L I t T e R

Back to Leafe home

Back to Litter home

Editorial Note: This article was first published in 1987 as part of the book ‘Chanson Dada: Selected Poems of Tristan Tzara’ translated by Harwood. It is approximately 7,500 words long, or 15 printed pages. Copyright lies with Lee Harwood.

Lee Harwood


It’s an evening early in the spring of 1916. In a shabby side street in Zurich is a small bar. Here there is a cabaret - the Cabaret Voltaire.

Outside Zurich and neutral Switzerland is the ceaseless carnage of The First World War. In the German offensive at Verdun in between March and September there are 395,000 French casualties and 405,000 German. This is to be followed by the British offensive on the Somme where between July and November the casualties are 400,000 British and 260,000 German. The 'blood bath' fills up and the bishops bless the guns.

Inside the cabaret a group of young men and women, poets and painters, exiles and refugees from the war, perform. Around the walls of the bar are pictures by Hans Arp, Viking Eggeling, Marcel Janco, Macke, Marinetti, Modigliani, Nadelmann, Pablo Picasso and many others. 'Coloured papers, ascendancy of the New Art, abstract art and geographic futurist map-poems.’ On the small stage performers recite poems, shout manifestos, sneer and strut and charm, sing, dance, and make music.

Tristan Tzara, Richard Huelsenbeck and Marcel Janco perform a simultaneous poem. All three recite together in three different languages - French, English and German - texts that have nothing to do with one another and are a mixture of poetry, sentimental popular songs, pompous and boring letters and journals, nonsense and pure and meaningless sounds. And all this is interspersed with the beating of a giant drum, whistles being blown laughter and lots of rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

This explosion is followed by 'Negro' songs. The words sung or chanted and all accompanied by ‘big and small exotic drums’. The texts themselves are sometimes taken from German anthropology magazines and then treated by Tzara, or sometimes totally invented and interspersed with mumbo-jumbo. Then Hugo Ball, in a costume made of tubes of cardboard, is carried on stage and intones

gadji berri bimba
glandridi lauli lonni cadori
gadjama bim beri glassala
gladridi glassala tuffm I zimbrabim
blassa galassa tuffm I zimbrabim…

Ball wears a tight-fitting cylinder of shiny blue cardboard with two more blue tubes for his legs. Over this is a huge coat collar again cut out of cardboard. It's scarlet inside and gold outside and is fastened at the neck so that by raising or lowering his elbows he could flap like a pair of wings. And on his head he wears a high blue and white - striped watch-doctor's hat. As he continues to chant

zlmzlm urallala zlmzlm urania zlmzlm Zanzibar

some of the audience begins to protest, some laugh and applaud. Ball continues, unable to move because of his costume. There is piano music and balalaika music. Emmy Hennings performs songs with an intentional shrillness that jars and perturbs the audience. There is 'tumult and solar avalanche.

And all this is to be called DADA!

And what’s DADA?

1 Apologies and Asides

As always when we turn to the Oxford English Dictionary we get a neat enough summary of what we're looking for. And so - 'Dada: an International artistic movement repudiating tradition and reason and intended to outrage'. This is all true enough. Dadaism was a brief anarchic art movement that started In Zurich and lasted from 1916 to 1923 at the latest. For many people, and even those interested in the history of art, that's it. They might add that is considered the first 'anti-art' movement as well as the father of Surrealism. But after such generalizations the details blur and the trouble begins. The trouble is in how we can come to an understanding of the very special and particular qualities this movement represents. The Dada movement was filled with contradictions and complexities, and it's only too easy to be distracted by the historical chronology of Dadaism and to miss the essence of Dada.

To gets clear idea of Dada some wider issues must be considered if we’re to avoid approaching it as an irrelevant though colourful antique. We also need to get past some of our present prejudices. Dada, as I've said, is considered the first 'anti-art’ movement and these days there is nothing more art conscious than 'anti-art' movements. 'Anti-art' groups depend for their effect, their power to or impress, on their audience having firm preconceptions of the nature of art and their being knowledgeable about contemporary art and art history. Marcel Duchamp's Mona Lisa with a moustache drawn on is fairly meaningless if you don't know the original by Leonardo da Vinci. In recent years whole concept of a self-conscious avant-garde, especially 'anti-art' has been rightly questioned and criticised for the narrow and incestuous art it often produces. It has become very much a matter of the children of the middle class denouncing and provoking the middle class, and a lot of money being made out of the whole game by dealers artists and critics. But writing this in 1981 is a far cry from the world of 1916. Whereas you can be rightly cynical about some expressions of contemporary avant-garde art, it is unjust to apply the same cynicism to the events that took place sixty-five years ago. What is quite undeniable about Dada is that it was a movement outstanding in its energy and freshness and the intense sense of urgency that drove it forward while the need was there, the fact that the 'anti-art' approaches of the Dadaists have since been grossly debased can in no way detract from the worth of the original Dadaists. As proof of this, if proof be needed, one only has to look at the many great artists who participated in this movement. Max Ernst, Hans Arp, George Grosz, Kurt Schwitters and Tristan Tzara are only a few of the names whose artistic careers included a full involvement with Dada.

