This artistic-literary movement first began in Zurich in 1916, at the height of the First World War. Its main centre was the Cabaret Voltaire, where poets, painters and musicians with similar interests gathered to take part in such experimental activities as abstract poetry, automatic painting and the composition of noise-music. The group included such figures as Hans Arp, Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco, Richard Huelsenbeck, Hugo Ball and Hans Richter.Tristan Tzara would write: “Dada arose from a moral need, from a deep feeling that man, the centre of all creations of the spirit, had to re-affirm his pre-eminence with regard to all the impoverished notions of human substance, with regard to all dead things and ill-achieved gains…” Used without any specific meaning, the term ‘Dada’ immediately became synonymous with furious revolt against not only society but also art itself as a product of organised civilisation. The aim was to use irony in order to undermine all established cultural values; with its emphasis on the primitive and on artistic creativity that defied rationality, Dadaism insisted upon the non-integration of the artist within the world around him. Soon it was an international movement, particularly important in Berlin, Cologne, Paris and New York. Apart from the already-mentioned Zurich group, those involved included future Surrealists such as André Breton, Paul Éluard and Louis Aragon, important German artists such as Hausmann, Baader, Heartfield, Grosz, Schwitters, Max Ernst and Baargeld, and finally the Frenchman Marcel Duchamp and the Spanish artist Picabia; these latter two would form the core of American Dadaism, along with Man Ray, the inventor of Rayographie and Objéts d’Affection.
Children can use the word ‘dada’ for a rocking-horse; in Russian and Rumanian the term means “yes-yes” and in German “this-this”. In Italian and French it is one of the first words that children form, using it to refer to everything from toys to people. It is not clear where the Dadaists found the term; the most probable theory is that it was chosen when flicking through a Petit Larousse dictionary. The chance nature of the name certainly reflects the movement’s negation of rationality, its rejection of prescribed norms and openness to new forms of art. In the 1918 Manifesto Dada, Tristan Tzara wrote “Dada does not mean anything…” Jean Hans Arp provides an ironic account of how Dadaism came about, revealing the delight in paradox and nonsense that would be a leitmotif of the entire movement: “I hereby declare that Tristan Tzara discovered the word (dada) on 8 February 1916 at 6 PM. I was present with my twelve sons when Tzara pronounced this word for the first time, arousing in us legitimate enthusiasm. This happened at the Café de la Terrasse in Zurich, whilst I was raising a brioche to my left nostril.”