modernist art

late impressionism through surrealism

duchamp & dada


people, terms, and concepts: nihilism, continuous contradiction, chance, readymade, assisted readymade, pataphysics, collage

additional reading:  Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto

Dada starts around 1915 in Zurich (Switzerland) and New York City, and quickly spreads to Paris, Berlin, and Cologne. Rather than conventional drawings, paintings and sculptures, the Dadists tended to produce what would now be called ‘found objects’, assemblages, environments, happenings, and performance art, along with highly unconventional poems, music, plays, films, and cabaret skits. Most of these works are either bewilderingly nonsensical or offensive or both.  The underlying philosophy of Dada is nihilism (denying the validity of any belief, value, truth, logic, social order, etc.); and its basic strategy is summed up in the phrase continuous contradiction in Tristan Tzara’s Dada Manifesto of 1918 (above).

Naturally the Dadaists would not share any common style, beliefs, or values, but they did share some common techniques:

pataphysics -- The appearance of highly systematic science (machines, draftsman-like style, mathematical formulas, technological instruments), that is in fact dysfunctional nonsense.  Contrast other Modernist movements’ belief in a utopian future based on science and machines (Futurism, Léger, Purism, the Bauhaus ...).  

readymades -- Objects presented as art that were not made by the artist; sometimes slightly altered (assisted readymades).  Readymades tend to violate both the concept of art (which “should” be hand-made and original), and the original function of the object itself.

chance -- Of course, to make something by chance (whether a text, a machine, or a work of art) usually negates the possibility of producing anything meaningful, functional, or beautiful ...

collage -- Same technique as the Cubists, but to a very different purpose:  to dismember and recombine fragments of newspapers, encyclopedias, textbooks, and science and art magazines is figuratively to reject and scramble the conventional order and intended agency of that source material.

Be able to analyze how the works below mobilize these techniques to deny and disrupt conventional (bourgeois) ideals, values, morality, and logic.

The social agency of Dada?

Whether or not Dada had a purpose behind its relentless nonsense and iconoclasm is an open question.  On one hand, the embrace of any common purpose would seem to be almost anti-Dada; but on the other hand, Dadaists such as Georg Grosz and Hannah Hoch certainly made overt political statements, Schwitters seemed to embrace formalism, and Dada overall has often been seen as an anti-war movement (if no one has any strong beliefs or values, there would be no reason to go to war ...).

Hugo Ball reciting 'Karawane' at the Cabaret Voltaire (costume by Janco), 1915

Picabia, Portrait of a Young American Girl in a State of Nudity, 1915

Hans Arp, Squares arranged according to the laws of chance, 1916-17

Duchamp, L. H. O. O. Q., 1919

Duchamp, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), 1915-23

Picabia, The Blessed Virgin, 1920

Man Ray, Gift, 1921

Hannah Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife, 1919-20