There is another issue to be considered before I go further, though it is maybe of a more personal and embarrassing nature. If you feel a great sympathy and enthusiasm for Dadaism, as I do, then the act of writing this article is a contradiction in itself. There are justly chastening lines in Allen Ginsberg's poem 'Howl' –

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked
who threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism and subsequently
presented themselves on the granite steps of the madhouse with shaven
heads and harlequin speech of suicide, demanding instantaneous
and who were given instead the concrete void of insulin metrasol electricity
hydrotherapy psychotherapy occupational therapy pingpong and

While echoing the earlier anguish and rage of the Dadaists Ginsberg also includes this prickly question: how does one reconcile trying to explain a truly radical arts group that really wanted to tear things down, do something new, and to destroy all rigid and programmed thought? A group that was against all previous explanations, against all explanations? As Tristan Tzara said, quoting Descartes, “I do not even wish to know if there were men before me”.

This contradiction, of course, goes beyond my immediate predicament back to the DaDaists themselves. By now it's a sad fact that ‘radical’ art groups become institutionalized by history and art critics and the artists themselves. It happened to the DaDaists and is now happening to the Beat Generation writers, with learned studies and biographies of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. There is the unedifying sight of the quarrels between the Dadaists, or ex-DaDaists in later years. Who discovered the word ‘dada' for example? Was It Tzara, or was it Ball and Huelsenbeck? As Tzara ominously wrote in one of his DaDa manifestos in 1918-

“We have had enough of cubist and futurist academics! Is the goal of art to earn money and to fondle the nice bourgeois? Rhymes jingle the same sound as coins, and inflexions slide along the profile of the belly. Every group of artists has finally arrived, astride various comets, at the bank, the door opened to the possibility of wallowing in cushions and rich food.”

3 Towards a Definition

I write a manifesto and I want nothing, yet I say certain things, and in principle I am against manifestos, as I am also against principles.... We are a furious wind tearing the dirty linen of clouds and prayers, preparing the great spectacle of disaster fire, decomposition....

If I cryout- Ideal Ideal Ideal
Knowledge Knowledge Knowledge
Boomboom Boomboom Boonboom

I have given a pretty faithful version of progress, law, morality and all other fine qualities that various highly intelligent men have discussed in so many books.... Freedom: Dada Dada Dada a roaring of tense colours and interlacing of opposites and of all contradictions, grotesques, inconsistencies; LIFE. (from Tristan Tzara’s Dada Manifesto 1918)

What was Dada? Foremost it was a violent reaction by various artists, painters and poets, to the First World War and to the society and leaders that caused that war. The organizer of the Cabaret Voltaire, Hugo Ball, wrote in his diary –

What we are celebrating is both buffoonery and a requiem mass. Our cabaret is a gesture. Every word that is spoken and sung here says at least one thing: that this humiliating age has not succeeded in winning our respect. What could be respectable and impressive about it? Its cannons? Our big drum drowns them. Its idealism? That has long been a laughing-stock, in its popular and its academic form. ... What we call dada is a farce of nothingness in which all higher questions are involved; a gladiator's gesture, a play with shabby leftovers, the death warrant of posturing morality and abundance. Tbe dadaist fights against the agony and the death throes of this age.

The protests and works of the Dadaists were for them the one sane answer any artist could make to a world apparently gone insane. A feeling that absurdity and confusion must be carried further and further until everything breaks down into a silence from which a new vision can be constructed. As Ball wrote in his Kritik- 'Perhaps it is necessary to have resolutely, forcibly produced chaos before an entirely new edifice can be built on a changed basis of belief.

At the risk of repetition it is probably best to also quote from Huelsenbeck’s ‘En avant Dada’, maybe the most direct and understandable account the beginnings of Dada.

We had all left our countries as a result of the war. We were agreed that the war had been contrived by the various governments for the most autocratic, sordid and materialistic reasons; we were familiar with the book ‘J'accuse’, and even without it we would have had little confidence in the decency the German Kaiser and his generals. Ball was a conscientious objector, and I had escaped by the skin of my teeth from the pursuit of the police myrmidons who for their so-called patriotic purposes, were massing men in the trenches of Northern France and giving them shells to eat. None of us had much appreciation for the kind of courage it takes to get shot for the idea of a nation which is at best a cartel of pelt merchants and profiteers in leather, at worst a cultural association of psychopaths who, like the Germans, marched off with a volume of Goethe in their knapsacks, to skewer Frenchmen and Russians on their bayonets.

