Dadaism was an avant-garde artistic and cultural movement prompted by the European societal climate after World War I. It was a rejection of modern capitalism, bourgeois culture, and wartime politics that aligned with other far-left radical groups. This was expressed through the use of non-traditional art materials, satire, and nonsensical content. Even the movement’s name, ‘dada’, was meant to be a word with no meaning. Below are 10 iconic artworks that characterize this postwar art movement.
Marcel Duchamp, Fountain (1917)
Marcel Duchamp was one of the most prolific artists of Dadaism, producing numerous infamous paintings, collages and sculptures. He is also associated with Cubism, Futurism and early conceptual art. He has had a monumental influence on 20th-century modernist art and specifically sculpture. His work reached maturity after World War I when he began using art as a tool for cultural protest.
Fountain is one of the most iconic art pieces of the 20th century, representing a major shift in the function of art in society. While the original 1917 piece does not survive today, Tate created a replica made of earthenware in 1964. It is one of the earliest examples of ‘lowbrow’ or ‘readymade’ sculptures, which are made from found objects. Duchamp submitted the sculpture to the Paris Salon, but it was rejected because it was not considered art.
Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q. (1919)
L.H.O.O.Q. is another famous example of a ‘readymade’ sculpture by Marcel Duchamp. It was created from an inexpensive postcard of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503-06) which Duchamp then drew a waxed mustache and goatee onto. The piece features elements of satire, rejecting the aesthetic of ‘high art’. The title of the piece is also satirical, as L.H.O.O.Q. when said in French sounds like ‘Elle a chaud au cul’, translating to ‘she’s hot in the butt’ and connoting an underlying sexuality to the piece.
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Kurt Schwitters, Construction For Noble Ladies (1919)
Kurt Schwitters was a German artist who experimented with several different mediums, including painting, sculpture, graphic design, installation art and poetry. His work was associated with Surrealism, Cubism and Constructivism as well as Dadaism. He was also known for applying the term Merz to his work, a term he made up which was synonymous with Dada as a form of cultural protest.
Construction for Noble Ladies is an example of Schwitters’ use of abstraction in collage and sculpture. This assemblage piece also exemplifies the ‘found object’ style of sculpture, as it is constructed of a variety of broken and disjointed materials: a funnel, a metal toy train, broken wheels, and other scrap objects. It also includes a horizontal portrait of a noble lady, from which the piece gets its title. The assembly of the work is rough, and the painting has a rugged finish to it, further adding to its diversion from preceding artistic expectations. However, the entire piece has an elegant asymmetry, showing that even scrap objects can create a masterpiece.
Raoul Hausmann, The Art Critic (1919-20)
Raoul Hausmann was a prominent Austrian artist and a leader of the Dada movement in Berlin. Hausmann was also an expressionist artist. After becoming acquainted with the Dadaism movement, he met other artists including John Heartfield and George Grosz. During this time, he focused mostly on poetry and photographic collage, which would have a profound effect on the postwar European avant-garde. His poetry was known for being especially provocative and his artwork very satirical. He was also a lover of fellow Dadaist Hannah Höch.
The Art Critic is Hausmann’s ardent criticism of the superficiality of the art world. The piece is a photo collage made up of a series of magazine and newspaper photographs and includes some drawn elements. The work is considered ‘lowbrow’ as it uses materials and iconography seen in popular culture. It connotes that, much like the construction of a collage, art critics possess a cobbled-together knowledge of vacuous facts and do not truly understand the meaning of art.
Hannah Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany (1919-20)
Hannah Höch was a German artist and member of the Dadaism movement. She pioneered the technique of photomontage or photo collage using images from popular media. She was interested in feminism, gender and androgyny in art, and especially in the dissolution of the ‘New Woman’ dichotomy. She also explored the political climate during the Weimar Republic in her work.
Cut with the Kitchen Knife represents the juxtaposition between Dadaism and mainstream culture during the time. Clustered in one part of the photo collage are members of dominant political groups such as the Weimar government and the army. In stark contrast, the other side of the piece features communists, artists and other radicals. Höch also included a small map that displays the countries in Europe that allowed women to vote. The piece demonstrates the rebellion by the Dadaists and other radical groups during a time of strict political and cultural conformity.
