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5.7: Dada (1916-1924)

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    Dada materialized from the chaos of World War I, a conflict employing trench warfare and advanced weaponry, killing millions of people. Artists and poets of the period believed war degraded social constructs and values, and established corruption, conformity, and violence. A war is dependent on the ability and efficiency of machines instead of the human body, a battle without humanity. “The beginnings of Dada,” poet Tristan Tzara recalled, “were not the beginnings of art, but disgust.”[1] The name Dada was formed by Richard Huelsenbeck and writer Hugo Ball when they looked at a French-German dictionary and noted Dada was ‘rocking horse’ in French or foolish naivete in German, the right word for an irrational movement. Dada’s ideas grew from a small group of artists in Europe who wanted to create new forms of art and alternatives to the existing methods and standards. They tried to criticize life, governments, capitalism, and institutions they found around them through their art; the aesthetics of their work was not the focus. Leah Dickerson wrote,

    “For many intellectuals, World War I produced a collapse of confidence in the rhetoric—if not the principles—of the culture of rationality that had prevailed in Europe since the Enlightenment.”[2]

    They experimented with the idea of art, used multiple types of materials, and innovated with readymade resources, collage techniques, and photomontages. The artists started improvising with elements to make the assemblages, criticizing the general world purview and the distortions of those in power. They used old photos, newspapers, books, or letters cut apart into abstract forms and reassembled, governmental and political propaganda destroyed and reworked as new words. Readymade objects were constructed in parts to define a concept or idea. Painter Albert Gleizes remarked, “Never has a group gone to such lengths to reach the public and bring it nothing.”[3]  Dadaism dehumanized art with pointless materials and images reshaped randomly outside of any convention. They heavily influenced modern, conceptual, performance, abstract art, and installation art for a movement lasting less than ten years.

    Dada started in Zurich, Switzerland, followed by Berlin, New York City, and Paris. The artists lived and worked in more than one place, especially those disrupted by World War I. Switzerland was a neutral country, and many temporarily stayed there during the war or to escape the draft. Most artists worked in other styles and movements after Dadaism, Surrealism was a natural subsequent movement many of them pursued other styles.

    Francis Picabia

    Francis Picabia (1879-1953) was born in Paris when his father was the Cuban attaché in Paris. His mother died at an early age, leaving Picabia a large inheritance and freeing him to study at different academies in France. Originally his work was similar to the Impressionists; then, he adopted Cubism. During World War I, he moved between New York and Switzerland, painting and publishing the journal 391, adding experimental ideas. From 1912 until 1921, he worked with the abstract ideas of Dadaism. He became friends with Marcel Duchamp, and Alfred Stieglitz had his show at Gallery 291. Picabia was fascinated with the shape and form of different objects, synthetically creating art based on mechanical processes. Alarm Clock (5.7.1) was made by applying ink directly to the mechanism of a clock to print on the paper, joining the gears with lines. He used large block letters for the cover of the Dada magazine issue number 4-5. Picabia viewed the work as logic disintegrating in the ongoing onslaught of the war yet portraying the clock as neutral Switzerland. 

    A poster with red letters and black objects
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Alarm Clock (1919, ink on paper, 31.8 x 23.0 cm) Public Domain

    L’Oeil Cacodylate (Cacodylic Eye) (5.7.2) displays the large block letters at the top of the image; a sizeable brown eye is near the bottom. The legend about the painting started when Picabia had an eye infection, and the doctor gave him Cacodylate de Sodium, a medicine used in that era. When his friends visited, he asked them to inscribe an image or words on his working canvas. The canvas was covered with signatures, messages, and collaged photographs, becoming a group art project. At this period, lettering on modern European artwork was minimal; this work was revolutionary. 

    A composition of words, an eye, and a mans head
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): L’oeil cacodylate (1921, oil and collage on canvas, 148.6 x 117.4 cm) Public Domain

    Machine Turn Quickly (5.7.3) is an example of Picabia’s mechanomorphic works. The Dadaists were horrified by the senseless violence of World War I and the destruction of the concept of humanity. The growth of science and technology in the industrial age added to the dehumanization of people. People became machines in disguise. Picabia incorporated these feelings into his artwork using mechanical representations of gears, wheels, pulleys, or other parts of mechanized works. He used lines so finely marked they appear to be machine-produced. 

