During the First World War the situation in Zurich was tense. Neutral Switzerland offered an attractive safe haven for diplomats, spies, deserters, refugees, political conspirators and the exploiters of war. With the arrival of Lenin in February 1916 the city developed into a centre of revolutionary propaganda. Lenin returned to Russia in April 1917 to lead the October Revolution. Many radical socialists and revolutionaries stayed behind.

The presence of numerous foreign intellectuals and artists leant strong impulses to the cultural scene. Thus one could, after having attended a lecture by C.G. Jung at the university, walk through the Niederdorfstrasse and see Tristan Tzara sitting in the Tivoli restaurant and Igor Stravinsky in the Pfauen café. The poet Frank Wedekind would be ensconced at his usual table in the Café Odéon where Hermann Hesse was also to be found. James Joyce wrote the greater part of his Ulysses there and Dadaism was born there.

There are various accounts about how the name of the Dada movement and its published Dada magazine was coined in 1916. Disillusioned by what was considered to be deceitful bourgeois culture - for many the First World War laid bare collectivity and civilization ideals of society – many of the Dadaists reverted to radical and highly wayward forms of art in which they banned the hitherto accepted values and norms. They recited sound poems, gave rustling concerts and assembled texts with letters in the random order with which they dropped out of a bag. In their collages and photo montages they sought alternative artistic expression with which to replace the illusions of imaging by reclaiming pictures of stark reality. They frequently explicitly targeted protest and parody.

Dada was not a style, it was a spiritual state. The Dadaists did not seek to impose new norms and values; they rejected formality. Their only motivation emanated from a fundamental dedication to art. Because they consciously operated outside bourgeois tastes their art was deemed to be anti-art. It was anti-art in the sense that Dadaists kicked against the academic and cultural values of art of the time.

Dada opposed everything art stood for. If art concerned itself with aesthetics, Dada rejected it. If art could have either implicit or latent meaning, Dada strove for meaninglessness. The interpretation of Dada lies wholly with the beholder. If art seeks to evoke feelings, Dada seeks to insult. It is ironic that Dada became such an influential movement in modern art.

Dada was an international movement and it is difficult to categorize its artists by country of origin because they were constantly moving from one place to another. In a few large cities, the most important being Berlin, Hanover, Cologne, Paris and New York, Dada movements of a different character sprung up. Additionally there were also quite a few spontaneous individual and independent initiatives in Russia, Hungary former Yugoslavia (Zagreb), Romania (Marcel Janco) and in Spain (Barcelona, Francis Picabia).

Dada in Zurich

Dadaism was born in February 1916 in Zurich, probably fathered by the German refugee Hugo Ball and his life partner Emmy Hennings, who was a dancer and a singer. Others soon jumped on the Dada bandwagon with them: Romanian poet Tristan Tzara and German poet Richard Huelsenbeck, Romanian painters Marcel Janco and Arthur Segal, German painter Hans Richter, Dutch artists Otto and Adya van Rees, the Alsatian Hans Arp, Swiss painter and dancer Sophie Taeuber, lawyer and writer Walter Serner and choreographer and leader of his experimental dance group, Rudolf Laban.

The group often gathered together in the Café Meierei in the Spiegelgasse. The Dadaists rechristened it the Cabaret Voltaire and transformed the tavern into a kind of literary and artistic café where poetry was recited, exhibitions took place and a plethora of performances was held. The grand opening took place in the evening of 5 February when Hugo Ball read from the works of Voltaire. Nearly every day there was a varied program of music, poetry and dance on offer and there were regular art expositions.

23 June 1916: Hugo Ball recites his first sound poem enveloped in a cubist suit made of cardboard. 14 July 1916: first public Soirée in the Zunfthaus zur Waag. Ball recites his sound poems and Tristan Tzara  delivers a first Dada manifesto which is considered to be one of the most important Dada pieces of writing. Other manifestos were to follow.
A single volume of the Cabaret Voltaire magazine (brought out on 31 May 1916 and edited by Hugo Ball) was the first publication emanating from the movement.
After the Cabaret Voltaire was closed at the end of July 1916 activities were transferred to a new gallery, the Gallery Dada, and shortly thereafter Ball left Zurich after a heated fight. Five more Dada Soirées took place in the Gallery Dada. The 7th Soirée was held on 23 July 1918 in Zunfthaus zur Meise and the 8th and final major Dada activity took place on 19 April 1919 in Zunfthaus zur Kaufleuten. Tzara began a flamboyant campaign to propagate Dada ideas. Posturing as Dada leader and strategist supreme, he bombarded French and Italian artists and writers with letters. He also defined the difference between Dadaism and the strongly programmed Futurism: the only statement of principles of Dadaism is precisely that Dadaism does not possess any. Under his leadership the literary and art magazine Dada was created. It first appeared in July 1917, 5 editions were published in Zurich and the last 3 were published in Paris.

