Dada Movement Emerges at the Cabaret Voltaire Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Dadaists demanded liberation from outmoded social conventions and challenged the traditional role of art, its subject matter, its modes of representation, and its boundaries.

Summary of Event

In the winter of 1915, the German writer Hugo Ball opened the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, Switzerland. Having fled war-torn Germany in 1914 with his girlfriend, Emmy Hennings, Ball established a gathering place for writers, artists, and intellectuals to converse and perform impromptu dances, music, and poetry readings. He enlisted the help of several of his friends in this endeavor, including Marcel Janco, Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp, and Richard Huelsenbeck, who became the nucleus of the Cabaret Voltaire group. According to Huelsenbeck, the Cabaret Voltaire was named “out of veneration for a man [Voltaire] who had fought all his life for the liberation of the creative forces from the tutelage of the advocates of power.” The Cabaret Voltaire opened on February 5, 1915, and every evening it featured a hybrid form of entertainment that included skits, lectures, poetry readings, music, and dance recitals. Later, it also presented art exhibitions. Ball and his collaborators at the café wanted to unite music, dance, poetry, and art in a combined Gesamtkunstwerk, Gesamtkunstwerk or total work of art. Dadaism Art movements;Dadaism Art;Dadaism Cabaret Voltaire [kw]Dada Movement Emerges at the Cabaret Voltaire (1916) [kw]Cabaret Voltaire, Dada Movement Emerges at the (1916) [kw]Voltaire, Dada Movement Emerges at the Cabaret (1916) Dadaism Art movements;Dadaism Art;Dadaism Cabaret Voltaire [g]Switzerland;1916: Dada Movement Emerges at the Cabaret Voltaire[03910] [c]Arts;1916: Dada Movement Emerges at the Cabaret Voltaire[03910] Ball, Hugo Tzara, Tristan Arp, Hans Janco, Marcel Huelsenbeck, Richard Hennings, Emmy

The first few performances at the Cabaret Voltaire were relatively mild. Ball played the piano, Hennings sang folk songs, and Tzara recited Romanian poetry. Janco decorated the café with semi-African-style masks that he made and painted blood red. Arp, who renounced traditional illusionistic painting, contributed pictures with undefinable subject matter. The small café immediately became popular with students and soon attracted a diverse clientele. Janco later recalled that it was a place where “painters, students, revolutionaries, tourists, international crooks, psychiatrists, the demimonde, sculptors, and polite spies . . . all hobnobbed with one another.” The Cabaret Voltaire became a platform for artists in exile, and the entertainment there became progressively more extreme and avant-garde. It was in this tiny café in 1916 that Dada, the most aggressively radical movement in art history, was born.

The Dadaists rebelled against bourgeois values and rejected all principles on which society was founded. Their ambition was to create a new world out of chaos and confusion by negating the past and annihilating the present. In Zurich, Dada was initially a literary phenomenon, and poetry was the first of the arts to come under Dada’s attack. Ball bewildered the audience at the Cabaret Voltaire with his “sound poems,” which abandoned all preconceived systematic thought. Dressed in a cardboard cubist costume, Ball slowly recited such lines as “gadji beri bimba glandridi laula lonni cadori.”

Huelsenbeck, a young German poet and medical student from Berlin, introduced the practice of simultaneous readings of different poems, a technique that created utter chaos. The concept of simultaneity was borrowed from the Italian Futurists, Futurism who had first used the technique in their work to celebrate speed and modern technology. Huelsenbeck also read “sound poems,” similar to Ball’s, that emphasized dissonant sounds and were meant to be evocative of magical or primitive chants. Ball and Huelsenbeck were both interested in the irrational and the primitive as potential creative sources for producing paradoxes and complexities in art and language. Tzara’s work titled “Roar” consisted of that single word repeated 147 times. All the Dadaists stressed irony and nihilism in their work, an emphasis prompted by their desire to negate conventional values in a world whose values were rapidly collapsing.

Although Dada was not a unified art movement, it was conditioned by the social and historical atmosphere in which it originated, including the existing international movements in the arts. The Dadaists and the artists associated with international modernism were all seeking alternatives to established artistic conventions. One year after the Cabaret Voltaire opened, Ball and Tzara established a Dada gallery and organized avant-garde art exhibitions featuring works by an international lineup of artists, including Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Janco, Arp, August Macke, Amedeo Modigliani, and many others who rejected conventional academic art.


