Francis Picabia: The Lovers (After the Rain), 1925

Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris/© 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

Francis Picabia: The Lovers (After the Rain), 1925

During World War I, Zurich, the largest city in neutral Switzerland, was a refuge for artists, writers, intellectuals, pacifists, and dodgers of military service from various countries. A handful of these decided in 1916 to create a new kind of evening entertainment. They called it Cabaret Voltaire and established it at Spiegelgasse 1, not far from the room that was occupied by an occasional visitor to the cabaret, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

The group, which became known as Dadaists, consisted of three Germans (Hugo Ball, Richard Huelsenbeck, Emmy Hennings), one Alsatian (Hans Arp), two Romanians (Marcel Janco and Tristan Tzara), and the Swiss Sophie Taeuber. They were soon joined by Walter Serner, an Austrian born in Bohemia. The youngest, Tzara, was twenty; Hennings was the oldest at thirty-one. All were united in their loathing of the war.

The initiator of the group appears to have been Hugo Ball. He was, like most Dadaists, a writer but had also worked in the theater and performed in cabarets. After having to leave Germany as a pacifist, he settled with Emmy Hennings in Zurich where, pale, tall, gaunt, and near starving, he was regarded as a dangerous foreigner. At the Voltaire, he declaimed his groundbreaking phonetic poem “Karawane” (Caravan)—written in nonsensical sounds—to the bewilderment of the public. After a few intense months of Dada activity he left the group, turned to a gnostic Catholicism, and died in the Swiss countryside, regarded as a kind of saint. His diary Die Flucht aus der Zeit (The Flight from Time) remains one of the principal accounts of Dadaism.

For Richard Huelsenbeck, noise seems to have been the most natural form of virility. Within Dada, he was the champion of provocation. A poet and journalist who subsequently traveled the world as a ship’s doctor and practiced as a psychoanalyst for a time in New York, Huelsenbeck remained with Dada and helped to establish in 1917 its very different Berlin branch.

Among the artists of stature who emerged from Dada, Hans Arp was perhaps the steadiest and most consistent. A friend of Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters, and Wassily Kandinsky, and a gifted poet, he was devoid of malice and envy, and had a superior sense of humor. His later spouse Sophie Taeuber, a notable artist herself, taught at the Applied Arts School in Zurich. She created marionettes and was a member of Rudolf von Laban’s dancing school, which had introduced a new expressive style of dance. During her Dada appearances as a dancer she wore a mask to disguise her identity.

In Tristan Tzara, calm and self-assured yet with a thunderous voice, Dadaism had its most passionate advocate and most tireless propagandist. André Breton called him an impostor avid for publicity but reconciled with him in 1929. Tzara’s poems influenced Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, and a few of them were translated by Samuel Beckett. Like Arp, he subsequently became a Surrealist.

Tzara’s Romanian compatriot Marcel Janco was described as a handsome melancholic, a ladies’ man who played the accordion and sang Romanian chansons. He was a painter and sculptor who became a leading architect in Bucharest and Israel. He created masks for the Zurich Dadaists and spoke, or rather shouted, simultaneous poems alongside Tzara and Huelsenbeck.

Emmy Hennings, before living with Hugo Ball, had been an alluring drifter. Diseuse, actress, barmaid, and model, she became a femme fatale for more than a few German poets. She was a gifted cabaret performer who sang “Hab keinen Charakter, hab nur Hunger” (Devoid of Character, I’m Just Hungry). An important presence at the Dada events, “her couplets,” according to Huelsenbeck, “saved our lives.”

Soon, there was also Walter Serner, a cynic and anarchist who, as a writer, would become notorious for his thrillers and scandalous novels. Tristan Tzara called him “a megalomaniac outsider.” This was a time when dandies wore monocles. Serner wore one, and so did some of his Dadaist colleagues. He rebelled against society by being a high-class confidence man, producing a juridical thesis of which 80 percent later turned out to be plagiarized. Writing under the name of his painter friend Christian Schad, he reviewed a collection of his own stories. He also enjoyed feeding the press false information. His essay “Letzte Lockerung” (Ultimate Loosening) is for some a Dada classic.

