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How Dadaism revolutionized art 100 years ago

A century ago, international artists and writers met in Zurich to form a new movement, Dadaism. Their anti-art was a response to an ever-present issue: the madness of war.

Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco met on February 5, 1916 in Zurich with the ambitious plan of instigating nothing less than an artistic revolution. Their Cabaret Voltaire, which they founded that evening, was a combination of a pub, theater, gallery, and club.

Throughout that year, they organized unpredictable events combining chaotic performances, recitations and music.

A filmed performance provides some insight on the anarchic style which ruled at the Cabaret Voltaire: Hugo Ball, the German artist and pioneer of sound poems, stands on the stage wearing a costume which makes him look like a space chef and recites a nonsensical poem: "Blago bung, basso fataka. Schampa wulla wussa…"

The birth of Dada

Cabaret Voltaire, Switzerland, Copyright: picture alliance/dpa/T. Burmeister Getty Images/D. Kitwood

Where Dada started: the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich

For the unitiated, it probably felt like a madhouse - and yet it was the beginning of a whole new art movement - or rather, as they called it, anti-art.

Their cabaret was named after the author of French Enlightenment, Voltaire, who also specialized in attacking the establishment and is most famous for his philosophical satire, "Candide, or Optimism."

Dada, the anarchist's answer to the First World War

Two years into World War I, appalled by the bloody conflict, artists from Cologne, Berlin, New York, Paris, Moscow or Budapest all gathered in neutral Zurich. It was the most international artistic movement yet. Its individualist members all united under a common desire to provide an artistic reaction to the absurdity of war.

According to some accounts, the name for the anarchist movement "Dada" was found by coincidence in a French-German dictionary and means "hobbyhorse." Adding to the absurdity of the name - and making it even more suitable for the group - it also happened to be the brand of a Swiss product against hair loss.

Marcel Duchamp Readymade - Copyright: Getty Images/Jeff J Mitchell

From then on, a urinal could be called art: Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain"

After the war, Dadaism moved on from Zurich to major cultural centers in the world.

Tristan Tzara was the main promotor of the movement in Paris, joined by André Breton. Kurt Schwitters created his own interpretation of Dada in Hanover, naming it Merz. Berlin Dadaists attacked the Church and the State.

Marcel Duchamp changed forever the meaning of art with his "readymades." Hans Richter transposed the new esthetics in his experimental films.

Under André Breton's leadership, the Parisian Dada movement split and transitioned on to Surrealism. The movement faded away.

In 2016, a century later, numerous museums are celebrating Dadaism, most particularly in

Zurich

and also at the

Arp Museum

in Rolandseck, Germany.

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