On February 5th, 1916 German sociologist Hugo Ball founded the “Voltaire Cabaret” in Zurich. Little did he know that this would become a turning point in the history of Arts.
Neutral Switzerland becomes a hub of creative activity for all kinds of intellectuals and artists, and the “Voltaire Cabaret” was the meeting point for the most radical, avant-garde, and unconventional. For the first time, artists gathered to work together sharing the same ideology but not the same aesthetic or subject of their pieces. Dadaism is considered to be the first “conceptual art movement” even though Dada artists refused to be labeled as an ‘art movement” and claimed to be creating an “Anti-movement” breaking all the established art rules.
They stood against all conventional standards, both social and artistic, based on the belief that traditional art was trivial and bourgeois. Their main concern was to question the role of the artist in society as well as the purpose and meaning of art.
But how did they manage to oppose every convention? By creating new ways of expression. Poetry composed by random noises or words aligned by chance, paintings made with waste material found on the streets, collages and photomontages from pictures from newspapers and publicity. These were some of the chosen weapons to make their anti-art revolution.
Tristan Tzara, the Romanian-French poet and performance artist who is believed to have named the movement (although there are several different stories about the authorship and the meaning of the word itself) writes in their Manifesto. “I write this manifesto to show that people can perform contrary actions together while taking one fresh gulp of air; I am against action; for continuous contradiction, for affirmation too, I am neither for nor against and I do not explain because I hate common sense.”
Dada was born to be a permanent contradiction, a contradiction to everything known so far and to all formal art, with the only aim to provoke, to offend if necessary. Anarchic by nature, they were against traditional values, the System (not only did they blame the political leaders for the war but also but also European society for having allowed it) and moreover against common sense. In order to fight it, they used humor, in the form of irony and chance. Chance was a key concept of most of Dada art from the abstract and beautiful compositions of Schwitters to the large assemblages of Duchamp. They used it as a way to embrace the random and the accidental as a way to release creativity from rational control.
In between the most renown artists that Dada gathered were the Romanian Marcel Janco, visual artist and architect Jean Arp, (also known as Hans Arp) sculptor, the French painter and poet who along with Max Ernst set up the Cologne Dada group, Marcel Duchamp, (he was also the first to introduce the concept of the readymade object), Austrian Raoul Hausmann, and Germans Hanna Höch, Johannes Baader, and Richard Hülsenbeck who’s work all focused primarily on collages and photomontages.
Dada didn’t stay in Zurich for long. Just after the end of the war, Dada spread to Berlin, New York, and also to Paris. In Berlin, Dadaism emphasises its political character. The exiled German artists that decide to go back organised massive political demonstrations, which often ended up in riots, and articles published in the media that covered various political discussions including protests against the Weimar Republic.
In 1917, Richard Hülsenbeck founds the “Dada Club” in Berlin, where artists such as Hannah Hoch, Kurt Schwitters, Herzfeld, and John Heartfield gathered together. Heartfield later became the most prominent example of an artist using photomontage as a critical weapon. Heartfield put together different images from newspapers and magazines, making pieces that featured war images, satirised government figures and included political caricatures often accompanied by ironical commentaries. Such images remain among the most important satirical images of German political conditions of the 1930s.
John Heartfield’s most representative work of that time can be found on the covers of the AIZ, Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (Workers’ Illustrated Newspaper), which became his way of combating the Nazi propaganda machine. His 1932 montage “Adolf, the Superman, Swallows Gold and Spouts Junk” was so effective it was reproduced as a political poster and plastered throughout Germany. Heartfield wanted to fight back the invasion of military images in the daily life, with contra-images and humor, trying to provoke, wake up, and make society realise the danger of what he believed was about to happen. His photomontage of Hitler with his belly full of gold from his financial supporters is another example of one of the artist’s most famous images. He explains that the Führer is performing a miracle of political alchemy as he converts financial contributions from war investors into nonsense. His aim was to expose the dangers and abuses of power in the Nazi regime.
John Heartfield’s anti-Nazi anti-fascist statements meant that he had to flee Germany when the National Socialists took power in 1933. When the SS broke into his apartment he escaped by jumping out of his balcony and hiding in a trash bin for seven hours. He kept producing anti-fascist art in Prague until the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938.
The photomontage technique, that Heartfield introduced, consists of the process of making a new image by cutting, gluing, rearranging, and overlapping two or more photographs. Heartfield used the very tools with which the mass media of his time constructed “reality,” but with a new message, an anti-war one.
The other major exponents of photomontages were Hannah Höch, Kurt Schwitters, Raoul Hausmann, and Johannes Baader. But photomontage survived Dada and was a technique inherited and widely used by European Surrealists such as Salvador Dalí and Rene Magritte.
Art as we know it today and probably even graphic design wouldn’t exist without Dada. Almost every art movement after has utilised Dada’s creations such as performance art and happenings, art in everyday life objects, the use of art in advertisement in the ways of collage and photomontages, installations, the use of the absurd and chance. Pop art, conceptual art, Minimalism were all influenced by Dada concepts. Every time we see a political poster, a composition of photos taken out of the media, a flyer combining absurd images, we have to thank them, who one hundred years ago shouted “DADA”.