Tristan Tzara wrote in 1947 when looking back on Dada-

We proclaimed our disgust.... This war was not our war.... Dada was born from an urgent moral need, from an implacable desire to attain a moral absolute, from the deep feeling that man, at the centre of all creations of the spirit, must affirm his supremacy over notions emptied of all human substance, over dead objects and ill-gotten gains... Honour, Country, Morality, Family, Art, Religion, Liberty, Fraternity, I don't know what, all these notions had once answered to human needs, now nothing remained of them but a skeleton of conventions, they had been divested of their initial content.

Certainly the Dadaists were not the only artists to protest at the insanities and inhumanities of the First World War. The German Expressionist poets and British poets like Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and Siegfried Sassoon were only a few of the artists to register their dismay at the times. While Kipling may strut on the battlefield and French Academicians stoke up an hysterical nationalism there were these quiet and not-so-quiet voices to gainsay them no matter how unpopular they might be in a time of flags and white feathers. But it is the form the Dada protest took that distinguishes it from the others. It was a mixture of outraged polemic and a turning to intentional absurdity that involved an almost childlike love of games, chance, and the fantastical. It was a strange marriage of opposites, the rage and then a fascination with simple pleasures, with 'the daily miracle's that turned their backs on that rage. And both of these goals were pursued with an obsessive energy and diversity unequalled elsewhere.

It is only by understanding the background and foundations of Dada - the war and all that it meant - that one can move on to the particular and see the real meaning of the of the actions and works of the Dadaists. Obviously it isn't that crude an equation of cause and effect. The Dadaists certainly developed a number of concerns that were in the air before the war - like the interest in African art and 'primitive art', the performances and provocative techniques of the Italian Futurists, and a favouring of the irrational rather than nineteenth century scientific materialism as an explanation of wholeness - but the necessity that drove them came from the war.

4 Places and Events


The Dada movement was international, it's true, and had many members and locations, but it was here in Zurich that it was named, that the first Dada magazines were published and the first manifestos proclaimed. In 1916 Switzerland was the home of numerous refugees and exiles. In Zurich lived James Joyce who'd fled from Trieste, Lenin and Zinoviev from Russia, and of course the future Dadaists such as Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco from Rumania, Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Richard Huelsenbeck and Hans Richter from Germany, and Hans Arp from Alsace. It's not surprising that out of such an international melting pot something should happen.

What did happen was Cabaret Voltaire. Hugo Ball, a poet, musician and philosopher, and the singer Emmy Hennings persuaded the owner of the Hollandische Meierei bar to allow them to present a nightly cabaret with 'artistic entertainments’. On 5 February the room was decorated with Futurist posters, the poet Tzara and the painters Arp and Janco appeared in response to a newspaper appeal by Ball, and the cabaret began. What the audience of Swiss students, solid bourgeoisie and art lovers, and foreign exiles received for their entrance money was the sort of performance already described. In mid-February the poet Huelsenbeck joined them and the group was near complete. The performances grew from being merely bizarre to a total wildness. Nothing was planned too carefully and the cabaret was often an amazing mixture of contrasts. The provocations and 'experimental' events would be interspersed with a balalaika orchestra organised by the Russians in the audience, by folk songs and dances, readings of French and German poetry, and the playing of Liszt's thirteenth Hungarian Rhapsody!

The cabaret was finally closed on 23 June 1916 after complaints from the public to the owner of the bar. But a movement had started been established that would not disintegrate until 1923. Exactly how this movement was eventually named after its loose and spontaneous beginnings, we shall never know. The word DADA was picked at random from a dictionary and, according to Ball was first used in the April of that year, and that is but one of the many conflicting reports. We do know the word first appeared in print on 15 June 1916.

While Hugo Ball was organiser of the early events it was Tzara who became the driving force behind the Dada publications and, as a result, Dada publicity. Through their magazines, books and anthologies the Zurich group made their international contacts and the Dada movement spread as a conscious entity. Dada grew like a crystal, though not so slowly and sedately. The cabaret events, then the publications and all the letters between artists that resulted from these, then the exhibitions, then the visits to Zurich by other artists like Francis Picabia, then the travels of the original Dadaists.

An incomplete summary of the Dada publications would begin in June 1916 with ‘Cabaret Voltaire’, an anthology edited by Ball. It included work by Apollinaire, Arp, Cendrars, Huelsenbeck, Kandinsky, Marineti, Modigliani Picasso and Tzara. This was followed by a series of illustrated books of poetry edited by Tzara, the series titled ‘Collection Dada’. Then between 1917 and 1921 Tzara edited the magazine ‘Dada’ which ran to seven issues. The second issue for example, contained work by Alp, Birot, de Chirico, Kandinsky and many others. And in 1919 Tzara co-edited a one-shot magazine, ‘Der Zeltweg’, with work by Arp, Giacometti, Schwitters and others.

