The last decades of the 1800s and the first of the 1900s was a time of great artistic activity, which saw the birth of what were afterward called the avant gardes. These artistic movements all sought to break with the past and search for a new way of expression, more atoned to the modern individual. The avant gardes intercepted that sense of oppression and will to find a new way that characterised the years between these two centuries.
Dada was one of the first of these avant gardes. It was born at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich in 1916, at the peak of WWI, when the city had become an haven for artists and political dissenters trying to escape the horrors of the war, but soon it spread all over Europe.
Dada wasn’t a true ideological movement, it was far too anarchist for that. It was more a global way to understand life and arts, which were not two different things in the eyes of Dadaists, but one and the same. Dada rejected all conventional art forms and became an irrational, nonsensical way of expression. Chaos and fragmentations were essential to expression, the means with which Dadaists tried to make sense of a senseless world.
Born in the central, more heated years of the Great War, Dada was against violence, against repression and authoritarianism. It was horrified by the absurd violence of war, the millions of deaths, the horrible disfigurations. It proclaimed that old structure of mind and creation should be abandoned because everything, absolutely everything was art, even the more inconsequential of everyday tool.
Dada wanted to be a movement without history and no future, which lived in the here and now. Alternative to the extreme, bustling with life, Dada still didn’t live long. It burned bright and quickly and soon its members were absorbed by other ways of expression or social involvement. It was still an experience that influenced all the avant gardes and entertainment forms that came after.
The Cabaret Voltaire
It is noteworthy that Dada was born in a cabaret. Hugo Ball, like so many other avant garde artists, volunteered for war when it broke out, but soon realised it was a horrible butchery rather than an occasion of heroism.. In 1916 he was discharged on ground of health and fled to Zurich, which had become a safe haven for all seeking peace. There, he founded the Cabaret Voltaire (the name of the enlightener was both a mock and an auspicious in those times of madness) and invited young artists from all over Europe to join him, for a creative confrontation on arts. They promptly answer and basically overnight the Cabaret Voltaire became on hub of arts and experimentation.
To the dismay of Zurich’s more orderly citizens, the Cabaret Voltaire would experiment with the new kind of unreason the war had created in order to develop a sanity. The shows were laud and crazy. The artists would often perform in among the audience rather than from the stage, the confériencer would insult the public, all in order to rouse a new conscience.
The Dadaist wanted to produce an art that was anti-war and negated the spirit that had produced the Great War. Their shows were boisterous, an extravagant series of happenings heavily based on improvisation.
Dadaist almost never rehearsed their text. This brought on imperfection, false starts, stumbles during the show, but all this was considered part of the artistic creation, which happened in front of the public in the moment in was performed. Dadaist valued the process far more than they did the final product.
Especially the Cabaret Voltaire performances were marked by audience provocation and protest. Anything was fair game: Surprise and shock tactics, the use of bruitist elements, poetry or prose that was aggressively anti-logical, experiments with masks, costuming and dance that were radically anti-conventional. It often resulted in clamour and public denunciation until eventually the Cabaret Voltaire was forced to close its premises at the end of 1916.
That’s when Dada spread all over Europe and in Berlin especially it found good soil for evolution.
Anti-theatre as it was, Dada still retained many theatrical elements. The spontaneity of improvisation, for example. The summoning forth of the ‘magical’ forces within the individual that make the creation of art even possible. Above all the desire to move their audience and cause a change, hopefully for the better, inside them.
Guide to Musical Theatre – The German Cabaret
Historical Tales About the Capitals of the 20th Century – Dadaism in Berlin. The radical opponents of the establishment and their (un)organised contradictions
Tranquil Eye – Dada Theatre
Dadart – The Dada Movement – Berlin, Cologne, Hanover, Holland
Peter Jelavich, Berlin Cabaret. Harvard University Press, Harvard, 1993
Lisa Appignanesi, The Cabaret. Yale university Press, New Haven and London, 1975-1984
Eric D. Weitz, Weimar Germany. Promise and Tragedy. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2007
Good ole Dada. I always felt Picasso was inspired by it…or maybe a bit Vice-versa. I had heard about this form of expressionism long time ago from a book about Berlin and the 1920’s and found it fascinating. You gave a great write up on this form of art.
From what I’ve read while researching this post, Picasso was in fact involved with the Dadaists at a certain point.
But then many different avant gards where born in the short interwars years, especially in Berlin and Paris, and all had many aspects in common, so it would really be no suprise.
Valuing the process over the product…completely lost in the modern world now with a wrongheaded focus on perfection and consumerism.
The movement had quite an impact on modern poetry .
I think distancing themselved from the mere ‘product’ to concentrate on the creation and the meaning of the creation was a characteristic of many of the 1900s vanguards. These were artists who had experienced WWI – many literary on the battlefields – who straggled to give a sense to what was happened around them. I’m not surprised at all that they valued the journey more than the ending.
I am learning so much from your posts! Dada was barely mentioned in art history class, and glossed over as something experimental and momentary. It makes so much more sense in its historical context!
You know, I went to an art school for one year, and the focus was more on the past than on the 1900s (It was still 1900s when I went to that art school)… precicely what the 1900s vanguard were trying to fight. The avant gardes were tightly bond to their historical moment. You are quite right that it is very difficult to understand them if not placed in their historical context. These were very action-oriented, very engaged moments that sought to change the world, or at least the soul of people, because these artists had seen things that no human being should even see.
I saw a documentary on Dada a little while ago – it sounded like such a powerful movement. It’s a bit too anarchic for my tastes though 🙂
Tasha’s Thinkings – Ghost Stories
Our consumeristic mind is very-hard pressed to recieve the avant gardes message. I wonder whether this is one of the reasons why they are such ‘niche’ artistic movements. They were definitelly alternative and shockingly so, because more than anything, they were trying to shock people out of their cocoon. I suspect we would need something like that today too 😉
Yhey are movements that were reacting to a very particular event (WWI and its global distruction) and so they are probably less universal (at least on the surface) than other artistic movement. It’s very difficult to understand them intuitively, we need an education for that.
Well, that video made me realize what it was better than any other type of explanation. I am always amazed that I’ve come so far without a clear picture of so many of the things you blog about!
Kristine, this is the best compliment I’ve received in five years of AtoZ engagement!!! Thanks you so much!
And that video is indeed revealing. I suspect that if I had watched it without researchign Dada first, I would have thought it is crap. I now think it’s fascinating.
Roland R Clarke
Yet again your post educates me. We’re always learning – if we pay attention.
True. And history is such a generous teacher… if we pay attention.
I love Dadaism, and all the other schools of modern art. I didn’t realise it extended to theatre as well.
I’ve discovered that I like modernism too. Never was one for modern arts, but I think that’s because they are not an intuitive for of art, you need a preparation to get a gist of it. That’s what I’m getting, and it’s opening up an entire new world for me.