Otto Dix, The Skat Players (1920)
© 2006 Nationalgalerie.
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin-Preussischer Kulturbesitz

In 1916, a new and revolutionary kind of art rose out of the depths of a world lost in madness and murder. Dada became the first international art movement, attracting legions of the avant-garde, many of them veterans, deserters, and draft-dodgers from the hell of the Great War. Their art was a reaction to the horror of war, which they blamed on Western civilization itself. And though some of them were discharged from service with papers marked “excused for precocious imbecility” and though much of the art to follow seemed at first glance to be the work of some hitherto-unencountered juvenile basket case, Dada was, in the words of Hans Arp, “no childish romp.”

Legend has it that Arp caught the very last train leaving Germany for Paris at the outbreak of World War I in 1914. The frontier was closed at exactly the time his compartment crossed the border. A lack of funds drove him from the City of Light to the more economical Switzerland. There, the German Consulate in Zurich tried to recruit him for the Fatherland army. Arp staged a show of psychological instability in which he made the sign of the cross in front of a portrait of Hindenburg, kept multiplying his birth date, and generally exuded an air of complete insanity. He was exempted from military service and left free to pursue his artistic impulses. He received an invitation from Hugo Ball to work with him at a strange new nightclub, and his involvement with Dada began.

Hugo Ball and Richard Huelsenbeck had been friends since 1913 in Berlin, and their opposition to the war grew into explosive feelings against the German Reich under the vainglorious Kaiser Wilhelm II and the so-called German intelligentsia. By the fall of 1915, both had moved to Switzerland. Ball and his wife, Emmy Hennings, soon found employment—Hugo as a pianist, Emmy giving recitals—in a variety show in the Niederdorf, the amusement quarter of Zurich. By now, too, Ball had connected with Romanian artists Marcel Janco, Tristan Tzara, and Arthur Segal. Amid this sudden ferment of art and revolt, on February 5th, 1916, Ball founded the Cabaret Voltaire, named for the Enlightenment philosopher famous for his satirical critiques of church and government, in the Dutch restaurant Meierei at Spiegelgasse.

Chants and Skulls

“It is necessary to clarify the intentions of this cabaret,” Ball announced in a manifesto. “It is its aim to remind the world that there are people of independent minds—beyond war and nationalism—who live for different ideals.” Ball protested “against the humiliating fact of a world war in the 20th century.” All static values of “culture” appeared to him to be questionable. At this time he began to compose sound-poems, or “verses without words,” directed at the stupidity and absurdity of the war. His artist friends—the Romanian contingent in particular—flocked to the cabaret to contribute. Turning against their own murderous civilization, they organized anti-artistic events and performances directed against the military and against Western art. Here in neutral, cosmopolitan, and relatively free Zurich, they produced simultaneous collaborative poems, performed in six languages for a cosmopolitan audience. Their chant “A general is searching for an apartment to rent” made fun of the increasing number of military officers in the city’s population.

Vladimir Lenin lived in exile nearby and often frequented the cabaret, more for the beer and sausages than the escalating entertainment. Some have suggested that his verbal exchanges with Tzara, peppered with the double affirmatives da, da, in both Russian and Romanian, were the root of the new movement’s name. The non-Russian patrons of the cabaret sarcastically referred to the Eastern Europeans as “Dadaists,” as in “The place is full of Dadaists tonight!”

German Expressionist George Grosz liked to paint nightmarish cartoons, such as a giant Kaiser chasing a small civilian or two army officers poking an insect-ridden dead soldier with a stick. He quickly found a sympathetic milieu at The Cabaret Voltaire. Occasionally, while one of the Dadaists was reciting something “very ridiculous” on the stage, Grosz would go into the audience to pass the hat. If anyone objected, he would retort, “Shut up! You kept your mouth shut for years during the war, now keep it shut a little while longer!” Grosz had taken upon himself the role of Propagandada—a walking publicist for anti-war activities. Instead of a hat, he wore a papier-mâché death’s head. He carried a cane with a skull on it, poured liquor from a bottle with a skull on it, and drank out of glasses made from skulls. In his apartment, a skeleton in the hall and a corpse with a derby hat on the couch greeted guests, while Grosz would make blood-curdling sounds out of sight.

In 1920, George Grosz and John Heartfield invited Otto Dix to participate in the First International Dada Fair. Dix’s contribution to that show were “Butcher Shop” and “War Cripples (45% Fit for Service),” gruesome evocations of inhumanity, violence, and destitution in post-war Germany. His “Matchbox Seller,” oil and collage from 1920, depicts a blind ex-soldier with missing limbs, destitute, and selling matches on the street. Otto Dix was never a card carrying member of Dada, but had a short fling with Berlin Dada, when he introduced elements of collage into his expressionistic oil paintings. His “Skat Players,” oil on canvas with photomontage and collage, showed up in the recent Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) show in New York on Dada. Its narrative is about three German officers with missing eyes, noses, brain parts, and limbs, equipped with prosthetic hands and legs, joyfully playing cards.

