Dada Essay, Research Paper

In the second and third decades of this century, a new kind of artistic movement swept Europe and America. Its very name, “Dada”–two identical syllables without the obligatory “-ism”–distinguished it from the long line of avant-gardes which have determined the history of the arts in the last 200 years. Its proponents came from all parts of Europe and the United States at a time when their native countries were battling one another in the deadliest war ever known. They did not restrict themselves to being painters, writers, dancers, or musicians; most of them were involved in several art forms and in breaking down the boundaries which kept the arts distinct from one another. Indeed, the Dadaists were not content to make art. They wanted to affect all aspects of Western civilization, to take part in the revolutionary changes which were the inevitable result of the chaos of the First World War. They were not interested in writing books and painting pictures which a public would admire in an uninvolved manner; rather, they aimed to provoke the public into reacting to their activities: to the Dadaists, a violently negative reaction was better than a passive acceptance. The Dada movement was perhaps the most decisive single influence on the development of twentieth-century art, and its innovations are so pervasive as to be virtually taken for granted today. Because of its importance for both artistic and social history, Dada has become the subject of intense scholarly interest on the part of researchers in language, literature, art, music, theater, sociology, the history of ideas–in fact, every field which deals in some way with contemporary culture and civilization. And the single most important bibliographic resource for these scholars is the International Dada Archive at The University of Iowa.

What was Dada? Why is there a Dada Archive? And why, of all places, is it in Iowa?

Of all the influential artistic movements which flourished in the first half of the twentieth century, Dada is the one which most urgently requires an intensive and exhaustive effort to preserve and make available its documents. There are two reasons for this: the movement’s inherent importance for contemporary culture, and the ephemeral nature of its productions.

Contemporary art as we know it could not have come into existence without Dada. Virtually every artistic principle and device which underlies the literature, music, theater, and visual arts of our time was promoted, if not invented, by the Dadaists: the use of collage and assemblage; the application of aleatory techniques; the tapping of the artistic resources of the indigenous cultures of Africa, America, and Oceania; the extension of the notion of abstract art to literature and film; the breaking of the boundaries separating the different art forms from one another and from “everyday life”; the notion of art as performance; the expropriation of elements of popular culture; the notion of interaction or confrontation with the audience–everything which defines what we loosely call the “avant-garde.” One would be hard pressed to name and artistic movement since 1923 which does not, at least in part, trace its roots to Dada:

Surrealism, Constructivism, Lettrism, Fluxus, Pop- and Op-Art, Conceptual Art, Minimalism. But the effects of Dada are not limited to the world of the arts; its impact on contemporary life has been felt from the streets of Chicago to Madison Avenue. The style of political protest which came to the forefront in the late sixties–mock trials, Yippies, Guerrilla theater–can readily be traced back to the actions of the Dadaists in Zurich, Berlin, and Paris during and after the First World War. And commercial advertising as we know it today is indebted to the Dadaists’ experiments with collage and typography; indeed, two members of the Berlin Dada group founded a “Dada Advertising Agency,” and the Hanover Dadaist Kurt Schwitters designed newspaper and magazine advertisements which pioneered techniques which we now take for granted.

But beyond the inherent importance of the Dada movement, there are particularly urgent reasons why a Dada Archive is vital at this moment in history. The artist and writers of Dadaism did not aim to create eternal works of art and literature; they wanted to open the way to a new art and a new society by undermining and exposing what they saw as the stale cultural conventions of a decayed European civilization which had led the world into the conflagration of the Great War of 1914-18. The record of their effort is of immeasurable interest; but by the very nature of their program, the Dadaists left the documentation

of their movement to the mercy of the winds of chance. The record of an art which values action over stability, the moment of interaction or confrontation

between artist and public over the eternity of a published poem or an artwork in a museum, is in danger of disappearing forever. The Dadaists did publish

books which can be found in libraries, create paintings and sculptures which are displayed in the major museums of two continents. But the real spirit of Dada

