What Was the Dada Movement?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Dada movement was an artistic revolution that took place in the early decades of the 20th century. It changed the face of contemporary art, introducing a wide range of new techniques, styles, and aesthetics. While Dada originally emerged as an anti-war movement, it was also in many ways an anti-art movement, characterized by aspects of surrealism, whimsy, and irrationality. Many famous artists produced work during the period, and others were heavily influenced by the work of the Dadaists.

Surrealist art installation on the exterior of the Dali Museum.
Surrealist art installation on the exterior of the Dali Museum.

Dada emerged in Germany in 1916 as a collaboration between artists of several nations including Germany, France, and Switzerland. Initially, it was conceived as an anti-war art movement, and much of the early work takes the form of protest art. The movement chose the name “Dada” by inserting a slip of paper into a French dictionary and choosing the word it landed on, which happens to mean a hobbyhorse or child's toy. The movement also appeared in New York, centering around Gallery 291.

The Dada Movement began in Germany during 1916.
The Dada Movement began in Germany during 1916.

Many artists of the Dada period went on to be associated with Surrealism, the artistic movement that followed. Marcel Duchamp, Paul Klee, Sophie Taeuber, Max Ernst, and Pablo Picasso are all representatives of the Dada movement, along with many others. It represented an artistic union between several warring nations, and was in many ways a remarkable achievement.

The work of the period is extremely distinctive, and the techniques and styles used have become so pervasive in modern art that Dada is not often given the recognition it deserves. Collage, borrowing from native cultures, avant-garde film and literature, performance art, confrontational art, and surrealist elements are all legacies of the movement. Many artists of the period created large format pieces that were designed to confront the viewer, and often forced interaction of some form or another. The Dadaists also played with typography, guerrilla theater, minimalism, and advertising techniques.

Many of the artists in the Dada period felt that European art was corrupted, and sought to purify it by mocking it. Therefore, many pieces are extremely playful and teasing, such as Marcel Duchamp's famous portrait of the Mona Lisa with a mustache. Almost all Dada artwork inspires a reaction, which was the intended goal. The movement was very short lived, being essentially over by 1923, but it left a lasting legacy to modern art, advertising, and society. Without Dadaism, it is unlikely that Surrealism and other modern art movements would have occurred.

Artists from Switzerland were part of the Dada Movement.
Artists from Switzerland were part of the Dada Movement.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


What if art becomes merely a mockery of earlier form of art but also opened up all the questions.


"Mockery" is the ultimate in art. It ridicules those who are full of themselves or think that they are jackasses. We can make fun of those in power and ridicule them to their pain. It makes a public statement that, to the artist, no one gets a pass.

We can depict George Bush with soiled underwear over his head as he peers out a pee hole. We can show Mugabe being eaten alive by his people and distress him in his sleep. We see recorded history and know about the Egyptians and past artists who put graffiti on the walls.

It is a finger in the eye and a pat on the back, or it is nothing at all.


That is what happens, every single time a new era forms. For example, the Renaissance, 'oh how much we have learned to improve and move forward, check it out humanism and science and the age of reborn classism, life is now beautiful and wonderful and stop being so religious and submissive etc etc' but then later on we have the gothic era where it is all death and doom and gargoyled church fronts" So with this 'improvement' (in context from one period to the next) nothing really changes. Everything is one big cycle of repetitively 'unique'.

Dada opposes that in a way in which may seem useless and absurd but has also opened up all the questions which, lets face it will help us to learn and improve and move forward. (yes through mockery, and bold irony, and of course through reaction! how else do you expect us to change(move forward/learn/expand/improve)?



Mocking the earlier bases for societies which warred over trivial matters was the purpose of Dadaism. The mission wasn't for a mere "moving forward," but for a reaction to past issues which could repeat themselves. The reaction to the past is what made a new movement, ironically.


If art becomes merely a mockery of earlier forms of art, isn't it simply absurdism? I understand the flexibility of interpretation which is inherent in the postmodernity movement and modern art, but dadaism seems to be reactionary. Instead of mocking earlier art forms, I think it is better to learn to improve and move forward.

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