In 1917, Huelsenbeck returned to Germany and sparked the inception of Berlin Dada. He introduced the manifestations of Zurich Dada in an article titled “The New Man.” In this stream-of-consciousness essay, Huelsenbeck called for the modern “New Man” to be anarchistic, to welcome chaos, and to create new ideas. He advocated radical action and revolutionary change, and, under his tutelage, Dada became more aggressive and political in Berlin than in Zurich.

In Berlin, there were two Dada factions: those who banded around Huelsenbeck, including Raoul Hausmann, Hausmann, Raoul Hannah Höch, and Johannes Baader, and those who were associated with the Malik Publishing Company, including John Heartfield Heartfield, John and George Grosz. Grosz, George The Dadaists who formed around Huelsenbeck were more interested in intellectual issues than in aesthetic concerns. They consciously emphasized a lack of obvious content in their work, strove to negate all previous aesthetic values, and challenged the outward appearances of the external world in their work.

Influenced by his Cabaret Voltaire association, Huelsenbeck also stressed the irrational in his writings, and this became one of the major characteristics of German Dada. Hausmann and Heartfield both independently developed the medium of photomontage, Photomontage Art;photomontage using randomly cut-out mass-media topography, magazine illustrations, and photographs. By juxtaposing these familiar objects in unfamiliar ways, they created irrational, sometimes shocking, visual images. Heartfield’s politically oriented photomontages lampooned Prussian militarism and later criticized Weimar culture and National Socialism. Grosz also engaged in leftist satire in his works, which brutally scrutinized the irrational attitudes of German society. Grosz’s work emphasized the ugliness, the grotesqueness, and the social decay of Berlin society.

The Hanover artist Kurt Schwitters Schwitters, Kurt was not accepted by the Berlin Dadaists. In 1919, Schwitters founded his own apolitical brand of Dada, which he called Merz. Merz (art movement) Art movements;Merz He developed the idea of using “found” objects, or discarded visual debris from the urban environment, in his pictures and constructions. Schwitters created collages with found objects such as theater ticket stubs, postage stamps, cigarettes, and other discarded scraps. He also built multimedia assemblages, called Merzbau constructions, from nontraditional materials. For the Dadaists, the discovered or found object became the elevated object for art, and the content of a work of art became the material itself.

A major independent, undeclared Dada artist in France was Marcel Duchamp, Duchamp, Marcel who also challenged the viewer’s preconceptions about what constitutes a work of art. In 1913, Duchamp elevated a common, mass-produced object, a bicycle wheel, to the status of fine art. Duchamp called his bicycle wheel attached to a wooden stool a “readymade.” Duchamp and the Dadaists rejected the traditional definitions of art and extended art beyond the artist’s canvas to encompass the entire environment. The impact of Dada can be seen in such later movements as Surrealism, abstract expressionism, and pop art.

In Paris, Dada became transformed into Surrealism, Surrealism Art movements;Surrealism which also glorified the irrational. Although André Breton, Breton, André the leader of Surrealism in France, deplored the nihilistic and destructive characteristics of Dada, the Surrealists shared many of the Dadaists’ concerns and concepts. Surrealism, like Dada, was essentially a revolt against traditional, established art ideals. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, Surrealism was the dominant avant-garde art in Europe. Surrealist artists and writers were interested in tapping the potential creative impulses derived from recollected dreams and the unconscious. Automatism, or writing and painting in an unconscious, trancelike state, became a major interest for many of the Surrealists, who valued automatism for freeing their painting from any representational style.

The American abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock Pollock, Jackson later used the Surrealists’ device of automatism in his famous “drip” paintings of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Pollock’s brand of automatism consisted of the production of squiggly lines through agitated movements over a canvas’s painted surface. His technique resulted in a layered, calligraphic complexity in his work. Pollock’s abstract painting Autumn Rhythm is an example of this use of automatism.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, pop art Pop art Art movements;pop challenged some of the same assumptions about art that Dada had earlier challenged, but pop art did not have the same satirical or anarchistic edge to it as Dada. Pop art, however, also rebelled against traditional artistic modes of expression and representation. Inspired by Duchamp and the Dadaists, pop artists used everyday objects in their paintings and constructed assemblages.