was in events: cabaret performances, demonstrations, declarations, confrontations, the distributions of leaflets and of small magazines and newspapers which

appeared for one or two issues, and actions which today we would call guerrilla theater. But the documentation of these events was by no means as careful

as that of the “Conceptual Art” and the “happenings” of the sixties and seventies. The documentation does exist–in announcements and programs of

performances, in throwaway leaflets, in newspaper accounts, in the diaries and correspondence of the participants, their associates and audiences–but it has never until now been collected and made easily available to those who study the movement. (1) Add to all this the fact that these documents were written or

printed on the poor-quality paper of the World War I era, and the ephemeral nature of the record becomes still more striking. These documents must be

preserved and at the same time made available to scholars. This task is one being undertaken at The University of Iowa.

And why Iowa? One answer lies in a clear affinity between the Dada movement and this University. The internationalist, multilingual, multimedia nature of

Dada makes Iowa, with its International Writers’ Program, its Writers’ Workshop, its Center for Global Studies, its Translation Workshop and Center, its

dynamic programs in music, dance, art, theater, film, literature, and languages, an especially appropriate place to house the Dada Archive. A brief glance at

the history of Dada will make this affinity clear. (2)

The movement was founded in 1916 in Zurich, a neutral city in the middle of a war-torn Europe, by a group of exiles from countries on both sides of the

conflict. Some were draft dodgers; most were pacifists; all found refuge on Swiss soil and were outraged by the slaughter taking place on all sides. In

February, in a tavern a few paces from Lenin’s home in exile, Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Tristan Tzara, and others founded the Cabaret Voltaire, dedicated

to presenting, in Ball’s words, “the ideals of culture and of art as a program for a variety show.” (3) Some two months later, under circumstances about which

the participants themselves have never agreed, the name “Dada” was chosen for the movement which was growing out of the cabaret’s activities. (The most

popular version of the story is that the word was picked at random from a French-German dictionary. For decades afterwards, the founders disagreed as

violently–or as gleefully–about the meaning of the word as about the manner of its discovery.) The evenings at the cabaret, prototypes for Dada

performances throughout Europe, combined presentations of the art, drama, and poetry of the different avant-gardes which had swept the continent since the

turn of the century–Cubism, Expressionism, Futurism–with the often chaotic, often whimsical creations of the Zurich Dadaists themselves. Poems were

recited simultaneously in French, German, and English. Ball, dressed, in a bizarre cardboard costume, chanted his sound poetry. Richard Huelsenbeck

punctuated the proceedings with a continual drumbeat. It would be hard for us to find much that was overtly political in the early Dada performances and

publications, but from the beginning the movement dedicated itself to attacking the cultural values which its members believed had led to the world war. The

tools for this attack, radical at the time, are familiar to us all as the most basic concepts of the modern arts: chance, collage, abstraction, audience

confrontation, eclectic typography, sound and visual poetry, simultaneity, the presentation and emulation of tribal art–all things which we have taken for

granted since the sixties at latest.

When the war ended and it was again possible to travel freely, the majority of the Dadaists left Switzerland and spread their movement throughout Europe,

most notably to Berlin and Paris. In Berlin, during the closing months of the war, Richard Huelsenbeck joined forces with a group of writers and artists on the

fringes of the Expressionist movement who eagerly adapted the name and spirit of Dada. The situation there was radically different from that in staid,

peaceful, affluent Zurich. Following the collapse of the German Empire, society was in a state of complete disorder. A variety of leftist factions battled the

forces of the still unstable Weimar Republic. Poverty was everywhere. In this context, the majority of the Berlin Dadaists opted for an overtly political

movement, vaguely allied with the factions of the left. But their techniques, logical extensions of the cabaret programs of the Zurich years, were hardly those of

orthodox communism. Various members disrupted services at the Berlin cathedral, demonstrated at the National Assembly at Weimar, distributed leaflets

and manifestoes expounding a series of increasingly bizarre and whimsical demands, displayed posters consisting of randomly arranged letters of the alphabet,

and even declared a section of Berlin to be an independent “Dada Republic.” They also engaged in more ostensibly conventional activities–theater and

cabaret performances, lecture tours, exhibitions, the publication of books and periodicals–but always with a flair for the unexpected, the unconventional.

