Clockwise from top: trenches on the Western Front; a British Mark IV Tank crossing a trench; Royal Navy battleship HMS Irresistible sinking after striking a mine at the Battle of the Dardanelles; a Vickers machine gun crew with gas masks, and German Albatros D.III biplanes.  Image source:
Image source:

World War I began in 1914 and lasted for four long years.  Global in scope (it involved most European nations and their colonies, with the exception of neutral Switzerland), it was the first war to use modern technology (armored tanks, machine guns, poison gas, and aerial bombardments), with horrifying results:

“Humanity had never before witnessed such wholesale slaughter on so grand a scale over such an extended period.  The new technology of armaments, bred of the age of steel, changed the nature of combat.  In the face of massed artillery hurling millions of tons of high explosives and gas shells and in the sheets of fire from thousands of machine guns, attack was suicidal, and battle movement congealed into the stalemate of trench warfare.  The mud, filth, and blood of the trenches, the pounding and shattering of incessant shell fire, and the terrible deaths and mutilations were a devastating psychological as well as physical experience for a generation brought up with the doctrine of progress and a belief in the fundamental values of civilization.”
Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, p. 392 

The Dada movement emerged as a direct reaction to World War I.  Beginning in Zurich in 1916 (where many artists and writers fled to evade conscription) it later spread to New York, Berlin, Cologne, and Paris.  Dada is a nonsense word, and it represented a deliberate rejection of reason and common sense:

“Dada thought that reason and logic had led people into the horrors of war, so the only route to salvation was to reject logic and embrace anarchy and irrationality. However, this could also be thought of as the logical side of anarchy and rejection of values and order; it is not irrational to embrace the systematic destruction of values, if one thinks them to be flawed”
The ABC’s of DADA, IkonTV 

The Dada movement was also profoundly anti-art:

“According to its proponents, Dada was not art – it was “anti-art”. It was anti-art in the sense that Dadaists protested against the contemporary academic and cultured values of art. For everything that art stood for, Dada was to represent the opposite. Where art was concerned with aesthetics, Dada ignored aesthetics. If art were to have at least an implicit or latent message, Dada strove to have no meaning – interpretation of Dada is dependent entirely on the viewer. If art is to appeal to sensibilities, Dada is to offend. Ironically, Dada became an influential movement in modern art, a commentary on order and the carnage Dadaists believed it wreaked. Through their rejection of traditional culture and aesthetics they hoped to destroy them.”
The ABC’s of DADA, IkonTV 

“A reviewer from the American Art News stated at the time that “The Dada philosophy is the sickest, most paralyzing and most destructive thing that has ever originated from the brain of man.” Art historians have described Dada as being, in large part, “in reaction to what many of these artists saw as nothing more than an insane spectacle of collective homicide..”
The ABC’s of DADA, IkonTV 

WW1, Cabaret Voltaire & The Beginnings of Dada

The ABCs of Dada (1 of 3)

Hugo Ball reciting Karawane in a Cubist costume at the Cabaret Voltaire, Zürich, 1916. Tate Gallery

Hugo Ball, Karawane, 1917

Zurich Dada centered on the Cabaret Voltaire where ex-patriots gathered for raucous entertainment, while war raged on the nearby western front.  They staged nonsense performances that were influenced by the Futurist serata.  In one such performance, Hugo Ball came on stage wearing an absurd cardboard costume, and began reciting his nonsense sound-poem Karawane — a sound poem influenced by Futurist “words in liberty.”

Hugo Ball’s Karawane, recited by Marie Osmond

Jean Arp (Hans Arp). Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance. c. 1916-17. Museum of Modern Art

The Alsatian Hans (Jean) Arp was one of the founding members of Zurich Dada.  He began to experiment with the use of “chance” as a process for making art.  Disenchanted with “logic” and “reason,” he wanted to devise a way of making art that did not rely on intellectual choice or decision making.  In this work, he tore sheets of paper into squares and let them fall randomly onto a sheet of paper, and subsequently glued them into place.  By renouncing artistic control of what the work would look like, Arp also undermined the possibility of reading any intended meaning into the work.  There is no way “to make sense” of the work, which puts us into a situation of uncertainty.  This kind of de-stabilization of certainties is exactly what Dada artists sought to accomplish. 

First International Dada Fair, Room 1, Berlin, 1920
John Heartfield and Rudolf Schlichter
Preussischer Erzengel (Prussian Archangel), 2004 (reconstruction of lost 1920 original)

Richard Huelsenbeck, who had been a member of the Dada group in Zurich, returned to Berlin in 1917 and founded the “Club Dada” with George Grosz, John Heartfield, Raoul Hausmann, and Hannah Höch.  In 1920 they organized the First International Dada Fair in Berlin, which featured a range of unconventional works, and provocative posters.  One of the most controversial pieces in the show was  Prussian Archangel, a papier maché German Officer with a pig’s head, suspended from the ceiling with mocking signs attached to him:

“Nowhere are the politics of “Club Dada” more explicit than in John Heartfield and Rudolf Schlichter’s Prussian Archangel assemblage, which depicts a pig-headed military officer that the artists suspended from the ceiling. The giant puppet is wrapped with a poster that reads “I come from Heaven, from Heaven on high” – the refrain from a well-known German Christmas carol. The sign dangling below further mocks the military: “In order to understand this work of art completely, one should drill daily for twelve hours with a heavily packed knapsack in full marching order in the Tempelhof Field [a military training ground in Berlin].”
National Gallery of Art

The artists were charged by the authorities for defaming the German military, but were later acquitted.