During the course of the First World War Dadaism spread throughout Europe. Everywhere artists were protesting with focused provocation against the war and the authoritative civil and artistic systems. Opposed to nationalism and militarism they chose the side of pacifism and sarcastically debated values of the time which had become absurd. When the First World War came to an end in 1918 most Dadaists left Zurich to return to their home countries, but some set up Dada activities in other cities.

Dada, sound and text

Hugo Ball was the inventor of the meaningless sound poem. The combination of the sound of words and their meaning was demolished and the words were broken up into single syllables. The language was thus purged of its meaning and the sounds were rearranged to produce rhythmic sound images. The idea behind this was to do away with language which, according to the Dadaists was only abused and perverted. With the so-called simultaneous poems (sound poems recited by several people at the same time in a disorderly fashion) the Dadaists wanted to draw attention to the constant and deafening background noise of modern existence (in the trenches, in the big cities…) and to the mechanical processes in which people become trapped. Apart from the Dadaists many other writers, poets and artists were engaged in all sorts of language experimentation.

Hugo Ball: "With these sound poems we want to distance ourselves from a language which has been irreparably destroyed by journalism. We have to revert back to the deepest alchemy of words, and then even abandon that alchemy of the word, in order to ensure a safe sanctuary for the most holy domain of poetry”. Whenever Ball recited his sound poems the public burst out laughing and his performance was met with their stunned disbelief.

Dada in Berlin

It was a radical strain of Dadaism which was practiced in Berlin. There, George Grosz, Raoul Hausmann and Helmut Herzfelde (who later called himself John Heartfield) heard from Richard Huelsenbeck what had been happening in Zurich. They all had similar ideas and joined up with him.  Huelsenbeck soon created a Dada Manifesto in which he opposed Futurism and Cubism and endorsed Dadaism. Shortly thereafter "Club Dada" was set up. Its members were the real Berlin Dadaists. One of these members was Johannes Baader who proclaimed himself President of the Earth. Dada become more and more extreme, hurling insults and attacks on political dignitaries.

Dada Berlin invented a new art form, the photo montage. The collage technique had already been extensively used in Zurich, but in Berlin realistic photos were crafted into new works of art. Raoul Hausmann and Hannah Höch were the first to develop this novelty. New inroads in the art of poetry were being sought. Sound poems such as were being recited by Hugo Ball, Richard Huelsenbeck and Hans Arp were further developed. Hausmann founded "Der Dada", the most important magazine of the Berlin Dadaists.   

Twelve matinees were organized in Berlin during which the public was treated like idiots and riff-raff. The pinnacle was reached in 1920 when the first international Dada convention which gathered together Dadaists from all walks of life and of every political persuasion. One of the central themes was naturally abhorrence of authority in any shape or form. The full spectrum of Dadaist magazines, posters, publications, etc was exhibited and its multiplicity was clearly visible.

Dada in Hanover

Kurt Schwitters was the key person in Hanover. He had a talent for oratory and recitation. But because he was not accepted into the Berlin Dada circle he discarded the word Dada and began his own artistic movement which he dubbed "Merz", a syllable which he had culled from the word Commerzbank for one of his collages. His ideas also veered towards anti-art.

Kurt Schwitters got on very well with Hans Arp. Their ideas were very similar. Very soon Schwitters published a magazine called Merz, devised his own theory for writing poetry which he called Schwitters logic. “It is not the word which provides the original material for a poem but the letter”. In the first place the word is a composition of letters, in the second place sound, in the third place meaning and in the fourth place the bearer of associations of ideas.

Kurt Schwitters was active in all art disciplines. He made collages, painted, composed music and wrote poems and prose. "An artist lives Dada, fully and focused."
His largest and most eccentric work was the "Merz-bau". He had made numerous spaces in a room, of all shapes, sizes and directions. When the room became full he broke through the ceiling in order to continue building. Each of the spaces was linked to particular personal thoughts and memories. Thus there was, for example, an Arp space where his memories of Arp were preserved and represented by a smoked cigarette in a bottle of urine.

