The term ‘Dada’ was coined by the Zürich branch of the movement, of which the main philosophy is explained in an earlier post.
In short, during World War I, Switzerland was neutral. Gathered there were young artists who, scared of what humanity could do, and fed up with the butchery of war, attempted to alleviate minds and souls with the arts.
As of the 5th of February 1916, the Cabaret Voltaire, their night-club for performances became the cradle of their artistic innovations.
This group comprised mainly, to start with, of poets – Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco, Richard Huelsenbeck, Hans Richter – who defied the existing cultural and societal structures with nonsensical pieces made of sounds, which they called Bruitist pieces (Bruit in french means Noise.)
Moving towards even more anarchy, in an attempt to reject all man-made conventions and logic, which to them were the roots of the ongoing war, they invented Simultaneist poems, in which three of them would recite different pieces, in different languages, at the same time.
What started as poetry was soon transferred into other arts. People like Hans Arp created collages and wood reliefs, while his partner Sophie Taeuber, together with Emmy Hennings, danced and sang. Their art was constructive, aimed towards a utopian sensory experience and attempting to re-create a natural order which they believed had been lost by mankind – why else would men have engendered the worst war seen so far?
The ideas behind their revolution of aesthetics and poetics were multiple, but all came from a mutual rejection of obsolete conventions and settled rules of logic, which led to a general appreciation of a certain chaos, which would transcend rationality freed from dictated norms. As such, they created a break from tradition, a rejection of the destructive habits the previous generations had established, and embraced a leap into the modern world they were faced by and all its technological advances.
Primarily an anti-war movement, founded by international personalities, Zürich Dada soon expanded outside of Zürich. Upon its exhaustion in Switzerland, Dada was carried by its members across Europe, and reached Hanover, Cologne, Berlin, Paris, Barcelona, amongst other destinations. Interestingly, Dada thus had many identities and led different revolutions. As Robert Short explained, “Dada could never be exactly the same twice because it made itself an accusing reflection of the world in which it happened to find itself.” Understandably, the Berlin branch of Dada, taken on by Richard Huelsenbeck in 1918, was quite different from its positive predecessor, due to the events taking place in the German capital at the end of World War I.
Picture this: Germany has just lost the war, one of the deadliest conflicts ever seen, which the country had triggered. Food is scarce, bitterness is present in every mind, more than two and a half million men have been killed, and twice as many have returned wounded, bearing damages both physically and psychologically. Revolutions are sprouting in the world – in 1917, the Bolsheviks in Russia, the Communist party, have overthrown the Tsars and established a left-wing democracy, which in turned inspired the Communist party of Germany to act likewise, attempting to overthrow the Weimar Republic in place. There is ongoing class struggle and right/left-wing collisions on a daily basis.
Basically, everyone is generally extremely bitter, damaged, impoverished, and conflicted.
When Huelsenbeck takes Dada to Berlin, reflecting the current mindset of Berlin artists, its philosophy transforms from positive, utopian ideas to activism and political engagement.
Gathering around him are artists such as George Grosz, John Heartfield, Hannah Höch, and Raoul Hausmann. Together, they produce an art devoid of any positivity, an art which denotes of the desolation they were themselves in. Their most common media were Photomontage and Caricatures, which they used to denounce the world they lived in, the state of physical and psychological damage their contemporaries had returned in, as well as the current political affairs.
George Grosz embodies perfectly the caricature side of Berlin Dada. A very talented and prolific artist, his pieces really speak for themselves with regards to the chaos of the times he was creating them in:
The cartoons present a very unsettling echo of German military officials and of society.
Fit for Active Service shows a military doctor pronouncing a decomposing skeleton as “KV” or Kriegs Verwendungsfähig, German for “fit for service.” Grosz’s drawing denotes extreme bitterness and satire towards the officials sending his contemporaries to the front, without noticing the damages taking place.
A recurring figure in his caricatures is the “beer-belly” German character, who personifies upper class officials and aristocrats, pompously disconnected from the everyday citizen, as in Blood is the Best Sauce.
The drawing really tells a lot of the ignorance and indifference of the two “beer-belly” aristocrats, casually enjoying a good meal while the rest of society finds itself in complete chaos.
