The European avant-garde troop Dada revolutionized the art world, but it all began with a discreet newspaper advert in the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung.
It was a call from German artist Hugo Ball for fellow creatives artists to join his new art event. “The idea of the cabaret is that guest artists will come and give musical performances and readings at daily meetings,” he wrote, adding that he welcomed “suggestions and contributions of all kinds.”
Mr. Ball, a German theater dramatist and writer disillusioned with World War I, left Berlin to settle in Switzerland. His goal was to become the ringmaster in a circus featuring literature, art and politics. All he needed were a few willing artists who dared to jump.
What would soon be known as the Cabaret Voltaire opened in Zurich’s Spiegelgasse on February 5, 1916. Mr. Ball welcomed guests with his girlfriend, the cabaret artist Emmy Hennings. Attending what Mr. Ball billed as a “living magazine” were writer Tristan Tzara and the painter and sculptor Hans Arp, while Marcel Janco and Max Oppenheimer joined the busy stage.
“Dada is the world soul, dada is the pawnshop. Dada is the world's best lily-milk soap.”
Together, the artists gave a surreal show of poetry, stories, songs, and free dance, sometimes all at once. They read verses by Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky. Ms. Henning, the “star of the cabaret,” sang Ball’s war-weary Dance of the Dead. “That’s how we die, that’s how we die, We die every day, because it is so comfy to let go.”
The walls were plastered with freshly painted Expressionist, Cubist, and Futurist works. “It’s all about the connection and making sure that it’s a bit disconnected before we begin,” said Mr. Ball.
“The audience screamed, laughed, and clapped their hands above their heads,” Mr. Arp wrote describing a night at Cabaret Voltaire. “We responded with sighs of love, with burping, with poems, and chanting ‘moo, moo’ and ‘meow, meow’ like medieval brutes. Tzara made his backside bounce like the belly of an oriental dancer.”
Their anything-goes performance marked the beginning of Dadaism. Night after night, they stuck to their mantra to take the world apart and then reassemble it. The artists’ ideas influenced and shaped the 20th century avant-garde movement, inspiring surrealism and even the punk movement of the 1980s.
The activists didn’t coin the term “Dada” until later that year, selecting it because it meant absolutely nothing. “Dada is the world soul, dada is the pawnshop. Dada is the world’s best lily-milk soap,” Mr. Ball wrote in the first Dada Manifesto.
He took a new approach to aesthetics, arguing that the Mona Lisa, a Bach concert, and newspaper ads were all equally beautiful. George Grosz, a key figure in the second generation of Dada, allegedly spent hours poring over the Saturday Evening Post’s ads. He thought they were “the most honest form of expression the human species had ever produced.”
In the meantime, World War I was striking fear into a generation. As 800,000 soldiers died in action at the Battle of Verdun in northeastern France, neutral Switzerland continued to live in peace with Zurich as its richest city. People from around the world flocked there, even James Joyce and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who strolled through the city’s Bahnhofstrasse.
“The audience screamed, laughed, and clapped their hands above their heads.”
It was a wild, dangerous time and most Dadaists had come to Zurich to escape a previous life. When Hugo Ball voluntarily enlisted himself in the German army in 1914, he was rejected and declared unfit for combat. After spending time in a German military hospital in France, his disenchantment with war set in. His colleague Richard Huelsenbeck left Germany as a conscientious war-objector. In Zurich, he ascended to fame at the Cabaret Voltaire.
“The bar was overcrowded,” Hugo Ball wrote about the Cabaret’s premiere. The Dadaists weren’t interested in business: Entrance was free and guests only paid a small cloakroom fee. But still, their shows were a raging success.
One of the show’s highlights was Mr. Huelsenbeck, Mr. Janco and Mr. Tzara’s simultaneous jumbled language recital of one poem in English, German, and French, also known as “Simultanismus.” The idea of juxtaposing seemingly incompatible elements became one of the movement’s central artistic traits.
Five months after it opened, Hugo Ball’s colleagues carried him onto the stage in his tubular Cubist Magical Bishop costume. He recited wordless verses and spoke in Dada. “The magical uttered word gave birth to a type of new sentence,” Ball said. “This sentence is independent, unconditioned by convention.”
His performance marked a climax in Dada history. At the same time, according to Dada expert Martin Mittelmeier, it foreshadowed the movement’s impending decline.
Exhausted by their daily performances, Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings left Zurich for the countryside, where Mr. Ball would later turn to Catholicism. When the Galerie Dada opened in Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse in 1917, the movement experienced a brief revival. “The soirées and festivals are a whirlwind of glamor and delight – unlike anything Zurich has ever seen before,” Mr. Ball said.
But when avant-garde became a topic of stiff academic interest, the movement branched off into different directions. Dada died a slow death and would soon rise from the ashes in new glory.
In November 1918, the American reporter Ben Hecht described workers and soldiers as they took Berlin’s City Palace by storm. Their leader, Karl Liebknecht, laid down in the emperor’s bed with bare feet and in long underwear. “I heard the royal springs squeak as Liebknecht stretched out his legs. When he turned around to grab a book, there was a loud noise: the nightstand had collapsed under the weight of the revolutionary literature. The lamp hit the ground, and the lightbulb exploded. The soldiers fled.” And just like that, real life looked and felt something that could take place on stage at Cabaret Voltaire.
In Germany, everyday life began to look and feel Dada, as the post-war winter of anarchy broke out in 1919. After the war unhinged Wilhelmine authoritarianism, revolutionaries stormed the streets. But the state of anarchy stopped cold when Gustav Noske bloodily suppressed the uprisings with armed forces, shooting down all government opponents.
In April 1918, Mr. Hausmann, Mr. Grosz, and Mr. Huelsenbeck presented their Dadaist manifesto. “Dada demands the use of new materials in paintings,” they wrote. The new materials included headline and picture cutouts from newspapers and magazines. The Berlin Dadaists invented the photomontage, a way of recycling reality. The idea inspired by Raoul Hausmann and his lover Hannah Höch who found a military commemoration document with a soldier’s portrait glued onto it.
“Down with art – amateurs rise up against art!” was one of the First International Dada Fair’s slogans, which took place in the Burchard Gallery in Berlin in the 1920s. Johannes Baader presented his Dada-machine, the mannequin-run “Plasto-Dio-Dada-Drama” but didn’t have the success of his predecessors.
And so Dada died a second death, but soon had a new lease of life in the form of a one-man Dadaist performance in 1923 by the German artist Kurt Schwitters. He created cathedral-like buildings and sang a nonsensical Dada sonate. “Fümms bö words n tää zää Uu, pögiff, kwii Ee.” Typical of of the movement as a whole, the sounds meant nothing, but his art became immortal.
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