Art History: Dada

Perhaps one of the most famous art movements and one of the most famous “not-art” movements, Dadaism was one of the first forms that emerged from the breach of post-impressionism.  The strict definition of Dada is still up for grabs, it could mean “hobby horse”, it could mean dad, it could even mean nothing depending on who is asked.  What is known about Dada is that it was a response by artists across Europe and the world to the horrors of World War I.  Original Dadaists argued that the conflict in the early 1900s was the result of the societal and aesthetic rigidity that ran rampant through society.  When a conflict engulfed the entire continent of Europe, the artists made the claim that it was the locked down guidelines of all things normal that caused it; their solution was simple, do the opposite.

Marcel Duchamp’s famed anti-art.  He took a postcard with a picture of the Mona Lisa, drew on a Snidley Whiplash and labeled it “L.H.O.O.Q.” which roughly translated into a French pun saying she was a loose woman.

The Dadaists argued that they were not artists.  They did not produce art, in fact, they actively tried to produce things that would not be considered art by the common standards of society.  If the traditions of the regular world could result in the massacres of the trenches, then something that broke free from the standards would be heading away from the thought process that dragged the world into the torrents of fire and blood.  Artwork was made with the intent of offending modern sensibilities and modern aesthetics as a move towards a less violent and less grotesque future.

Perhaps his most famous work, Duchamp’s “Fountain” was another piece of anti-art that he called “ready made”.  He quite literally took a urinal, placed it on its side, slapped on a pen name “R.Mutt”, and dated it.  It wasn’t anything special, in fact he just bought it at a hardware store.  What it did do was press the art world into thinking about what actually made something art.  In Duchamp’s case, many people believed his intent was to prove to the world that art was distasteful and shameful.

The final result of the Dada movement was the burgeoning of cubism and expressionism in art.  It begged the question of what made something artistic, was it the beauty in it that the beholder saw or was it the meaning in it that the artist gave the work?  In any case, the artwork was a curious moment when the world of paint and pastels became freed from the real for a short number of years.

Some examples of Dada art (or not-art, really up to you which it is), as well as works by Dada artists after they left the movement:

Above is a piece entitled, “Portrait of an American Girl in the State of Nudity”, and no, I didn’t put up the wrong thing.  It is literally a spark plug…  After all, who are you to say why a picture should be descriptively titled.

This one is called “Girl Born Without a Mother”.



This one is called the “Enigma of Isidore Ducassa”.  It is actually a sewing machine wrapped in fabric and tied with string.



This one is straight up just called “Underwood”.