Dada and the Great War

DADA: 1916 – 1922

History of Dada

“In Zurich in 1915, losing interest in the slaughterhouse of the world war, we turned to the Fine Arts. While the thunder of the batteries rumbled in the distance, we pasted, we recited, we versified, we sang with all out soul, we searched for an elementary art that would, we thought, save mankind from the furious folly of these times.”

Hans (Jean) Arp, from Alsace-Lorraine

Founded the midst of the Great War, Dada was an anti-movement movement dedicated to anti-art. Dada as one of its founders, Tristan Tzara explained, “is nothing, nothing, nothing. Everything is Dada.” He elaborated: “The beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of art but the beginnings of disgust.” Dada cannot be understood without understanding the context of a war that was destroying the fabric of a social and political system that had existed for hundreds of years. The last of the Empires were disintegrating and an entire generation of young men lay dead on the battlefields of Belgium and France. With the dead lay the end of hope and faith. The disillusioned young generation felt that it had been lied to. They had been promised that war would be a grand and glorious adventure, over in a few months but with ample opportunities for heroism.

But the Great War was a psychological catastrophe. With cultural myths and norms undermined, a certain segment of the population simply refused to participate in what seemed to be a monstrous waste of human beings, all at the the whims of would-be despots. It wasn’t just the entire nation of Russia that dropped out of this War; it was also the intelligentsia. True, some artists and writers served bravely, such as Georges Braque, some even died, like Wilfred Owen, but others went into exile. Dada was composed of artists in exile, in nations that were either safe, like America, or neutral, like Switzerland and Spain. German artists, who were horrified at the slaughter on the Western Front founded Dada in Europe. One by one came to Zurich to express their disgust with the twentieth century and came together by 1916.

The first to arrive in 1915 were the husband and wife theatrical team, Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings. Ball, a German, had worked in the theater in Berlin where he had met Richard Huelsenbeck. In February of 1916, the pianist founded Cabaret Voltaire at No. 1 Spieglgasse, an entertainment district of the city. Although the Russian exile, Vladimir Lenin lived across the street in Number 12, the Swiss authorities were more suspicious of the growing group of anarchic artists, including visual artists, Hans (Jean) Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, writers Richard Huelsenbeck, Hans Richter, Tristan Tzara, and Marcel Janco, than they were of an exiled Russian rabble-rouser.

In the beginning this group was a literary organization without organization or a leader. Borrowing strategies from the Futurists, the Dadaists provoked and assaulted their bourgeois audience, even copying the idea of Luigi Russolo’s famous noise-organ—make noise, not music. The artists treated their public to a form of bruitism—cow bells, bells, drums, etc. and granted them simultaneous readings of poems “composed” for the noise of multiple voices used as instruments. The writers also borrowed the Futurist concept that language had to be rewritten and literature had to be interrogated to reveal its inherent meaningless. Ball, who had been impacted by the ideas of Kandinsky in Munich, wanted to use his performances to create a total work of art, gesamtkunstwerk, connecting music, literature, and art and, of course, life itself into an overall theatrical experience.

Defining Dada

In its attempt to merge life and art and to dissolve the boundaries that kept art separate, Dada could best be described as a state of mind. The first two years in Zurich were marked by experimentation and play, but the group was altered by the arrival in 1918 of Francis Picabia from New York City. Picabia, who was associated with New York Dada, was far more radical in his complete rejection of the idea of “art” and his dismissal of the Western heritage. Hugo Ball had left Zurich in 1917 and moved on to Bern for a more traditional occupation, editing a newspaper. In response to the absence of the founder and by Picabia’s extreme reductivism, Tristan Tzara (Sami Rosenstock) stepped into the “leadership” position and issued a Manifesto in 1918.

The Dada Manifesto was deliberately nonsensical. Sentences would begin logically enough but would trail off into illogic.

“A work of art should not be beauty in itself, for beauty is dead; it should be neither gay nor sad, neither light nor dark to rejoice or torture the individual by serving him the cakes of sacred aureoles or the sweets of a vaulted race through the atmospheres,” Tzara wrote.

As well as writing the Manifesto, Tzara also edited the group’s periodical, Dada, but Dada had no specific program, no goals, and no aims. Essentially nihilist in intent, Dada writings always begin with what Dada is not, rejecting all that has gone before it. Nothing could rescue the world from bankrupt ideas and nothing was left except for a celebration of buffoonery, blague, and bleeding verse Tzara commented bitterly.

In an age of no sense, Dada presented nonsense and in doing so challenged and subverted the ways in which art and the artist are defined and the way in which art is made. After the War was over in November 1918, the Dada artists scattered and spread the seed of dissent to Berlin and Paris and Hanover. Tzara remained true to Dada and presented a more complete description or definition of Dada (if such a thing is possible) in 1922:

“I destroy the drawers of the brain and of social organization: spread demoralization wherever I go and cast my hand from heaven to hell, my eyes from hell to heaven, restore the fecund wheel of a universal circus to objective forces and the imagination of every individual.”

The Manifesto ends with these sentences,

“The beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of an art, but of a disgust…as Dada marches it continuously destroys…Dada is a state of mind. That is why it transforms itself according to races and events. Dada applies itself to everything, and yet it is nothing…Like everything in life, Dada is useless.”

Dada strategies included mockery and parody and sarcasm. The artists mocked and rejected the naïve ideas of the old men who led the young men off to a certain death. For the Dada artist, “art” is a metaphor for all that Western civilization has built, so proudly. But a civilization that planted Flanders Fields and that ordered Gallipoli must be rejected. “Art” was a part of the natural order that had to be destroyed and replaced with actual nature which acts for itself, is senseless, indifferent to the plans of humans, and is direct and relentless, a genuine force.

In some ways, the performances of Dada, fleeting and ephemeral, presaged the breaking of the Fourth Wall seen in the Epic Theater of Bertold Brecht a decade later. Like the Dadaists, Brecht the dramatist sought to alienate the audience and used techniques, which distanced the viewer from the play in order to prevent the immersion of identification. The goals of both the Dadaists and of Brecht were similar—to wake up the complacent theater-goers who sought entertainment but who found a political message hurled their direction.

Most important to the Dada artists was the need to start over, to get back to a ground zero or a tabular rasa. If they could re-set society, then perhaps the next world would be better. Laced throughout the anger and pain that characterize Dada was a latent idealism that a regression into infantile behavior would lead to a new adulthood. “Dada wished to destroy the hoaxes of reason and to discover an unreasoned order,” Arp explained.

After the Great War ended in the fall of 1918, the Dada artists scattered and formed Dada colonies at different locations: Hanover, Cologne, New York, Berlin and Paris. Each sub group had its own distinctive group of artists and its own goals and ultimate destiny. Like some of the Dada artists in Paris, Tzara and Arp shifted into Surrealism, which incorporated many Dada principles, particularly chance. Dada was gradually absorbed into New Objectivity in Berlin and was carried on in New York City by the underground artist, Marcel Duchamp. Although the impact upon the visual arts took decades to understand and incorporate, in its refusal to believe that life had a meaning and a purpose, Dada paved the way to Postmodernism in art.

Read more posts on Dada:

“Innovations of Dada: Chance”

“Innovations of Dada: Photomontage.”

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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