Besides the caricature of war officials and class struggles present in Grosz’s drawings, as with Picabia and Duchamp, we see a recurring theme of the machine. The paintings present Automaton figures, which are allegorical personifications of both the mutilated soldiers coming back with artificial limbs, and of the Dada artists themselves. Berlin Dadaists, in their communist activism, were for the people, and against the inwardness of art, especially of Expressionism. Instead of creating self-centred art full of emotional distortions, Dada wanted to create an art reflective of the reality they lived in, in complete objectivity. As such, they did not consider themselves artists, but monteurs – engineers and workmen, and produced art in an impartial and impersonal way.
These thoughts originate from the Berlin Dada Manifesto, written and published in April 1918, which ends, very angrily, as follows:
“Down with aesthetic-ethical tendencies!
Down with the anaemic abstraction of Expressionism!
Down with the literary hollow-heads and their theories for improving the world!”
and which demanded, boldly and in full-caps: “NEW MATERIALS IN PAINTING.”
This is where Photomontage comes in.
Using everyday images, and identifying with the machine era and men which surrounded them, Dada artists mechanically produced composite images, reflecting only already existing truths rather than emotions.
During a period of class struggles, in which the proletarian workforce was heavily ignored by the upper ruling class, Dadas could affiliate themselves to the everyday citizen by behaving in the same working manner – indeed, those who created Photomontages called themselves monteurs, which denotes strong labour ideas of assembly chains and engineering mounting.
They could also participate in the creation of pieces made from selected scraps, in the same way as men were returning from the front with new bits and pieces in the form of prosthetic limbs.
Lastly, photomontage technically challenges our usual conventions with regards to perceiving art as a whole. As we shall see, montages are made with many distinctive and isolated components – much like society. Photomontages allow us to not only look at the whole image, but to focus on the small bits too, a message which parallels the Berlin Dada contemporary struggle in which the proletariat was ignored out of the big picture.
Famous for her Dada photomontages is artist Hannah Höch, who created reflections of her surrounding reality by juxtaposing images from advertisements and magazines. As Grosz, Höch resented the political system in place in Berlin, and attempted to question its ineffectiveness, all the while responding to the recent technological advances.
Her most famous piece, the 1919 Cut With the Kitchen Knife: Dada through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany is a chaotic arrangement of cogs, machinery, politicians, entertainment figures and pictures of rallies. All of these create a contraction of the way Höch viewed society, and the picture is peppered with aggressive word – Dada especially – which reminds us of the repetitive slogans that political parties or advertisements use ad nauseam, in an attempt to convince the general public that they hold the solution. Here, thus, it could be understood that, amongst the chaos of society, Höch sees Dada as a solution.
To be noted is the aggressive nature of the title. Beyond the very literal language used, Dada is associated to cold steel, which will rid society of the beer-belly aristocrats, also targeted by Grosz. Dada is a weapon against the obsolete Weimar epoch of Germany, one which equalled warfare and social inequalities.
Further than being socially representative, the piece is therefore a strong political statement against the system in place at the time.
One of the great potentials for Photomontage lies in the contradiction opposing the multiple alternate realities which can be depicted from real material. One of the realities into which Dadaists ventured was one in which mechanical humans reigned.
Photomontage in itself being quite a mechanical and clinical art, it is no wonder that it was used to discuss the on-going technological advances, and their link with regards to human deteriorations, sociological, physical and psychological.
A recurring theme for Berlin Dada, already touched upon in this article, was that of the Automaton – the semi-human robot figure. To repeat, this automaton is a cyborg, who represents several things: the prosthetic men returning from war, the Dada monteurs, as well as the heartless and mindless political leaders and followers, those whose overuse of logic led to war.
Photomontage permitted extensive representations of the Automaton. George Grosz, for example, uses elements of collage in the above painting “Daum” Marries her Pedantic Automaton “George,” and others such as Raoul Hausmann re-created mechanical humans in collages such as in Tatlin at Home.
Vladimir Tatlin was a Russian artist and architect, who devoted his career to Constructivist art: an art which had practical and social purposes, at a time when the Bolshevik Revolution had turned Russia’s ruling from the autocratic Tsars to a new Communist government, introducing democracy and social concerns. Constructivism and Tatlin, being its main figure, were hailed by the Berlin Dada group for obvious reasons. Constructivist art represented what Dada was aiming for: social, utilitarian, collective and non-personal art, all the while being geared towards engineering and mechanics.