    Two blue and white sprockets on a black background
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Machine Turn Quickly (1916, brush and ink with watercolor, gold over 19th century French lithographic laid on canvas,

    49 .6x 32.7 cm) Public Domain

    Natures Mortes; Portrait de Cézanne, Portrait de Renoir, Portrait de Rembrandt (5.7.4) is a characteristic example of Dada anti-art. It is offensive and declares the painting dead. The readymade monkey is the center of the work, punctuation in the middle of the determining idea. Picabia used rudimentary lettering around the tattered monkey, enhancing the concept of the named artists as no more than stuffed monkeys.

    A black and white monkey with large text surrounding it
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Natures Mortes; Portrait de Cézanne, Portrait de Renoir, Portrait de Rembrandt (1920, toy monkey and oil on cardboard) Public Domain

    Marcel Duchamp

    Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) was born in France; his grandfather was a well-known painter, and the Duchamp household was filled with cultural activities. Some of his siblings also became successful artists. He studied at an academy for a while before he was drafted into the infantry in 1905. Through his brothers, he became acquainted with the Cubist artists and started painting in the style. When he was turned down at one of the Cubist exhibitions for his painting Nudes Descending a Staircase, the painting was displayed in New York and caused a fury. He moved away from the association with a group. In 1913, he painted his last Cubist-based image, moving away from the painterly look and turning his interests to a more technical and exhibitory concept. He was exempt from the draft because of a heart murmur during the war, and he wanted to leave Paris. His painting in New York may have caused an uproar, but it also helped sell his other paintings and added to his reputation. Duchamp was a longtime friend of Francis Picabia who was connected with the Zurich Dada, and when he came to New York, Duchamp, Picabia, and Man Ray met continually. They traveled back and forth between Europe and New York. Dada in New York was not as serious as in Europe, and Duchamp’s first significant contribution was the Fountain, generating another uproar. “Readymades” became his theme. He used found objects and assembled them into something, questioning the whole concept of art and its glorification. Duchamp considered paint a readymade product, no different than other things.

    Duchamp used a readymade postcard of the Mona Lisa for L.H.O.O.Q. (5.7.5), drawing a moustache. He resided with Picabia when he made the image, one of his methods to upend cultural and rational artistic values. Duchamp liked to play with words, and the letters L.H.O.O.Q. in French sound as “Elle a chaud au cul” (There is fire down below). Duchamp had a female pseudonym, and perhaps he added the gender reversal mustache to masculinize the female image. The image was successfully mass reproduced and a symbol for Dada. 

    A portrait of a women with with a moustache
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): L.H.O.O.Q. (1919) Public Domain

    The Fountain (5.7.6) was submitted to an exhibition by the Society of Independent Artists and turned down, not considered art and creating the question of “what is art.” The work was considered art by some because the Readymade object was completely divorced from its original place and intent, reassigned a new name, further removing it from its normal position and also adding his signature. The publicity made the Fountain notorious and challenged the idea of how institutions defined and chose art. “In 1913, I had the happy idea to fasten a bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool and watch it turn,” he later wrote, describing the construction he called Bicycle Wheel, a precursor of both kinetic and conceptual art.[4] 

    A white urinal on a table
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): The Fountain (1919) Public Domain

    Bicycle Wheel (5.7.7) was assembled from readymade objects, repositioned, signed by Duchamp, and considered art. Although he liked to use readymades, he did not consider them unique objects. After he assembled the wheel on a stool, he found it comforting to watch the wheel turn, looking through it as though watching waves form or flames dance.

    A bike wheel mounted on a white stool
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Bicycle Wheel, by lodri  CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    Man Ray

    Man Ray (1890-1976), whose actual name was Emmanuel Radnitzky, a name he never used. Born in Pennsylvania of Jewish immigrants, the family changed their last name to Ray, and Emmanuel adopted Man as his first name. His father was a tailor, and the children worked with him in the tailor shop. In school, he studied art and drafting, earning money as a commercial artist and illustrator. He moved to New York and became a friend of Marcel Duchamp as they both became involved with the Dada movement. He exhibited his work in New York, concluding, “Dada cannot live in New York. All New York is Dada and will not tolerate a rival.”[5] He moved to Paris, pioneering his work on photography. Ray did not use a camera, instead of experimenting with images called photograms, a term he named “rayographs.” He used different objects, parts of a model’s body, or other materials, layering them on a page of the photosensitized paper, then exposing them to a light source to create a negative image. The technique was not original; however, the materials and arrangements were unique and creative. He focused on the patterns and flatness of shapes instead of the realistic view. His work with rayographs eventually moved him to the Surrealist movement.

