1916 - 1925
Often referred to as "anti-art", the Dada movement is the idea that the idea is the art. We’d prefer to think of it as the time when art separated from its realistic roots and became an intellectual exercise. Dada can be viewed in two ways. On the one hand it was a response to a world gone mad; a world based on chance and absurdity. On the other hand, it was an extremely intellectual movement that redefined art. It was really the first art movement that challenged the way society functioned. It also served as the foundation to a number of modern art movements that came later in the 20th Century.
As had happened before, a roiling political culture after World War I, led art history in a new direction. With the terrors of war and the numbing social upheavals in defeated Germany, many people decided the world around them was an absurdity. Artists, meeting in a small Zurich tavern, Cabaret Voltaire, used this futility as the foundation of a new art movement they called Dada which is German for hobby horse. Behind the leadership of the German poet Hugo Ball, owner of Cabaret Voltaire, the Dadists created their art to reflect the way a child views an absurd world. They lost confidence in their culture and their art, which included poetry, film, sculpture, photography, theatre and paintings, reflected it.
Marcel Duchamp was also a giant of the movement. He first came on the art scene as a dedicated Cubist, most notable for "Nude Descending a Staircase, No 2." However, as he continued to push his art in a more intellectual direction he questioned whether art had any boundaries. Once he took an old porcelain urinal and placed it in one of his shows, forcing viewers to see the artistic design of this often hidden part of everyday life. He then began taking other common objects and placing them on bases, forcing people to look at them as art. These “Readymades” were the first attempts at pointing out artistic possibilities in the mundane. A half-century later the Pop Art movement agreed with Duchamp. Giants of modern art, especially Robert Rauschenberg, often cited the influence Duchamp had on their work, considering themselves Neo-Dadaists.
Soon Dada spread to artistic hubs around the world, including Berlin, Cologne, Paris, Tokyo, and New York. Each culture put its own particular spin on the movement. In Berlin it was more political and anti-Hitler. In New York it was more intellectual. In Cologne, Max Ernst pushed the movement toward what became Surrealism.
To see how the Dadaists turned the world of art upside down, look at Raoul Hausmann’s self-portrait, titled "ABCD," next to Post-Impressionist, Vincent van Gogh’s own self-portrait. Where Van Gogh painted a man going mad, Hausmann used photomontage to show an artist in a world gone mad.