaism
    • Dada Artists
    • Dada Art, with images showing the characteristics of this movement
  • Dada Manifesto 2001
  • Tristan Tzara
  • The Dada Manifesto
  • Dada
  • Dadaism
  • Dadaism Information
  • Cut & Paste - A History of Photomontage

Last updated: 02-08-2005 12:28:42
Last updated: 02-25-2005 00:55:03