With the end of Cabaret Voltaire and the publication of Ball's anthology Dada moved into a new phase. It started on a series of more consciously public abilities. The group of friends at the beginning had come together almost spontaneously and produced the cabaret, but with time the whole affair became more self- conscious. The act of giving itself a name was in a way a step nearer Dada's becoming one more artistic organisation, an aim far from the original intentions of the group. This inevitably caused tensions within the group, especially between the two chief figures Ball and Tzara. Ball was nervous of the way things were developing while Tzara could only see them with enthusiasm.

On 14 July the first public Dada soiree was held at the Waag Hall in Zurich. This evening, which included the reading of manifestos by Arp, Ball, Janco, Huelsenbeck and Tzara, ended in a near riot, according to Tzara. Immediately after this Ball left Zurich, and at the beginning of 1917 Huelsenbeck also left equally dissatisfied with the direction things were taking, though for slightly different reasons to Ball's. Tzara, a natural propagandist and an activist very conscious of being part of an aggressive European avant-garde, then took over administrative leadership of the group.

In January 1917 there was a Dada exhibition at Galerie Coray Of work by Arp, Janco, Richter and Van Kees, and a show of Negro art. Then in March Ball was persuaded to return to Zurich briefly and until May he and Tzara organised Galerie Dada, using the Coray premises. The Galerie Dada showed paintings by Bloch, Baumann, de Chririco, Max Ernst, Feininger, Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Kokoschka and Modigliani, along with paintings by children, Negro sculptures, and various 'artefacts' inlcuding embroidery. There was a series of lectures, including Ball on Kandinsky and E. Jollos on Klee. Three were soirées organised around particular themes. There were performances of plays, poetry, manifestos, music and dance. They even held afternoon teas for school parties and gave guided tours of the exhibition for 'local workmen'.

After the closure of the Galerie Dada Tzara went on to organise many more Dada evenings with larger and larger audiences and with increasingly provocative and violent performances. These, along with exhibitions and lectures, continued until the end of the war and beyond it into 1919. The last and largest soirée was in April 1919, when, claimed Tzara, '1,500 persons filled the hall already boiling in the bubbles of bamboulas'. 'Dada has succeeded in establishing the circuit of absolute unconsciousness in the audience which forgot the frontiers of education of prejudices, experienced the commotion of the NEW'.

It is not insignificant that Tzara should also write in his 'Zurich Chronicle' - '1917 July. Mysterious creation! magic revolver! The DADA movement is launched'.

DADA MOVEMENT is launched.’ Not only does this coincide with the first issue of Dada magazine but also with Ball and Heulsenbeck having left Zuricb and Tzara becoming the chief director of Dada. At the heart of the matter - the division within the group mentioned earlier - is a question very pertinent to us in 1981. What Ball and Huelsenbeck were suspicious of was the way Dada was in fact creating yet another public system and style. No matter how anarchic and wild that style might become it was still a style, an orthodox stance and it was such orthodoxes that the early Dadaists had denounced in their calls for freedom, openness and decency. Ball wrote in his diary that art was 'not an end in itself ... but ... an opportunity for true perception and criticism of the times’ (5 June 1916). For Ball and Huelsenbeck art was a means to an end. lt was for this reason that Ball co-directed the Galerie Dada, because it had an educational aim. But for Tzara Dada was an end in itself, to be used then discarded when needs be.

The sequel to this is that Ball retreated first into politics then into religion and mysticism. Huelsenbeck, moving to Berlin, devoted himself to political action, using art and Dada techniques as his weapons. And Tzara pushed forward with his concept of Dada as 'ghosts drunk on energy, we dig the trident into unsuspecting flesh', as 'a furious wind, tearing the dirty linen of clouds and prayers’, and that ' Dada is idiotic. Hurrah for Dada.’ Dada as blatantly anti-art and an aggressively 'nihilistic' force to shake everything up. There were no plans beyond this. No plans could be made until a new consciousness existed. In its way such 'nihilism' is as constructive an act as the most self-conscious constructions of artists like Ball and Huelsenbeck. It may even be argued that it is the healthier choice, certainly at that point in history. lf any folk wisdom can be found in this chronicle it must be that 'there's more ways than one to skin a cat.’

In January 1920 Tzara left Zurich for Paris. That plus the new freedom of movement that came with the end of the war meant that Zurich died as a centre of Dada activities. ln its four years it had seen the rapid development of many artistic possibilities that were to spread far beyond that city. Zurich Dada has to its unique credit the development of sound poems, simultaneous poems, the use of manifestos, performance art and Tzara's notorious cut-up poems. The recipe for this last item is: 'To make a Dadaist poem take a newspaper. Take a pair of scissors. Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem. Cut out the article. Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag. Shake it gently. Then take out the scraps one after the other. In the order in which they left the bag copy conscientiously. The poem will be like you. And here you are a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming through beyond the understanding of the vulgar’, or as Mary Ann Caws states more academically: 'For Dada, the role of poetry is to create and develop, against the closed and the prosaic, a permanent atmosphere of openness, of clarity, intensity, and rapidity, to which the energetic oppositions of contradictory elements is absolutely essential.’


