Dada Essay, Research Paper
Welcome to the wonderful world of DADA!. Although at first glance, Dada can appear to be a rather difficult and confusing movement to understand. If one takes the time look at it in some depth, Im sure that you will discover a movement of not only great significance in the context of Art history. But a movement whose theories and principles are still applicable in the world in which we live today.
Having said this. It must be made clear that this website is by no means meant to be exhaustive, and is only really intended to give a brief overview of the movement as whole. None the less I hope you find it interesting.
Dada was an art movement that sprang up in Zurich
Switzerland roughly around 1916. It emerged largely
in response to the atrocities and insanity of World
War 1, and sought to find and experiment with new
forms of expression in an attempt to rejuvenate the
After the end of the war in 1918, Dada spread to
Germany (Berlin, Cologne, Hanover), where it
was to rebel against the increasingly militaristic and
nationalistic policies of the emerging far right as
typified by the eventual rise to power of Hitler’s Nazi party.
Dada was important in an Art historical context in that it paved the way and laid the foundations for surrealism which was to follow. Many of the artists active in dada later becoming influential and active within surrealism.
Although Dada groups existed in several forms for longer and
shorter periods in other areas such in Paris, Italy, the Netherlands
and New York. It’s spiritual and historical home has always been
in Zurich (Switzerland), with a special mention going to post world war 1 Germany.
It is for this reason that this website will largely concentrate on these two areas of the Dada movement.
Switzerland in 1914, as it was to be later in
in 1945 with World war 2, was a neutral
country during World war 1. As a result it
found itself becoming a refuge for many
different people trying to escape the war in
their homelands. A lot of these people were
conscientious objectors to the war, some
being artists. Whilst others still, were just
normal people trying to escape the
prospect of mandatory conscription
within their own country.
As a result Zurich (in Switzerland) became
a very active place to be during this time,
as many of these people began to convalesce and get together
within the clubs and cafe’s of Zurich’s streets and alleys. In many
ways it was inevitable given the dynamics and volatility of the
place and time that something would happen, particularly given
the way that Zurich had become a melting pot for dissent and
ideas about the War. Not surprisingly therefore in 1916, something did.
Speaking in the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916. Hugo Ball said;
“Everyword that is sung here or spoken at the very least proclaims that this humiliating period has not succeeded in gaining our respect!”. In saying this Hugo Ball was referring specifically to the events of World war 1. In so doing however, he was also giving an insight into what from that day would become known as Dada,
(the name being chosen by accident in a German-French dictionary meaning hobbyhorse. Therefore implying a childlike quality expressing a primitiveness and a beginning at zero in terms of a new art). It was a lack of respect for the war and for a society capable of spawning such a war that became the motivating force behind the Dada movement.
For the dadaist’s the war was an outward manifestation of societies inherent rottenness, as well as a sure sign of a world on the brink of collapse. A world that in 1916 was exhibiting it’s final death throes. The Dadaist’s decided to welcome this collapse and the way that they saw it, anything that would precipitate it’s further decline was to be encouraged. “Disintegration right in the innermost process of creation”, (Hugo Ball).
As a result, the Dadaist’s went on the offensive against anything
associated with society at the time. It’s bourgeois Victorian values which stood idle whilst the war raged. It’s language which had been used in a logical and sensible manner by statesmen of the day to try and justify the insanity, and sell the essentially illogical politics of the War to the people. And finally it’s Art and by association it’s artist’s . Particularly artists who knowingly
professed ‘art for art’s sake’. Who, regardless of circumstances,
wanted to go on producing what had been ‘noble and beautiful’
in the past, and who were creating spurious and mendacious art,
serving to gloss over the crimes of the present, thereby aiding
and abetting the brutalization of mankind.
How the dadaists did this is by essentially embracing the opposite of what society embraced as a social value. Where society valued rational the Dadaist embraced the irrational. Where society valued the beautiful the dadaists embraced the ugly. Where society favored order the Dadaists favored chaos. It was the Dadaists intention that by doing this they would in some way hold up a mirror to the world, that would perhaps reflect the insanity of what was taking place with the War. In the process it was hoped that in so doing they could liberate the creative spirit from the oppression of the time and perhaps find a new way to recreate the world a new.(RE: Methods of Madness).
