(Iris) Zhihe Li, Xinlu Chen, Xuanhao Chen, Tae Chun

Dada was the European avant-garde art movement in the early 20th century. It began in Zurich, Switzerland, at Cabaret Voltaire. Dada developed in the reaction of WWI; the Dada movement combined the artists who rejected reason, logic, and modern capitalist society; instead, they expressed nonsense, anti-bourgeois statement, and irrationality. The Dada artists represented their discontent toward violence, war, and nationalism with mixed visual collage, literary cut-up writing, and sound media. Dada artists are famous for using everyday objects to present ready-made art. Some famous artists associated with the Dada movement include Hans Arp, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, and Kurt Schwitters. Marcel Duchamp was a pioneer of Dada. He presented objects themselves as his art creations, which overthrew the traditional artist role in the art creating process. Art was no longer only presented as original handmade creations by artists. Duchamp argued, “An ordinary object could be elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist.” Another artist, Hans Arp, was intent on incorporating chance and coincidence into the creation of art pieces. This concept went against all norms of traditional art production which suggested that art should be well competed and well designed. This new concept challenged the traditional artistic norms and also questioned the role of artists when creating art pieces. 

In Dadaism, artists use language and text to help convey the ideas in their works. From a literary perspective, Dada poets are good at creating new ways to subvert established traditions. For example, Tzara cut text from newspapers and randomly selected the text to compose a poem. That kind of use of texts challenges the traditional poetic meaning of expressing personal thoughts. Instead, Dada artists use the entire society’s environment and language to reflect the audience’s opinions, which has carried out a more profound perception and criticism of the times. From an artistic point of view, Dada artists have the flexibility to use different forms of text to create works. Instead of just using brushes and paints, artists use scissors and glue to transform existing text and images in life and combine them to create artworks. This combination of language and pictures will guide the audiences to perceive and criticize the times. Other Dada artists add words to objects that have already been created in life. For example, Marcel Duchamp’s fountain consists of a porcelain urinal with the “R. Mutt” signature. The urinal was initially an item in life. But Duchamp wrote his signature on the urinal, just like the act of signing a painting in traditional art. This combination of words and objects undoubtedly criticizes and subverts the shackles of conventional art. The typical way one might encounter language in Dadaism is scattered nonsensically throughout an art piece. Whether it be visually pleasing and aesthetically placed in the painting or large, in your face text in the foreground or background, the meaning behind dada art is simply no meaning at all. The goal of the artists of this period was to throw the viewer off guard and make them question the piece itself. Dada artists went against the standard of the previous art movements. They wanted to make a statement on how they were outraged by World War I and did so by creating “anti-art” works that intentionally frustrated viewers.

Der Kunstkritiker, Raoul Hausmann, 1886–1971, Lithograph and printed paper on paper, 318 × 254 mm.

Der Kunstkritiker in traslation is The Art Critic. This is a collage mainly composed of newspaper clippings in orange, black, white, gray, and green. The main figure is stamped on the poster may have been recognized as Raoul Hausmann himself. Hausmann was a founder member of the Berlin Dada movement, and he developed photomontage as a tool of satire and political protest. There are collaged red eyes and a mouth full of teeth on the faces of the characters. On his forehead, there was a shoe stepping on a playing card, and several black dots were scattered around his feet. The character’s head is much larger than the body as if it is about to explode. It expresses here is a puppet controlled by capitalists and trampled under the feet of capitalist class relations. Although the characters gritted their teeth about this behavior to the point where they were about to explode, they still feared the prestige of capitalism.

Behind the main character’s head, there is this German banknote cut in a triangle, explaining that capitalist forces control him. The word behind the main figure is part of a poem poster pasted on the walls of Berlin made by Hausmann. The character’s clothes are printed with an X, and he holds a VENUS brand pen in his hand. The red cross represented by the negation on these black words should be the denial of something, perhaps a struggle between him and his heart. Maybe it has accepted the sense of justice violated by capitalist oppression. To this character’s right is a newspaper clipping of Raoul Hausmann’s name; on the author’s newspaper clippings is a lady with a funny expression looking at the ugly man on the left. I think this is the author’s sarcasm and ridicule of those who silently accept capitalism and go against their heart. And below is a silhouette of himself. He used newspaper collages instead of his photos. I think he wanted to make his identity full of mystery. The main character is portrayed as very funny and ugly, corresponding to a symbol of capitalism and the poem on the Walls of Berlin behind him; Hausmann uses satire to express his anti-capitalism and disgust for the war.

