Happy Birthday, Dada

I was reminded by this story in The Prospect (via 3 Quarks Daily) that The Cabaret Voltaire in central Zurich -and thus by default the anarchic art movement known as Dada– is this year celebrating its 100th anniversary.

The crazed energy that was and is Dada stemmed from a reaction against the intellectual, cultural and artistic conformity that its early adherents believed led to the start of the first world war, and to a certain extent, against bourgeois nationalism and capitalism as well. It was typically defined as anti-art, the polar opposite of the dominant aesthetics of the time.

In the piece, My Art Belongs to Dada, Kevin Jackson describes an early performance by German poet and Dada co-founder Hugo Ball that got the well, ball, rolling:

Deutsch: Hugo Balls Auftritt im Cabaret Voltai...
Hugo Ball, Cabaret Voltaire 1916 (Photo: Wikipedia)

It was the evening of 23rd June 1916 at the Cabaret Voltaire, in Zurich. (Unless it was the evening of 14th July, at the Waag, a rented hall not far from there. Few parts of this often-told story are beyond dispute.) Hugo Ball, a skinny young German author and poet who in recent years had taken to carrying an ancient skull around with him at all times, mounted the stage wearing what he described as a “Sorcerer’s” costume. His body was covered with a blue-painted obelisk made of cardboard; he had wings, red on the inside, gold on the outside; giant lobster claws; and a blue and white striped hat, two feet tall. He faced the audience, felt a moment of stage fright, then began to flap his wings and shout:

         hollaka hollala

         anlogo bung

         blago bung

         blago bung

         bosso fataka….

And so on. The Dada movement, hatched just a few months earlier by Ball and his pals, had made a spectacular public exhibition of itself.

Within a matter of days, the Cabaret Voltaire was a roaring success. People came to drink, fight, pass out, smash the tables and chairs, and, above all, to be enjoyably shocked by the “six-piece band” of the original Dada cell.

The image at top, shot during my brief go-pro fetish in the middle months of 2012, was taken the last time I was actually in the famed venue. I tried visiting the last time I was in Zurich, in August of 2014, but it was closed. A small sign on the door said they were away for summer vacation, I think it was.

I posted a series of street shots after my 2012 visit, along with this by way of introduction, which works for the image above as well:

Above and again below is the Cabaret Voltaire, Zurich’s landmark turn-of-the-last century art house where Dadaism was born during the waning days of World War I. The door was propped open and I walked in, eager to check out and shoot some of the spaces inside, but was quickly sent back out into the rain by a man assembling a scaffold in what looked like a small theatre area.

“We’re closed,” he said. His tone reminded me of myself when I used to suffer nicotine withdrawal. “Don’t forget your umbrella.”

So ended my brief tour into the womb of Dada.

According to painter Marcel Janco, a co-founder of the anti-art movement:

We had lost confidence in our culture. Everything had to be demolished. We would begin again after the tabula rasa. At the Cabaret Voltaire we began by shocking common sense, public opinion, education, institutions, museums, good taste, in short, the whole prevailing order.

In spirit not unlike punk rockers in the late 1970s.

After the war ended, Dada left the Cabaret Voltaire and spread to other parts of Europe; I just went back out into the rain and pretended I wasn’t getting wet.

The Caberet Voltaire officially opened its doors on February 5, 1916, with Dadaism soon birthed by its first Dada Night. Writes Henri Neuendorf for Art News:

Dada—which advocated coincidence as a leading creative principle—deliberately contravened all known and traditional artistic styles at the time…

It all started with a “Dada Evening” organized by Ball and Emmy Hennings who opened the popular nightclub frequented by Zurich’s artist community.

Several artists rattled off a bizarre and chaotic repertoire of performances which reflected the chaos and destruction caused by World War I, which was raging outside of neutral Switzerland’s borders at the time.

“Art,” Neuendorf writes, “has often reacted to the turmoil of war and changing social conditions, with avant-garde movements such as Expressionism, Cubism, and Futurism. But no movement reworked the leading principles of art creation as Dadaism did.”

Which begs the question: are conditions ripe, or nearly ripe, for a similar reaction once again?


Today’s Pic du Jour, the site’s 895th straight, was snapped on 30 August 2012 in Zurich, Switzerland. This year, the city is celebrating the anniversary with a more than one hundred events. A listing is here.







More Stories
Recuerdo Profundo by Jimenez Deredia
Scab Cab Ride