When Huelsenbeck left Zurich in January 1917 and arrived in Berlin he moved into a very different world. It was not a matter of shocking the Swiss bourgeois - not a very difficult thing to achieve - but being right in the middle of a society in tumult and revolt, and working with that revolution which put into action what had only been words in Zurich. From 1917 onwards within the city of Berlin there

was a series of mutinies by the armed forces, of street battles political murders, soldiers’ councils, workers' councils, the brief Communist takeover of Berlln and all the hardships and cruelties that came with the ending of the First World War. Even with the establishment of the Weimar Republic in 1919 there was no end to the civil and intellectual strife.

As happened elsewhere, a group of artists had already assembled whose views and attitudes were akin to the Zurich Dadaists. It only took Huelsenbeck to read his ‘First Dada Speech in Germany’ in February 1918 for Berlin Dada to be officially launched. In Germany the divisions and differing qualities of the Zurich Dada artists were to be seen on a national scale, but pushed even further and on a far greater and more ambitious scale. Berlin was to be the centre of political Dada, of the ‘art with a purpose’, while Cologne and Hanover were where Dada pursued art for its own sake, but it was their own concept of art not anyone else’s.

The Berlin action began. A Club Dada was formed whose most prominent members were the painters and graphic artists George Grosz, John Heartfield, and Hannah Hoech, the poet and artist Raoul Hausmann, the poets Walter Mehring and Richard Huelsenbeck, and Johannes Baader, the arch demonstrator and action man of the group. But to define any of the members by the form taken by the bulk of their art is a mistake. As in Zurich, only more so, all these artists wrote manifestos, arranged meetings and performances and tried out all the possibilities of visual images, typography, words, sounds, and action. Though the Club Dada was not above its own human weaknesses and exclusivities, despite the apparent revolutionary openness. Kurt Schwitters for example was refused membership for being insufficiently political and having a ‘bourgeois face’.

After the founding of the Club the Berlin Dada group pursued the same course of events as Zurich but this time they were up against a real opposition, not an Indulgent audience. Numerous magazines were published such as ‘Der blutige Ernst’ (Deadly Earnest, 1919) and ‘Jedermann sein eigner Fussball’ (Every man his own football, 1919). These were quickly banned by the authorities, but then reappeared under new titles like Die Pleite (Bankrupt, 1919-24). Jedermann sein… was charged with ‘seeking to bring the Armed Forces into contempt and distributing indecent publications. Other notable publications were the magazine ‘Der Dada’ (1919 20) and Huelsenbeck's ‘Dada Almanach’ and his famous pamphlet ‘En Avant Dada’. A series of readings was arranged by Club Dada between 1918 and 1920. These were not only held in Berlin but the trio of Huelsenbeck, Hausmann and Baader travelled as far as Dresden, Hamburg and Leipzig in Germany, and Prague and Teplice in Czechoslovakia to deliver their mixture of enraged polemic poetry and provoking absurdities. ln Prague, despite the fact that the Czechs wanted to beat them up as they were Germans, and the Germans believed they were Bolsheviks, and the Socialists threatened them with death and annihilation because they regarded [them] as ‘reactionary voluptuaries’, Huelsenbeck and Hausmann won over a massive audience. Baader had fled before the performance believing he would end his poetic career in a Prague morgue.

The climax of the Dada events in Berlin was the First International Dada Fair in June 1920. Besides paintings and graphics by the Dadaists, the centerpiece of the exhibition was a stuffed effigy of a German officer with a pig’s head hung from the ceiling with a placard reading 'Hanged by the Revolution'. But possibly the ultimate act in the Berlin Dada's programme of protest with the maximum use of publicity was in 1923. This was when the poet and Dadaist Franz Jung hijacked a German freighter in the Baltic and presented it with its cargo to the Soviet authorities in Petrograd!

Though Berlin Dada bad inevitably dissolved by 1923, due to the change in the times and pressures, and all the internal feuds that made the participants return to their own artistic careers, it had made its point and some major artistic work was achieved that is as fresh and powerful today as then. What is most memorable is the stunning development of photomontage by John Heartfield and also by Hausmann and Grosz. Equally outstanding was the use of typography in the Dada publications and the further and wilder development of sound poetry by Hausmann and Huelsenbeck. At the major retrospective exhibition of Dada (and Surrealism) at the Hayward Gallery in London in 1978 it was these works that were most moving, despite the antiseptic surroundings, while much else had become merely historical documents. lt's therefore curious how so many scholarly critics ignore this side of Dada and concentrate on the Paris group, a tamer and more literary affair.


