A Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Art

By Ian Chilvers | Go to book overview
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Dacre, Winifred. See NICHOLSON, BEN.

Dada. A movement in European art (with manifestations also in New York), c. 1915- c.1922, characterized by a spirit of anarchic revolt against traditional values. It arose from a mood of disillusionment engendered by the First World War, to which some artists reacted with irony, cynicism, and nihilism. Originally Dada appeared in two neutral countries ( Switzerland and the USA), but near the end of the war it spread to Germany and subsequently to a few other countries. The unprecedented carnage of the war led the Dadaists to question the values of the society that had created it and to find them morally bankrupt: Marcel *Janco, for example, wrote, 'We had lost the hope that art would one day achieve its just place in our society. We were beside ourselves with rage and grief at the sufferings and humiliation of mankind.' Their response was to go to extremes of buffoonery and provocative behaviour to shock people out of corrupt complacency. One of their prime targets was the institutionalized art world, with its bourgeois ideas of taste and concern with market values. The Dadaists deliberately flouted accepted standards of beauty and they exaggerated the role of chance in artistic creation. Group activity was regarded as more important than individual works, and traditional media such as painting and sculpture were largely abandoned in favour of techniques and devices such as *collage, *photomontage, *objects, and *ready-mades, in which there was no concern for fine materials or craftsmanship. Although the Dadaists scorned the art of the past, their methods and manifestos--particularly the techniques of outrage and provocation--owed much to *Futurism; however Dada's nihilism was very different from Futurism's militant optimism.

European Dada was founded in Zurich in 1915 by a group of artists and writers including Jean *Arp, Hans *Richter, and the Romanian poet Tristan Tzara ( 1896-1963). According to the most frequently cited of several accounts of how the name (French for 'hobby- horse') originated, it was chosen by inserting a penknife at random in the pages of a dictionary, thus symbolizing the anti-rational stance of the movement. The name was first used in 1916, and Arp later wrote: 'I hereby declare that Tzara invented the word Dada on 6 February 1916, at 6 p.m. . . . it happened in the Café de la Terrasse in Zurich, and I was wearing a brioche in my left nostril.' The main centre of Dada activities in Zurich was the * Cabaret Voltaire and it was primarily a literary movement, typical manifestations including the recitation of nonsense poems (sometimes several simultaneously and to a background of cacophanous noise). Tzara edited the movement's first periodical Dada, the first issue of which appeared in July 1917; the last issue (number eight) was published in September 1921 at Tarrenz in Austria, entitled Dada Intirol. This was an unusually long life, for the many other Dada periodicals that appeared were usually very ephemeral. The spirit of the movement often comes out not only in the contents of these journals, but also in the eccentric typography that was typical of them, different typofaces being freely mixed together in defiance of traditional notions of design.

By the end of the war Dada was spreading to Germany, and there were significant Dada activities in three German cities: Berlin, Cologne, and Hanover. In Berlin the movement had a strong political dimension, expressed particularly through the brilliant photomontages of * Hausmann, Höch, and * Heartfield and through the biting social satire of * Dix and * Grosz; eventually it gave way to * Neue Sachlichkeit. In Cologne a brief Dada movement ( 1919-20) was centred on


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