From the near improvisation of the first events at the Cabaret Voltaire, one of the most influential avant-garde movements of the century emerged. The word “Dada” was introduced only a couple of months later. There are several explanations for it: the babble of a child, the word for a toy, the double “yes” in Slavic languages and Romanian, and Dada lily milk soap and hair tonic, which was first produced in 1912.


Dada was a joint achievement of the group. Its soirées were multimedia events: they combined words and literature, singing, music (with Ball at the piano), dance, art, farce, and a fair amount of noise. “Repelled by the butcheries of the world war 1914 we surrendered to the arts,” said Hans Arp. “We looked for an elemental art that would free the people from the insanity of the times, and for a new order that might establish a balance between heaven and hell.” “What we celebrated was a buffonade and a requiem mass at the same time.”

In spite of many statements to the contrary, most Dadaists seem to have wanted to create a new art that would have nothing to do with former styles and notions. In order to find it, they absorbed or invented many new means of expression: abstraction; photomontage; collage; assemblage; frottage; typography; glossolalia; phonetic, concrete, visual, and simultaneous poetry; conceptual art; the readymade; the drawing and painting of invented machines; happenings; performance art; and kinetic art, including film. No less crucial was the inspiration that came from African artifacts, from the art of the insane, and the drawings of children—an inspiration that proved fundamental to many visual artists of the twentieth century. There was an overwhelming need for the wild, the simple, and the unreflective.

While African masks and children’s art were included in exhibitions at the Galerie Dada, there was also a personal connection to Hans Huber, the owner and director of a mental hospital who befriended Arp, the artist Hans Richter, Serner, and others. He guided his guests through his establishment and even housed some of them for weeks. Richter, who later became one of the most sensible chroniclers of Dada, tells us that while he and the poet Albert Ehrenstein stayed at Huber’s house, the presence of another guest, the actress Elisabeth Bergner, a leading star of early film who was then scarcely twenty years old, provided the kind of thrill without which even the most hospitable psychiatrist “wouldn’t have been able to keep us there.”

Hannah Höch with Dada puppets, Berlin, 1920

Berlinische Galerie

Hannah Höch with Dada puppets, Berlin, 1920

Immediately after the war, Dada branches sprang up in Berlin, Paris, Cologne, and Amsterdam. But before the official christening of Dada, an important New York group of pre-Dadaists had already been active. Hardly any other Dada objects have ever been as fervently discussed as the “readymades,” among them the commercially sold urinal Marcel Duchamp called Fountain. Francis Picabia excelled in the elegant depiction of machines that had no obvious purpose. Man Ray later emerged as the surpassing portrait photographer of the Parisian arts scene. In New York, there was also the French-born Edgar Varèse, one of the few musicians among early Dadaists who would later become important. Musically, the Zurich group leaned toward the “bruitism” of the futurist Luigi Russolo, and Huelsenbeck produced as much pandemonium as possible on his kettledrum. (There were exceptions. The Swiss composer Hans Heusser, who attended a few of the soirées, later became a noted composer of military marches.)

In Paris, Tzara created a stir with his Dada manifesto of 1918 as well as with his electrifying presence. There, Erik Satie, another major composer, was a Dada sympathizer, and the literary ground for Dada had been prepared by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. In 1920, Breton and a number of writers and artists who later became Surrealists joined Tzara, but in 1922 the Dadaists officially fell out with one another—according to Theo van Doesburg, over the question of whether a locomotive was more modern than a bowler hat.

The profound difference between Dada and Surrealism was that the Surrealists had a program and a dogmatic leader (Breton) while Dada was freewheeling and steeped in ambiguity. It was everything as well as nothing. Nevertheless, each of its branches had a different character. Berlin Dada, with Huelsenbeck, Raoul Hausmann, and Johannes Baader—an eccentric who intruded into the National Assembly to distribute Dada leaflets—was the most aggressive and political. The virtuoso draftsman George Grosz, another member of the Berlin group, despised bourgeois culture as well as modern art.

