Art Styles: Dadaism

John heartfield dad propaganda posterDada was a literary and artistic movement born in Europe at a time when the horror of World War I was being played out in what amounted to citizens' front yards. Due to the war, a number of artists, writers and intellectuals, notably of French and German nationality, found themselves congregating in the refuge that neutral Zurich Switzerland offered. The movement was, among other things, a protest against the barbarism of the War and what Dadaists believed was an oppressive intellectual rigidity in both art and everyday society; its works were characterized by a deliberate irrationality and the rejection of the prevailing standards of art. It influenced later movements including Surrealism.

The origin of the name "Dada" is unclear; some believe that it is a nonsensical word. Others maintain that it originates from the Romanian artists Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco's frequent use of the words da, da, meaning yes, yes in the Romanian language with the English equivalent being "yeah, yeah" , as in a sarcastic tone. Still others believe that a group of artists assembled in Zürich in 1916, wanting a name for their new movement, chose it at random by stabbing a French-German dictionary with a paper knife, and picking the name that the point landed upon. Dada in French is a child's word for hobby-horse. In French the colloquialism "c'est mon dada", means it's my hobby.

According to the Dada ideal, the movement would not be called "Dadaism," much less designated an art-movement. According to its proponents, Dada was not art; it was anti-art. For everything that art stood for, Dada was to represent the opposite. Where art was concerned with aesthetics, Dada ignored them. If art is to have at least an implicit or latent message, Dada strives to have no meaning--interpretation of Dada is dependent entirely on the viewer. If art is to appeal to sensibilities, Dada offends. Perhaps it is then ironic that Dada is an influential movement in Modern art. Dada became a commentary on art and the world, thus becoming art itself. With the order of the world destroyed by World War I, Dada was a way to express the confusion that was felt by many people as their world was turned upside down.

ohn Heartfield and Rudolf Schlichter's Prussian Archangel assemblage dada artworkIn 1916, Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Tristan Tzara, Jean Arp, Marcel Janco, Richard Huelsenbeck, Sophie Täuber; along with others discussed art and put on performances in the Cabaret Voltaire expressing their disgust with the war and the interests that inspired it. As Dadaist Hugo Ball expressed it, "For us, art is not an end in itself ... but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in." After the cabaret closed down, activities moved to a new gallery, and Ball left Europe. Tzara began a relentless campaign to spread Dada ideas. He bombarded French and Italian artists and writers with letters, and soon emerged as the Dada leader and master strategist. When World War I ended in 1918, most of the Zürich Dadaists returned to their home countries, and some began Dada activities in other cities.

The Dadaists chose abstraction, an emerging modernist style, as their weapon. The Cabaret Voltaire artists understood abstraction as an instinctual expression of inner consciousness, tipping their hats to Wassily Kandinsky. Their turn inward was a turn against the chaos of contemporary life: abstract art was a moral imperative. As Huelsenbeck said, "Abstract art signified absolute honesty for us."  Richard Huelsenbeck, who had been active with the Cabaret Voltaire, returned to Berlin in 1917, bringing early Dada ideas with him. Along with the artists George Grosz, John Heartfield, Raoul Hausmann, Hannah Höch, and several others, Huelsenbeck helped found "Club Dada."

Nowhere are the politics of "Club Dada" more explicit than in John Heartfield and Rudolf Schlichter's Prussian Archangel assemblage (shown here), which depicts a pig-headed military officer that the artists suspended from the ceiling. The giant puppet is wrapped with a poster that reads "I come from Heaven, from Heaven on high" - the refrain from a well-known German Christmas carol. The sign dangling below further mocks the military: "In order to understand this work of art completely, one should drill daily for twelve hours with a heavily packed knapsack in full marching order in the in the Tempelhof Field [a military training ground in Berlin]." When the Prussian Archangel was exhibited in 1920 during the First International Dada Fair, authorities charged the artists with defaming the German army. In the end, Schlichter and Heartfield were acquitted.
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