    Rayograph: Comb, Straight Razor Blade, Needle, and Other Forms (5.7.8) depicts a set of found or readymade objects combined into a pattern. He used a vertical format for some elements, laid on a circle repeated with the mesh on the side. A triangle completes the basic set of geometrics, and then he used loose, feathery parts to bring a movement across the work. 

    an xray of several bath items like brushes
    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Rayograph: Comb, Straight Razor Blade, Needle, and Other Forms (1922, gelatin silver print, 22.4 x 17.5 cm) Public Domain

    In Untitled Rayograph (5.7.9), he used a twisted cylindrical tube and a small block on the side. The dim image of a face appears in the background. He frequently added some part of the body in the background to the total work. In both pieces, he laid the objects on light-sensitive paper and exposed the paper to light. The dimmer a specific object appears reflects its distance from the photographic paper during the light period, giving depth to the artwork. Man Ray made multiple different “rayographs” with the everyday objects, bringing photography into the world of avant-garde painters. Those who wrote about his work defined it as a bridge between representational and abstract images.

    An xray of misc items
    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): Untitled Rayograph (1922, gelatin silver photogram, 23.5 x 17.8 cm) Public Domain

    Hannah Höch

    Hannah Höch (1889-1978) was born in Germany. When she attended college, she studied graphic arts and design with glass to satisfy her father. Höch moved to Berlin and worked as a designer for a lace and embroidery company. Dada emerged in Berlin during World War I, and Höch joined the movement along with Raoul Hausmann, with whom she had an affair. She was the only female in the group, and she focused on sexual and financial freedom for women. Her seven-year personal life with Hausmann was stormy; he continually refused to leave his wife. She finally ended the relationship in 1922. By 1926, she moved to the Netherlands and began a nine-year liaison with the writer Mathilda Brugman until she married Kurt Matthies from 1938 to 1944. Throughout her rocky relationships, she still focused on liberation for women, urging them to control their own lives and bring equality into their marriage. Höch embraced Dadaism, although Hausmann generally denied she was an active participant in the group.

    She became known for her photomontages, making collages of disassembled and reassembled images. Höch first became interested in the concepts when she was on an island vacation between Germany and Poland. They encountered a composite lithograph of soldiers on the walls of the houses. The bodies looked identical in their uniforms as they lay dead on the battlefield; however, they were “replaced with photographic images of the men of that particular household.”[6] She also brought a feminist addition to her work, an idea resented by other artists. Höch created her photomontages by cutting words, pictures, newspapers, or magazines into selected pieces and reconfiguring them into works reflecting the chaos of modern life. By the end of the 1920s, Höch finally benefitted from her photomontage work and the rising interest in the concepts for advertising and design-led to several successful shows. Höch also incorporated androgynous portrayals of people, the concept anathema to the Nazis, stopping her exhibitions in 1932. The Nazis wanted simpler artwork, no controversy, and beautiful people. During the Nazi regime, she went into seclusion, using her marriage for protection.    

    In Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany (5.7.10), Höch adds the female thematic, “metaphorically equating her scissors with a kitchen knife, which she used to cut through the traditionally masculine domains of politics and public life.”[7] She incorporated parts of machines, images of crowd demonstrations, intellectuals, cabaret dancers, military leaders, political personas, and some of the Dada artists. In the artwork, she was demonstrating the moral bankruptcy of the government and hypocritical society. She found the material in magazines, newspapers, fashion publications, believing the materials for collages were limitless from the abundance of written and printed material. 

    A collage of magazine cut outs organized into a compostition
    Figure \(\PageIndex{10}\): Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany (1919, collage of pasted papers, 144 x 90 cm) Public Domain

    The Dream of His Life (5.7.11) is an example of Höch’s focus on femininity and the weakness of male desire. He looks at the woman who is not whole, instead of fragmented and complicated. Höch also presents the puzzle of the image; is this a dancer performing or a personal dream of the man. She also used watercolor, creating figures moving through a pink and orange miasma, displaying the integration of photomontage and painting. One artwork is busy, covered with a plethora of images. The other artwork is still covered in collaged pieces using a repetitive image and the same tones of color; both represented her view of the world.

