What Is Dada?: History

During World War I, countless German intellectuals left their homeland and sought refuge in neutral communities or the United States. Many of them ended up in Zürich, Switzerland, where they formed discussion groups and literary collectives together. In these organizations, most loosely formed, the intellectuals – including Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Tristan Tzara, Jean Arp, Marcel Janco, and Richard Huelsenbeck – discussed the problems of their times and of the human condition. As explained by Wikipedia, "[i]t was here [in Zürich] that they decided to use abstraction to fight against the social, political, and cultural ideas of that time that they believed had caused the war. Abstraction was viewed as the result of a lack of planning and logical thought processes."

When the war ended, most intellectuals and artists moved back to their original homelands and cities. The center of the Dada movement then became Berlin, where Dada took on a much more political nature. In New York City, meanwhile, the movement became very focused on theory and took on a much more ironic feeling than its disillusioned European counterpart. Artists in America, including Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, and Man Ray concentrated on the art (or anti-art) itself far more than the problems of man.

While the German and American Dada movements tended to revolve around ideas and visual art, the French variant put much of its emphasis on literature. Writers like Tristan Tzara, Guillaume Apollinaire, André Breton, and Max Jacob published Dadaist plays, poetry, and tracts espousing their beliefs. By the 1920s, the movement was at its full force in France, with Dadaists interacting more with the public than the ones in Germany and America and overtaking the intellectual mindset of Paris. The dramatic actions of the movement in Paris, however, ended up leading to a major split with some artists, leading to the separation between Dada and its related movement, Surrealism.

By the mid-1920s, the inherently unstable movement was beginning to break up. Thought on the continent began to shift more towards modernism, though many scholars now argue that Dada was the start of the post-modern movement. The leaders of the movement in each locale began to move away from each other, and former gathering places like the Cabaret Voltaire in Paris closed or faded into obscurity. As the world geared up for another war, attentions turned elsewhere and the movement slowly died, its time brief but its impact enormous.