Dada in Cologne

Max Ernst was the central figure in Cologne. Together with the painter Johannes Theodoor Baargeld, he published the Dadaist magazine “Der Ventilator". Because of its aggressive criticism of the Church, society and state it was soon prohibited by the British occupying forces. Arp, Ernst and Baargeld organized a Dada exhibition which was closed down by the police because it flaunted offensive material.

Dada in The Netherlands

Otto and Adya van Rees had been involved in the Dada movement in Zurich ever since 1915. In a later phase Paul Citroen (Berlin 1917), Theo and Nelly van Doesburg (Paris 1920) came into contact with the movement. Hendrik Werkman (Groningen), Evert and Thijs Rinsema (Drachten) were especially on the same wavelength.

In 1923 the first Dada campaign was held in the Netherlands. Its chief campaigners were Theo and Nelly van Doesburg, Kurt Schwitters and Vilmos Huszar. The first performance was in The Hague followed by others in Amsterdam, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Delft, Leiden, again in The Hague, Utrecht, Rotterdam, Tilburg, with the final performance in Rotterdam on 6 February. Kurt Schwitters did a one-man-show in Drachten on 13 April.
(> Projecten "Een middag in de DadaWarroom")

Dada in New York

In New York (a safe haven like Zurich) Dada increasingly focused on anti-art. Right after their arrival in 1915 from France, Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia met the American artist Man Ray. In 1916 these three formed the pivot of radical anti-art activities in the United States. Many of these activities took place in Gallery 291 which belonged to Alfred Stieglitz (an innovative photographer) and in the house of Walter and Louise Arensberg. The New Yorkers challenged art and culture by bringing out publications such as The Blind Man, Rongwrong and New York Dada in which they criticized traditional museum art. The artists, amongst whom was Marcel Duchamp, put on an exhibition at the “Armory" in New York and presented a totally new form of art.
Marcel Duchamp in particular distinguished himself in his paintings which concerned themselves with “light as a moving factor in the art of painting”. His "readymades", in which he attributed art status to ordinary objects, were completely Dadaistic. The artist did not create them – he “found” them. Thus the “fountain”, for example, came into being. The fountain was simply an upstanding urinal signed R. Mutt. This work meant nothing to the artist – it simply symbolized the “nothingness” of our world and our lives. From 1911 (Paris) to 1923 (New York) he worked at The Large Glass, that would stay "finally unfinished" (MD).

-The Large Glass ("The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even")
- Marcel Duchamp behind a part of The Large Glass. Photo 1920.
- Marcel Duchamp looking through the "Oculist witnesses". Photo 1960

Francis Picabia was the binding link between all he Dada groups in New York, Zurich and Paris. In 1919  Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia left New York to move back to Paris where Man Ray joined them in 1921. Dada had now passed into its final stage.

Dada in Paris

The French avant-garde was kept well informed of what was happening in Zurich, particularly through Tristan Tzara, magazines, poems, an exchange of letters with writers, critics and artists including Guillaume Apollinaire, André Breton, Max Jacob and especially by Francis Picabia.
Around 1919 Dadaists met at the home of Germaine Everling and her friend Picabia, and in their local Café Certa where Jean Cocteau’s crowd also used to meet up, and which later became the stamping ground of the Surrealists. It was there that at the end of July or the beginning of August 1919 that Marcel Duchamp (who had moved in with Everling and Picabia upon his return from New York) first met the Paris Dadaists.

Tzara arrived in Paris on 17 January 1920 and was warmly received at Everling’s “salon”, where he met the full editorial board of Littérature (Louis Aragon, André Breton, Paul Eluard en Philippe Soupault). Shortly afterwards Dada activities started to be arranged. Everling held her salon regularly from 1919 to 1924.

Many magazines and pamphlets with poetry, prose and essays were published, the most important being “391” whose sole editor was Picabia, and which had begun its days in Barcelona in January 1917 - its last number came out in October 1924; l’Esprit Nouveau, from October 1920 up until January 1935; Littérature from March 1919 up until June 1924; Dada - numbers 6, 7 and 8, the last number was dated 16 September 1886 (!) and Transition which did not appear until 1927 and lasted up until 1938. Regular debates over Dada activities appeared in the press, not in the daily newspapers but in revues such as Comoedia, "revue littéraire".

