The First World War had many significant impacts on the world and society, and naturally it impacted on art and artists as well, who began to react almost as soon as it had started. The modern art period and it’s ideas of changing everything art was already running strong, and avant-garde movements such as cubism and futurism were already emerging, full of extreme moves away from traditional conventions. Dada followed in those footsteps, but was driven by the added emotions of war.
The Dada artists were horrified at the war, the whole concept of it, and they began to see the traditions of the past, both in art and society, as leading to those horrors; so it became a natural course of action to rethink art in the most opposite way possible to the art that had gone before. And that meant that even a cubist painting that chose to represent a figure or scene, was still following a convention; why paint or sculpt figures at all? Why ascribe ‘meaning’ to art? Could society be fixed were it to admire entirely different things?
They saw the roots of all this in the reason and logic of capitalist society and the bourgeois, and rejected that set of ideals by embracing irrationality and chaos; anti-war, anti-capitalist, and anti-art, it sought to destroy and make nonsense of everything that went before it.
Taking art beyond futurism, cubism, and expressionism
Unlike the recent modern art movements that preceded it, Dada gained a wide international support from artists. Widely seen to have started in Zurich at the Cabaret Voltaire, the ideas gradually spread beyond some unusual happenings at a single club, and out to New York, Berlin, Paris, and others, with each adding it’s own unique variation and flavour. There were numerous manifestos published but no centralised organisation, simply a shared perspective and desire to shift it.
Building throughout the war years it was fully formed by the time the war had ended, working with tools like shock, randomness, negativity, paradox, and nihilism to challenge, break down, and cause reaction. And many of the happening and work certainly did, it often scandalised the public and led to shut downs of theatres and galleries; but this only encouraged the artists further. By the post war period they were already revisiting their own work to rethink it, with the manifesto becoming words cut from a newspaper randomly collected into poetry, rather than a conventional list of ideas and concepts.
Dada was also important for pushing art beyond painting and sculpture; the movement touched on poetry, music, writing, theatre, and art happenings which challenged the traditions of those mediums in harmony with the visual artists. Photomontage and collages produced many key works on paper, whilst assemblages were their three dimensional, sculptural form, and cut up techniques like the manifesto were popular in much of the writing.
Dada, Duchamp, the Readymades, and the legacy of the movement
Besides putting together new art from other things, sometimes Dada simply chose to hold up mundane, everyday objects as if they were art. One of the best known of these artists was Marcel Duchamp who had a collection of objects he found interesting. One such was a urinal, which he signed “R. Mutt”, gave the title ‘Fountain’, and which became one of the most famous examples of Dada art. Duchamp’s Mona Lisa interpretation, where he scribbled a beard and moustache on a print of the Mona Lisa, was another high profile piece.
While Dadaism was very deliberately nonsense, by the time it began to gradually fade in the mid 20s, it had inspired numerous important artists and ideas; many Dada artists moved into Surrealism and Social Realism, and some similar fascinations in everyday objects were also core to Pop Art, but it reaches beyond Modern Art to the contemporary as well. Developments such as the cut-up technique were famously used by William S Burroughs for his writing, then later by David Bowie, and later still by Kurt Cobain.
Whilst many pre-Dada movements were thinking outside the box, Dada was perhaps the first to try and throw the entire box away, and in many ways it succeeded when you look upon the incredible diversity of forms and interests in the contemporary art world.