Dada was the European avant-garde art movement in the early 20th century. It’s early centers in Zurich, Switzerland, at Cabaret Voltaire. Dada developed in the reaction of WWI; the Dada movement combined the artists who rejected reason, logic, and modern capitalist society; instead, they expressed nonsense, anti-bourgeois sentiment, and irrationality. The Dada artists represented their discontent toward violence, war, and nationalism with mixed visual collage, literary cut-up writing, and sound media. Also, Dada artists felt the war called into question are a very aspect of a society capable of stating and prolonging it. So they use art to destroy tradition in order to create the new. 

Kurt Schwitters, Zollamtlich geöffnet, ( Opened by Customs ) 1937–8, Paper, printed paper, oil paint and graphite on paper, Support: 331 × 253 mm frame: 523 × 421 × 29 mm, Tate

In Kurt Schwitters’s Zollamtlich geöffnet (Opened by Customs), 1937–8, we see a content-rich collage which was made from a variety of low quality paper. The main mediums of this piece are printed paper, oil paint and graphite on paper. The support is 331 × 253 mm, and the frame of this piece is 523 × 421 × 29 mm. When we look closer to the details, we can recognize the paper types, which includes parcel paper, Nazi administrative labels, a large section of printed Norwegian text from a book or a pamphlet, a blue label for Spanish oranges and a printed list of travel-related words in German, including ‘airline boarding pass’, ‘baggage insurance’ and ‘sleeper car’. At the bottom right of the collage is a piece of white paper featuring an insignia that bears the words ‘Deutsche Arbeit’ set within a laurel wreath. These materials have then been overlaid in places by strokes of oil paint and crayon marks.

According to the research, Schwitters made this collage in Norway, shortly after emigrating from Nazi Germany, which might be the reason why he incorporated various kinds of wrapping paper and fragments of German and Norwegian newspapers. The complex layers of materials and languages on them suggest complex ideas and emotions of the artist. The experiences by Schwitters and also other German immigrants were reflected in this art work through the conflicting languages, both printed and handwritten, and the marks of red stamps pop up near the center of the collage may suggest the turmoil during the period. At the top left of the work is the titular German customs label, which suggests the lack of personal autonomy, and it compounds the sense that Schwitters was escaping.

Kurt Schwitters is associated with the Dada movement, he transformed appropriated imagery and text from print media into dynamic and layered compositions. According to research, the artist wanted to continue his Merzbau in this art piece. As he was influenced by Dada movement, Kurt Schwitters began to collect garbage from the streets and incorporate it directly into his art work. The texts in this art piece were all from the material themselves, they were labels, pages from books, even steel seal. We can recognize what the materials are from those texts. Schwitters used everyday objects to present readymade arts, and some texts in this collage were randomly used, which greatly represented Dada spirit. This new concept of creating art pieces went against all norms of traditional art production which suggested that art should be well competed and well designed, it also questioned the role of artists when creating art pieces.

Hannah Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany, 1919–1920, collage, mixed media, (Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin).

Hannah Höch’s Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer Belly, is a dada collage of pasted papers. The artwork itself is 90x 144 cm, and situated in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin. This artwork can instantly be identified as a Dadaist piece. In the piece, one can see various mechanical parts such as gears, buildings, and workers. This along with the intentional brown stain of the collage gives it a very industrial effect and appearance. In terms of color, it is consistently a warm yellow in various shades throughout the piece other than the strip of blue at the top left and some small portions of neutral gray. The text in this piece, because they are the only pieces of the collage with the lightest shade of the paper and solid black ink, have the highest contrast and act as a visual guide for the viewer. The viewer would naturally glance at the blue in the top left, to the right, and slowly trail down to the other pieces of text in the art. Although one initially might see the collage has scattered with no sense of direction, there is a definition flow to the piece that leads the eye.