In the United States, homegrown Dada/surrealist poets and artists such as Alfred Stieglitz, Walter Arensberg, Man Ray, Katherine Dreier, Marcel Duchamp, Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy, Beatrice Wood, Julien Levy, and Peggy Guggenheim became ambassadors of good will, carrying the banner of American arts and letters even while financing and promoting Dada and other avant-garde venues.

Has Dada been consigned to an ever-remote history? Hardly.

Dada in America

Fast-forward to the Beat generation, which exploded with radicalism and internationalism and took the leadership in fighting for peace and anti-militarism during the nuclear Cold War era. Among the Cold War Dadas were: Julian Beck, one of the instigators of the student revolution of 1968 in Paris, and an artist, poet, and founder of The Living Theater; Abbie Hoffman, radical revolutionary and street theater star; Judith Melina, a poet and co-founder of The Living Theater; and Jerome Rothemberg, a poet and translator of major Dada texts.

The style of political protests, which came to the forefront in the late 1960s via mock trials, Yippies, and guerrilla theater, can be traced back to the actions of the Dadaists during World War I. Mass anti-war activism in America started with slogans and political graffiti, buttons that proclaimed “War is a Good Business—Invest Your Sons!” and “Support Peace or I’ll Kill You.”

Meanwhile, the first theatre group in America to take its queue from Dada radicalism was the Living Theater, beginning in the 1950s. Their repertoire included (and still includes) many works that contained anti-war messages. In Mysteries, for example, Julian Beck recited “street songs” based on the slogans of the day, written by playwright Jackson Mac Low: “Stop the war! Ban the bomb! Open the door of all the jails!” The play will be revived again for several performances this year in Ecuador. The Living Theater’s 1963-’64 production of The Brig by Kenneth H. Brown, a play vividly describing the brutality of life in a U.S. military prison, also will be revived in 2007 on New York’s Lower East Side. The play fits the current political climate under the Bush administration in which torture of prisoners has become an incendiary issue.

Currently, the 22-actor ensemble performs regularly in front of the military recruitment station in Times Square, in an “agit-prop” street performance called No Sir! in which actors dance-march in place reciting choruses ironically paraphrasing the recruitment military video projected endlessly on the Jumbotron screen above. Their chants are even more effective while the news-crawl above announces the casualty count of 2,790 American soldiers and 650,000 Iraqi civilians. At that point the actors fall to the ground in an apocalyptic finale.

Cabaret Voltaire aficionados (there are a half-dozen groups with that name today) take the more comical route. One theater group called Dada New York, founded in 1986 by the late John W. Wilson, uses the traditional manifestoes of the movement complemented by contemporary poems by neo-Dadas. Another Cabaret Voltaire, founded in Los Angeles in 2003, re-creates many original historical performances and is dedicated to maintaining the artistic integrity, passion, and innovation that was born in Zurich in 1916.

Yet another Cabaret Voltaire has opened in Poughkeepsie, NY, and staged a grand celebration on October 14, 2006, of the 90th anniversary of Dada-Zurich. There was a marathon of events—performances, video and sound installations, and poetry—much in the spirit of Dada and of all the later art forms for which Dada can be seen as the historical point of departure. Performers included Richard Kostelanetz, Geoff Hendricks, and Willem De Ridder (from Amsterdam), among others. This latest cabaret will be dedicated to showcasing groundbreaking, risk-taking, experimental works—site-specific installations of video, sound, and live performances, not only from veteran artists, but also from art students and young creators with fresh visions and novel ideas. As a forum of exploration and experimentation, Cabaret Voltaire also will include lectures and panel discussions on topics such as torture and human rights.

Dada received a burst of attention with MoMA’s recent exhibition, which also appeared at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. In the lobby before entering the Dada show, a documentary with random newsreel footage in a well-executed montage showed horrific images of WWI with scores of dead and wounded scattered on the gruesome landscape, preparing the visitors for the vivid images inside. The exhibition curators did not specifically accentuate the anti-war theme, except for a dummy of a German officer with a pig face hanging from the ceiling with a placard reading, “Hanged by the Revolution,” which replicated a work at the Berlin Dada Festival in 1920. E ven so, the hallucinatory imagery and political montages of the Berlin Dadaists—Grosz, Heartfield, Hausman, Baader, Dix, Sholz, and Schlichter—spoke volumes about their anti-war feelings.

“I warn you there is no beginning or end to disasters, and we are not trembling,” wrote Romanian Dadaist Tristan Tzara during World War I. “Dada will replace pain from one continent to another. Dada fights against the agony of the times and against inebriation with death. The world has gone insane; the artist makes fun of insanity—a gesture very sane, indeed.”

All of this recent activity—from exhibitions to street theater—clearly shows a growing dissatisfaction and disgust on the part of artists, poets, and the public in general with the attitude of our own imperial, war-making government. Dada lives!

Valery Oisteanu is an author and artist who has adopted Dada and Surrealism as a philosophy of art and life. He is the author of 10 books of poetry, a book of short fiction, and a book of essays, The AVANT-GODS. He is a columnist at New York Arts Magazine and an art critic for Brooklyn Rail, New York Woman, and

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