Dada or Dadaism was an artistic as well as literary movement that began in the 20th century that began in Zurich, Switzerland. It was born out of disgust from political, social, and cultural values during the 20th century. However, it isn’t an art style like Cubism or Impressionism but more of a protest and reaction to World War I. But art movements of the modern art world such as Futurism, Cubism, and Expressionism deeply influenced the art style. More than just an art movement, Dadaism was also used in performance art such as music as well as poems, sculptures, and photographs.

Dada artists

Group photograph of Dada artists

Dada Context and Beginnings

Dadaism was born in Zurich, Switzerland. During the first World War, Switzerland was neutral with their limited censorship. During the time of war, on February 5, 1915, Emmy Hennings and Hugo Ball created the Cabaret Voltaire which would serve as the home of Dadaism and the artists involved.

To be able to attract artists and intellectuals like them, Ball sent out a press release encouraging writers and artists to get together at Cabaret Voltaire and make it the center of entertainment with the use of art and literature. The press release also read that the cabaret will be run by these young artists and they would have daily readings and performances for their meetings.

Among the first people who gathered were Richard Huelsenbeck, Hans Arp, and Marcel Janco.

When they got together, they began creating a Dada magazine which helped promote their exhibits. In turn, these publicities helped spread their message: stopping the war and the nationalism that led to it in the first place.

In 1917, Ball left and went to Bern so he can pursue a career in journalism. After he left, Tristan Tzara who was among the first to heed the call of Cabaret Voltaire, founded Galerie Dada. This became the new home of Dadaism where they held meetings and had exhibits. Tzara was relentless with the campaign. He’d send writers and artists from France and Italy with letters regarding Dadaism.

When the war ended in 1918, most of the artists went back to their home countries. This helped in spreading the movement. By 1919, the end of Dada in Zurich would be recorded as the most significant event in Dadaism history. What started as an exhibit turned into a riot — something Tzara believed is the best way of getting Dada further into the people.

The real story behind the word Dada is unsure until today. However, one of the most popular tales states that Hulsenbeck plunged a knife into a dictionary at random. They believed that the word “dada” would mean have the same meaning of “nothing” in many languages.

Dadaism Concepts and Styles


It’s a little disconcerting to see an anti-art message for an art movement. However, this has a purpose.

Dadaism used destructive components which are also regarded as negative. This became a symbol of rejecting the tradition and trying to find complete freedom that isn’t bound by the norm. They provoked the art system and created full-scale assault against it which they believed were part of the disastrous system that led to war.

This has become the greatest paradox of the Dadaism movement. They fought art with art, questioning the essence of art and whether it was only made to benefit the capitalist class.

Out of all the groups, the New York chapter was the most anti-art.

However, traditional art wasn’t the only thing they rebelled against. May it be the bourgeoisie, the government, or even the traditional methods, Dadaism had their own negative opinion. It has been one of the crucial components of the art movement.


Art has always been created by the artist and how they perceive a certain idea or issue. In some ways, it was obvious, as with Realism and even with Impressionism. However, the Dada art movement changed that.

Many Dada artists created their works in a rather cryptic way — just enough to give the audience a chance of interpreting their artworks. Abstract artists such as Man Ray and Kurt Schwitters used abstraction to express the fine line between possibility and actuality.

Dadaism artworks are ironic and funny but the underlying message is strong. It’s an act of rebellion against human mentalities and social structures that created chaos in the first place. The artists created Dadaism as a means of finding independence because of their distrust of unity.


Readymades have become a great component of the Dadaism movement. Basically, these are pre-existing objects which the artists from the Dada group see as a work of art. They’d usually partner several readymades.

Marcel Duchamp was the first to view these objects as art. Among his most prominent works and the first art installation made from readymades was entitled “Bicycle Wheel” which was completed in 1913. However, readymades weren’t coined until 1915.

Dada artists would often find readymades and create pieces accidentally or by chance. This challenges the traditional notion of artistic creativity and art itself.

