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Word Play

Discover how Dada artists challenged and manipulated the rules, syntax, and symbols of language.

Kleine Dada Soirée

Theo van Doesburg (Christian Emil Marie Küpper) with Kurt Schwitters
(Dutch, 1883–1931)

1922. Lithograph, 11 7/8 x 11 7/8" (30.2 x 30.2 cm)

In 1923, Kurt Schwitters and Theo van Doesburg embarked on a tour of Holland—their so-called “Dada Campaign”—to introduce local artists to Dada through a series of evening lectures and performances. This poster for the Kleine Dada Soirée (Small Dada Evening) is a jumble of words that shift direction and overlap. The word “Dada” is repeated in bold red letters in various orientations. Within the cloud of black lettering sit a few small images—a deer’s head, an arrow, pointing hands—cut from various sources and transferred onto the surface. Slogans in various languages proclaim: “Dada is against the future, Dada is dead, Dada is idiotic, Long live Dada!”

The poster’s discordant appearance reflects the tenor of many Dada evenings, which often commenced with mock lectures interrupted by barking audience members, absurd jokes and skits, and experimental poetry. This evening’s events included a prelude of “Dadawisdom” by Van Doesburg, “abstract poems declaimed as loudly as possible” by Schwitters, and ragtime music by composer Erik Satie.

A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.

An artistic and literary movement formed in response to the disasters of World War I (1914–18) and to an emerging modern media and machine culture. Dada artists sought to expose accepted and often repressive conventions of order and logic, favoring strategies of chance, spontaneity, and irreverence. Dada artists experimented with a range of mediums, from collage and photomontage to everyday objects and performance, exploding typical concepts of how art should be made and viewed and what materials could be used. An international movement born in neutral Zurich and New York, Dada rapidly spread to Berlin, Cologne, Hannover, Paris, and beyond.

Non-representational works of art that do not depict scenes or objects in the world or have discernable subject matter.

At the Margins
At each stop on the “Dada Campaign,” Theo van Doesburg sold a pamphlet explaining “Wat is Dada?” Words scrawled along the periphery of this poster offer further possibilities, which read like an inside joke: “Every morning I slip on my Wellingtons—Picabia”; “Dada is against the future, Dada is Dead, Dada is idiotic, Long live Dada!”; “Dada is not a howling literary school—Tristan Tzara”; and “Dada has always existed. The holy virgin was already a Dadaist.”

Wat is Dada poster