With the end of the war Dada as a movement really petered out as many of the artists responsible for it’s emergence and evolution
returned home to their respective countries. As a result of this
Dada began to surface in different forms in other countries and
places such as Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Paris and New York.
It was, however never to gain the vibrancy and spirit that it had achieved in Switzerland during World War 1, and it is for this reason that true Dada is always associated with this particular time and place in Zurich. One exception however is probably the Dada movement that surfaced in Germany after the War, although as we shall see this in many way’s took on a different form to it’s Swiss origin.
After 1917, Germany was understandably in
a terrible state of disrepair. The loss of the
war and the reparations forced upon it by the
treaty of Versailles in order to pay for the costs
incurred by the war, ensured that Germany
became a very unstable place to be socially
politically and economically. It was into this
environment that many of the artists who were
active in the Dada movement within Zurich
returned. It is also for this reason that German Dada, unlike it’s
Swiss originator became much more political in it’s nature.
Much of the reason for this was because the everyday reality
of life in Germany (post WW1) was much harder and very different
to that which had existed in Switzerland. Fear and hunger were the dominant factors in which the ‘minds of men were concentrating more and more on questions of naked existence’. This really encouraged a criticism and revaluation of the ’smug fat idyll of the Zurich movement’ on the part of many of the German Dadaists.
Richard Huelsenbeck in returning to Berlin in order to pursue his
medical studies in 1917 immediately wrote a strident manifesto
to redirect Dada. In it he wrote.
‘The highest Art will be that which in its conscious content
presents the thousandfold problems of the day, the art which has been visibly shattered by the explosions of last week, which is
forever trying to collect its limbs after yesterday’s crash. The best
and most extraordinary artists will be those who every hour snatch the tatters of their bodies out of the frenzied cataract of life, who with bleeding hands and hearts hold fast to the intelligence of their time’.
A club was formed, its members including Hannah Hoch, Johannes Baader, George Grosz, Wieland Herzfelde and his brother John Heartfield, Raoul Hausmann, and Huelsenbeck. (Johannes Baargeld Max Earnst and Hans Arp were also active at this time but were not part of this Berlin club as they were more active in Cologne).
Numerous periodicals appeared under the Dada flag, were banned and reappeared under a new name. The ‘First International Dada Fair’ was held in 1920, and homage was paid to the new revolutionary art in Russia: ‘Art is dead. Long live the new machine art of Tatlin’. From the ceiling hung a dummy dressed in a German officer’s uniform, with the head of a pig and a placard, ‘Hanged by the revolution’.
This type of politically loaded approach to their work was typical of the German Dada movement and reflected the politically turbulent time in which it found itself with left and right wing forces literally battling in the street for control of the German Government. This approach was later to find full expression in the photomontage work of John Heartfield (re: above image), which presented a very cynical criticism of the emerging right wing.( A brave thing to do given the political mood of the time).
Dada in Germany only really lasted until 1922, by which time it basically dissolved as a movement within that country. It’s main exponents redirecting their talents towards new pursuits.
It is hard for us now to
comprehend, or even try
to imagine the horrors, both
mental and physical inflicted upon an entire generation of young men (mainly 18-25 year olds), sent to the front to fight in World War 1 (1914-1918).
Unlike the later war (WW2) who’s battles were fought largely on the ideological ground of defending the world from the advances of Fascist Nazi Germany, and the insanity of Hitler’s policies. World war 1 entailed no such ideological justification.
Those sent to fight in the war were largely sent to serve as cannon fodder in a cynical attempt by Europe’s ruling elite to preserve it’s economic and territorial boundaries and interests.
It was a war in which old world (Victorian) attitudes and ideals on such issues as leadership and strategy in battle, clashed head on with the horrors and reality of a war machine born of the industrial revolution.
Entire regiments of men were consistently ordered to march on heavily fortified enemy trenches. Often having to negotiate impossible battle-scarred terrain in the process. The end result being a massacre and loss of soldiers lives unmatched in the history of human warfare.
It was against this insanity and against this backdrop of war that the Dadaist’s rebelled.
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