Cologne was not so much the centre for a Dada group as the home town of the artist Max Ernst. He, with the help of friends like Johannes Baargeld and Hans Arp, produced a very special form of Dada in that city. He and his paintings and collages represented the positive side of Dada. Rather than concentrate on protest, as in Berlin, he chose to develop the side of Dada we find in the primitive forms of Arp's woodcuts and the religious chants of Hugo Ball's sound poems. Ernst wanted in his art a return to the illogical, chance, magic, fairy stories, the world of alarming dreams and primitive myths. His mysterious and unnerving collages are not concerned with contemporary politics but are echoes of something deeper and more eternal. Just as much as the Dada polemics of Berlin, Ernst's work was to awake and stimulate the minds of his audience but in a more subtle and long-lasting way.

Of course Dada in Cologne went through the usual paces as elsewhere. A magazine edited by Baargeld, ‘Der Ventilator’, was banned by the British occupation forces as being subversive in 1919. Then Ernst edited his own one-shot magazine ‘Die Schammade’ (a combination of the German words for charade and witch-doctor) in 1920, including the Paris Dada poets Aragon, Breton and Eluard. Even a Dada Fair was put on in 1920, closed by the authorities and then reopened when the only offending work that could be found was by Albrecht Durer. The exhibition itself was made up of various disturbing object, collages and photomontages. Entry to the fair was through the gents’ toilet of a beer-hall. Added attractions were a girl dressed for her First Communion reciting obscene poems and a statue by Ernst at the entrance with an axe attached and an invitation to destroy it. From this it should be obvious that Ernst and his friends lacked neither wit nor spirit in the pursuit of their more serious aims and ambitions. The residence of Dada in Cologne ended when Ernst left for Paris in 1921. Ernst's own brand of Dada did not end there but continued and grew in his work for the rest of his life.


Dada in Hanover was even more of a one-man show than Cologne in the person of the poet, painter and sculptor Kurt Schwitters. After his rejection by the Berlin Club Dada Schwitters returned to Hanover to make his own form of Dada, or ‘Merz’ as he called it. Like Ernst he too was not interested in the destructive side of Dada but in building things anew, creating a fresh and almost innocent vision of the world. In fact well before the start of Dada in Zurich he had been making collages but with the birth of ‘Merz’ he accelerated all his earlier interests. He was fascinated by everything. He would put into his collages anything that came his way - it was all precious and, as Richter said, to be 'restored to an honoured place in life by means of his art’. Old bus tickets found in the street, notices and commercial flyers, small pieces of coloured paper, string, bits of wire, pieces of wood, playing cards - all could be placed and treated in his collages and paintings. His sculptures, or rather assemblies, were the same. And in his poetry he often worked by the same principles taking and rearranging phrases from public notices or newspapers in such a way as to give them a new and mysterious meaning. It's the same method that Ernst used in his collages, juxtaposing clichéd visual images to make a startling new picture. Schwitters' use of these policies is seen in lines like –

Do not open until
the train is in motion
This seat reserved for
unhandicapped dogs

At other times he takes this further and, like Tzara's poems, collages public notices with private images. An example would be the poem ‘A Fourth of the Feelings of the Ancient Automato atop his Family Fortress Atho’ which ends –

When the wild wine blooms.
itch in my left eye.
The calf stays dead.
Bicycle riders are cautioned to remain in their prescribed lanes

Schwitters' sound poems are another aspect. While they too collage basic sounds they also are a return to primitive and direct communication. This is perhaps a too pompous description as Schwitters' wit never deserted him in these poems.

It's amazing when one considers how prolific and energetic Schwitters was. Besides all his artworks in word and image, he edited ‘Merz’ magazine (1923-32), went on a Dada tour of Holland with Theo Van Doesburg, read in Prague with Hausmann, and gave readings in many other parts of Europe. Like “Schwitters Column”, a sculpture that accumulatively took over two floors of Schwitters' house, ‘Merz’ started before many other forms of Dada and went on long after them. His openness and the sense of wonder he shared with his friend Arp is best found in his statement: “Moreover, we know that we must get rid of the idea of ‘Art’ if we're ever going to reach ‘Art’.


When Tristan Tzara left Zurich for Paris in January 1920 he was not just going to join and rally a group of like-minded contemporaries but to be part of a long established tradition of avant-garde art in that city. From Rimbaud, Lautréamont and Jarry right up to Apollinaire, Arthur Cravan and Jacques Vaché, the Paris art world was used to provocations, and so were the public. But whereas there had previously been these individual actions and artistic groups, Tzara, in bringing the official Dada stamp to Paris, was to instigate group action and provocation on a scale never known before.

