The members of the movement known as “Dada,” reactionaries and anarchists, protested the conventions of the time via the artwork they created. The movement was founded in approximately 1916 in opposition to the accepted standards of beauty in art as well as the ignorance and bitterness of World War I; its pivotal figures also had hopes of achieving freedom through a perspective of reality. Though the style was not formally established, as the movement was more reactionary than anything else, common themes can be seen in Dada works including sarcasm, and nihilism, the concept that morals and values are unfounded and nothing can be fully understood. Even the name of the movement was derived in keeping with its fundamentals, chosen when a knife was plunged into a dictionary only to point to the word “dada” (meaning “hobby horse” in French). Dada’s influence spread primarily throughout Germany, Switzerland and France with slightly different variations arising in each country.
Major players in this artistic movement included Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Max Ernst, Jan Arp, John Hartfield, Francis Picabia and Kurt Schwitters who pioneered Dada under his own vein entitled “Merz.” All in the name of challenging convention, Dada artists created illogical, surprising and often comical works and even used chance techniques on occasion to create their final products.
Marcel Duchamp’s work entitled “L.H.O.O.Q.,” created in 1919, created a stir as it featured a penciled-on mustache and beard (on a chromolithograph reproduction) upon the face of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Mona Lisa. The title came from the letters written, also in pencil, under the painting. These letters, when read out loud, sound out the words “elle a chaud au cul” or, translated, “she has a hot arse.” This 7 3/4″ by 4 7/8″ work shocked the public when it was first displayed in 1930 alongside an unaltered reproduction of da Vinci’s painting, hinting to art lovers that their own folly lay in their willingness to accept traditions without question and their ability to bypass such a blatant deconstruction if it were in the name of “art.” The work is now owned as part of a private collection in Paris.
Though not officially embraced by the Dada movement, Kurt Schwitters developed a distinct style very much in keeping with Dada principles. He focused in found art, especially collage works, and typographic art in the form of poetry and lifelike alphabetic characters. His 1919 work “Revolving (Das Kreisen),” measuring 48 3/8″ by 35″ and now on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, embodies Schwitters’ “relief construction” or collage-like style of found art, assembled on canvas with elements of wood, cardboard, leather, metal, cord, wool and oil paint. The name “revolving” clearly depicts the circular formations created from these materials, yet a Dada-like feeling of nonsense is also represented.
Man Ray, née Emmanuel Rudnitsky, was the most influential artist in the American spread of Dada. He created art mostly in France, and his focus was in photography though he delved into many mediums. His work “Compass,” 1920, was created to make a statement on human compulsion and science. Only the photograph of his assemblage remains, as a 4 5/8″ by 3 3/8″ gelatin silver print, and it is part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection in New York.
The movement of Dada was not limited to visual mediums of art. Dada poets included André Breton, Paul Eluard, Tristan Tzara and Louis Aragon. These men, in keeping with the overarching themes of the movement, wrote poetry that was often nonsensical on its most basic level. They believed that one’s mind could decipher meaning from any writing — even such haphazard poems carelessly thrown together or created with chance techniques — by making associations with the written words.
Many prominent composers of the time were also intrigued by the movement’s concept. Composer Erik Satie pioneered Dada in music. He wrote pieces with startling rhythms, premiered works at Dada events and resisted acceptance into the French Bourgeois. His contemporaries in the group of composers known as “Les Six” followed in his footsteps, writing chance- and nonsense-influenced pieces though never actively participating in Dada in the way that Satie had.
The principles of Dada, despite the movements “anti-art” stance, went on to influence the future of art immensely far beyond its span of approximately 1916-1922. Surrealism immediately followed this movement, with its roots clearly in Dada ideals, such as in its challenge of typified beauty. Many of the key players firmly rooted in the Dada movement, both visual artists and poets alike, moved onward to embrace Surrealism. Constructivism, pop art, fluxus, minimalism and conceptual art are just several more artistic movements that owe their conception to Dada. Even in modern Western Art music, Dada’s influence reveals itself in the chance compositions of John Cage. Interestingly, the movement that was determined to rebel against art has lived on by influencing artwork in numerous forms to this day.
“Man Ray: Prophet of the Avant-Garde,” PBS
Michael Delahunt, “Dada,” Art Lex
Rhona Roland Shearer and Stephen Jay Gould, “Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q.-from 1919 or 1930?” Harvard University Science Center
David Hopkins, “Dada and Surrealism: A Very Short Introduction”
“Dada Movement. History of Art, Artists & Art Movements,” Art History Guide
“Poetic Techniques: Chance Operations,” Academy of American Poets
Jane F. Fulcher, “The Composer as Intellectual: Music and Ideology in France 1914-1940″
Timothy Shipe, “The International Dada Archive,” The University of Iowa Libraries