Their journals would appear for one or two numbers, hastily distributed to outrace the censors, and once banned by the authorities, reappear under new

titles. The biting caricatures of George Grosz and the photomontages of Raoul Hausmann and John Heartfield satirized in a far-from-gentle manner the

contradictions and injustices of German society in this crucial transitional period. Unfortunately, the faith of these Berlin Dadaists in the avant-garde’s role in

the German revolution was as mistaken as that of the Russian avant-garde in the new Bolshevik regime at about the same time. Where the Bolsheviks

mercilessly crushed the Russian avant-garde, the German Communists, whose revolution was defeated, merely abandoned the Dadaists. Some of the Berlin

participants, like Grosz, Heartfield, and Wieland Herzfelde, lost patience with the apparent lack of seriousness on the part of their colleagues and devoted

themselves to more orthodox modes of political action and propaganda. The others, after the demise of Berlin Dada, followed their own independent


In Paris, meanwhile, Tristan Tzara served an emissary role similar to that of Huelsenbeck in Berlin. His arrival from Zurich had been joyfully awaited by a

group of young French writers connected with the review_Litt rature–among them Louis Aragon, Andr Breton, and Paul Eluard. These men and their

colleagues sponsored a series of public performances which included readings of manifestoes, performances of plays, skits, and music, and most importantly

(and in true Dada tradition), confrontation and undercutting of the audience’s expectations. Announcements of these events would promise such treats as the

“presentation of Dada’s sex” and the head shaving of all the leading Dadaists. The public which came in the vain expectation that these promises would be

kept provided the sort of violent reaction in which the members of the Paris movement, and especially Tzara, so delighted. Dada achieved its greatest

“successes” in Paris; it was reported and hotly debated not only in small literary reviews, but also in the major newspapers and magazines, as well as in every

caf in the city. Its performances were well attended, if often by largely hostile audiences. The Dadaists, after all, were not looking for approval from the

public; they wished to provoke them, to confront them, to make them think, notice, react. It is in these terms that their success must be measured; and

success, for a time, they had. But like the Berlin movement, Paris Dada was soon split. The Litt rature group grew tired of Tzara’s anarchistic approach,

which, to them, soon became repetitious. Eventually it was the different factions of Dadaists who interrupted one another’s events. Breton and his associates

went on to seek a more “positive” approach to the problems raised by Dada; by the end of 1923, Dada in Paris had given way to the new Surrealism, which

had assimilated many aspects of Dada’s program and problematics.

Since the legendary Armory Show of 1913, the exhibition which introduced modern art to America, there had existed in New York a group of French and

American artists and writers whose ideas and methods were in many ways parallel to those of the movement developing in Zurich. New York, like Zurich,

was a haven for European refugees from the war. Attracted to the circle of the photographer Alfred Stieglitz and the poet-businessman Walter Conrad

Arensberg, artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and Francis Picabia shared many notions remarkably similar to those of the Dadaists: interest in

primitive art, the adoption of photographic materials for artistic purposes the artistic treatment (sometimes exalting, sometimes ironic) of the machine, the

utilization of chance and found objects. After the war, Picabia visited Zurich and then became a key figure in Paris Dada; Duchamp, visiting Paris, also had

extensive contact with the Dadaists. Recognizing the affinity of this movement with the activities of the Stieglitz and Arensberg circles, the French artists

persuaded the New York group to become an “official” Dada center. Based more on private gatherings than on the public performances around which Dada

in Zurich, Berlin, and Paris revolved, this “official” New York Dada movement lasted less than a year and published only a single issue of its review. But its

participants have continued to exert a profound influence on the arts in America and France down to the present time. American poets, composers, and

painters like William Carlos Williams, e. e. cummings, George Antheil, and Charles Sheeler, while never direct participants in the movement, display in their

works numerous telltale signs of their contact with the New York and Paris Dadaists. (Indeed, visitors to the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art will find that even

Iowa’s own Grant Wood, who was in Paris during part of the Dada era, created some machine constructions and other works which show distinct traces of

the Dada spirit!)