While it's easy to appreciate individual artists like Ernst and Schwitters and the more single-minded approach of Berlin Dada, it's much more difficult to grasp the special qualities of Dada in Paris. Like Zurich, Paris Dada was a much looser affair and involved a host of artists. The movement was predominantly a literary one, though various Dada painters like Ernst, Picabia and Man Ray did have exhibitions. The group of French poets associated with the magazine ‘Litterature’, such as André Breton, Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupault, had invited Tzara to Paris. They had been in contact with Zurich since 1917 as had Pierre Reverdy, editor of Nord-Sud, and Albert Birot, editor of ‘Sic.’ Tzara's arrival took the action out of the magazines and into the streets or rather the halls. He and Picabia gave the French poets a formula already well praised and developed In Zurich and Berlin. But the fact that it had almost become a formula was the weakness of the Dada events held ln Pans between 1920 and 1922. The first Dada performance on 23 January 1920 established the ground rules of the game. The poets already mentioned along we Paul Eluard, Raymond Radiguet and Jean Cocteau read poems, read manifestos, and performed intentionally infuriating events. The audience in turn rioted and the matinee ended in pandemonium. After this both sides came prepared. The audience, often ready armed with eggs and fruit to throw at the performers, could have the 'pleasurable anticipation of a scandal’, as Ribemont-Dessaignes describes it. The Dada soirees were immensely popular and, as at the Salle Gaveau on 26 May 1920, drew massive audiences. Not only were the audiences drawn by the pleasure of active participation in the evening's performance but by the general public interest in the anti-establishment ideas and humour of the Dadaists. But the repetitiveness of the events, or rather the form of the events, led to a stagnation of the movement. The result was inevitably that Dada as an active movement degenerated and fell apart leaving the ground clear for Andre Breton's first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. The end of the story is not a particularly edifying one. After various failed attempts to change the course of Dada, a clear rift developed between the anarchic side represented by Tzara and Picabia and those French poets like Breton who at heart wanted a new theoretical programme. The feud culminated in a violent brawl between the two sides at a performance of Tzara’s play ‘Le couer a gaz’ in July 1923. During this Breton broke Pierre de Massot's arm with his walking stick and boxed Crevel’s ears. And this was the end of Dada. 'There was no point in continuing,' as Richter wrote in his account of those years.

New York

All the histories of Dada include a section on what they call New York Dada. Of course this depends on what definition of Dada you work by, but certainly it is a debatable question whether such a movement existed in any real sense. Dada was essentially a European movement, a reaction to particular pressures and a resulting development of current ideas and artistic techniques. Central to the claim for a New York Dada is the presence there of the French artist my Marcel Duchamp from 1915 onwards. Certainly his his works along with those of the American painter and photographer Man Ray show a contempt for all traditional concepts of art, as do the writings and drawings of Francis Picabia who was In New York in 1915 and 1916. And like other capital cities New York contained artists who could be associated with some aspects of Zurich Dada. But though some of the works may have had a surface resemblance to those of the Dadaists in Europe, their emphases is wholly 'anti-art' rather than anti-social. There were no events or manifestos. It all stayed safely in the studio or an the art collection of American millionaire Walter Arensberg. The only publication that could be called Dada was ‘New York Dada’ in 1921, a four-page one-shot magazine that included a statement by Tzara and art work by Duchamp. The only only time Duchamp and Ray were involved In Dada events was during their stay in Paris after the war.

Marcel Duchamp was unique as an artist. He ceased painting in 1913 and then devoted the rest of his life to creating objects and ready-mades and to playing chess. The significance of these objects and ready-mades lies in the theory behind them and it is for that they're appreciated. They started in 1913 with the bicycle wheel mounted on a stool and continued with the bottle-rack (1914) and the notorious ‘Fountain’ (1917), a porcelain urinal signed R Mutt submitted to the New York Independents Exhibition. Behind the act of presenting these treated and untreated articles was a cold cynicism and mockery both of art and people. There is none of the violent protest of Zurich or Berlin nor the desire for a new vision of the world through art that Arp, Ernst and Schwitters attempted. Duchamp’s cool amorality is a world apart from the passion of the European Dadaists. When we now enter the Dada sections of museums we are still moved by the paintings of Ernst, Arp, Schwitters and Grosz, despite their original proclamations against Art. Their works still have a heart while Duchamp’s appear as dead objects created by a theoretically respectable mind. The ready-mades no longer shock us and by their very nature don’t lead us to any sense of praise for the object itself.