Otto Dix, Kriegskrüppel (War Cripples), 1920
Museum of Modern Art

Other works in the show included Otto Dix’s War Cripples, a heart-rending image of disabled war veterans.  The work was confiscated by the Nazis and exhibited at the Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich in 1937.  It was later destroyed.  This work is a drypoint that was based on the original painting:

“War veterans in full military dress march along a city street. Such horrifically maimed and disfigured men were far from uncommon in Germany after World War I, when 80,000 amputees returned home from the front. Reliant on prosthetics, canes, and crutches, these veterans have become as mechanized as the war that claimed their flesh. Yet even while depicting the tragic results of the conflict, Dix imbues the work with caustic humor: the veterans are passing a shoemaker (identified by the boot in the shop window and the word Schuhmacherei), a service for which, thanks to the war, they now have limited need.”
Museum of Modern Art

Otto Dix, The Match Seller, 1920.  Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart
Otto Dix, The Match Seller, 1920. Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart

Another work from the series depicts a war veteran selling matches on a Dresden street:

“Using a drastically pointed visual language, Dix protests in these works against the senselessness and brutality of war. In this painting, the centre of focus is not a group of figures but a single mangled war casualty – presented as a kind of anti-hero. All of the abominable misery of this wounded creature – a blind quadruple amputee – is concentrated in the large head turned obliquely to one side, the eyes concealed behind black eye patches. Immediately behind the head is the cross formed by a wooden door (an allusion to the man’s martyrdom). From his mouth, like a tortured outcry, come the words »Matches, genuine Swedish matches«, scratched in chalky oil paint on the canvas.

Wealthy passers-by, perhaps war profiteers, flee the presence of the dehumanised figure, made an outcast by their horrified response. Even the dachshund expresses his contempt in unmistakable fashion. The view from above, the surface-oriented, picture-book quality and the collage-style technique employing real found objects – the banknotes in the box and the shreds of newspaper in the gutter – intensify the drastic verism of the scene.”
Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart

George Grosz, Pillars of Society, 1926
Staatliche Museum, Berlin

George Grosz portrayed the grim social and economic devastation of Weimar Germany, and satirized its ruling elite.  In this picture, a Nazi holds a beer mug and sword, while his head flips open to reveal a heroic soldier on horseback (the noble tradition of warfare that had become obsolete in World War I).  Surrounding him are fat members of the bourgeoisie, one holding newspapers and a blood-stained palm, while the other waves the German flag as his head flips open to reveal a steaming pile of excrement.  In the background, German soldiers terrorize a flaming city, while a pro-Nazi priest welcomes them with open arms:

“This was essentially a denunciation of militarism, the press, a corrupt clergy, monarchists and nationalists: all were depicted running around like headless, brainless chickens – and yet despite this, they were the ruling class – still active in warmongering activities.”

George Grosz, Republican Automatons, 1920Museum of Modern Art
George Grosz, Republican Automatons, 1920
Museum of Modern Art

In Republican Automatons, Grosz ridiculed the German middle classes as mindless flag-waving automatons, incapable of questioning the direction Germany was going.  Not surprisingly, George Grosz was forced to flee Germany when the Nazis came to power, and shortly after he left they confiscated his work. This, and two other paintings, ended up in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection, but recently heirs of Grosz’s estate have sued the museum for re-possession of the work.  This is only one example of many lawsuits involving works in public museums that were originally taken by the Nazis.

Learn more:

Raoul Haussmann, The Spirit of Our Time, 1919
Musee National d’Art Moderne, Paris

Automatons and dysfunctional machines were a common theme in Dada art.  Raul Haussmann’s The Spirit of Our Time is a caricature of the mindless bourgeois citizens who followed their leaders into war:

“Dead of eye and moronic of mouth, the head is given identity only by the objects stuck to it: a tape measure, a wooden ruler, a tin cup, a spectacles case and a piece of metal, which could be a plate plugging the damaged skull of a soldier. If this is a “mechanical head”, the prototype for humanity become robotic, it is a crude, Frankensteinian early experiment, in which the emotions and the soul survive only as a heart shape engraved on the empty tin cup.”
Jonathan Jones, “The Spirit of Our Time,” The Guardian UK, September 23.  Accessed March 16, 2011 

Dysfunctional machines and automatons can also be read as a pessimistic response to the prewar celebration of science and technology, and expressed the postwar generation’s loss of faith in civilization, technology, and progress.

