Dada was a bold leap forward in the evolution of Modern Art and our understanding of what art is or could be. Emerging in response to the horrors of the First World War, Dada artists sought to cast off any trace of the artistic thinking which had preceded the war; only through complete cultural change could such horrors be avoided from happening again. Art moved from celebration of classics and aesthetic beauty into nonsensical collages and sculpture of completely mundane items like garden tools. Inspiring almost everything that came after it to some extent, here are some of the most stand out artists from the movement.
One of the most prolific and well known of the Dada artists, Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’; a urinal put on display in an art gallery, is probably the best known of all Dada works. Duchamp championed the concept of mass produced consumer items as art through his readymades, and was crucial in widening people’s perspectives of what art could be; he was perhaps the first conceptual artist. A painter, collagist, and sculptor, Duchamp also produced work in Cubist and Futurist styles, but his legacy will always be as the artist who defined the question “what is art?”
Jean / Hans Arp
With a name that varied whether he was speaking French or German, Arp was a biomorphic abstract painter, poet, and sculptor, and a founding member of the Dada movement as one of the writers of a key early manifesto. His approach to painting artworks was to let his subconscious and unconscious mind lead his work, by painting his organic, abstract forms first, and interpreting a title for the piece afterwards; these ideas would unsurprisingly lead him into Surrealism at a later point in his career for further exploration of the subconscious in art.
The creator of the infamous Mechanical Head, Hausmann was also a poet, performance artist, and collagist, but it was the head that really resonated with people, questioning the concept of man’s great intelligence and reason, whilst Hausman suggests man is empty headed, “with no more capabilities than that which chance has glued to the outside of his skull”; man has no intellectual depth, he can only relate to the superficial world around him. Often provocative in his work, Hausmann also produced Expressionist pieces, but found his true calling in Dada, and became a prominent leader of the movement in Berlin.
A significant artist in both Surrealism and Dadaism, Man Ray became best known for his abstract portraiture of famous artists, and distinctive use of shadows and negative light that made his work instantly recognisable. Within the art world, he is at least equally known for his ‘Rayograph’ images, discovered by accident, which involved placing found objects on light sensitive paper and then exposing it to light, delivering an abstract and shadowy image quite separated from it’s everyday source. These photographic artworks fitted wonderfully within the Dada world of disconnected and dissociated mundane objects.
Best known as a pioneer of photo-montage, Höch would take unrelated found photos from multiple sources, and put them together in collages which were often dramatic, provocative and striking. Höch was one of the only women in the Dada movement, and often focused on themes the men didn’t touch; feminism, gender, and androgyny all featured regularly alongside political commentary on subjects such as the Weimar Republic’s ‘New Woman’. The men of the Dada movement did touch on the theme of women’s emancipation, but it often rang hollow to Höch who was given little respect by them, with Hans Richter describing her primary accomplishment as serving coffee and sandwiches. Nonetheless she made some of the most challenging, exceptional, and influential work of the movement.