Dada Art Movement: A Brief Introduction
Dada art movement was formed in Zurich, Germany. In response to the futility, death, and destruction of the First World War, it embraced nonsense, satire, and absurdity in art.
In light of the death of tens of millions of military personnel and civilians, how should a civilization and its art respond? This was the quest and question of the Dada artists.
In this brief introduction, here is everything you need to know about this fascinating movement and its pioneering artists.
What was the Dada art movement?
A definition is notoriously elusive. This, however, is part of the appeal of Dadaism. Originating in Germany in 1914, Dada artists tried destroying traditional values in art and society. This directly responded to the First World War and the system of nationalism and militarism that facilitated the conflict.
As a result, followers created an entirely new conception of art. In so doing, they replaced old ways of doing and seeing. Full of humor, satire, and fun, Dada fundamentally changed European art. As well as Dada paintings, artists associated with the genre created sculpture, poetry, and performance art.
As well as anti-war, the movement was politically leftist. They were anti-bourgeois, believing the upper classes were the primary defenders of traditional art and society.
After the war, the movement quickly spread all over Europe. It boasted artistic groups in Paris, Cologne, Hanover, Berlin, and the Netherlands. Dada reached Japan and New York with artists such as Tomoyoshi Murayama, Man Ray, and Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.
The movement lasted until the mid-1920s when new avant-garde approaches such as Cubism and Surrealism took over.
What inspired Dadaism?
Revolted by the horrors of the First World War, Dada artists made art questioning everything about the society enabling such carnage. The poet Tristan Tzara described how it wasn’t the “beginnings of art” but the launch “of disgust.”
For Dadaists, the war confirmed the corruption and nationalism of all politicians. Repressive social values and cultural assumptions needed to change. This inspired their art.
As Hans Arp (a leading Dada artist) once said, “while the guns rumbled in the distance,” we created art. He spoke of how they “sang, painted, made collages and wrote poems with all our might.”
Often asked about the meaning of “dada,” artists associated with the movement provided several (often contradictory and humorous) definitions. These included Dada is… “anti-art,” “irony,” and even that “Dada will kick you in the behind.” The word is a nonsense utterance.
Some stories relate the name arose through stabbing knives into a dictionary. Others argue it was an amalgamation of European languages, for instance, Russian for “yes, yes” or French for “hobby horse.” If there is a “real” original meaning, this remains unknown.
What was the Dada art movement known for?
The movement is primarily known for its humorous and irreverent art. There was no standard style or approach, but merely (as stated by Hans Arp) to “destroy the hoaxes of reason” and discover an “unreasoned order.”
Their works frequently critiqued modernity, with frequent references to newspapers, films, advertisements, and the new machine age. Dada paintings were also known for using unorthodox materials (for instance, incorporating newspaper cuttings, glue, and photomontage).
Dada further inspired later Surrealism and Conceptualism. Marcel Duchamp’s unique creations particularly influenced the development of European creativity. By fundamentally questioning “what art is,” he instigated new ways of approaching art and its role in society.
What are the three characteristics of Dada art?
The movement was never concerned with setting rules and regulations for how art should look. Consequently, Dada art took many shapes and forms. Some artists created “representational” art with recognizable figures and objects. Others, such as Man Ray and Kurt Schwitters, took a more abstract approach.
Whatever form the artworks took, however, they all deconstructed everyday experiences in a challenging and satirical manner. Some fundamental characteristics emerged in the attempt to reconcile the silly with the profound destruction with creativity. This included:
- Irreverence and Humor: A lack of respect for convention, authority, and rules. Dadaists were interested in the power of humor, demonstrating the lack of intrinsic value or superiority in anything.
- Assemblage: Marcel Duchamp is the most famous pioneer of ready-mades and assemblages (i.e., repurposing everyday objects as works of art). This often-bizarre method of creating art also characterized the work of Max Ernst, Man Ray, and Raoul Hausmann.
- Chance: was an essential characteristic of Dada art. Artists embraced randomness and accident as a method of escaping rational control. The use of “chance” was particularly prominent in the art of Hans Arp, Kurt Schwitters, and Marcel Duchamp.
Who is Famous for Dada?