The American pop artist Robert Rauschenberg Rauschenberg, Robert used a real pillow and quilt in his work Bed, which he hung on the wall as though it were a conventional stretched painting. Placing the work on the wall contradicted the bedding’s original function and confounded viewers. Rauschenberg also incorporated junk materials from a consumer-oriented society. In his 1959 assemblage Monogram, Rauschenberg used a stuffed goat, a rubber tire, newspaper, and hand-painted typography. Jasper Johns Johns, Jasper also elevated commonplace objects to the status of fine art in his series of mixed-media flag paintings, target assemblages, and Painted Bronze beer cans. These works, however, were not “readymades”; rather, they were pristinely constructed, reproduced objects from the everyday American environment.

“Happenings” and performance art Performance art are also distant descendants of Dada. Happenings relied on the element of chance and the spontaneous, but, unlike Dada, they also followed specific, basic programs. Many happenings, such as Allan Kaprow’s Kaprow, Allan Soap, also emphasized the irrational. In Soap, several participants smeared jam all over a car. Performance art frequently employs the fusion of all the arts in keeping with the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk. In the 1960’s, the German artist Joseph Beuys Beuys, Joseph staged happenings with mystical overtones in which he often took on the role of a shaman or high priest. In How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, Beuys sat in a chair, his face covered with gold paint, and talked to a dead hare. Like the original Zurich Dadaist performances, these theatrical modes of expression aimed to dissolve the barriers separating various art disciplines

The Zurich Dadaists inspired future generations of artists to challenge the traditional role of art as well as art’s subject matter, modes of representation, and boundaries. Dadaism Art movements;Dadaism Art;Dadaism Cabaret Voltaire

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ball, Hugo. Flight out of Time: A Dada Diary. Translated by Ann Raimes. Edited by John Elderfield. 1974. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. Ball’s diary, spanning the years 1914 to 1921, provides a fascinating account of the Cabaret Voltaire. Excellent introduction by Elderfield provides in-depth biographical information on Ball as well as a history of Dada in Zurich. Recommended for students of Dada literature and art.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coutts-Smith, Kenneth. Dada. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1970. Small, popular book provides a brief overview of the Dada movement. Includes a brief history of Cabaret Voltaire and the artists involved there. Contains some reproductions of Dadaist works and a short bibliography. A good introduction to Dada.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elger, Dietmar. Dadaism. Los Angeles: Taschen, 2004. Brief volume provides a basic introduction to Dadaism. Includes a time line of important events during the period, photographs, and discussion of a selection of important Dada works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foster, Stephen C., and Rudolph E. Kuenzli, eds. Dada Spectrum: The Dialectics of Revolt. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1979. Twelve essays discuss works by Dadaists, earlier books on the movement, and the viewpoints of other artists on individual Dada artists. Intelligently written and compiled. Good for different views on Dada movement; recommended for students of Dada art.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hopkins, David. Dada and Surrealism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Concise introduction to these art movements discusses their international nature and the range of media employed. Also addresses the debates surrounding them, including issues of quality and attitudes toward women.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Huelsenbeck, Richard. Memoirs of a Dada Drummer. Translated by Joachim Neugroschel. Edited by Hans J. Kleinschmidt. 1969. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. Interesting book about Dada and its beginnings in Zurich and Berlin is filled with Huelsenbeck’s personal recollections. Informative introduction by Kleinschmidt. Includes a few photographs of the Dadaists, but very few reproductions of their artwork.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lippard, Lucy R., ed. Dadas on Art. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971. A reconstruction of the Dada movement that provides samples of the Dadaists’ prose, poetry, and essays. This volume made many of these works available in English for the first time. Also examines how Dada continued to influence the arts in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Includes a good general introduction and biographical commentary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Motherwell, Robert, ed. The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology. 2d ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1989. Well-researched and well-documented major study of Dada, from its inception in Zurich to its aftermath in Germany and its demise. Contains some interesting photographs, but few reproductions of Dada artwork. Includes Dada manifesto by Huelsenbeck and an extensive annotated bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Richter, Hans. Dada: Art and Anti-Art. 1965. Reprint. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997. Presents the history of Dada from its beginnings in wartime Zurich to its collapse in Paris in the 1920’s, but from a highly subjective point of view, as Richter, a pioneer avant-garde filmmaker, was loosely associated with Zurich Dada.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Willett, John. Art and Politics in the Weimar Period: The New Sobriety, 1917-1933. 1978. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1996. Examines the artistic and political activities at the time of the Weimar Republic. One segment focuses on Berlin Dada and the artists Heartfield, Grosz, and Hausmann. Main emphasis is on the political aspects of Berlin Dada. Good bibliography.

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Categories: History