The first Dada movement began during World War I in Zurich, Switzerland. Supposedly, it’s name, which in French is a child’s word for horse, was chosen randomly from a French-German dictionary. In Zurich the word came to symbolize disgust with war, anarchy and even artistic nihilism. Dada was anti-art in a sense that most art was a mere endeavor to please the bourgeois society of the time. Despite this pessimistic outlook, the name caught on, and Dada groups formed in other places around Europe and there was even one in New York City.
In neutral Switzerland, Dada was a group of young men and a few women, who briefly flourished in the safe and nourishing environment that existed in this beautiful Swiss city on a lake, during the bloody reality of the trench warfare and the gas attacks of WWI. Some of the participants, such as Hans Arp, Francis Picabia and Hans Richter, went on to establish solid artistic careers and today you can see their artworks in major art museums around the world.
One writer by the name of Richard Huelsenbeck took the radical ideas and concepts of the movement to post-war Berlin, where they were transformed into a political and cultural weapon against the not so glorious existence of the Weimar Republic.
Here, was a country, humiliated by its defeat in WWI and run by a corrupt and incompetent government trying to control a country on the verge of revolution. In this stormy setting a small group of visual artist came together and produced an explosion of images that was a direct assault on the ethics and morals of the ruling class. Rarely, has an artistic expression been so outraged and so confrontational with the existing social strata. Collectively, the Berlin members included George Grosz, Otto Dix, John Heartfield, Raoul Hausmann, Hannah Hoch and George Scholz. The visual images that they produced railed against the post-war government. It was an anti-Prussian, anti-government tirade against the decadence of affluent society.
The images still stir the emotions today in a similar manner, but they are not easily accessible as a singular group of images. They exist in little nooks and crannies of major art houses around Germany and other notable art centers in the western world. There is no major institution where art lovers or historians can venture to view a substantial collection of Dada art.
Other branches of Dada art in Germany, Paris and the Netherlands produced a more transcendental version of visual images. The names of Max Ernst, Man Ray, Kurt Schwitters and Marsden Hartley are just a few of the more familiar artists associated with this very diverse art “school”. Perhaps, it is the strident confrontational nature of the Berlin pictures that prevent a Dada center from ever happening, or maybe it is just the fact that artistic expression, if left alone, naturally gravitates towards the transcendental. Nevertheless, the Dada period in Berlin warrants a long and honest assessment.