Many famous artists include Hans Arp, Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters, Hannah Höch, and Francis Picabia. Hugo Ball was the movement’s founder (and most prominent proponent then).
In 1916, Ball founded a stylish avant-garde nightclub in Zurich. Deeply satirical and sardonic, he named the institution Cabaret Voltaire. This club (and its raucous goings-on) became a focal point for the movement. It saw infamous performance pieces such as Hugo Ball’s recital of the sound poem “Karawane.”
This performance consisted of nonsensical syllables uttered in rhythmic, emotional patterns (spoken while wearing a cardboard suit). It represented the inability of European leaders to solve disputes through diplomacy and rationality. In addition to Cabaret Voltaire, Ball instigated a magazine. The first of many Dada publications, he named it “Dada, Dada, Dada, Dada, Dada.”
Who were the leading Dada artists?
Given its broad geographic spread and lack of a formal constitution, there was no single set of Dada artists. Artists were working worldwide, however, inspired by the Dada movement and its overarching goals.
Here are seven artists, all influenced and inspired by Dadaism.
A Swiss avant-garde painter (and close friend of Francis Picabia), Alice Bailly is known for her contributions to Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, and her participation in the movement.
Bailly’s paintings (such as Marvel at the van-Dongen Masked Ball) juxtapose abstracted figures with vivid, swirling shapes. They embrace the sense of cultivated confusion and chaos, aiming at provoking violent reactions.
A French avant-garde painter and poet, Picabia worked across many artistic styles. Associated with Cubism, Abstraction, Dada, and Surrealism (to name just a few), his abstract compositions were always colorful and dynamic. As one of the early figures of Dada in France and the United States, he started a Dada periodical titled 391.
Despite this, Picabia broke away from the movement around 1919. Moving towards Surrealism, he denounced Dada formally in 1921 and published several scathing attacks in the final issues of 391.
George Grosz paintings often referred to the horrors of war and contemporary German society. He was a prominent member of Dada, German Expressionism, and the “New Objectivity” emerging during the Weimar Republic.
Indeed, Grosz co-founded the Berlin Dada movement. He used his satirical illustrations to attack bourgeois supporters of the new republic. These drawings also informed his paintings (such as The Pillars of Society), often featuring overweight businessmen contrasted with wounded soldiers and prostitutes.
As a German painter, sculptor and poet, Max Ernst was an early pioneer of the Dada movement. He lacked formal artistic training but championed an efficient way of making art. This led to the invention of “frottage,” a technique using pencil rubbings of objects as the basis of compositions.
Also inspired by surrealist approaches, Max Ernst works were often shocking in their irreverence. This is particularly noticeable in later paintings such as Young Virgin Spanking the Infant Jesus in front of Three Witnesses (1926).
A German painter and printmaker, Otto Dix was particularly famed for his ruthlessly harsh depictions of contemporary society and the brutality of war. These include portrayals of journalists, sex workers, art dealers, and lawyers.
Alongside George Grosz, he’s among the most influential artists of the “New Objectivity” movement. Influenced by Dada, Dix often incorporated collage in his paintings. He exhibited at the first-ever “Dada Fair” in Berlin.
Although better known as a Constructivist artist, Sophie Taeuber Arp was heavily influential in the movement and a co-signatory of the Zurich Dada Manifesto. Meeting Hans Arp in 1915, the two artists married soon after. They both associated with Dada and shaped its development.
Taeuber Arp’s sculpture Dada Head (1920) was particularly revolutionary in its use of ordinary materials such as wood, wire, and beads. She also led Dada-inspired performances (often at the Cabaret Voltaire) as a puppeteer, dancer, and choreographer.
While famed as the founder of the De Stijl movement (alongside Piet Mondrian), Theo van Doesburg was also influenced by Dadaism. He maintained links with Dada artists throughout his career and published the magazine Mécano under the name I.K. Bosnet. In true Dada fashion, the title links to the Dutch for “I am foolish.” Doesburg also published Dada poetry under the same pseudonym in the De Stijl journal.
Dada oil painting reproductions
If you love the fun and irreverence of the Dada art movement, please explore our art gallery online. Discover oil painting reproductions from famous Dada artists, including Picabia, Taeuber Arp, Van Doesburg, and Grosz.