Modernist Trends Essay

Excerpt from Essay :


During WWI, two artists, the German Hugo Ball and his future wife, Emmy Hennings, emigrated from Munich, Germany, to Zurich, Switzerland. Here, they opened Cabaret Voltaire in February 1916, in Spiegelgasse, 1, in Zurich. Other immigrant artists would soon join them in their endeavor to defy art and politics and most especially, the war madness. Even if they were performing in Zurich, a hub of peace, WWI was providing more than a background for their artistic expressions. WWI and everything related to it was the evil source of inspiration the artists attempted to sublimate thorough their art.

The shows at the cabaret involved a whole array of artists from different corners of Europe. The artists were free to experiment and most especially, to create everything that could go against the conventional, the traditional, dare, amaze, arouse, make people let loose, awake every sort of emotion possible, take art away from the usual spaces and public and give it to every person willing to accept that art can go as far as one wants, without limitations. They meant for these artists to create an art that would be both liberating not only from the restraints of conventions, but also from everything the world had come to by then. Ball attempted to deconstruct language and get to the essence of communication. Words were not only devoid of meaning, they were destructive and those who embraced Ball's vision and the "dada," meant to use art as a way to reconnect with the world as it was before the words had started to become toxic. Among the prominent names that activated at Voltaire Cabaret were: the Romanians Tristan Tzara, a poet, and Marcel Janco, an architect.

In their preface to the book Dada and Beyond, Vol. 1, a collection of essays on the Dada movement, Elza Adamowicz and Eric Robertson, warn against treating the movement as a "fossilized," by pointing out that it has left a strong and important legacy: "pacifist, internationalist, sceptical, imaginative, resistant to power and artistic relocation, possessing new relevance in a twenty-first century of globalization, eco-crisis, terror and hyperpower hegemony."( Adamowicz, Robertson, 2011) It is one of the most perceptive, comprehensive and enlightened characterizations of the movement.

Ball resisted any attempts to make the Dada movement an international movement by giving it a doctrine ( / On the other hand, Dadaism did not come out of a void in art. Artists had used their art to protest in the past and they had also defied traditions in order to get a chance to be creative and not just imitate. On the other hand, the dada was intent to express the origins of the human being, the child in humanity and also the potentially creative madness that was lying in all human beings. It defied and protested the world in its present form. They went against the place humanity led by a different kind of madness, a destructive madness, had reached.

The motivations behind naming the movement "dada" are unclear. Some art historians think it is a meaningless word that fits the movement well. Others think the two Romanian artists, Tristan Tsara and Marcel Janco had inspired it because of their repetition of the Romanian word "da," meaning "yes." Again, others thought they were able to trace the name of the movement to the French word for a toy-horse. There were also different sources that artists, historians or critics thought they were able to trace for the word. Considering the ambiguity of its origins, one may conclude that Ball himself intended to leave it for posterity as a word that sprang out of the very heart of the movement, free of any connections. According to Dietmar Elger, though, the most plausible explanation for the origins of the word "dada" is that Richard Huelsenbeck gave: "the word Dada was discovered by chance by Hugo Ball and me, in a French-German dictionary while we were looking for a name for Madame le Roy, the singer at our Cabaret. Dada means hobby-horse in French." (Huelsenbech, cited by Elger)

Although Hugo Ball did not intend for his movement to get an international fame, it spread across countries and continents. Artists saw it as an opportunity to make their own statement in a pretty conservative world. The advances of science and technology, industrialization, modernism, city living and the madness and irrationality of a world war, new philosophical ideas, all these changed the way ordinary people looked at the world and at themselves. The artists who embraced Dadaism were not sensationalists, they were merely holding a mirror in front of the world and showing it to those who wanted to look in it. Every art expression would eventually embrace the dada movement or Dadaism, in the early twentieth century. One thing is for sure, art could not stay the same after dada.

There were many who attacked dada and labeled it as toxic, unworthy of being called art, expressing their contempt for such a form of manifestation in the name of art, as shown before. The anti-dada manifestations culminated with the Nazi label "entartete Kunst" = "artless art." In spite of the opposition and resistance to its appeal, Dadaism had many supporters. The movement did not end with WWI. It spread to the rest of Europe, to cities like Cologne, Berlin (already during the war) and Paris, and it crossed the ocean and went to New York.

Those who try to identify and analyze what makes dada so loved and hated are in a difficult position. To look for meanings in this form of art that promotes the "meaningless" is not a simple endeavor. The question that arises first is: according to the dada movement, what classifies an object as an art object? "Can everyone be an artist?" is the second question that arises. Analyzing the causes of anger and revolt at some dada shows, in his essay, Dissecting the Order of Signs, Shaffner writes: "It seems as if it were not the proclamations of heretic and offensive propositions or outrageous political messages which caused the outbreaks of rage at the Dada soirees, but rather the absence of any tangible message at all. It was the zero message, the empty signifiers, the indeterminacy and the ultimate ambivalence which the audiences found unbearable"(Shaffner)

Thus, one of the characteristics of Dadaism is that it fights against conventionalism and, particularly, against the existing society. One needs to remember the period of time when Dadaism appears: it is the First World War, when individuals discover the terrible fact that young men are being slaughtered by vague ideals, led by an incompetent political and military class. The obvious solution to this is revolt and political revolt is more complicated and difficult to undertake, which is why the artistic option appears as the easier way out. Hence Dadaism.

For some, it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between Dadaism and Surrealism, particularly because, in both cases, there is a destruction, through art, of the existing order and convention. One opinion could be that Surrealism, as compared to Dadaism, offers to put something instead. This is particularly reflected by the oneiric symbols that dominate Surrealist works of art, which tend to show that for many of the artists of this current, the alternative to this world, with its conventions, is the world of dreams. With Dadaism, this alternative is often missing. To a greater degree, this is also a result of the fact that, for Dadaists, there is nothing rational to be found in this world: life has no meaning. With Surrealists, they try to find meaning, quite often in alternative worlds of symbols or dreams.

This paper will now look at a couple of the ways in which Dadaism manifested itself in different artistic forms. The most shocking of all came from the…

Sources Used in Document:


1. Elger, Dietmar, (2004). Dadaism. Taschen 2. Sheppard, Richard, (2000). Modernism -- Dada -- Postmodernism. Art 3. Adamowicz, Elza, Robertson, Eric, (2011). Dada and Beyond: Volume 1: Dada Discourses, Volume 1. Radopi

4. Trachtman, Paul, (2006). Dada. Smithsonian Magazine. On the Internet at Last retrieved on April 9, 2014


Cite This Essay:

"Modernist Trends" (2014, April 11) Retrieved March 21, 2018, from

"Modernist Trends" 11 April 2014. Web.21 March. 2018. <>

"Modernist Trends", 11 April 2014, Accessed.21 March. 2018,