John Heartfield, The Meaning of the Hitler Salute: Little Man Asks for Big Gifts, 1932
Metropolitan Museum

Berlin Dadaist John Heartfield explored a new medium called photomontage, a technique of pasting parts of photographs together to form a new image.

“In this montage, Heartfield specifically links Hitler’s electoral success with his courting of wealthy industrialists from the Rhineland. More generally, he gives pictorial punch to the commonplace idea that money fuels political power by implying that the Nazi salute is in fact a plea for cash.”
Metropolitan Museum

Rooted in Cubist collage, photomontage was a response to the deceitful use of photographs in war propaganda and advertising.  Artists used photomontage to engage in a kind of “guerilla-warfare” against official sources of news and information, and to undermine the power of photography to promote falsehoods.

Zygosis:  John Heartfiled and the Political Image

Hannah Höch, Cut with a Kitchen Knife, 1919-1920. Museum of Modern Art

Hannah Höch used photomontage to deconstruct the gender roles prescribed by modern advertising, as well as to make pointed political commentary.  In this work, the artist assembled a who’s who gallery of contemporary personages, organized into pro- and anti-Dada factions.  The chaotic composition is punctuated by Dada slogans and fragments of machinery.  Amongst the anti-Dadaists is the President of the Weimar Republic, whose head is attached to the body of a topless dancer.  Members of the Dada movement appear in similarly comical situations, and in the lower right corner the artist pasted a map of Europe illustrating countries where women had earned the vote.

Listen to MOMA audioguide: 

Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Marcel Duchamp was the leading figure of Paris and New York Dada.  In his early work he was influenced by Cubism and Futurism.  Nude Descending a Staircase was based on Marey’s studies of motion, and demonstrates Duchamp’s interest in kinetic imagery.  The work was rejected by the jury of the annual Salon des Independents because it was considered “too Futurist,” and too literal by the Cubist members of the jury.  Duchamp later exhibited it at the New York Armory Show, where it was ridiculed by critics who found it incomprehensible.

Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q., 1919. Private collection. Image source:

Duchamp eventually renounced what he called “retinal” art, and pioneered a new approach to art called “conceptualism.”  In conceptual art, the idea of the work is more important than what it looks like.

In this work, Duchamp drew a mustache and goatee on a picture postcard of the Mona Lisa, one of the most revered masterpieces of the European tradition. The letters “L.H.O.O.Q.” are a pun on the French phrase “Elle a chaud aux cus,” or “She has a hot bottom.”  This irreverent de-bunking of a cherished masterpiece reflects Dada’s nihilistic attitude towards accepted social and artistic values, and challenges the viewer to question what they have learned to believe:  is the Mona Lisa really a “great” work of art, or do we believe this only because we have been told it is true?

The Secret of Marcel Duchamp (Ovation TV)

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1951 (third version, after lost original of 1913)Museum of Modern Art
Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1951 (third version, after lost original of 1913)
Museum of Modern Art

Duchamp’s most innovative invention was the readymade –a “work of art” consisting of readymade objects that the artist simply “designates” as art by placing it in a gallery or museum.   Duchamp described the readymade as “a work of art without an artist to make it.”

The first readymade was the Bicycle Wheel, which consisted of a bicycle wheel turned upside down on a common kitchen stool.

The Bicycle Wheel could be considered a piece of kinetic sculpture (Duchamp commented that he liked to watch the wheel turn, like gazing at a fire).  If “art” is about making things we “like to look at,” Duchamp seems to ask why we have to limit ourselves to traditional notions of art making.  Can’t anything be considered “nice to look at” if we just take the moment to look?  And if anything can be “art,” then what is art?

“The readymades are experiments in provocation, the products of a conscious effort to break every rule of artistic tradition, in order to create a new kind of art – one that engages the mind instead of the eye, in ways that provoke the observer to participate and think.”
Andrew Stafford, Making Sense of Duchamp  

Duchamp’s readymades exemplify conceptual art because they challenge us to think about what art is, and the ideas they generate are far more important than what the work actually looks like.

Duchamp’s Shovel:  Art as Concept (Smarthistory)

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917/1964
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

One of Duchamp’s most famous readymades, Fountain consisted of a manufactured porcelain urinal placed on a pedestal, and signed “R. Mutt” (a play on the name of a plumbing company).  When he submitted the work to an avant garde exhibition in New York in 1917, the show’s organizers refused to exhibit it, even though the exhibition was supposed to be unjuried.  Duchamp was deeply concerned with the doctrinaire “rules” that avant garde groups enforced, making them no different from the official academy.

Art and the Readymade

How a Urinal Changed Art History // Marcel Duchamp Fountain

Marcel Duchamp, The “Fountain,” & the case of Mr. R. Mutt

All You Need to Know About Conceptual Art


Web Resources:

The ABCs of Dada (Dada Museum)

Dada (National Gallery of Art)

Dada (MOMA Multimedia)

Making Sense of Marcel Duchamp

Duchamp’s Fountain (SFMOMA)

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