    A collage of women in white dresses
    Figure \(\PageIndex{11}\): The Dream of His Life (1925, cut and pasted hand-colored photographs and printed paper on paper, 29.8 x 22.2 cm) Public Domain

    Sophia Taeuber-Arp

    Sophia Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943), born in Switzerland, studied textile design and dance. In 1915, she met Jean Arp, who was living in Switzerland during World War I to avoid the German Army draft, marrying him in 1922. She initially focused on graphic textile artwork based on geometric formations and then became interested in Zürich Dada. As part of the organization, she made several sculptural works, including the unusual Dada Heads. Many critics termed her work as joyous instead of the usual darker subversive Dada ideals. In the late 1920s, she and her husband moved to France until World War II, when they moved back to Switzerland. Unfortunately, the stove where she was staying failed, and she died the carbon monoxide.

    Téte Dada (5.7.12) was made from wood and displayed the precision of the lathe. The juxtaposition of the unruly curlicue beads and wires springing from the ears gave a whimsical look. Taeuber-Arp made multiple different wood sculptures turned on the lathe, especially a series she named “portraits.” She used ovoid shapes as the base to resemble a head, painted patterns, and added different found materials. The surface of the head appears as an abstract painting, demonstrating her ability to paint geometric shapes on an ovoid form. “Taeuber was keenly aware of the conventions defining each category. Her refusal to allow Téte Dada to conform to any single one is what makes it a “Dada object,” a new category that Taeuber helped to construct during the Dada movement…”[8] 

    A wooden egg on a stick on a pully
    Figure \(\PageIndex{12}\): Téte Dada (1920, painted wood with glass beads on wire, 23.5 cm) Public Domain

    Téte au plat (5.7.13) or Composition Dada integrated found objects, wooden relief geometric shapes, and paint. The head in the center of the work has two different sides, poised on a red shelf. Each half of the image is different while balanced with the other side. She made several of these styles for her work in interior design. Throughout her life, she worked in multiple disciplines, including textiles, sculpting, painting, fashion, stage sets, and marionettes, all based on concepts of visual abstraction.

    A colorful composition of shapes
    Figure \(\PageIndex{13}\): Tete au plat (Composition Dada) (1920, oil on canvas, 35 x 43 cm) Public Domain  

    Jean Arp

    Jean Arp (1886-1966) was born in the Alsace-Lorraine region, won by Germany after the Franco-Prussian War, and was named Hans Peter Wilhelm Arp. After World War I, France took the region back, and now a French law required him to change his name from Hans to Jean. Early in his life, he studied art, moving to Switzerland before the war to avoid the draft of the German Army. He became part of the Zurich Dada group in Switzerland, meeting Sophie Taeuber, whom he married. His early Dada work was based on collage using media of torn and pasted paper or carved and painted wood. Arp frequently created similar versions of the same image, painting them slightly differently.

    Shirt Front and Fork (5.7.14) is an example of two different reliefs of the same image. In this version, the protruding shapes of the fork and shirt are a darker gray with black for part of the background instead of dark gray. Arp was also a poet and used objects and their odd juxtaposition to represent his thoughts and a comic ambiguity. In this image, “the shirtfront (actually a ‘dickie’) with its two studs, can just as easily be seen as a human face, and the fork as an arm. As such, it harbours the kind of mischievous comment on social behavior that Arp relished – the abstract personage seen merely as his proper shirtfront and correctly held fork.”[9] Arp also liked to use tones of black and white because he thought the colors represented writing and a way to communicate with others. 

    A black and white tooth and fork
    Figure \(\PageIndex{14}\): Shirt Front and Fork (1922, carved and painted wood, 58.4 x 70 x 6.1 cm) Public Domain

    Constellation According to the Laws of Chance (5.7.15), is a small wooden dimensional image. He painted five black biomorphic forms onto the board; the three white forms were dimensional, casting shadows within the box. Many of his collages and later sculptures were based on abstracted biomorphic shapes. He believed shapes created an ‘object language,’ a referential and interpretative idea, not the literal shape of an object, rather a form to be defined as different concepts. The name of the image implies shapes in space; however, they could be shells, parts of the body, or other forms.

