Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q., 1919

Dada began not as an art form, but as a disgust. Tristan Tzara

World War I was long, cruel and senseless.  More than 15 million people were killed and millions more were wounded, both mentally and physically. Whole countries and peoples disappeared.  Then the Spanish Flu hit in 1918 and between 50 and 100 million people died.  The disease targeted the young and healthy.

These events sparked questions about authority and moral values that could not be easily answered.   The Christian ethos had not held back the savagery of man and nature.  The world made no sense.

Artists reacted by coming up with art that made no sense:  Dada.

Hugo Ball Reciting the Sound Poem Karawane, 1916

Poems were recited simultaneously in French, German, and English. Ball, dressed in a bizarre cardboard costume, chanted his sound poetry. Richard Huelsenbeck punctuated the proceedings with a continual drumbeat.

Was the name:

  • Chosen at random from a dictionary?
  • Or does it mean  baby talk? (German)
  • Or “hobby horse?” (French)
  • Or “yes, yes?” (Romanian and Russian)
  • Or “The tail of a sacred cow.”  (Kru, African)

A “Dadaist” would say yes.

Quick Facts:

  • Founded in 1916 in Zurich, a neutral city in the middle of a war-torn Europe, by a group of exiles from countries on both sides of the conflict.
  • Some were draft dodgers; most were pacifists; all found refuge on Swiss soil and were outraged by the slaughter taking place on all sides.
  • In February, in a tavern a few paces from Lenin’s home in exile, Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Tristan Tzara, and others founded the Cabaret Voltaire, dedicated to presenting, in Ball’s words, “the ideals of culture and of art as a program for a variety show.”


  • To launch a manifesto you have to want: A. B. & C., and fulminate against 1, 2, & 3,…
  • …and maintain that novelty resembles life in the same way as the latest apparition of a harlot proves the essence of God. His existence had already been proved by the accordion, the landscape and soft words.
  • Everyone does it [imposes one’s A.B. & C.] in the form of a crystalbluff-madonna, or a monetary system, or pharmaceutical preparations, a naked leg being the invitation to an ardent and sterile Spring.
  • …the love of novelty is a pleasant sort of cross….impulsive and vibrant to crucify boredom.
  • I’m writing this manifesto to show that you can perform contrary actions at the same time, in one single, fresh breath; I am against action; as for continual contradiction, and affirmation too, I am neither for nor against them, and I won’t explain myself because I hate common sense.
  • …on the other hand, there are: the new men. Uncouth, galloping, riding astride on hiccups.
  • Psychoanalyses is a dangerous disease, it deadens man’s anti-real inclinations and systematizes the bourgeoisie. There is no ultimate Truth.
  • I hate slimy objectivity, and harmony, the science that considers that everything is always in order. Carry on children, humanity … Science says that we are nature’s servants: everything is in order, make both love and war. Carry on, children, humanity, nice kind bourgeois and virgin journalists…
  • I am against systems; the most acceptable system is that of having none on no principle.
  • Art is a private thing, the artist makes it for himself; a comprehensible work is the product of a journalist…
  • What we need are strong, straightforward, precise works which will be forever misunderstood. Logic is a complication. Logic is always false.

Besides that decorative gentleman above, Hugo Ball, some big names in Dada were Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Francis Picabia, Hannah Hoch and Raoul Hausmann.  Here’s a sampling of some of their work:

Marcel Duchamp

1887 – 1968

Painting is washed up – who will ever do anything better than a propeller?

  • Born into an artistic family: 4 of 6 kids became artists.
  • Playful, loved puns and symbols.
  • Loved Mathematics, physics, chance, chess.
  • Intrigued by the random nature of life and art; interested more in theories than in the product itself.
  • Finally gave up art to play chess.

This is a great site about Duchamp.  His ideas were very influential:

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1913
Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917
Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912
Marcel Duchamp, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, 1915-23 

Man Ray


There is no progress in art, any more than there is progress in making love. There are simply different ways of doing it.

  • American, but lived in Paris most of his life.
  • Best known as a pioneering photographer.
  • Made “Readymades” like Duchamp, as well as paintings, films.
Man Ray, The Gift, 1921
Man Ray, Le Violin d’Ingres, 1924
Man Ray, Rose Selavy

Francis Picabia

1879 – 1953

Outrageous, lots of famous quotes:

A free spirit takes liberties even with liberty itself.

The only way to be followed is to run faster than the others.

I always liked amusing myself seriously.

  • Talented, independent, amoral:  In 1894, Picabia financed his stamp collection by copying a collection of Spanish paintings that belonged to his father, switching the originals for the copies, without his father’s knowledge, and selling the originals.
  • Introduced modern art to America.
  • Changed partners and styles nearly as often as Picasso.
  • After all the abstractions, ended up painting bad “girlie” nudes.
Francis Picabia, I See Again in Memory my Dear Udnie, 1914
Francis Picabia, The Eye, 1921
Francis Picabia, The Handsome Pork-Butcher, 1924-6
Francis Picabia, Cinq Femmes, 1941-3

Hannah Hoch

1889 – 1978

  • Originator of photomontage
  • Trained in glass design, graphic arts, patterns and textiles
  • Depicted women as manipulated by men and society
Hannah Hoch, Bourgeois Wedding Couple, Quarrel, 1919
Hannah Hoch, Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, 1919
Hannah Hoch, Dada Dance, 1922

Dada was short lived.  Art historians say it only flourished from 1916 to 1922.   Modern life, however, continues to be ridiculous, so there will always be a strain of Dada floating around.   Surrealism borrowed from it, as did Pop Art, and Performance Art is Dada on wheels.  Punk rock is Dada and good cartoons are frequently “dadaesque.”  Have you seen The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack? Or Courage the Cowardly Dog?  And Dragonball Z?  Classic Bugs Bunny?  Nonsense is funny, and in a greater sense, it helps with the pain and confusion of living.

This isn’t really Dada, since it makes sense, but it is whimsical and I couldn’t resist.  Isn’t it wonderful?

Tea Bird, Colin George Jeffrey, 2008

Here is a game that those crazy Dadaists made up.  It’s called The Exquisite Cadaver Shall Drink the New Wine.  It’s named for the first sentence generated by the game.

To Exdaverate:

  1. Gather a group of a acquaintances, friendly or not.
  2. Each person will need a piece of paper and a pencil (paper provided).
  3. Decide on a sentence structure (The sentence above came from Article/Adjective/Noun/Verb/Adjective/Noun).  Of course, real Dadaists wouldn’t have any structure at all.
  4. On the first round each person writes a word fitting the sentence structure, folds it over, then passes it on.  You may draw the word as well.
  5. The next person writes a word, conceals it, and passes the paper to the next person.
  6. Etc. etc.  Got it?
  7. When a round of sentences has been completed, open the paper and observe.
  8. Contemplate and realize what you have done (Read it out loud).
  9. Now we’ll deviate from the official formula, since the Dadaists originally kissed the person next to them on the cheek and turned away.

Now you know where they got the idea for “Mad Libs.”  Those wild artists!