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1. Early History: Zurich, 1914–18

Source: Oxford University Press

Zurich Dada’s roots lay in the pre-war international avant-garde. Kandinsky’s abstraction and theoretical writings, together with Cubism and the development of collage, liberated Dada from the dual constrictions of reality and convention. Similarly the writings of such German Expressionists as Christian Morgenstern combined with the influence of French poets, thereby allowing the Dadaists to break the direct link between words and meaning. Disgust at the war’s outbreak was immediately voiced in Zurich at Walter Serner and Konrad Milo’s Cabaret Pantagruel (from August 1914), and was reinforced by the arrival of intellectual refugees during 1915. Serner collaborated with the painter christian Schad on the periodical Sirius (1915–16), but the latter’s move to Geneva restricted their participation in the group developing around Ball and Hennings, who founded the Cabaret Voltaire (5 February 1916), establishing performance as a central Dada medium. Inviting participants, they met Arp and the Dutch painters otto van Rees and Adya van Rees-Dutilh (1876–1959), and the painter, sculptor and dancer Sophie Taeuber-Arp. They were joined by the Romanians Janco and Tzara and the Germans Huelsenbeck and Richter. Other painters contributed, including Walter Helbig (1878–1968) and Oskar Lüthy (1885–1945), as well as the Austrian Max Oppenheimer (MOPP), the Romanian Arthur Segal and the Ukrainian Marcel Slodki (1892–1943). This internationalism was reflected in the cabaret’s French and Russian evenings, at which the artists exhibited. Following the example of Futurist provocations Tzara, Huelsenbeck and Janco performed L’Amiral cherche une maison à louer, simultaneously reading texts in three different languages. ‘African’ music and poetry were also performed at soirées nègres, emphasizing a spontaneity of expression absent from Western art. This attracted Rudolph Laban (1879–1958), who initiated African performances for which Janco made Cubist cardboard masks (e.g. 1919; Paris, Mus. A. Mod. Ville Paris).

The term ‘Dada’ first appeared in the periodical Cabaret Voltaire (June 1916), where Ball defined their activities as proving ‘that there are people of independent minds—beyond war and nationalism—who live for different ideals’. The new name signalled the more combative spirit of the first Dada Soirée (Zunfthaus zur Waag, 14 July), where Ball performed astonishing Lautegedichte (sound poems) composed from invented words, which exposed an emotive power distinct from everyday language. Tzara read his irreverent Manifeste de M. Antipyrine, which acknowledged that ‘Dada remains within the framework of European weaknesses, it’s still shit, but from now on we want to shit in different colours’. Such shock tactics increasingly came to characterize their public position. During the summer sound poems by Huelsenbeck were published (Phantastische Gebete, Zurich, 1916). They were illustrated with abstract woodcuts by Arp, which showed a spontaneity centred upon chance as a governing principle. Rejecting a determining role, Arp experimented with abstract collages ‘made according to the laws of chance’, in which papers were glued where they fell, reflecting a reverence for forces outside rationalism (see also Automatism).

Despite Huelsenbeck’s return to Berlin, the group’s activities developed in March 1917 when the Galerie Corray became the Galerie Dada, and the cabaret was replaced by the launching of a movement. Work by Campendonk, Klee, Kandinsky and others from the Sturm-Galerie in Berlin was exhibited in the gallery and accompanied by lectures. The soirées continued, including Ball’s recital of Gadji beri bimba while dressed in cardboard cylinders designed by Janco. Music by Hans Heusser, Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg accompanied a later exhibition (May) combining de Chirico, August Macke, enrico Prampolini, Fritz Baumann (1886–1942) and the Dadaists’ works in unusual materials: Janco made plaster reliefs (e.g. The Lock, 1918; Tel Aviv, Mus. A.); Taeuber-Arp and Arp collaborated on geometric tapestries, for example Pathetic Symmetry (1916–17; Paris, Pompidou); and Arp made painted wooden reliefs, such as Entombment of the Birds and Butterflies (Head of Tzara) (1916–17; Zurich, Ksthaus), which introduced Biomorphism into his work. At the same time Ball’s withdrawal confirmed Tzara’s leadership. He launched the periodical Dada, the first two numbers of which (July and December) reflected links with der Sturm in Berlin, Guillaume Apollinaire in Paris, Marinetti in Milan (see Futurism) and the Pittura Metafisica group in Ferrara. Through the latter he contributed to the Bolognese periodical La Brigata, inviting the editor, Francesco Meriano, to launch Italian Dada in summer 1917. However, Futurism’s dominance and wider nationalism in Italy caused Tzara to break these links.

During 1917 and 1918 Serner and Schad collaborated more closely, the latter revealing a parallel concern with chance in his ‘schadographs’, unforeseen compositions achieved, like photograms, by laying objects on photographic paper and exposing them to light (e.g. 1918; Zurich, Ksthaus). By contrast, Richter’s Visionary Portraits were superseded by an ordered abstraction close to that of Swedish artist viking Eggeling (e.g. Composition, c. 1916; Basle, Kstmus.) and resulted in a lengthy collaboration. Janco established an association of abstract artists, the Neue leben (April 1918), with Arp, Taeuber, Lüthy, Fritz Baumann, Augusto Giacometti, Otto Morach (1887–1973) and other Basle painters, while Tzara’s explosive Manifeste dada 1918 proclaimed Dada as ‘the roar of contorted pains, the interweaving of contraries and of all contradictions, freaks and irrelevancies: LIFE.’ By the time this appeared in Dada 3 (December 1918), Zurich Dada was entering a more nihilistic stage resulting from contact with Picabia, who had arrived from New York, via Barcelona and Paris, earlier in the year.

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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