Introduction to the Artistic Style of Dada
While viewed by some as reactionary to World War I, Dada really involved creative intellectuals doubling as nihilistic revolutionaries. On a war-scarred continent, where else does one find the irresistible combination of culture, romance, anarchism, and intrigue?
In the translator’s introduction to Francis Picabia’s “I Am a Beautiful Monster: Poetry, Prose, and Provocation,” Marc Lowenthal explains: “Dada is the groundwork to abstract art and sound poetry, a starting point for performance art, a prelude to postmodernism, an influence on pop art, a celebration of anti-art to be later embraced for anarcho-political uses in the 1960s and the movement that lay the foundation for Surrealism.”
At first glance, this small movement could hardly have caused such waves in aesthetic expression. The Dada experience was profound enough for some intellectuals that it continued to influence their work for more than fifty years. With Europe at war, young artists and writers were in a ripe situation to express strong sentiments against modern art and social norms. Such a transformation usually occurs in chaotic times in order to produce something new and divergent.
During World War I, Zurich attracted artists and intellectuals from all over the European continent. It was at Cabaret Voltaire, a nightclub, where the artists in attendance created the Dada movement. The performances at the club included readings of written works, artwork on display, performance art, skits, debates, and music. Dada also included the publication of literary and art periodicals.
The Dadaists suggested a new form of expression, which was simultaneously anti-art, anti-establishment, and anarchist. It is not surprising that some Dadaists later became Communists, including Tristan Tzara, Paul Éluard, Andre Breton, and Louis Aragon.
In 1915, Hugo Ball created the Cabaret Voltaire with his partner, Emmy Hennings. Other early participants were Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco, Richard Huelsenbeck, and Jean Arp. In this period, the intellectuals were killing time in Switzerland while the war was raging all over Europe.
Hugo Ball wrote “The Dada Manifesto” and read it for the first time on July 14, 1916. Dada was a random word, as Ball explains:
“Dada is a new tendency in art… Dada comes from the dictionary. It is terribly simple. In French it means ‘hobby horse.’ In German it means ‘good-bye,’ ‘Get off my back,’ ‘Be seeing you sometime.’ In Romanian: ‘Yes, indeed, you are right, that's it. But of course, yes, definitely, right…’”
The nonsensical term, Dada, is a good example of how Dadaism aimed to break the norms of European society and the art world. As Lowenthal said, there were the beginnings of political revolution and anarchy in Dada expressions.
In “Manifesto,” Ball also expressed social dissatisfaction:
“How does one become famous? By saying dada. With a noble gesture and delicate propriety. Till one goes crazy. Till one loses consciousness. How can one get rid of everything that smacks of journalism, worms, everything nice and right, blinkered, moralistic, europeanised, enervated?”
In 1918, artists and writers began to return to Paris after the conclusion of the war. Dada was especially popular in 1919-1921. Together, Breton, Aragon, and Philippe Soupalt pioneered a magazine called “Littérature,” which included Dada writings. Here the writers tested automatic writing, or writing impulsively without filtering their thoughts. In 1919, Breton and Soupalt published the first automatic book, “The Magnetic Fields.”
In social venues, the French branch of Dada continued with speeches, debates, readings, art exhibits, and performance art to entertain the crowd. The association often collected admission from the audience. The subject matter of performances was frequently offensive, insulting, incendiary, anarchic, and/or vulgar. Sometimes, the audience even responded by throwing objects such as rotten fruit at the performers.
Some Paris gatherings of Dada were so popular that the Parisian social elite attended. These gatherings provided firsthand exposure to the latest intellectual debates and a chance to view works by emerging and established artists.
Between 1921 and 1924, the transition began towards Surrealism. In “History of the Surrealist Movement,” Gerard Durozoi explains:
“What was worrisome to the Litterature group, more than to Tzara or Picabia, was that Dada was beginning to be co-opted: word was spreading that Dada was the latest fashionable entertainment or the cutting edge of snobbishness.”
While Surrealism was not just an outcome of Dada but clearly claimed its roots there, Surrealism would become the more memorable of the two movements in history.
What does Surrealism really signify? Surrealism is more than just images like flattened clocks in Dali paintings. Merriam-Webster defines the ideology as “the principles, ideals, or practice of producing fantastic or incongruous imagery or effects in art, literature, film, or theater by means of unnatural or irrational juxtapositions and combinations.”
Tristan Tzara (1896-1963)
A founder of Dada, Tristan Tzara was a French poet born in Moinesti, Romania. Tzara penned the original Dada passages, "The First Heavenly Adventure of Mr. Antipyrine" in 1916 and “Twenty-Five Poems” in 1918. The Mr. Antipyrine work was performed many times at the Dada gatherings in Paris. Tzara also published the “Seven Dada Manifestos” in 1924.
Louis Aragon (1897-1982)
Born in Paris, Louis Aragon was a novelist and poet. Aragon served for the French during World War I. After his involvement with Dada, Aragon went on to become prominent in Communist activism and in French literary journalism (as writer, editor, and publisher). He finally returned to his Dada origins over the last decade of his life, writing the novels “Henri Matisse Roman” and “Les Adieux.”
Andre Breton (1896-1966)
A Dadaist and founder of Surrealism, Andre Breton was born in Tinchebray, Normandy. One of Breton’s claims to fame during the 1920s was his writing of “The Surrealist Manifesto of 1924.” As noted, he founded “Litterature.” He was an author, poet, theorist, and Communist. In one great honor, the government of France chose him to represent the country at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 1938.
Francis Picabia (1879-1953)
A founder of Dada, Francis-Marie Martinez Picabia was born in Paris. He was the son of a Frenchwoman and a father of Spanish-Cuban descent. Picabia’s father served as an attache at the Cuban representation in Paris. Among the oldest of the Dada revolutionaries, Picabia is remembered for his painting and poetry. In 1916, Picabia founded his Dada journal, “391,” and included the earliest of his mechanical drawings in this publication.
Max Ernst (1891-1976)
A native of Bruhl, Germany, Max Ernst (1891-1976) was an artist whose works reflected the very depths of Dada. He also organized a Dada association in Cologne with Jean Arp and Alfred Grunwald. As an artist, Max Ernst worked with many art forms. He continued to be associated with Dada. In “Notes pour une biographie,” Max Ernst wrote, “the Dadas shared the desire to denounce mercilessly the infernal condition which idiotic patriotism, supported by human stupidity, had imposed upon the era in which they were condemned to live.”