Dada centers sprouted throughout and beyond Europe. In Hanover, Kurt Schwitters’s collage art and poetry, based on the simplest materials of everyday life

(string, newspaper headlines, streetcar tickets) was too “bourgeois” for some of the more narrowly political Berlin Dadaists; so he embodied the spirit of

Dada in his own, one-man movement, which he called “Merz”–a meaningless syllable taken from the middle of the name of a major Hanover bank. At the

same time, Schwitters collaborated in performance and lecture tours with members of the Berlin group like Raoul Hausmann, Hannah H ch, and Johannes

Baader, whose notions of Dada were more akin to his own. In Cologne, Hans Arp, Max Ernst, and Johannes Baargeld (”John Cash”–a pseudonym, of

course) were the central figures in a movement which focused on provocative, collaborative artworks. Their chief publication, Der Ventilator, was banned

by the British occupation forces after five issues. Their most notorious exhibition was held in the courtyard of a brewery and reached through the men’s

restroom; it included some of the most shocking of all Dada constructions, and Max Ernst obligingly provided a hatchet with which viewers were told to

destroy his sculpture. A Dutch Dada movement developed in tandem with De Stijl, a school of design and architecture whose emphasis on simplicity,

geometry, and primary colors has affected the appearance of every major city in the world. Elsewhere, writers and artists took up the call of Dada in places

as remote as Croatia, Argentina, and Japan.

By 1923 Dada was, for all practical purposes, dead as a movement. Most of its participants, however, continued to be active, artistically and otherwise, for

the better part of the next 50 years. They took an astounding variety of social and artistic directions, from religious conversion (Hugo Ball) to direct action on

behalf of political movements of the left and the right (John Heartfield, Wieland Herzfelde, Franz Jung, Julius Evola). Richard Huelsenbeck became a New

York psychiatrist, George Grosz an American landscape artist. Some went on to found new artistic movements (most notably the Paris Dadaists turned

French Surrealists); others, like Hausmann and Schwitters, working in relative isolation, took independent, often eccentric artistic directions. But almost all of

them were strongly shaped by the movement in which they participated between 1915 and 1923. By the 1940s, mainly as a result of the Second World War,

a large number of the former Dadaists had come to live in the United States, repeating the exile that had brought many of them together in Zurich and New

York 25 years earlier. Among those who remained as permanent residents were Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, George Grosz, Richard Huelsenbeck, and

Hans Richter. This coming together of the old clan marks the beginning of a surge of interest in the movement which had been largely forgotten even though its

influence was present everywhere. A key event in this renewal of interest was the publication in 1951 of Robert Motherwell’s anthology The Dada Painters

and Poets. This book, edited by one of the leading American painters of the mid-century, constituted the first real acknowledgment of the definitive role

Dada had played in shaping twentieth-century art.