The title of the piece in a way is industrial. Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer Belly: a Dada collage cut with a kitchen knife, and the Republic it is centered on. The words also directly define what the art is; multiple scraps of paper that say and place emphasis on the word “dada”. There is also a single usage of “anti dada” in the top right corner, which in itself is very unironically dada of the piece; the art of this period is considered “anti-art”, and this focal point of Hannah Höch’s piece is able to show that to the viewers. It is a visual political statement for the time it was created. The “Kitchen Knife” in the title is in itself a feminist statement; it is a stereotypical woman’s item and woman’s place in society at the time. By placing it in the title, it shows how female artists like Hannah Höch were able to lead the Dada movement as well.

The significance of this piece is how it fits the definition of dada, and how well incorporated the text is to the photographic cut outs of the collage. Although there is a visual direction to Höch’s Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer Belly, the reality is that everything is there to only incite a reaction in the viewer, nothing else. There are political references such as a pasted image of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and a map which places women were able to vote in, but all of this is to just confuse the viewer. The Dada period was artists like Höch’s way of showing their frustration with World War I at the time. It is a complex artwork that fought against the conventions and standards of previous art periods. It is a shared criticism and frustration between the artist to the audience. Anything can be made and considered as art when decided by the artist and works of Dada is a clear example of this.

Francis Picabia. L’Œil cacodylate (The Cacodylic Eye.) 1921. Oil, enamel paint, gelatin silver prints, postcard, and cut-and-pasted printed papers on canvas. 148.6 × 117.4 cm. Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne – Centre decréation industrielle, Paris.

In Francis Picabia’s L’Œil cacodylate 1921, we see various words and graffiti written on a yellowed canvas. The canvas’s size is 148.6 × 117.4 cm. The font of each word is different, which means words come from many different people.  There are also some cut-and-pasted printed papers on the canvas, which are heads from many random people from newspapers and magazines. Right above the canvas is the title of this painting, L’Œil cacodylate. Francis Picabia drew a rectangular border outside the title text and shaded the rectangle. This way of painting makes the title seem to be written on a rectangular piece of paper and then glued to the canvas. At the bottom right of the canvas, there is a thin eyebrow and a tan eye on reddish skin painted with paint. In the lower-left corner, Francis Picabia’s signature has a similar font and color, which echos the title.

There is a story behind the seemingly meaningless portrait of eyes. At that time, Francis Picabia was suffering from eye disease. The doctor prescribed a medicine called Cacodylate de Sodium, which was also the origin of the name of this art. The words in the picture are the names of Francis Picabia’s friends. Whenever his friends came to visit him, he would invite them to sign or add something to the painting, which was the source of the text and other objects in this painting. L’Œil cacodylate’s art form was unique at the time. Unlike traditional painting, Francis Picabia no longer pursued art as a tool for reproducing nature, such as realistic painting. Instead, he sought to express his feelings and experiences. Even if I didn’t know the story behind it, I could feel a natural breath of real life when I saw many unique free handwritings and free-pasted collage photos. After understanding the story behind it, I felt the warm emotions between Picabia and his friends. In other words, the language in the art makes me reflect on the beauty of the link between people.

In addition to the artistic style, it is worth mentioning that Picabia, as an artist, no longer regards himself as the only object to complete art. He creates an opportunity and then guides others to develop, collaborate and perform in one artwork. This process of completing the work undoubtedly broadens the possibilities of art. Picabia revealed that art is no longer just a painting or photography of one person. Instead of it, art can also be a work done by many people together. At the same time, Picabia and many avant-garde artists broke the concept that art is higher than daily life. Using L’Œil cacodylate, Picabia expressed that art is no longer just a product drawn with a brush. It can also be made up of ready-made products from existing life. Since then, art can no longer only be higher than life but also can come from life.

There is no doubt that L’Œil cacodylate is anti-traditional and creative. This work opened up the artistic vision of the world. To this day, clip art and art with ready-made products have become common cannot be separated from every work like L’Œil cacodylate.