A brief history of Dada

Alastair Smart looks back on one of the 20th century’s most influential art movements — its beliefs and leading figures, origins in Zurich and efflorescence in New York. Illustrated with works offered at Christie’s

Marcel Duchamp with Francis Picabia and Beatrice Wood, Coney Island, 1917

Marcel Duchamp with Francis Picabia and Beatrice Wood, Coney Island, 1917. Photo: © The Philadelphia Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence

‘No event in history confused so many of the clearest intelligences,’ said Sigmund Freud of the First World War. It was in this context that Dada — arguably the key art movement of the 20th century — emerged, serving as both a symptom of, and antidote to, that confusion.

Dadaists saw the war, in which around 17 million soldiers and civilians are estimated to have died, as the apogee — or nadir — of a culture of so-called rationality, which had prevailed since the Enlightenment. If this was what reason brought, they figured, surely it was better to embrace the absurd — such as the poem recited by German writer Hugo Ball at the Zurich nightspot, Cabaret Voltaire, which began: ‘Gadji beri bimba glandridi lauli lonni cadori’.

The poem was utterly devoid of sense, but then so (in Dadaist eyes) was the First World War. Ball dressed for his recitals as a mystical bishop. Other performers played solos on invisible violins or did the splits wearing masks of the Virgin Mary. The aim, said Ball, was ‘to remind the world that there [were] people of independent minds — beyond war and nationalism — who live for different ideals.’

The origins of Dada, however, can be traced back to Cabaret Voltaire, co-founded by Ball in the backroom of a tavern on Spiegelgassen, in February of 1916. The Zurich location was no coincidence; it was the largest city in neutral Switzerland and so became a beacon for artists, intellectuals, dissidents and military service dodgers from across Europe.

Dadaists sought to overthrow all art of the past, along with all its attendant snobbery and hierarchies.From 1916 on, anything and everything could be considered art

The movement’s name, incidentally, was hit upon by Ball and fellow artist-in-exile, Richard Huelsenbeck, when they were leafing through a French-German dictionary and rather liked the sound of the French word for hobbyhorse: ‘dada’. It meant nothing in an artistic context, but that was precisely the point. Dadaists sought to overthrow all art of the past, along with all its attendant snobbery and hierarchies. From 1916 on, anything and everything could be considered art, and anyone and everyone could make it. Dada can, therefore, be regarded as an attitude as much as a style.

As war ended, Dada spread to a host of other European cities — Hanover, Berlin, Cologne and Paris, most notably. In Hanover, Kurt Schwitters created assemblages from scraps of fabric, string, cigarette packs, bus tickets and other detritus. His most famous piece, Merzbau, ended up so big that it actually extended beyond the roof and outer walls of his house.

As Kate Steinitz, Schwitters’ friend and neighbour in Hanover, recalled, he was ‘a crazy, original genius-character, carelessly dressed, absorbed in his own thoughts, picking up all sorts of curious stuff in the streets... always getting down from his bike to pick up some colourful piece of paper that somebody had thrown away.’ From these fragments, Schwitters constructed poetic and miraculous constellations that expressed a new formal language and seemed to hint at a hidden order among the apparent chaos of his time.

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Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), Mz 250, Grosser Tanz, 1921. Paper and fabric collage on paper laid down on the artist’s mount. Image: 7 x 5¾ in (17.9 x 14.5 cm). Sold for £870,050 on 8 February 2012 at Christie’s in London

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Otto Dix (1891-1969), Laterne (Die Motten und das Licht), 1923. Oil pastel, watercolour, brush and wash and India ink and coloured pencil on paper. 28½ x 19⅞ in (72.4 x 50.5 cm). Sold for £126,000 on 8 March 2024 at Christie’s in London

In Berlin, Dada got political. Collage proved particularly popular, becoming a metaphor for the fractured nature of society, as well as for the physical disfigurements of returning soldiers. In Skat Players, Otto Dix captured three war veterans playing a card game in a café, each one having to clutch the cards with their feet, mouth or prosthetic hands because of crippling injuries they’d received in combat.

Hannah Höch, meanwhile, was pioneering a new form of collage, derived from photographs in newspapers and magazines: photomontage. (The unprecedentedly high number of female artists in Dada ranks — such as Höch and Sophie Taeuber-Arp — is often cited as further proof of the movement’s revolutionary nature.)

Following the establishment of Dada in Berlin, Max Ernst and Johannes T. Baargeld — founder of the left-leaning art and political journal Der Ventilator, with which Max Ernst was closely involved — formed the Cologne branch of the Dada movement with Jean (Hans) Arp. They placed a particular emphasis on the art becoming depersonalised and automatic, and while Baargeld and Ernst remained separate from the Berlin arm of the group, they did participate in the famed 1920 Dada exhibition in Berlin. Typoskript-Manifest (1920), was a collaboration between Ernst and Baargeld.