The first Dada Manifestation, called “Premier Vendredi de la Littérature” was held in Paris on 23 January 1920 in the Palais des Fêtes. It was closely followed by another Dada gathering in the Salle Berlioz of the Théâtre de la Maison de L’Oeuvre and by the “Festival Dada” in the Salle Gaveau on 26 May 1920.
(Illustration: Festival Dada, Salle Gaveau 1920. "You will forget me", a play written by André Breton and Philippe Soupault. On the photo: top left, Paul Eluard; top right, Théodore Fraenkel; bottom left, Philippe Soupault and bottom right André Breton.)

On 14 April 1921 there was a Dada excursion to the église Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, in which many Dadaists and supporters participated (click on the photo). Plans were made for further excursions but these never materialized.

A Dada exhibition – the “Salon Dada” – was held from 6 to 20 June 1921 in the hall of Studio des Champs-Elysées (part of the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées) on the top floor of the building situated in the avenue Montaigne: splendidly dubbed Galerie Montaigne.

The Théâtre des Champs-Elysées was the place for many Dadaist and avant-garde activities. It was built in 1913 by the Peret brothers. Its opening coincided with the scandal caused by the performance on 29 May of the Sacre du Printemps. The public was outraged at Stravinsky’s music and Nijinsky’s choreography.

A Soirée Dada  was held in the two halls of the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées on 10 June 1921 closely followed by two matinees on 18 and 30 June (15:30) called “Grand Après-Midi Dada”. It appeared to have been well arranged with the theatre owner but… on Friday 17 June a Soirée Bruitiste also took place where a concert was performed by Marinetti and other Futurists and on 18 June in the evening there was the première of a Jean Cocteau play. Both evenings caused a good degree of commotion, ending with the departure of the Dadaists, under police escort, to the accompaniment of a jeering public

On 19 June 1926 George Antheil's Ballet Mécanique  was performed to a full concert hall. James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and Sylvia Beach were among the audience. The Théâtre des Champs-Elysées was particularly renowned for its modern and international repertoire and its international performers (including Isadora Duncan and Swedish and Russian ballet companies).

Ballet Mécanique
, film by Fernand Léger and Man Ray, 1924.
George Antheil
composed the accompanying music which was first performed as a concert piece in 1926. It was not until 2000 that the film and the music were put together (Duration: 16 minutes, music in the film: Ballet Mécanique, Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra conducted by Daniel Spalding, 2001).

Man Ray arrived in Paris on 14 July 1921 speaking not a word of French. He was met by Marcel Duchamp who accompanied him to a room he had booked for him at the hotel Tzara had just left. Six months later, from 3 to 31 December 1921, in the recently opened book shop Six owned by Philippe Soupault, Man Ray held a solo exhibition where he sold nothing. Erik Satie was present at the opening.

On 6 July 1923 the Soirée du Coeur à Barbe took place in the Théâtre Michel. It was to be the last major performance of the Paris Dada group. It ended with Le Coeur à Gaz by Tristan Tzara (costumes by Sonia Delaunay). From Spring 1922 onwards Breton, Eluard and Souppault had become increasingly disillusioned with the Dada movement and, convinced of imminent downfall, they decided to set Littérature on another course. That evening it got out of hand between the leaders and the police had to be called in.

(Illustration: Dadaists/Surrealists: Paul Eluard, with a portrait of the photographer Man Ray. From left to right: back row: Paul Chadourne, Tristan Tzara, Philippe Soupault, Serge Charchoune. Front row : Paul Eluard, Jacques Rigaut, Mick Soupault, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes.)


By 1924 most of the Dadaists had joined the ranks of the Surrealist movement. Tzara, Picabia and Marcel Duchamp did not follow suit. They pointedly chose for a role as independent artists.

(Illustration: the Surrealists in their new (1924) "Bureau de Recherches Surréalistes". From left to right, back row: François Baron, Raymond Queneau, André Breton, Jacques Boiffard, Giorgio de Chirico, Roger Vitrac, Paul Eluard, Philippe Soupault, Robert Desnos, Louis Aragon. Front row: Pierre Naville, Nadine Breton, Max Morisse, Marie-Louise Soupault.)

The last official Dada stunt was the showing, on 4 December 1924, of the film Entr’acte by René Clair (which lasted 24 minutes) with music by Erik Satie featuring Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia, Eric Satie and many others. This film, masterminded by Picabia was intended as relaxing intermission during the interval of a performance by the Ballet Relâche.

René Clair, Entr'acte. 1924
, music Erik Satie. (film fragment of a chess game between Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, filmed on the roof of the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, duration 4 minutes.)