With influence from other avant-garde movements like Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, and Expressionism, Dadaism was an artistic movement beginning in Zurich, Switzerland around 1916. Also known as Dada, the movement is characterized by its mockery of materialistic and nationalistic attitudes in its wide range of mediums, including photography to poetry to performing arts to sculpture. Dadaism was actually the first conceptual art movement where the focus was not specifically on crafting an aesthetically pleasing piece, but rather focused on the bourgeois tastes and generated serious questions probing society, the role of the artist, and the true purpose of art itself. It generated a huge movement throughout major cities like Berlin, Paris, New York, and Cologne. However, the movement disappeared with the rise and establishment of Surrealism.
As Switzerland remained neutral during World War I, it came with limited censorship and it was within these circumstances that Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings founded the Cabaret Voltaire on February 5, 1916, in the seedy section of Zurich. Ball then put out a press release to attract young artists. Its name was a nod to the eighteenth century French satirist, Voltaire, in which their art was cited as the Candide over their times. On the night of the first Dada meeting, the common tale of the founding of its name was that Richard Huelsenbeck found the name by stabbing a knife at a random spot in a dictionary. Its universality, whether a word mean the same or nothing in all languages, appealed to the group, as well as its resemblance of a child’s first words, drawing on suggestion of childishness and absurdity that appealed to the group. The aim of their art became to both help stop the war and to vent frustration about nationalist and bourgeois conventions that had led to its fruition.
Major characteristics of Dadaism art was the intent of incorporating chance into art rather than the traditional meticulous planning that usually went into pieces, as well as using readymade objects to force viewers to question the role of the artist and the artistic process. The former is exemplified through Hans Arp’s “Untitled (Squares Arranged according to the Laws of Chance)”. Arp made a series of collages where he simply stood above a sheet of paper, dropping and gluing squares of contrasting colored paper on to the surface of the larger sheet. The piece demonstrated the lack of artistic control, which became a centerpiece to Surrealism, and its challenge to traditional artistic production techniques. While Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” was the first piece using readymade product. His use of an urinal almost guaranteed an uproar for his peers. “Fountain” was composed of an upside-down urinal and by removing it from its typical environment and deeming it “art”, Duchamp played a pivotal role in questioning an artist’s role in art and the definition and foundations of art itself. It is pieces like these which questioned the fundamental nature of art that became iconic of the Dadaism art movement.