The interest in Dada’s historical role has continued to grow from the late forties to the present. Two particularly significant events occurred at The University

of Iowa in 1978. In that year, the Program in Comparative Literature and the School of Art and Art History, with the cooperation of other academic

departments, the Museum of Art, and the University Libraries, sponsored an international conference on Dada and an exhibition entitled “Dada Artifacts.” It

was this pair of events which led directly to the establishment of the Dada Archive and Research Center at The University of Iowa. By the end of the

conference, the prominent scholars who had come from around the world to participate had agreed on the need for a single institution which would gather the

widely scattered documentation of the Dada movement, preserve that documentation for posterity, and disseminate it to the international community. It was

initially proposed to house such an archive at the Center for Twentieth Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Unfortunately, with the

death of Professor Michel Benamou, the director of the center in Milwaukee, it became impossible to establish the archive there. The responsibility then fell

clearly on the University of Iowa, where numerous faculty members and graduate students had strong research interests in Dada and where the 1978

conference and exhibition had been held. Furthermore, in preparing the “Dada Artifacts” exhibition, it had been learned that the Special Collections

Department of the University Libraries already has extensive holdings of rare items from the Dada period, including many of the highly ephemeral periodicals

such as Dada, Litt rature, and Merz. So, under the direction of Professors Rudolf Kuenzli of Comparative Literature and Stephen Foster of Art History,

the Dada Archive and Research Center was established in 1979.

The center has been involved in a number of vital and exciting programs and activities, among which are additional conferences on Dada and on the

avant-garde in general, team-taught interdisciplinary courses, various publications including the journal Dada/Surrealism, and a collection of first-generation

slides of visual works (originally known as the Photodocumentary Archive, now the Fine Arts Dada Archive.) Proposed future projects include additional

publications and research fellowships for scholars wishing to work at the center. The remainder of this article, however, will be devoted to a description of the

project with which the University Libraries are directly involved: the International Dada Archive (originally known as the Literary Archive).

Under the direction of Professor Kuenzli and the curatorship of Timothy Shipe, the activities of the International Dada Archive have been made possible

through generous financial support by various agencies of the University, The University of Iowa Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, and the National

Endowment for the Humanities. In addition, the administration and staff of the University Libraries have given their full cooperation in countless ways; the

project would have been inconceivable without this enthusiastic support.

The purpose of the archive is to preserve and disseminate the written documentation of the Dada movement, whether it relates to literature, painting, film, or

any of the arts. Gathering the written documentation of Dada has involved three distinct but related projects. The first is the most extensive bibliographic

search ever undertaken for published material relating to the Dada movement and to the individual participants. This includes all of the books written by the

individual Dadaists, their contributions to books and periodicals, books which they illustrated, the small magazines which emerged from various centers of the

movement, exhibition catalogs, and all sorts of secondary literature about the movement and the individual artists-all relevant material published from 1915 to

the present, whether in the form of books, parts of books, or articles in periodicals. The resulting catalog constitutes, in effect, the definitive bibliography of

the movement.

The bibliographic information thus gathered has been used in carrying out the second project: an inventory of published materials relating to Dada currently

housed in the University Libraries, and a systematic program for acquiring the material which the libraries do not yet own. Even before the archive was

founded, Iowa’s holdings in the field were among the most extensive in the world. The items turned up in the inventory included numerous rare first editions.

Among the gems already in Special Collections were complete runs of many of the original Dada periodicals, as well as Marcel Duchamp’s so-called Green

Box, a container holding facsimiles of manuscript fragments of notes on his glass masterpiece, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, and

intended to be the literary version of that work. The gathering of the published material not already in the collections has been accomplished partly through the

libraries’ regular acquisitions program and partly through the Dada Archive’s own funding sources. The materials thus acquired are housed in the appropriate

locations in the library system–chiefly in Special Collections, the Art Library, and the stacks of the Main Library. There is also some nonprint material, such

as a recording of the complete music of Marcel Duchamp in the Music Library and a nearly complete collection of Dada films in Media Services.