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Max Ernst (1891-1976), démonstration hydrométrique à tuer par la température, 1920. Paper collage, gouache, pen and India ink and pencil on paper laid on the artist’s mount. Image: 9⅜ x 6¾ in (24 x 17 cm). Sold for £201,600 on 7 March 2024 at Christie’s in London

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Hannah Höch (1889-1978), Bürgerliches Brautpaar (Streit), 1919. Photomontage on paper. 14¾ x 12⅛ in (37.5 x 30.9 cm). Sold for £264,600 on 8 March 2024 at Christie’s in London

Another major Dada hub was New York. ‘As would also happen in the Second World War, a host of European artist emigrés escaped to New York during the First World War,’ says Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art deputy chairman, Olivier Camu. ‘The city became an absolute melting pot of creativity.’

Marcel Duchamp, the man behind the most famous Dada artwork of all, was one of the new arrivals. The work in question was Fountain, a commercially made urinal that the artist purchased and then presented as a piece of art: it was an example of a new type of sculpture he called the ‘readymade’ (other examples including a snow shovel and a bottle rack).

The last readymade from Duchamp’s time in New York was French Military Paper from 1918. It’s also one of his most intriguing as, unusually, it was created by the artist himself. After America’s entry into the First World War on the Allied side, Duchamp took a clerk’s job at the French War Mission where it was his duty to monitor the comings and goings of officials from his homeland. On the first day of 1918, he typed up a document listing the names of some military attachés who’d just arrived in New York, before deciding to take the document home illicitly and repurpose it as an artwork.

Francis Picabia (1879-1953), Veglione, 1924-25. Ripolin and oil on canvas. 36⅛ x 28⅞ in (91.9 x 73.2 cm). Sold for £2,702,000 on 7 March 2024 at Christie’s in London

Duchamp had been enticed across the Atlantic in the first place by his old friend from Paris, Francis Picabia, who had already made the same move. A wide-eyed Picabia said New York caused ‘a complete revolution’ in his methods. ‘It flashed on me that the genius of the modern world is in machinery — and that through machinery, art ought to find a most vivid expression.’ He’d duly produce countless machine-inspired works, complete with a variety of hard-edged, geometric shapes.

Over the course of time, rods, pistons, gears, propellers, spark plugs and turbine breaks even began to take on sexual connotations for Picabia. Much as they seem to have done for another French ex-pat, Jean Crotti, in his painting on glass, Les forces mécaniques de l’amour en mouvement (The Mechanical Forces of Love in Movement).

Among American Dadaists, the best-known is probably Man Ray, who declared with pride that ‘All New York is Dada’. He’d go on to become a major photographer, although he cut his teeth artistically making assemblages — the most elaborate of which is titled Catherine Barometer (1920). Composed of a washboard, wooden panel, spiral wire, transparent tube and glass-enclosed frame, which together take on the appearance (though not the function) of an upright barometer, the title of the work was a playful nod to Man Ray’s friend, the hot-headed collector Katherine S. Dreier, who was renowned for acting as erratically as this artwork would do if anyone tried to actually use it as a barometer.

Man Ray (1890-1976), Maisons ennemies, 1933. Oil on canvas. 16⅛ x 16⅛ in (41.2 x 41.2 cm). Sold for £258,300 on 7 March 2024 at Christie’s in London

Camu describes Man Ray, Duchamp, Picabia and Crotti as the ‘four titans’ of New York’s Dada scene, adding that ‘there was a significant collegiality among them. This was a very close-knit community’. Man Ray and Duchamp edited a magazine called New York Dada together, for instance. Duchamp and Crotti, meanwhile, shared a studio. The former also started a relationship with the latter’s first wife, Yvonne; while the former’s sister, Suzanne Duchamp, would become the latter’s second wife in 1919.

Suzanne Duchamp, in fact, was a leading Dada painter in her own right. Two Solitary Beings Apart (1916-20), loosely depicting a pair of separated lovers — the artist herself and Crotti, who were frequently apart during the four years of this work’s creation — it uses scientific symbols and structures to suggest unseen lines of communication between them, perhaps some sort of magnetic force. Two Solitary Beings Apart might even be considered Suzanne’s response to Crotti’s The Mechanical Forces of Love in Movement, both of them abstract explorations of amorous relations between two partners.

Marcel Duchamp’s great friend Florine Stettheimer was not a Dadaist but she was one of the New York art world’s ultimate insiders. Duchamp was such an admirer of her paintings, which she chose to keep private, that he even planned the posthumous exhibition of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946.

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Marcel Duchamp’s great friend Florine Stettheimer was not a Dadaist but she was one of the New York art world’s ultimate insiders. Duchamp was such an admirer of her paintings, which she chose to keep private, that he even planned the posthumous exhibition of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946.

According to the history books, Dada wound up in around 1924, superseded as it was by art’s next big movement, Surrealism. André Breton — leader of the Surrealists and an erstwhile Dadaist himself — duly announced that ‘Dada is no longer an issue, and its funeral… caused no rioting’.

Despite Breton’s epitaph, however, the movement has had quite some afterlife. The careers of artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Damien Hirst, as well as movements from Pop and performance art to conceptual art and Arte Povera, would have been unimaginable without Dada. Alongside Surrealism, it has a strong claim to being the most important art movement of the past 100 years, which is quite a claim considering it all began with a mystic bishop spouting nonsense in a Swiss nightclub.

The Art of the Surreal Evening Sale takes place alongside the 20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale on 7 March 2024, part of Christie’s 20th and 21st Century Art auctions from 27 February to 21 March. Find out more about the preview exhibition and sales here

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