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Dadaism: where did it come from, and what does it mean now?

Chloe Hodge

Jul 08, 2021

Dadaism is known to be anti-war and anti-canonical, but it is a movement in art history that is not exactly straightforward to grasp. Is it a movement that died out, or is it a style that still influences contemporary culture? To understand the term, it seems essential to trace its roots. 


Dadaist art is characterised by humour, whimsy and nonsense, yet it grew out of the bloodiest war in modern history, the First World War, during which around 17 million soldiers and civilians died. As Sigmund Freud put it “No event in history confused so many of the clearest intelligences,” and Dadaism was both a symptom of and a reaction to this confusion. Famous Dada artists include Hans Arp, Marcel Duchamp, and Francis Picabia. The Dadaists felt that if death and destruction was what ‘rational’ and ‘civilised’ society had brought about, it was surely best to embrace the opposite and lead new ways of thinking. 



Man Ray
Cadeau, 1921, editioned replica 1972 
Iron and nails 
17.8 x 9.4 x 12.6 cm (7 x 3.7 x 4.9 in.) 
In the Tate collection 



The movement began in Zurich, a hub for conscientious objectors in exile, including countless artists, writers and intellectuals. It was here that German writer Hugo Ball and singer and poet Emmy Hennings opened the Cabaret Voltaire on 5th February 1916, a radical bohemian nightclub, which acted as both a venue for experimental avant-garde performance and a meeting place for artists and agitators. Even the cabaret’s name conveyed the revolutionary: taking after the 18th-century French philosopher Voltaire, whose satirical novel Candide follows a naïve young man as he discovers the hard truths of the world, and realises that we must “cultivate our garden” or work for change.
Dadaism is said to have been officially born on 28th July 1916, when Ball took to the stage of Cabaret Voltaire and read the first Dada Manifesto – its title said to have been chosen by spontaneously plunging a knife into the dictionary and selecting the word it struck. It may also have been the result of fellow Romanian artists Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco repeatedly saying, “Da, da!” (“Yes, yes!”). The manifesto was anti-art, forward-thinking and almost nonsensical. It centred upon ‘Dada’ itself which, as well as “yes,” means hobbyhorse in French, farewell in German, and a popular Swiss shampoo. 



Hugo Ball, in a postcard to promote the program of the Cabaret Voltaire, Verse ohne Worte im kubistischen Kostüm, 1916 
Taken by an unknown photographer



“How does one achieve eternal bliss? By saying Dada. How does one become famous? By saying Dada,” Ball announced, while dressed in cardboard as a mystical bishop. This was by no means the most absurd performance at the cabaret, where the daily programme might include Janco playing an invisible violin, Hennings performing acrobatics while wearing a mask of the Virgin Mary, and Tzara belly-dancing. The aim of all this, said Ball, was “to remind the world that there are people of independent minds — beyond war and nationalism — who live for different ideals.”


Butoh dance by The Tokyo-born company Sankai Juku, Meguri at the Granada Theatre
Photo by David Bazemore



After the fighting of the First World War had ended in 1918, many of the Zürich Dadaists returned to their home countries, and Dadaism moved with them across Western and Eastern Europe, even reaching New York and Japan. With this travel, the movement created radical magazines and performances specific to its local politics, and eventually morphed into Surrealism in Paris, strongly influenced the Russian avant-garde, and visceral Japanese Butoh dance. Cabaret Voltaire still stands in Zurich, and over the past 10 years has been restored and revived by self-titled ‘Neo-Dadaists’ as a platform for contemporary performance and debate.  


As a break with the canon, Dadaism played a major role in challenging perceptions of what art could be - in galleries, on stage, publishing, music and many forms of cultural expression. If simply a pseudonym for activist artistic freedom, the impact of this movement can be observed in our lives every day.