At Large  March 24, 2023  Anna Claire Mauney

What was Dada Art?

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Marcel Duchamp, Detail of L.H.O.O.Q., 1919. Originally published in 391, n. 12, March 1920.

Dadaism or Dada is an art movement of the early twentieth century characterized by irreverence, subversion, and nonsense. Dada art, performance, and poetry emerged in Zurich as a reaction to the horror and misfortune of World War I. The founder Hugo Ball stood before a crowd in 1916 and proclaimed the meaning of Dada, “in French it means ‘hobby horse.’ In German it means ‘good-bye,’ ‘Get off my back,’ ‘Be seeing you sometime.' In Romanian: 'Yes, indeed.’”

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Photo: Mathieu Bertola.

Hans Arp, Print for the cover of Dada 4, 1919. Bibliothèque des Musées de Strasbourg.

Artists in this movement were largely anti-war, anti-bourgeois, and radically leftist. The work they made was designed to question society at large, which they believed was falling apart. They did not aim to make beautiful art but rather to make statements and start conversations.

The use of readymades—or purchasable objects that could be labeled art—was a cornerstone of the movement as was randomization. The artist Hans Arp was particularly interested in using chance to create collage and—as a result—calling into question the role of the artist.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Grand opening of the first Dada exhibition, Berlin, 5 June 1920. Featured in Dada Almanach, 1920.

Dadaism is also uniquely contrarian—it was not uncommon for dadaists to proclaim ‘Dada is anti-Dada,’ as they were so devoted to the subversion of culture. Many scholars believe the movement eventually led to the development of Surrealism in Paris.

Marcel Duchamp, one of the most famous Dadaists, was particularly interested in playing with identity, public perception, and demolishing the parameters of Western art. Duchamp’s mustachioed Mona Lisa entitled L.H.O.O.Q is probably the most blatant example of that latter goal especially.

About the Author

Anna Claire Mauney

Anna Claire Mauney is the former managing editor for Art & Object. A writer and artist living in North Carolina, she is interested in illustration, the 18th-century, and viceregal South America. She is also the co-host of An Obsessive Nature, a podcast about writing and pop culture.

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