Hausmann, a Dadaist with philosophical ambitions, and his companion Hannah Höch became champions of photomontage and collage, techniques central to Dadaism. The surpassing master of collage was, however, Kurt Schwitters, an artist of genius with a very different temperament from most Dadaists; he was apolitical and totally devoted to “Merz,” his own brand of Dada. Extremely tall, he used his booming voice to declaim, shout, hiss, and scream his mighty poem “Ursonate,” to this day the most striking specimen of phonetic poetry. His recitations were said to be so impressive that audiences were seized first by laughter, then by awe. Schwitters was also part of the Amsterdam Dada scene that was connected to Theo van Doesburg and the constructivist movement De Stijl.


In Cologne, Max Ernst produced some of the most exquisite Dada drawings and photomontages of the early 1920s. Together with the son of a banker who called himself Johannes Baargeld (cash), Ernst shocked the public with a Dada exhibition that was promptly closed by the police. A Dadaist sentence by Ernst reads, “Thanks to an ancient, closely guarded monastic secret, even the aged can learn to play the piano with no trouble at all.”*

In the decade before World War I, Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, and, in England, Vorticism had rocked the boat of aesthetics. Simultaneously, the tonality and functional harmony that had worn thin in music were abandoned by composers like Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern. What Dada did a few years later was more radical. It turned against anything established—whether it was aesthetic, moral, or intellectual, whether it involved culture, ideology, religion, or national identity—in order to look for something to be created out of nothing. Huelsenbeck’s Dada Almanach of 1920 quotes the following from Nietzsche:

We are prepared…as no time has ever been, for a carnival in the grand style, for the most spiritual laughter and hijinks, for the transcendental heights of the highest nonsense [Blödsinn] and aristocratic derision of the world. Maybe what we shall discover right there is the empire of our invention, that empire where even we can still be originals, perhaps as parodists of world history and God’s harlequins. Possibly, if nothing else from our day warrants any future, it is precisely our laughter that has future.

According to Schwitters:

Dada subsumes all big tensions of our time under the biggest common denominator: nonsense…. Dada is the moral gravity of our time while the public collapses with laughter. As do the Dadaists.

Dada relished contradictions. A famous Dada saying claimed that whoever is a Dadaist is against Dada. In his Dada manifesto of 1918, Tzara informs us that, as the editor, he wants to emphasize that he feels unable to endorse any of the opinions being published since he was against manifestoes in principle. But also against principles. Theo van Doesburg called Dada the “art form on account of which its producer doesn’t take a stand for anything. This relative art form is accompanied by laughter.”

In his admirable book Modernism—Dada—Postmodernism (2000), Richard Sheppard explains:

The word “Dada” is used at three levels. At the first level, it names an amorphous bohemian movement. At the second level, it characterizes a complex of existential attitudes, which, while varying from person to person, are vitalist and involve the achievement of balance amid fluctuating opposites. But at the third level, it is used by some of the Dadaists to name a life force that is simultaneously material, erotic and spiritual, creative and destructive.

My own sympathy goes to the second level. When I was young I envisaged a sphere within which all contradictions and oppositions were contained in such a way that the center of the sphere would be the meeting point of the centers of all the opposites—you could call this point the ultimate nothingness, or God. To live with, and balance out, contradictions seems a noble goal. But even earlier, as a child, I had unwittingly encountered Dada in its funniest form. At home, my mother sang, to her own embarrassment, a Berlin cabaret song from the 1920s that starts with the memorable lines “I’ll tear out one of my eyelashes and stab you dead with it,” and ends with the intention to order a fried egg “and sprinkle you with spinach.” It was much later that I realized that sense and nonsense need to be partners in order to mirror the absurdity of this world.