A lot of assemblage pieces that Dada artists created were bizarre. This paved way for these artists to ultimately merge with Surrealism. Several artists who worked on readymades were Max Ernst, Raoul Hausmann, and Man Ray.

Most readymades that were assembled with other readymades were known as assemblage or somehow a three-dimensional collage. These are the assembly of objects you see every day creating either meaningful or war-related meaningless pieces that are created with trash and war remnants.

Chance and Accidents

Chance is another key component of the Dadaism movement. It became their attack on rationality, believing that rationalism is nothing but an illusion, especially when they see social and political structures as the cause of the war. They rebelled against the society and the systems that built it, ultimately embracing chance and accidents.

These are prominent on their artworks from photomontages, assemblage, and collages. Duchamp’s “The Large Glass” had a massive crack running through the glass. While it may have been an accident, the artist welcomed it creating an artwork that speaks the Dadaism belief loudly. It was a symbol of the artists and their irreverence to rational control and traditional methods.

Collage and Photomontage

Apart from readymades and assemblage pieces, collages and photomontage were also typical during the Dadaism period.

Collage was deeply influenced by the Cubism movement wherein artists would cut pieces of papers and then paste them on a canvas or painting. However, Dadaists extended their reach and created collage pieces with the use of plastic wrappers, tickets, and maps. They used these materials to portray everyday life, especially in a time when a war was raging.

Photomontage is similar to collage with the concept of using scissors and paste to create artworks. However, photomontage uses real photographs that were printed in the press. These could either be reproductions of the photos or the actual ones.

One of the most prominent Dadaist artist to create photomontage was Max Ernst. He would use images taken from World War I to illustrate the extent of the damage of war.

Evolution of Dadaism

Dadaism was short-lived. It soon melded with another art movement. By 1924, it has turned into Surrealism while other members have also moved on to other movements such as Modernism and Social Realism.

During the time of instability, several Dada artists were also known as Surrealist artists namely Hans Arp, Francis Picabia, and Ernst. While Duchamp was not a Surrealist, he helped in curating exhibits in New York. These exhibits often included both Dada and Surrealist artworks.

However, Surrealism wasn’t the only art movement born from Dadaism. Many art historians and experts believed that it was the forefather of the postmodern art. The ideas and imageries of Postmodernism art have already been utilized in some way or the other by Dada artists.

For example, art as a way of performance through music and drama; or perhaps everyday life being overlapped by art, as well as the use of popular culture references. Dadaism has greatly influenced conceptual art even until today. Even the use of collage for modern art has stemmed from Dadaism.

The Dada Manifesto

Perhaps the most important work and component of the Dadaism period was the Dada Manifesto. However, this has been written several times over the years of the Dada movement.

Basically, it explains what the movement is all about as well as its goals. But it has changed as it was re-written and re-read over the years, changed from artist to artist. This especially happened when Dadaism spread throughout the world.

The differences caused a confrontation between two artists and friends: Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara. It was only resolved when Ball left the movement.

Ball’s manifesto was created in 1916 and was deemed as the prototype of the Dada Manifesto. It began by explaining what Dada means in different languages. Meanwhile, Tzara’s Manifesto was created in 1918 and denounced art, humanity, and war. He created the anti-human action not as an act against humanity but a plea to preserve human integrity against stale customs and morality.

Notable Dada Art

There are several artworks created during the Dadaism period. However, here are the most prominent works done by several artists including Duchamp and Bell.


Created by Marcel Duchamp in 1917, this piece was made from readymades. For this specific artwork, Duchamp used a urinal and entitled it as “Fountain” — a double meaning for the actual use of the urinal as well as for referencing the fountains that were designed by Baroque and Renaissance artists.

There isn’t really any heavy manipulations done with the urinal. Duchamp basically just turned it upside down and side a fictional name on it. This became a great example for rebelling against art, creativity, and the traditional norms.