‘Dada' after Dada / We’re In the Money

When we view Giotto's “St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata” we obviously don't feel the same religious fervour as Giotto’s contemporaries. The painting has lost that original significance and importance, and gained a new meaning for us on leaving the church and entering the museum (a relatively modern invention). We view it as art rather than propaganda. We look for colour and composition rather than a vital message. And that same fate has befallen the Dada creations. We no longer live in the same world as the Dadaists. There is not a world war on that is bringing about the collapse of the whole power and class structure of Europe. The tensions and complexities of the 1980s are very different to those of 1916-23. Tzara in later life rightly Insisted that an artist must find new solutions for new problems. He believed that the Dada movement by its very nature had a built-in self-destruct mechanism. While he always proclaimed the need for struggle and for art to “break the winter of things” and “shake the laugh from the appletree” he roundly denounced all attempts to revive Dadaism after its natural death, to invent Neo-Dada.

So what have we got from the Dada artists? What can we use from their work? The questions are easily answered if we think only in terms of artistic technique. The Dada development of photomontage, collage and experimental typography is now used in advertising, shop displays even on record sleeves whether they be Beatles or Bach. Such is the way of the world and fashion. The surfaces are copied but not the original spirit and intentions behind them. But this certainly makes our commercial surroundings a little more interesting and lively. But when we consider the relation between Dada and contemporary art the conclusions are not so pleasing, nor so interesting. What the art critics have called Neo-Dada and Pop Art in the visual arts has been nothing more than an exploitation of Dada, a commercial exploitation that hasn’t truly developed Dada ideas in any way. US and even UK Pop Art in the 1960s and 1970s showed an uncritical fascination and acceptance of the objects and materials of a consumer society. Roy Lichtenstein really likes sentimental comic strips as Andy Warhol does packaging and Hollywood. Often it was a pure fascination with surfaces. Such glossy art works are a world apart from the violence of thought and the critical and political stands of the Dadaists. This is not anti-art but art money. And the same disease has spread to other art forms. A grisly example would be the ‘happenings’ arranged by the wealthy Parisian Jean-Jacques Lebel in the 1961 where French debutantes clamoured to be allowed to take part. The lessons of the 1920s about providing fashionable scandal for the bourgeois have not been leant. Harold Rosenberg describes Pop Art as ‘Advertising art which advertises itself as art that hates advertising.’

Of course it is not really such a depressing state of affairs. Several artists have successfully developed Dada techniques but these are in the minority and don't add up to a neo-Dada movement, nor would they think of calling themselves such. The paintings of Robert Rauschenberg have effectively and movingly used collage. The writings of William Burroughs have developed and refined the use of cut-up and literary collage first used by Tzara and Schwitters. And both Rauschenberg and Burroughs have in their art made a fierce attack on authority and power games, whether they be obvious like the Vietnam War or more subtle like the thought control exercised by governments and the media.

When faced with the sight of a Duchamp article - a book with a foam-rubber breast on the cover inscribed 'touch me' - inside a strong glass case surrounded by security guards inside a museum there is luckily an alternative to such foolishness. lt's in the words of poems by Tzara

- on a new made horizon
a water drapery running vast alive
grates small special coefficient
of my love
in the suddenly opened door

It's in the anarchic lines of Max Stirner -

'rebellion is to no longer let ourselves be arranged’.

Copyright © Lee Harwood, 1987 and 2005


The best collection of the main Dada manifestoes and texts in translation is ‘The Dada Painters and Poets’ edited by Robert Motherwell (documents of Modem Art, vol. 8 / Wittenborn, Schulz, Inc.. New York, 1951). Of all the books on Dada the most readily available, readable and accurate account is Hans Richter's ‘Dada Art and Anti-Art’ (Thames & Hudson, London, 1965).

Sources of Quotations:

1. Tristan Tzara – ‘Zurich Chronicle’ 1915-19 (in Dada Almanach, Berlin, 1920) included in Motherwell's anthology
2. Hugo Ball –‘Flight out of time’ (Viking Press, New York, 1974)
3. Hans Richter – ‘Dada Art and Anti-Art’.
4. Allen Ginsberg – ‘Howl & over poems’ (City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1959)
5. Tristan Tzara – ‘Dada Manifesto’ 1918 (in Sept manifestes Dada, Jean Budry, Paris, 1924) see Motherwell.
6. Hugo Ball – ‘Zur Kritik der deutschen intelligenz’ (Freie Verlag, Bern, 1919) 7 Richard Huelsenbeck – ‘En Avant Dada: A History of Dadaism’ (Paul Steegemann Verlag, Hanover / Leipzig. 1920) see Motherwell.
8. Tristan Tzara – ‘Le surrealists et l’aprés-guerre’ (Nagel, Paris, 1947)
9. Tristan Tzara – ‘Manifesto on feeble love and bitter love’ (in ‘Sept manifestes Dada’) see Motherwell
10. Mary Ann Caws – ‘The poets of Dada and Surrealism’ (Princeton U.P., Princeton. 1970)
11. ‘Three Painter Poets: Arp, Schwitters, Klee. (Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1974)
12. Tristan Tzara – ‘Chansons Dada: Selected Poems’ (Coach House Press, Toronto, 1987)