As for the third level, mysticism—whether Christian, Zen, or Tao—had been crucial to Arp, Ball, and Baader. The Dadaists of New York, Paris, and Cologne, however, didn’t have much use for it. Mysticism was within the reach of, but not central to, Dada. And where it was pursued it was often handled, in the Dadaist mode, with some irony.

It is strange that the comic side of Dada has been all but ignored by some commentators. This reminds me that at the two hundredth anniversary of Haydn’s death in 2009, there were several tributes that didn’t mention his musical sense of humor. The impressive catalog of “Genesis Dada,” the exhibition at Rolandseck, the place where Hans Arp spent his final years, includes a list of Dada-related topics: mysticism, psychology, philosophy, literature, art, language, soirée, Africa, mask, dance, and revolt. Laughter is missing. Has there ever been a major avant-garde movement that was so closely tied to laughter and the grotesque? Laughter was the Dadaists’ favorite instrument, a shared anarchic impulse. Aggressive, sarcastic, sardonic, it could also be, as in Arp’s case, serene.

Traditionalists see Dadaists as silly people. To a degree, they are right. Silliness was liberating from the constraints of reason. Silliness has the potential to be funny, to provoke laughter, and make people realize that laughter is liberating. Raoul Hausmann mentioned the sanctity of nonsense and “the jubilation of orphic absurdity.” To Dadaists, Charlie Chaplin was the greatest artist in the world.

Compared to Dada’s achievement in the visual arts, its literary strengths have remained less evident. Major artists who started as Dadaists—Ernst, Schwitters, Arp, Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia—have been exhibited around the world, and Hannah Höch has belatedly been identified as one of the finest female artists of her time. With most Dadaists one can find some verbal counterpoints in what they produced visually. The techniques of photomontage, collage, and assemblage were crucial to some of their poetry as well: words were arranged at random, or used contrary to their meaning, or employed as an abstract succession newly invented, a quasi language that needed to be declaimed—and listened to. And to be seen as well, as long as typography was employed to enliven the visual impression of the page.

In the opening “Dada Manifesto” of 1916, Hugo Ball said that Dada poets wanted to dispense with a language that had been ravaged and had become unacceptable. In Arp’s words, Dada poetry “doesn’t try to depict anything, nor does it interpret.” To Emmy Hennings, Arp appeared to have come from another planet, “most mysterious yet thoroughly acceptable.” While performing his poems he was said to have had a hold on the public similar to the great and deeply affecting clown Grock, who only needed to utter the two words nicht möglich (not possible) to enrapture a crowd.

Another literary species that Dada shared with other movements of the time is the manifesto. A large number of mostly short-lived periodicals helped make Dadaism known in many countries by disseminating speeches, articles, and buffooneries by Ball, Huelsenbeck, Tzara, Picabia, Doesburg, and Schwitters. One of the most comprehensive of these publications was Huelsenbeck’s Dada Almanach (1920). The picture on its cover follows the example of Duchamp’s bearded Mona Lisa by depicting a mustachioed Beethoven.

Kurt Schwitters: Merzbild 1A (The Psychiatrist), 1919

Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza/Scala/Art Resource/© 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Kurt Schwitters: Merzbild 1A (The Psychiatrist), 1919

Zurich, better known for its commercial power than for anarchic leanings, is celebrating a Dada season. In this jubilee year, the city exudes more than a whiff of carnivalesque excitement. The Zurich Festival, almost entirely dedicated to Dada, included three Dada soirées and a great many theatrical and academic events. Its high point may well have been the performance of the Symphony for Nine Harley Davidsons, Trumpet, and Synthesizer by the octogenarian avant-garde composer Dieter Schnebel. Performed at the Münsterhof, a square in Zurich’s downtown that had just been made a traffic-free zone, it included a hooting scherzo and a motorcycle ballet, and was conducted by Steffi Weismann, a woman in red overalls braving the rain. Another attractively Dadaesque venture has been the organization of dinner parties in ten private houses. The paying guests were informed only in the afternoon where the dinner would take place. During the evening there would be surprise readings, literary experiments, music, and improvisation. Guests were expected to participate.