The artist bought the urinal at a sanitary ware supplier and had it submitted as an artwork to the Society of Independent Artists which Duchamp himself help founded. The board of directors from the society was bound to accept any and every submitted artwork. However, they exempted the “Fountain” from the rules believing a sanitary ware — especially one that takes in bodily waste, is not suited to become an artwork.


Another artwork by Duchamp, “L.H.O.O.Q.” was another readymade artwork. This was created in 1919 and made with a simple postcard with Leonardo da Vinci’s infamous “Mona Lisa” as the design. Duchamp found the postcard and simply added a goatee and a moustache on Mona Lisa’s picture and then the title underneath it.

Apparently, the title was intended as a pun as when pronounced and spoken in French, it usually sounds similar to “Elle a chaud au cul” or “she has a hot ass.” This basically means that women possess sexual restlessness. During an interview, Duchamp gave “L.H.O.O.Q.” a loose meaning of “there is fire down below.”

This Mona Lisa readymade was definitely another of Duchamp’s attack against traditional art. However, it wasn’t the first time the painting was made fun of. In 1887, Eugene Bataille has also satirically treated the image, giving Mona Lisa a smoking pipe.

Nonetheless, it is unsure whether Duchamp knew of the artwork. Still, this has become one of the most notable pieces of the Dadaism movement.

The Spirit of Our Time

Created by Raoul Hausmann, “The Spirit of our Time” was completed in 1919 was perhaps his most famous work of all time. This was an assemblage, created from various different readymades to make one piece.

The main feature of the piece was the head, made from a wig-making dummy taken from a hairdresser. There are several tools attached to the head including a ruler, a pocket watch, a tape measure, a typewriter, and a crocodile wallet. It earned the name “Mechanical Head” due to its appearance.

This piece was Hausmann’s disappointment with the German government and how they aren’t able to create the necessary changes to make a better nation. Basically, Hausmann wanted to create something that would represent a corrupt member of the society — tools are glued outside his skull bit his brain remains empty.

Indeed, the dummy itself looked blank and narrow-minded.

Hugo Ball’s Costume for Recital of “Karawane”

Ball created two pieces for this: his poem entitled “Karawane” as well as his costume. Ball wore a costume made from shiny cardboard complete with a coat and a hat, all cylindrical in shape.

However, the real piece was “Karawane,” a poem which was based more on a rhythmical sound and emotions rather than actual words with actual meanings and sounds, unlike any language. This was believed to symbolize the lack of inability of European societies to use the rational discussion to solve their problems which then led to the first World War.

The costume was meant to distance himself further away from his audience and to create a more exotic language.

Notable Artists

Dadaism was made up of several artists from around the world. Yet, here are the most notable artists who created a difference during the Dadaism era.

  • Hugo Ball – He was among the founders of Dadaism and created the Cabaret Voltaire which would begin the movement.
  • Tristan Tzara – Among the first members of Dadaism who fought hard for the movement and its goals. He also wrote the second Dada Manifesto.
  • Hans Arp – One of the founding members of the Dada art movement. Arp was also one of the artists with significant artworks that defined Dadaism.
  • Man Ray – A photographer that created well-known pieces from the Dadaism movement. One of his accidental artworks was seen by Tzara and he dubbed it a “pure Dada creation.”

Dada Resources

Wikipedia. Dada. Retrieved from

Wikipedia. Hugo Ball. Retrieved from

Wikipedia. Marcel Duchamp. Retrieved from

Wikipedia. L.H.O.O.Q. Retrieved from

Anapur, Eli (17, December 2016). DADA Manifesto Explained – Hugo Ball versus Tristan Tzara. Retrieved from

MoMA Learning. Chance Creations: Collage, Photomontage, and Assemblage. Retrieved from

Howarth, Sophie (April 2000). Fountain Marcel Duchamp. Retrieved from

Tzara, Tristan (1918) Dada Manifesto. Retrieved from

Dada: Art and Anti-Art (World of Art)


Dadas on Art: Tzara, Arp, Duchamp and Others (Dover Fine Art, History of Art)

Dada: Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, Paris

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