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Dada - A hundred years of Counter Culture

Updated on November 21, 2009
Group photo
Group photo
Mona with a mustache
Mona with a mustache

We are Dada

The art movement, the Dadaists was created in 1915, at the height of the First World War in Zurich, Switzerland. It was primarily a collection of poets, artists, writers and philosophers who having been exposed to the brutality of modern warfare and its senseless slayings wanted to generate a voice of opposition.

Their works and manifestos were counter culture, anti-art, deploring and rejecting the bourgeois products of the pre-war period. They were great theorisers and postulators of art, publishing thesis, pamphlets and journals promoting their vision of the creative process. The voice that they made went on to influence a number of other movements, who have their roots and ideals in the foundations of the Dadaists. Amongst these were the Avant-garde, Surrealists, Nouveau Realists, Pop Art and Punk.

Tzara's Play
Tzara's Play

Yeah Yeah!!

Naming the Dada, there are two stories as to how the group adopted the name, firstly after Romanian artists Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco’s mocking use of the word “Da”. Romanian meaning “Yeah”, a kind of flippant off hand gesture. “Yeah, yeah, whatever” from which you get “Da da”…. The other version tells how one day while in a café discussing naming the collective, Tzara, in a random act, stabbed his pocket knife into a French-German Dictionary. In hitting the French word Dada; a child’s hobby horse, they had their name.

The Cabaret Voltaire, Zurich in 1916 had been the first centre of exhibition and promotion, here Tzara, Janco, Jean Arp and Hugo Ball would put on chaotic plays, read poetry and play Dada music. The European Dadaists also included Otto Dix, Max Ernst, Andre Breton, Clement Pansaers and Hannah Hoch. After the war, they initially working out of Berlin, the front-line for anti cultural, pseudo-political expression at the time. Later the group’s activities centred on Paris until the splintering and eventual dissolving of the movement around 1924.

Duchamp - Fountain
Duchamp - Fountain
Hoch - Photomontage
Hoch - Photomontage

Spreading the word.

American Dada was less political, not as disillusioned and radical as their European counterparts. Exiles like Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia joined with American artists Man Ray and Beatrice Wood to produce ironic, humorous views of the traditionalist’s art. Duchamp’s piece “Fountain”, a urinal signed R Mutt caused outrage, while Man Ray art specialised in photographic techniques.

Other Dada centres sprung up during the early twenties, Holland, Georgia, Yugoslavia and Japan all established journals, plays, artworks and manifestos. Tokyo had its versions in the MAVO and Jun groups, Dragan Aleksic started Yugo-Dada and Dutchman Theo V. Doesburg published De Stijl magazine.

Dada was a wide-ranging, far-reaching liberted movement and ultimately its demise was inevitable. It transformed into a number of different art styles but perhaps best represents the birth of Modernism.Their anarchic approach made  it possible for other groups to follow on the ground they broke.

Man Ray - Viola
Man Ray - Viola
Ruth Hemus
Ruth Hemus

The Legacy

Many Dada artist's playful, expressionistic experiments led to the development of a number of creative techniques still commonly used today.

Collage - Pictures made from mixed media, photos, material, vegetation.

Photomontage - Images that combined cut out and rearranged photographs, an early photoshop.

Frottage - Artworks created by making rubbing of textures and assembling them together.

Assemblage - Building of sculptural forms using everyday objects.

Readymades - Found objects, claimed as art and exhibited.

These were all processes that were developed and flourished under the Dadaists and even today they are the stock in trade experiments of any First year Art Student the world over. Nearly a hundred years on and artists are still trying to re-invent Dada. The found object and graffiti, the chaotic plays and nonsense lyrics, used in an attempt to shock.

So remember it's already probably been done, and better, move on.


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