Dada, the Early 20th Century Avant-Garde Art Movement, Turns 100 Today


One hundred years ago today, on July 14, 1916, an avant-garde European artistic and literary movement called Dadaism—or simply Dada—was officially born in Zurich, Switzerland. World War I was in full force, and artists who escaped to the neutral country had grown disillusioned toward the politics, social norms, and cultural ideals that had led to the combat between nations. German poet Hugo Ball—who had co-founded a popular artists’ tavern called the Cabaret Voltaire with his future wife, poet and singer Emmy Hennings—called for a new form of art: an anarchist and anti-bourgeois movement to, as the manifesto says, “get rid of everything that smacks of journalism, worms, everything nice and right, blinkered, moralistic, europeanised, enervated.”

Dada’s a little hard to explain, but essentially it’s art—performance art, poetry, photography, collages, and visual works—that upends conventional ideas and logic through irony, humor, and nonsensical themes and imagery. It borrowed heavily from other avant-garde artistic movements of the time, including expressionism, futurism, and cubism.

For example, Ball helped develop sound poetry, which emphasizes the phonetics of language instead of its meaning. Another Dada artist, Tristan Tzara, composed poetry by pulling random words out of a bag. And Marcel Janco, a Romanian-born artist, made unconventional and primitive-looking masks, which Café Voltaire performers donned during their shows. Famous artists like Marcel Duchamp, Jean (sometimes known as Hans) Arp, Francis Picabia, and Man Ray were also associated with Dada.

Collage was a popular medium, as were “simultaneous poems,” which were verses read at the same time in different languages and paces. Artists would often present everyday objects as art, or “readymade objects,” to question the very definition of creativity. Bizarre stunts—like publishing false stories about Dada artists in newspapers, or running into taverns, yelling “Dada!”, and leaving—were also common.

Nobody quite knows how Dada got its name. Some say that its founders randomly pulled the word—which means “rocking horse” in French—from a dictionary, or were inspired by soap manufacturer Bergmann & Co.’s rocking horse logo. Others believe that Dada stems from “Da,” the Russian word for “Yes.” Regardless of how it was named, the movement caught on rapidly, and on July 14, 1916, Ball wrote a short treatise called The Dada Manifesto, which he read aloud at the Waag Hall in Zurich.

In the manifesto, Ball loosely defines Dada as a movement, and states his own artistic goals: “I shall be reading poems that are meant to dispense with conventional language, no less, and to have done with it. … It’s a question of connections, and of loosening them up a bit to start with. I don’t want words that other people have invented. All the words are other people’s inventions. I want my own stuff, my own rhythm, and vowels and consonants too, matching the rhythm and all my own.”

Thanks to journals and promotional campaigns, Dada spread across the globe, and eventually reached cities like Berlin, Paris, and New York. However, the movement ended up being short-lived: Hugo Ball left Dada in 1917, and arguments over the movement’s direction caused it to implode. Many Dadaists later joined the Surrealist movement, which was founded in the early 1920s.

Despite Dada’s short-lived nature, it was highly influential. It helped birth Surrealism; it paved the way for mediums of expression like collage, abstraction in literature and film, and performance art; and it inspired artists ranging from Andy Warhol to Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. That’s why Zurich recently honored the movement’s centenary with a series of performances, events, and exhibitions, held from February to July 2016.

After 165 days of celebration, the Jubilee Dada 100 will end on July 18, 2016 (although some events continue until September). However, you can still mark today’s anniversary by watching the video above of Dada artists performing at the Cafe Voltaire.

Banner image: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

[h/t Open Culture]

Know of something you think we should cover? Email us at