Many tragedies have left their imprints in the history of humanity. Therefore, people have always looked for ways of adapting and reacting to them. Often, the transformation of art can act as a kind of reaction to a specific catastrophe. The First World War gave birth to many horrors and ruined many lives. At the same time, Dadaism became a peculiar reaction of society to such a terrible period.
The Theory of Dadaism. The Etymology of the Concept
Dadaism or Dada is an avant-garde nihilistic movement (mostly in painting and literature). It originated in Switzerland during the First World War and lasted from 1916 to 1922 (Williams, 2016). After 1922, French Dadaism merged with surrealism, and German one fused with expressionism (Behar, n.d.). Dadaism became the first conceptual art movement, whose representatives did not focus on the creation of aesthetically pleasing objects (Hofmann, 2001). Their aim was to turn bourgeois morality on its head (Williams, 2016). This gave rise to a multitude of complex questions concerning society, the role of the artist, and the purpose of art. Representatives of Dadaism were so against any manifestations of bourgeois culture, that they did not particularly like themselves. Dada was anti-Dada, according to their opinion (Williams, 2016). The movement was created in the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, and this fact is of great importance. This cabaret was named in honor of the satirist who derided contemporary society in his famous work Candide.
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Artists like Jean Arp believed that it was very important to use the elements of chance in the creation of their works. This approach contradicted all rules of creating works of art, when each work had to be carefully planned and completed (Hofmann, 2001). The introduction of the element of chance was one of the forms of protest against the traditional canons of art, as well as an attempt to find an answer to the question about the role of the artist in the creative process.
The etymology of the term is unclear. Some people believe that the word “dada” has its origins in the Romanian language, where the words “da, da” mean “yes, yes.” Moreover, according to one of the legends, the term appeared due to Austrian writer Richard Huelsenbeck, who stuck a knife into the dictionary, and the blade pointed to the word “dada” (the French term for a rocking horse) (Williams, 2016). According to another version, the word “dada” was found in the dictionary by one of the founders of the movement, Tristan Tzara. Probably, this word was chosen because of its universality (Behar, n.d.). The fact that it had different meanings or did not have any of them in different languages reflected the internationality of the entire Dadaist movement.
Dadaism and World War I
This movement arose as a reaction to the horrors of the war and the senselessness of destroying human lives. According to Dada artists, the main causes of all armed conflicts were rationalism and logic; therefore, the lack of aesthetics, the rejection of standards, irrationality, and disappointment were the fundamental values of their artistic movement. During World War I, Switzerland maintained its neutrality, which turned it into a kind of the “island of freedom” for artists from all over Europe (mostly from France and Germany) (Smithsonian Institution, n.d.). German poet and playwright Hugo Ball was among war refugees who came to Switzerland. In Zurich, he opened a nightclub that became the birthplace of Dadaism ?– the Cabaret Voltaire (Williams, 2016). Poets and artists, who moved from dangerous areas to safe Switzerland, should have felt relief that they managed to escape. Instead, they felt impotent rage – they were outraged by modern society and its reaction to events. Therefore, they decided to express their protest through the means available to them and turn art into anti-art. According to them, society did not care about that (Smithsonian Institution, n.d.). Writers and poets began to use curses and dubious humor in their works. Artists also used visual puns to attract the attention of viewers. Moreover, Dadaists were known for their use of household items, which could be bought and transformed into a work of art. The use of everyday things raised important questions about the definition of art, the purpose of art in society, and artistic creativity.
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It is important to understand that Dada was not the pretentious movement, and Dadaists were not simple amateurs. Dada artists felt such fear and despair related to the horrors of the war, that they decided to embody them in the form of art that could cause the same shock and fear among the public (Smithsonian Institution, n.d.). None of the works of Dadaists that have survived to this day can be called aesthetically pleasing (Williams, 2016). Dada artworks lack any kind of aesthetics. Artists often preferred collages, and sculptors – ready objects. Art critics believe that there was a reasonable explanation for this choice. The collage, in their opinion, is an anarchistic technique of arbitrarily arranging torn pieces of unrelated illustrations and lines of text in such a way that they form a confusing picture (National Gallery of Art, 2006). As for the creation of sculptures, it is even easier – Dadaists chose objects which were not perceived as works of art (for example, rusty bicycle wheels, broken bottles, crumpled cans, old furniture which had splits or cracks, discarded rags, and other useless items) and created sculptures out of them.
Dadaism quickly spread throughout Europe and reached even America (largely due to Marcel Duchamp). Dadaists published their own magazine in order to get their anti-war and anti-art ideas across to the masses. In 1918, after the end of the war, many of them left Switzerland and moved to their native countries, but the life of Dadaism continued (Smithsonian Institution, n.d.). Richard Huelsenbeck established the Dada Club in Berlin. The creativity of its visitors was influenced by the political situation in the country. Dadaists opposed the Weimar Republic, created satirical paintings as well as collages, and drew political cartoons. In 1919, Kurt Schwitters created his own Dada group in Hanover, however, he was the only member of this group (Williams, 2016). Another influential group of German Dadaists existed in Cologne under the leadership of Max Ernst and Johannes Theodor Baargeld. Among the main French Dadaists were Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard, and Francis Picabia (National Gallery of Art, 2006). Later, they were joined by Tristan Tzara and Jean Arp (Williams, 2016). Picabia, however, quite quickly left the French Dadaists (Smithsonian Institution, n.d.). He accused them of turning the movement into something against which Dadaism originally fought, into something mediocre, ordinary, and generally accepted.
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Dada was an art movement aimed at destroying the border between life and art. Dadaists rejected the aesthetic and cultural ideals of creativity, gravitating toward something absurd, shocking, and scandalous. As a rule, artworks were not aesthetically pleasing because their main purpose was to shock viewers. The unlimited freedom of creativity and self-expression were the fundamental features of Dadaism. Artists sought to show the existing reality as it was only from a different point of view and angle. Their need for freedom was created under the pressure of the war. Dadaism reflected the reaction of society to the horrible war at the beginning of the century.