Two exhibitions opened the season. The first, “Dadaglobe Reconstructed,” small but exquisite (and recently on view at MoMA), was more than an exhibition: it offered a reconstruction of Dadaglobe, an anthology of international Dadaism whose publication had been abruptly canceled in 1921. A joint project by Tzara and Picabia, it had assembled a great many contributions that have been identified in recent years mainly thanks to the work of Adrian Sudhalter, who, in the catalog, enlightens her readers with a sharply perceptive account of the project’s history. A rival enterprise called Dadaco had come to nothing because of a lack of funds. Reasons for the cancellation of Dadaglobe, on the other hand, have remained obscure and have been said to include personal quarrels, the illnesses of both Picabia and Tzara, Picabia’s noisy parting from Dada, and censorship that mistook the large influx of international letters and material for a political threat. The fact that, so far as we know, the project was not mentioned again remains conspicuous.

The second exhibition, “Dada Universal,” was mounted in a large hall next to the railway station. It belonged to the Landesmuseum Zürich and was, in true Dada fashion, demolished as soon as the exhibition closed. The premises were ideal. The interior was completely black. One of the shorter walls served as a kind of blackboard for visitors, who were encouraged to write graffiti with white crayons. By the last day of the exhibition every inch of all the walls was covered with words and drawings. There was a constant presentation of films ranging from Hans Richter’s abstract rectangles to Mary Wigman’s Witch’s Dance. In glass cases, Dada-related objects were displayed and juxtaposed.

More exhibitions followed. A large and perplexing survey of Francis Picabia’s work, also at the Kunsthaus (and coming to MoMA this fall), offered a complete overview of his deliberate strategy of irony and contradiction. André Breton, one of Picabia’s staunchest allies, described it in his final tribute: “An oeuvre based on the sovereignty of caprice, on the refusal to follow, entirely based on freedom, even to displease.” Picabia didn’t have, and didn’t seem to want, an aesthetic self. Appropriately, he hated “taste.” “My great fear is to be taken seriously, to become a great man, a master,” he said. This fear didn’t prevent him from producing some striking works of art.

By the time he was fifteen years old, Picabia had acquired a skill so brilliant that he copied his father’s collection of Spanish paintings, replacing the originals with his copies. By selling the originals he financed his stamp collection. Not unlike Picasso, he was a craftsman of staggering virtuosity. Both liked to produce at great speed. With Picabia speed became, as he said, “a wild desire,” practiced also when driving cars, of which he seems to have owned 127. (Among artists affiliated with Dada, Picabia was the wealthiest by far.) The notions of movement and speed become apparent in his masterly abstract pictures of 1912 and 1913.

Here, as in the paintings by his close friend Marcel Duchamp, cubism is being galvanized by the futurist impetus of frenzied motion. Picabia’s very large abstractions La Source and Edtaonisl (ecclésiastique) seem to me his supreme achievements. Inch by inch, they are full of invention, a term hardly applicable to his work in general, since he elsewhere preferred to use preexisting shapes and images: picture postcards were turned into impressionist and pointillist canvases, technical drawings were wittily transformed, and photographs from girlie magazines were slickly presented as paintings. (In his later work, the urge to offend by being kitschy reveals a mixture of cynicism and contempt.)

Hardly less astonishing is the following period, 1914–1915. Picabia’s “machinist” paintings and drawings, which he called a “pinnacle of mechanical symbolism,” were pre-Dada creations of a peculiar distinction, in which titles like Unique eunuque and La veuve joyeuse were linked to some of his writings. “Mechanomorphist” works continued to figure deliciously in the nineteen issues of the magazine 391 that Picabia masterminded.

