Dada: the punks of avant-garde


What is Dada? This is, probably, one of the most frequent questions about this bizarre art movement of the early 20th century. Dada is a very exciting part of the avant-garde history, and in the following article we will see why. 


But first, let’s figure out what Dada means, in terms of the movement’s name. The specific details of its origins will be left unknown to the history, but there are some possible versions of the name’s emergence. It might have come from the Romanian participants of the movement and their usage of the word “da” which means “yes”. Another version includes the allusion with French slang expression “dada” which stands for “hobbyhorse”. It may seem that the name makes no sense whatsoever. But there is the whole point of the Dada movement.


Term anti-art was first used by Marchel Duchamp towards his readymades; and it fully describes the aesthetics of the movement. Quoting the article in American Art News at that time “Dada philosophy is the sickest, most paralyzing and most destructive thing that has ever originated from the brain of man.” And this is precisely what the artists were going for. They wanted to create something completely opposite to the traditional art, something chaotic, illogical, vivid, offensive even. They were the punks of avant-garde, who protested all conventional standards not only in the art field, but also in the field of logic and common sense. And they had great reasons for protesting. 

Postwar crisis

We need to note that the movement had started in the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich after the First World War. Later it had spread to other European cities and were picked up by many. Dada consisted mostly of the artists who sought shelter and tried to escape postwar crisis, so it was an international group. The humankind had not seen the disaster as destructive and violent before, Europe was in a complete chaos. Dada was the only logical reaction to the nonsense of the war. Dada artists were standing against the bourgeois nationalist and the politics of the colonization, which were thought to be the roots of the WWI. It was an outrageous reaction to the outrageous events. However, it was rather the kind of uniting chaos in the desperate attempt to comprehend and deal with the cruel and surreal reality of that time. "We had lost confidence in our culture. Everything had to be demolished. We would begin again after the tabula rasa. At the Cabaret Voltaire we began by shocking common sense, public opinion, education, institutions, museums, good taste, in short, the whole prevailing order.“ said Marcel Janko, one of Dada founders. 


Dada had withdrawn the ideas from the previous avant-garde movements such as cubism; dadaists were inspired by the continuous distancing of art from the objective reality towards the sphere of notions and conceptions. Abstract art also made a great impact on Dada. Being relatively short in time, Dada sparked brightly in the history of art, and even considered as the roots of the whole postmodern era. Anti-aesthetics, political and social critique in such obscure form were very innovative and respective to that period; Dada reacted promptly and viciously to the events in the surrounding world, in much the same way contemporary art reacts to the current events. The movement had broadened the view on the functions and possibilities of art and gave a start to such later art movements as Surrealism, Pop Art, and Fluxus. 


Dadaists are famous for their collages as they were fond of the intuition and praised chaos. This technique provided the spontaneity and freedom they were seeking for. Photocollage and photography were also often used. 

Dada had a great influence on the typography and advertising due to their unusual fonts and letter placement. 

Their meetings were full of performances, happenings, poetry readings, musical pieces. They were pioneers in the sound poetry and created Dada music. Here is an example of the sound poetry by Hugo Ball and his costume during the performance. 

Dadaist were also fans of the cut-up technique, in which text is reorganized randomly to create a new piece.  

Assemblage, which is basically the three-dimensional version of the collage,  were also used a lot. Real life objects including trash were put together in different ways with nails, screws etc. Usually they expressed antiwar ideas. 

Just like in this assemblage artist expressed his disappointing in the inability of the German government to make changes; this sculpture represents the author’s view on the member of the corrupt society who cannot think critically and “has no more capabilities than those which chance has glued to the outside of his skull; his brain remains empty”. 

Overall, Dada is an exceptional example of different artists, brought together by a global disaster, united under the antiwar ideas with the purpose of showing the nonsense and horror of the postwar Europe in their own unique and sometimes even humorous way. Marc Lowenthal says it all in the introduction to the one of the books by dadaist artists Francis Picabia: 

“Dada is the groundwork to abstract art and sound poetry, a starting point for performance art, a prelude to postmodernism, an influence on pop art, a celebration of anti-art to be later embraced for anarcho-political uses in the 1960s and the movement that laid the foundation for Surrealism“.  

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