Dada was an art movement formed during the First World War in Zurich in negative reaction to the horrors and folly of the war. The art, poetry and performance produced by dada artists is often satirical and nonsensical in nature

Raoul Hausmann, 'The Art Critic' 1919-20
Raoul Hausmann
The Art Critic 1919-20
© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

Introduction to dada

Dada artists felt the war called into question every aspect of a society capable of starting and then prolonging it – including its art. Their aim was to destroy traditional values in art and to create a new art to replace the old. As the artist Hans Arp later wrote: 

Revolted by the butchery of the 1914 World War, we in Zurich devoted ourselves to the arts. While the guns rumbled in the distance, we sang, painted, made collages and wrote poems with all our might.

In addition to being anti-war, dada was also anti-bourgeois and had political affinities with the radical left.

The founder of dada was a writer, Hugo Ball. In 1916 he started a satirical night-club in Zurich, the Cabaret Voltaire, and a magazine which, wrote Ball, ‘will bear the name ”Dada”. Dada, Dada, Dada, Dada.’ This was the first of many dada publications. Dada became an international movement and eventually formed the basis of surrealism in Paris after the war.

Leading artists associated with it include Arp, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia and Kurt Schwitters. Duchamp’s questioning of the fundamentals of Western art had a profound subsequent influence.

Further Reading 

Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia 
Read the exhibition guide for Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia which was at Tate Modern in 2008. These leading artists of the New York dada movement, rebelled against the norms of traditional art and shaped the face of Modern art. 

Dada in Tate’s collection

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  • Man Ray, 'L'Enigme d'Isidore Ducasse' 1920, remade 1972
    Man Ray
    L'Enigme d'Isidore Ducasse 1920, remade 1972
    Sewing machine, wool and string
    object: 355 x 605 x 335 mm
    Purchased 2003© Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002
  • Marcel Duchamp, 'The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)' 1915-23, reconstruction by Richard Hamilton 1965-6, lower panel remade 1985
    Marcel Duchamp
    The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) 1915-23, reconstruction by Richard Hamilton 1965-6, lower panel remade 1985
    © Richard Hamilton and Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002
  • Francis Picabia, 'The Fig-Leaf' 1922
    Francis Picabia
    The Fig-Leaf 1922
    Oil on canvas
    support: 2000 x 1600 mm
    frame (without perspex box): 2062 x 1663 x 70 mm
    Purchased 1984© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002
  • Man Ray, 'Cadeau' 1921, editioned replica 1972
    Man Ray
    Cadeau 1921, editioned replica 1972
    Iron and nails
    object: 178 x 94 x 126 mm
    Presented by the Tate Collectors Forum 2002© Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002
  • Jean Crotti, 'Portrait of Edison' 1920
    Jean Crotti
    Portrait of Edison 1920
    Gouache, watercolour and pencil on paper
    support: 489 x 645 mm
    Purchased 1978© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002
  • Max Ernst, 'Dadaville' circa 1924
    Max Ernst
    Dadaville circa 1924
    Painted plaster and cork laid on canvas
    unconfirmed: 680 x 560 x 63 mm
    frame: 850 x 737 x 152 mm
    Purchased 1983© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002
  • Kurt Schwitters, 'Red Wire Sculpture' 1944
    Kurt Schwitters
    Red Wire Sculpture 1944
    Painted metal, stone, mixed media
    object: 250 x 130 x 130 mm
    Purchased 1990© DACS, 2002

Dada artists in focus

Marcel Duchamp: father of conceptual art

Duchamp gave up painting in 1912, due to him valuing ideas over aesthetics. His readymades, a series of ordinary objects of everyday use that were designated as works of art, challenged the notion of what defines art. 

Marcel Duchamp, 'Fountain' 1917, replica 1964
Marcel Duchamp
Fountain 1917, replica 1964
© Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

Work of the week: Fountain
This blog post discusses Duchamp’s most famous work and how it still questions ‘what is art?’ 

This is an unique opportunity to listen to Marcel Duchamp talk about his work, motivation as an artist and views in retrospect on the Large Glass, ‘Readymades’ and subsequent philosophies built up around him. 

The unholy trinity
This Tate Etc. examines how Duchamp, Man Ray and Picabia laid the foundations of much contemporary art.

This discussion focuses on Duchamp and how scholarship and artists approach him today.

Ducham’s legacy: Richard Hamilton and Sarat Maharaj
In this talk, Richard Hamilton and Sarat Maharaj discuss the legacy of Marcel Duchamp’s work through ideas of translation.

Kurt Shwitters: porridge, collage and barns 

Kurt Schwitters, 'Opened by Customs' 1937-8
Kurt Schwitters
Opened by Customs 1937-8
Paper collage, oil and pencil on paper
© DACS, 2002

German artist Kurt Schwitters worked in a variety of media including sound, poetry, sculpture and typography. He used the term ‘Merz’ to describe his own form of dada, which were collage and assemblage works using scavenged scrap materials.

Schwitters and sculpture: porridge, not plaster
This blog explains the background behind why Schwitters made dada sculptures made out of porridge and not plaster.

Schwitters in Britain
This exhibition which was at Tate Britain in 2013 focuses on his British period, from his arrival in Britain as a refugee in 1940 until his death in Cumbria in 1948. Read the exhibition guide and see what artworks were on display.

Emma Chambers, curator of Schwitters in Britain provides an insight into the creation of the show and his key works. 

Modernists don’t die in Ambleside
This feature traces the final years of Schwitters on the run and argues that there is an element of romanticism in his dadaist works. 

Schwitter’s handwritten poems
Delve into the Tate archive and discover a selection of poems written by Schwitters. 

In context 

Chris Stephens explores how other artists reacted to World war one by talking through the work in the 1914 and 1915 room at Tate Britain. 

Unlock Art: Frank Skinner on performance art
This short film explains how the Dada movement began and helped shape performance art.

Other perspectives 

In this video, members of the public respond to Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, showing that it still remains a provocative work.

The room stripped bare, even
This extract from Sarazin-Levassor’s newly translated autobiography gives an insight into Duchamp’s Spartan living habits – and his love of French puns.

TateShots: Contemporary responses to Kurt Schwitters
Artists Laure Prouvost and Adam Chodzko both talk about their commissioned works responding to Schwitters’ time in exile. 

British Sea Power on Kurt Schwitters
The lead singer of the band talks about Schwitter’s sound poem, the Ursonate and how they started to use that combined with other sounds at the start of their concerts.

Dada in detail

In this lecture, Art critic and lecturer T. J Demos examines the link between art and politics in relation to Dada’s aesthetics of exile.

‘Behold the Buffoon’: Dada, Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo and the Sublime
This paper links key Dadaists in Berlin and Zürich to Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo, and to the Hanswurst – a tradition of German buffoonery – which Nietzsche deploys to counter the Schopenhauerian sublime. 

Essay: Sarah Wilson, Kurt Schwitters in England
This research essay by Professor Sarah Wilson discussea how Schwitters’ feelings of isolation from his exile to Britain informed his work.

Kurt Schwitters: Reconstructions of the Merzbau
This research article talks about the Scwitters’ Merzbau a room-sized, living sculptural installation which was destroyed in the second world war.

Merzzeichnung: Typology and Typography
This research article looks at the development of Schwitters’s Merz practice.

Related glossary terms

Performance art, readymade, fluxus, sound art, happening, generative art, anti-art, found object, Merz, avant-garde,  neo-dada