The comprehensive and sumptuous catalog of the Picabia exhibition was assembled by Anne Umland of MoMA and Cathérine Hug of the Kunsthaus Zürich. Rachel Silveri’s extensive and painstaking account of Picabia’s life mentions his propensity for anti-Semitic and protofascist remarks but also his verve in hosting—at the Casino aux Ambassadeurs in Cannes—very successful soirées, fetes, and galas that could include monkeys and palm trees as well as lions and panthers.

Seventy of Schwitters’s works were presented at the Galerie Gmurzynska in Zurich. The late architect Zaha Hadid had turned the gallery space—the site of the short-lived Galerie Dada a century ago—into a dreamscape of fluid forms that vividly demonstrated the hold that Schwitters’s “Merzbau,” his own architectural venture, had on her imagination. While Schwitters, for all his Dadaist leanings, remained an artist in pursuit of form and balance, his pictorial compositions also show a superlative control of color. I remember the huge Schwitters exhibition in Paris in 1994 at the Centre Pompidou where, surrounded by collages, the viewer got the impression of being confronted by the rarefied palette of a painter. In Schwitters’s late work, humor and playful grace have disappeared. It is harsher and gloomier but, as time has proven, no less distinguished.

Finally, in “Dada Africa: Dialogue with the Other,” at Zurich’s splendid Museum Rietberg, Dada objects were exquisitely displayed next to specimens of African sculpture. (In 1915, Carl Einstein had been the first to refer to “primitive” African sculpture as art.) The juxtaposition had a revelatory effect. To see Hannah Höch’s spellbinding collection of collages, “From an Ethnographical Museum,” in this setting was a moving experience.

Dada was not a fashion, a style, or a doctrine. It was more than a footnote to cultural history. We can better understand it as a condition, a spirit, a productive state of mind that has remained alive. Looking for core elements within the chaotic nonstructure of Dada, I would mention paradox, chance, abandon, protest, aggression, antinationalism, humor, irony, bluff, art, and mysticism. To be sure, art was attacked and derided by a number of Dadaists. Yet the most impressive results of Dada’s activities seem to me to belong to the visual arts.

Most Dadaists don’t appear to have been drawn to mysticism or to political engagement, the latter having been a peculiarity of Berlin Dada. There is also a distinction between relentless, full-time Dadaists like Tzara and those for whom Dada was a necessary complement to their work. Hans Richter said that the desire for anarchy, chaos, and surrender to chance and also the desire for order had governed his life since at least 1917. I would readily list myself among those to whom the dance amid contradictions constitutes an essence of life.

In many of the post-1945 art movements, I can see traces of Dada. There are links to the happenings of Fluxus during the 1960s, to the Stuttgart group of Max Bense and various other units of concrete poetry, to Vienna’s Aktionismus, and to punk rock. (A punk band even called itself Cabaret Voltaire.) On my own list of honorary Dadaists I would include Jean Tinguely, the sculptor whose work is both funny and cosmic (as in his Métamatic). The self-destruction in 1960 of his interconnected objects in the garden of MoMA was a quintessential Dada event. I would add Gary Larson’s cartoons, Philip Guston’s late cartoons and paintings, some of Mauricio Kagel’s later compositions (such as Marches to Fail Victory), and György Ligeti’s Aventures and Nouvelles aventures, a ravishing modern glossolalia. Not to mention Virgil Thomson’s Piano Sonata No. 3, on white keys for Gertrude Stein.

There seems to me more than a little resemblance between the world a hundred years ago and much of what we observe today. This is no all-out war, but there is a sense of a deep crisis and an overbearing feeling of menace, of being faced with enormous threats. Karl Kraus, the Viennese moralist, satirist, and critic, wrote, “As order has failed, let chaos be welcome.” The buzz that Dada has recently generated in Zurich was best illustrated last February, when the Kunsthaus invited the people of Zurich to attend a fancy dress ball coinciding with the Dadaglobe exposition. No fewer than nine hundred masked neo-Dadaists turned up.