The result of these two projects has been a collection of published Dada documents unequaled anywhere in the world. There is virtually no relevant book or

journal which a scholar cannot find at The University of Iowa. But the most valuable aspect of the word of the Dada Literary Archive, the part which makes it

a truly unique international resource, is the project of microfilming manuscripts and ephemera housed in public and private collections scattered throughout

Europe and North America. By using a portable microfilm camera, Professor Kuenzli was able to photograph material which would otherwise have been

unavailable because of the scarcity of commercial microfilming services in Europe and the understandable reluctance of some collectors to allow valuable

items to leave their custody. The sources of the manuscripts ranged from the world’s great art libraries to the proverbial shoe boxes beneath widow’s beds;

and the filming took place under the best and the most difficult conditions, from well-lighted research rooms to kitchen tables in remote Alpine villages. The

one common denominator, though, has been the incredible cooperativeness and interest in the project on the part of the owners and curators of the material.

This is certainly owing in part to the fact that, by making their irreplaceable manuscripts available for inspection on microfilm, they will spare the original

documents the wear of frequent use, a use which, no matter how careful and responsible, is bound to cause further deterioration. In the case of private

owners, most of whom are heirs of major Dada figures, the microfilming also means that they will be spared the responsibility of opening the material to

scholars, answering their countless questions, and often allowing them into their homes to consult the manuscripts. Beyond this, however, most of the public

and private curators of these documents have themselves a deep interest in the Dada phenomenon and are eager to assist in a project which will facilitate

knowledge and understanding of the movement.

The materials on these films, which are carefully kept in a fireproof vault in Special Collections, constitute the most complete collection of the unpublished

documentation of Dada in the world. A conservative estimate of the archive’s present manuscript holdings would be 25,000 items (100,000 frames), including

correspondence, literary manuscripts, drawings and sketchbooks, diaries, drafts of programs, invitations and manifestoes, personal reminiscences, film

scripts, and descriptions and inventories of artworks. The microfilms also contain many books and periodicals so rare that it would have been impossible to

obtain original editions for the University Libraries. Until now, the greatest strength of the collection has been in manuscripts of the German

Dadaists–precisely that area for which the available documentation has been the scantiest, in large part because of the ravages of the Second World War.

The collection is especially strong in manuscripts of Jean (or Hans) Arp, Johannes Baader, Hugo Ball, George Grosz, Raoul Hausmann, John Heartfield,

Hannah H ch, Richard Huelsenbeck, Hans Richter, Kurt Schwitters, and Christof Spengemann, representing primarily the Dada centers in Berlin, Hanover,

and Zurich.

Several tools have been developed to provide control of and access to the holdings of the International Dada Archive. The key to all of its resources is a card

catalog of the entire collection. Organized by names of individual Dadaists and by a few broad subject headings, the catalog serves as a guide to all material

related to Dada anywhere in the University Libraries, regardless of type (books, journal articles, manuscripts, ephemera) and location (Main Library stacks,

microfilms in Special Collections, the Art Library, or any of the other departmental libraries). A researcher working on, say, Raoul Hausmann–a typical

Dadaist in that he was a painter, monteur, sculptor, photographer, and writer of poetry, fiction and essays in German, French, and English–will consult the

catalog and be guided to books, articles, manuscripts, diaries, and letters written by and to Hausmann, exhibition catalogs, and secondary literature about

Hausmann. Once funds are available for retrospective conversion of the card catalog, an online catalog will be made available over the Internet.

February 2000 update: On February 3, 2000 the online catalog of the International Dada Archive became available to the public. Known as the

International Online Bibliography of Dada, the online catalog currently includes approximately thirty percent of the titles in the Archive’s card

catalog. Click here for more information.

In addition to the card catalog, a series of finding aids has been produced for the public and private collections that were microfilmed by the Archive. These

inventories are frame by frame listings of the contents of the microfilms. The finding aids are being scanned, and will be made available on the International

Dada Archive’s web site.

The International Dada Archive is an invaluable resource both to the students and faculty of The University of Iowa and to the large community of Dada

scholars throughout the world. For a wide range of literary and art historians interested in the avant-garde and the development of twentieth-century art, Iowa

is already becoming synonymous with Dada. The activities of the International Dada Archive fit perfectly within the lively context of the art

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