Dada: Revolutionary & Evolutionary Art

Jean Arp (Hans Arp). Portfolio Cover from 7 Arpaden. 1923. Gift of J. B. Neumann.
MoMA/Gift of J. B. Neumann
Whenever a new school of painting and sculpture arises, somebody is bound to ask, "but is it art?"

Almost a century later, you can still find people asking that question at Washington, D.C.'s National Gallery of Art where raucous, jarring music echoes through the normally tranquil halls.

This new music by George Antheil is called "Ballet Mechanique" and it's the musical equivalent of the visual art now on display at the National Gallery, the provocative style known as Dada.

Co-curator of the National Gallery of Art Leah Dickerman says the exhibit "is the biggest American exhibition of the international Dada movement."

According to Dickerman, the Dada label was created in 1916 when two of the movement's leaders, working in Zurich, Switzerland, plucked the word out of a French-German Dictionary.

"They liked the way it sounded infantile and suggested new beginnings. But it also had meanings in different languages … it's 'there, there' in German, 'yes, yes' in Romanian and 'hobby horse' in French … So it didn't belong to any one of the languages of the nations at war," says the co-curator.

Dickerman says that during World War I, when "many new modern technologies and warfare were introduced, like airplanes, machine guns and poison gas," Dadaists began to "question whether you could talk about a rational European civilization."

And so Dada was launched as a protest against the irrationality of the war and increased industrialization. Artists, especially in Switzerland, Germany and France, began to break all the traditional rules governing art. They were not interested in beauty; they wanted to shock.

German painters like Otto Dix were especially anti-war: Take his painting of Three Card Players.

"Instead of having men playing together, and careful concentration and camaraderie, you have returned veterans around the table who have been severely disfigured by war," Dickerman says. "So much so that their amputated legs become a jumble under the table legs."

Another artist, George Grosz, created a chaotic Metropolis with spectral figures rushing everywhere to show the travesty of the war. Certainly a moving piece, but not one you want in your living room.

"No, this isn't a decorative picture at all. It's really a scathing critique of society and has a lot of anger on the surface," adds Dickerman.

In another piece, also created by Grosz with the help of John Harfield, we see a child's tailoring dummy, but his legs, like many of the veterans coming home from war, are amputated. The figure also has no arms, but wears military insignia on his breast plate. A revolver, fork and knife stick out of the dummy's chest and then there is a mold of teeth at its crotch.

Bizarre? You bet. But that's Dada.

And if many of these works have a strange, dream-like quality, that's because the movement evolved in the wake of new theories of psycho-analysis.

It was the Dadaists who first started using "found items," from everyday life in their artworks; a response to sudden explosion of mass produced goods. Today we are used to seeing collages like this in contemporary galleries, but it was revolutionary when German artist Kurt Schwitters started pasting together bits of newspaper, receipts and ticket stubs. He even thought that Dada could extend to architecture.

And though Dada artists usually were trying to make a serious point, they also had a sense of humor. Especially French artist Marcel Duchamp, who drew a moustache and goatee on a postcard of the Mona Lisa, along with the letters L-H-0-0-Q.

"And if you pronounce (the letters) in English, it sounds a bit like the word 'Look.' But if you pronounce them in French, it sounds like 'She has a hot tail.' So it's a travesty of this most famous painting. A sign of irreverence for the world's most famous work of art," says Dickerman.

Duchamp was one of several Dada artists who moved to New York during World War I. And it was there in 1917 that he tried to enter his infamous urinal into an art exhibit.

It was refused, but did create a publicity stir. In fact, many of the things that Dadaists did were intended to have a life in the media.

And it wasn't just urinals, Duchamp claimed that all kinds of objects — he called them "Readymades" — should be viewed as art. The fact, however, is that in their time, not many people wanted to buy these things.

Dickerman isn't sure how much something like an original Duchamp urinal would sell for today — if you could buy it — but says that it could be worth millions of dollars.

But Dada's days were numbered. By the mid 1920s the movement petered out. The war was over, artists began bickering over who was authentically Dada and who wasn't. And while you can see hints of surrealism and abstract painting in Dada, soon those styles took over the art world.

Over the years, Dada has sometimes been dismissed as a mere fad with a memorable name. But Leah Dickerson argues that it is much more.

"I feel very strongly that this was a watershed moment in art," Dickerson says. "And I think that you can argue that Dada of all the avent garde movements has had the greatest impact on contemporary art. So every time you see things like collage or montage or assemblage, all of those things have their origins in Dada. And I think that if you want to understand where we are today, it's really important to go back and look at where these things came from."

Whether you love it or hate it, art was never the same after Dada.