Raoul Hausmann, The Mechanical Head (1920)
The Mechanical Head is Raoul Hausmann’s most famous work. It was crafted from a hairdresser’s wig dummy, a ruler, a pocket watch, a wallet, pieces from a camera and other found items. The piece is thought to be a commentary on how humanity interacts with objects and the surrounding world. The face is completely devoid of expression, unlike the expressive faces of European cultural masterpieces. Instead, its character is explained by the external objects attached to it. The sculpture thus questions all precedent depictions of intellectualism and depth, showing the subject only as it relates to the superficial, material world around it.
Jean Arp, Shirt Front and Fork (1922)
Jean Arp, also known as Hans Arp, was a German-French painter, sculptor and poet. He was a founding member of the Dadaist movement. After moving to Zürich, he met fellow artists Hugo Ball and Sophie Taeuber, who would become Arp’s wife. The trio then collaborated to create a Dadaist manifesto. Arp’s work was known for the exploration of the unconscious, its elements of satire and the abstraction of organic forms.
Shirt Front and Fork is part of a series of painted wooden relief sculptures that Arp crafted in the 1920s. The work has a monochrome graphic element to it, with soft, organic forms and a simplistic composition. The fork on the right is easily identifiable, while the form on the left represents the front of a shirt, but also resembles a large tooth or a human face. The piece represents Arp’s stylistic shift between periods; the abstract forms from his earlier work collide with his later use of object association to delve into the unconscious mind.
Francis Picabia, Optophone I (1922)
Francis Picabia was a French painter and poet who was associated with Impressionism, Cubism and Pointillism and Dadaism. He also experimented with publishing and filmmaking, and his nearly 50-year career can be characterized by an eclectic series of stylistic and media shifts. His most famous works were paintings featuring color blocks, geometric shapes and abstractions, although he was also known for unorthodox material collage.
Optophone I is an example of Picabia’s ‘machinist’ works, which were inspired by early 20th-century industrial equipment and comment on the acceleration of technology during the time. The piece simulates the effects of an optophone, a device that uses sonification to scan texts and images to help the blind identify letters on a page. The center of the painting holds a classical style seated nude woman as if she has been seen through the use of an optophone. The piece thus questions how humanity encounters and interprets art.
Man Ray, Rayograph (1922)
Man Ray was an American photographer and visual artist who worked mainly in Paris. He was a significant member of both Dadaism and Surrealism, producing numerous works that remain easily recognizable today. He was known for his abstract portraits of women and his use of shadows and negative light to create pieces with a dreamlike element to them. He also photographed a plethora of famous artists during his lifetime, providing pictorial insight into their lives.
Rayograph is one of a series of Ray’s photograms, which Tristan Tzara called rayographs after the artist. These pieces were made using photographic paper, on which Ray placed a series of objects and then exposed them to light. The paper would then darken where an object was not placed, creating the effect of a negative-light shadow. These pieces exemplified the notion of Dada, as they often represented mundane or random objects that did not seem connected. The products of this method were also often inconsistent, as they required multiple sessions of light exposure and were thus privy to external conditions.
Max Ernst, Ubu Imperator (1923)
Max Ernst was a German painter, poet, sculptor and graphic artist and an early member of the Dadaism and Surrealism movements. He was extremely experimental with his work, combining different mediums with an abstracted, illusionistic technique. He also used a method called frottage, or ‘rubbing’, in which the artist places paper on an uneven surface and then rubs pencil on it to create a patterned outline of the surface.
Ubu Imperator represents Ernst’s stylistic shift between Dadaism and Surrealism, depicting a spinning anthropomorphic top with incongruent features. The subject portrays the father Ubu, a symbol of authority and greed seen in a series of plays by Alfred Jerry that elucidate the injustices of complacency under the bourgeois empirical society. The landscape is a characteristic Surrealist desert with a vast horizon, while the top features the parodying and anti-establishment notions of Dadaism.