The Dadaist Manifesto was written in 1918 but the movement’s origins were earlier, in 1916, as artists began to react against the society they felt had led them into the First World War.
Hugo Ball founded the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916. Operating as a night club and art society it soon became a meeting place for artists seeking new ways of expression against what they saw as a redundant, materialistic society. The movement was named ‘Dada’ from the French, meaning hobby horse.
With the end of the war in 1918 the original group of artists moved on and Dadaism became established in Paris, Berlin, Cologne and New York. Known for its use of irony in challenging accepted norms Dadaism itself suffered from the irony of the art world being dependent on the materialistic society it wished to undermine.
In 1918, Tristan Tzara (1896-1963) issued the Dadaist Manifesto. Dadaism wished to discredit the more traditional approaches to art and, perhaps because of this there was no specific Dada style. They used ‘gestures’, where artists would interrupt or stage events, as a means of highlighting and acting out their approach. The main aims were to provoke both critics and the public, to challenge traditional views of taste in art and to be more liberated in their own approach to creating artworks. This included exploring more ‘automatic’ ways in the creation of artwork in order to bypass the conscious mind.
Jean (Hans) Arp (1886-1966) was an artist and poet. He used collage to explore ways to access the unconscious mind. This included throwing torn scraps of paper into the air and pasting them down wherever they fell into place. He used a similar technique with language by tearing up sentences and seeing where the words fell.
In this collage from 1916-17, Arp has used this technique allowing coloured pieces of paper to fall at random onto a larger sheet of paper. They do, however, look as if some more conscious thought has gone into their placement so, perhaps, Arp, like Joan Miró (1893-1983), wasn’t against using a mixture of chance alongside a more conscious development of the work.
Tristan Tzara also selected random words from newspapers, shook them up in a bag and selected words at random to create poetry. The concept of the ‘newspaper poem’ was also discussed by André Breton in the Surrealist Manifesto of 1924.
Dadaist work by its nature was transitory, designed to bait the public and to be, essentially, meaningless. Another concept was the idea of objects being assigned a theatricality that belied their everyday use. This was a way of forcing viewers to question the meaning of art and what they were seeing. There was the idea that art could be created by anyone and any object could be considered art if it was located in a gallery space. Artists were not superior and there was no need for any emotion to be present to create art.
Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) explored these ideas using ‘ready-mades’ where everyday objects were used as the basis for his work.
Dadaism also differed depending on its location. In Berlin, towards the end of the war, the focus was very much on reality and reacting against Expressionism. The development of photomontage created an approach which was more aggressively political in tone.
Arp, Jean (Hans). (1916-17) Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged according to the Laws of Chance) [Collage] At: http://www.moma.org/collection/works/37013?locale=en (Accessed on 18.07.17)
Ades, D. (1994) ‘Dada and Surrealism’ In: Stangos, N. (ed.) Concepts of Modern Art: From Fauvism to Postmodernism. 3rd rev ed. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. pp. 110-137