    Black and white shapes
    Figure \(\PageIndex{15}\): Constellation According to the Laws of Chance (1930, painted wood, 54.9 x 69.8 cm) Public Domain

    Raoul Hausmann

    Raoul Hausmann (1886-1971), born in Vienna, moved to Berlin as a teenager. His father was a painter and his early teacher before he enrolled in art school in Berlin, marrying in 1908. Hausmann started work as an Expressionist painter and wrote articles criticizing the art establishment. He also supported the war effort, believing the old guard of society needed to be removed, although he was not eligible for the draft because he was an Austrian citizen. In 1915, he met Hannah Höch, and they started a seven-year and very tumultuous affair. Hausmann wrote several papers, articles, and books reflecting his interest in philosophy and encouraging artists to move beyond painting and integrate different materials and the need to destroy to create. He also tried to spread the word about Dadaism and encourage exhibits and events, including the ‘First International Dada Fair. Although Hausmann and Höch worked closely together, he used more watercolor, particularly for the backgrounds, allowing the elements in the photomontage more unique visibility.

    As part of his concept of disrupting realism and recreating, Hausmann made ABCD (5.7.16), actual words and images from the world remade into a symbolic new work. Hausmann’s face dominates the top half of the work as he speaks a poem; ABCD is visible in his mouth. The letters V.O.C.E. was the Italian word for voice, event tickets indicate the emptiness of social events, all part of the emblematic words of his poetry. This photomontage technique was associated with Dada in Berlin. Later he created ‘phonemes’ he defined as sound poems. He printed words, cut them into pieces, and rearranged them into new words. Letters became his art materials to rebuild into other sets of letters and form ‘optophonetics’ (visible speech sounds). In the artwork, the bold type, the size of the font, or the placement of the letters indicated the potential sounds. When the words were reconstructed, they were read at poetry meetings, forming unusual vocalizations.

    a black and white conglomerate with a mans head, a fish and a cervical inspection
    Figure \(\PageIndex{16}\): ABCD (1920, gelatin silver print, 15.1 x 10.1 cm) Public Domain

    Mechanical Head (The Spirit of Our Time (5.7.17) is Hausmann’s most well-known work. He used a dummy used by wig makers and attached multiple devices, including; a crocodile wallet, ruler, pocket watch mechanism and case, a bronze segment of an old camera, a typewriter cylinder, a piece of measuring tape, a collapsible cup, number “22”, nails, and bolt.[10] Hausmann projected the concept of the mind penetrated and controlled by external forces, the man incapable of his original thoughts, shattering the mainstream belief that all reason comes from the head. The head is a dummy representing the absence of expression and the robotic behavior of humanity, and the loss of the notion of self.

    A wooden head with things attached to it
    Figure \(\PageIndex{17}\): Mechanical Head (The Spirit of Our Time) (1920, assemblage) by Pablo Ibañez  CC BY 2.0

    By the early 1920s, Dada was beginning to fade. In Paris, a few artists, poets, and writers staged an exhibition, a garish set of plays, and incomprehensible writings along with multiple feuds within the leaders. Other artists were interested in different styles of art, including the new ideas forming Surrealism. However, Dada did, and still has, a profound influence in the art world as artists continue to use found objects, lettering, collages, and photomontages in their works.


    [1] Rubin, W. (1968) Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 12. Retrieved from 

    [2] Retrieved from 

    [3] Blythe, S. G., Powers, E. D. (2008). Looking at Dada, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 37. Retrieved from


    [5] Retrieved from

    [6] Zulak, M. (2015). Hannah Höch’s Photomontage-Paintings, Arizona State University, p.8.

    [7] Makholm, K. (1997). Strange Beauty: Hannah Höch and the PhotomontageMoMA, (24), 19-23. Retrieved July 25, 2020, from

    [8] MoMa Highlights: 350 Works from the Museum of Modern Art, 3rd Revised edition, The Museum of Modern Art, June 30, 2013, p. 63.

    [9] Retrieved from

    [10] Retrieved from 

    This page titled 5.7: Dada (1916-1924) is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Deborah Gustlin & Zoe Gustlin (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .

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