Tatlin was so revered by Dadas that a sign at the First International Dada Fair in 1920 read: “Art is Dead. Long Live the New Machine Art of Tatlin.”
This means that the Machine was as hailed as it was questioned by Dada, and that Grosz’s negative Automaton is different from Hausmann’s positive mechanic identification of Tatlin. Indeed, while Grosz saw machine-humans as cold-hearted and damaged, Hausmann sees in machine-thought a future for art and mankind, full of objectivity and practical sense, bringing forward new solutions for the people.
Interestingly, the art of montage was also transposed to three dimensional art. Hausmann, and other Dadas, produced sculptures in exactly the same way as he made his photomontages, such as his well-known Mechanical Head (Spirit of our Time), the only surviving example of his three dimensional assemblages.
Similarly to photomontage, the Head is assembled from scraps belonging to one’s everyday life – a wig-rest dummy, a some rulers, a pocket watch, number tags… As you will notice, all of the items affixed to the head relate to numbers and other measuring devices, which acts as a direct invocation of the modern days’ abuse of logic, and of the common man’s actions constantly dictated by reason, especially in an age of constant technological advances.
George Grosz, together with John Heartfield, also produced assembled sculptures, such as The Petty Bourgeois Philistine.
The sculpture alludes to the same themes as have been already mentioned: the replacement of the human mind with technological elements, the soul-less nature of the automaton – referred to by a number rather than an identity – as well as visual representations of prosthetic limbs. Further, the automaton is powered by electricity, which completely nulls any potential human life and energy within it, and finally its lack of genitalia could refer to the trauma-induced shellshock of the war on returning soldiers, which was said to affect libido, which in turn affected men’s sense of masculinity.
Short note on John Heartfield:
Actively repulsed by his home nation’s military anti-British fervour, the artist, né Herzfeld anglicised his name.
Alongside publishing revolutionary journals and, Heartfield experimented with photomontage and collage, using photography as a weapon, as he himself claimed.
Heartfield produced photomontage of the same branch as Höch: his art was very alike revolutionary propaganda, in which he began attempting to show to the German society the real face and actions of those in power.
My favourite pieces of his is “unfortunately” not related to this period, but reflect World War II, which is why I’m only shortly mentioning him – despite his important role in Berlin Dada’s political activism.
As earlier mentioned, Dada travelled to many cities and implanted itself differently each time, depending on the current state of affairs and how the artists chose to reflect their surrounding conditions. While Hüelsenbeck took Dada from Zürich to Berlin, Hans Arp took it to Cologne, where it developed into a small nucleus, active for only two years. However short, the Cologne Dada remains significant in history, mainly due to one of the protagonists: Max Ernst, who later would travel across to Paris to join the Dadaists there, and stay with them as the movement morphed into Surrealism. You can find an account of Ernst’s Surrealist affiliations in this previous article.
The artist Kurt Schwitters’ arrival in Cologne sort of crystallized the Dada core there, even though he had just been rejected by Huelsenbeck from the Berlin Club Dada, on account that he was too bourgeois, too middle-class. Further, before his arrival, a small group of artists were already animating the art scene of Cologne: Ernst and Johannes Baargeld were collaborating on a radical left-wing paper, while being occasionally visited by Zürich Dada’s Hans Arp. Schwitters fitted in well with the group for the reason that he had developed an artistic medium of abstract assemblage of street litter and everyday memorabilia (as opposed to newspaper cuttings) – while Ernst and Baargeld had been working on group assemblages of also general litter and scraps, with the important aspect that they remained anonymous collaborations, which defied the art-world’s conventions of authorship.
The Cologne Dada group produced poetry, and also produced photomontages, which mixed human and animal anatomy with mechanical bits and pieces, in an attempt to create some gloomy, dark alternate realities which could highlight the limitations of human reason. Interestingly, Max Ernst’s collages and photomontages represent his earliest Surrealist-type works.
The collages produced by Max Ernst differ from the previous branches of Dada’s examples. Indeed, while collage in Zürich took an abstract turn, and while Berlin Dadas created photomontages with a critical message within, Ernst’s collages were much more poetic, and erratic, as well as simply more illusionistic.
Cologne Dada abruptly ended in 1920 when Hans Arp elected Paris as his new home, prompting Max Ernst to follow him shortly after, leading to the creation of the short-lived Paris Dada group and the advent of Surrealism.