Dada, according to its adherents, had no meaning. It was dedicated to "pure" and "absolute" art. "Art," the Dada Manifesto read, "is a private matter; the artist does it for himself; any work of art that can be understood is the product of a journalist."
The Dada Movement developed between 1913 and 1915, between the dispersal of Cubism -- from which it borrowed, and generalized for its own ends, the technique of papiers collés -- and the advent of Surrealism, which succeeded and for which it constituted a preparatory though negative phase. Dada made its first appearance almost simultaneously in Zurich, New York and Paris, before reaching Germany and then concentrating in Paris. Switzerland's neutrality during the war had made it a refuge for all kinds of political exiles and agitators. Lenin was there, rubbing shoulders with dissident elements and anarchists from almost every country. Among the latter were the Rumanian poet Tristan Tzara, the German writers Hugo Ball and Richard Hülsenbeck, and the Alsatian painter and sculptor Hans Arp. In February 1916 they founded the Cabaret Voltaire, a literary club, exhibition gallery, and theatre hall all in one; the name is a clear indication of its sarcastic and critical intentions. A dictionary, opened at random (this appeal to chance was to become systematic) furnished the name of the movement: Dada. Learned lectures on Klee, or Lao-tse, alternated with scandalizing or mystifying entertainments, designed to undermine by every possible means the traditional bases of culture and social order. Works by Arp, Chirico, Max Ernst, Feininger, Kandinsky, Klee, Kokoschka, Marc, Modigliani and Picasso were exhibited in a very eclectic manner at the Dada gallery in 1917. The typical artist of the movement was Arp, illustrator of Hülsenbeck and Tzan, who, with his coloured papers, his woodcuts and his sculptures, organized the so-called 'formes libres' (free forms), born of fantasy and the unconscious (vide Arp).
The real precursor of the Dada spirit in its destructive sense was the painter Marcel Duchamp, a man of implacable logic and exceptional gifts, who sacrified his career as an artist to the principles of inversion, negation and antiaestheticism. He settled in New York in 1915, where his famous 'ready-mades' (mass-produced objects arbitrarily raised to the level of works of art) created a sensation, and became the central figure of the Stieglitz group and the review '291' ( Man Ray, Picabia, de Zayas, Arensberg), an antiartistic movement parallel to the Dada movement of Zurich. Picabia, a painter of Spanish origin, had visited New York in 1915. He went to Barcelona and founded the '391' review there in January 1917. He turned up in Switzerland in 1918 and contacted the Dads group. Two numbers of Dadd, the review edited by Tzara, were published in 1917. Dada III, in which Picabia collaborated, appeared in December 1918, and contained the Dada Manifesto, in which the meaning and destructive force of the movement were confirmed. The Dada Anthology (number 4-5 of the review) appeared in April 1919 (vide Duchamp, Picabia). Tristan Tzara then settled in Paris, and was enthusiastically received by the group of the review Littérature ( March 1919), run by the poets Breton, Aragon, Soupault, Eluard, Ribemont-Dessaignes and Péret. A Dada salon opened at the Montaigne Gallery on June 6th, 1922, but the Parisian movement was more literary and, after a summer demonstration in the Tyrol, it dissolved in internal disputes in the autumn of 1922 (vide also Breton, Tzara).
In Germany, because of the 1918 defeat and the social crises of the time, Dada found fertile soil for expansion. With the more direct participation of artists, the movement took on a more political character. The Berlin group, created by Hülsenbeck in 1917, broke up in 1920, after a large-scale exhibition which was a triumph for Georg Grosz, ferocious caricaturist of the German feudal bourgeoisie and militarism. The Cologne group showed itself still more violent on the social plane, by the publication of the Electric Fan (a Communist and Dadaist periodical confiscated by the British occupation authorities). On the artistic plane it was, perhaps, the most interesting group, as a result of the activities of Max Ernst who, joined by Hans Arp, began to make his collages, of which the most famous series is entitled Fatagaga (short for 'fabrication de tableaux garantis gazométriques'). The exhibition of April 1920, held at the Winter Café and closed by order of the police, reached a level of scandal and provocation which has never been surpassed. The departure of Max Ernst for Paris in 1922 marked the end of Cologne Dadaism. Mention should also be made of the movement in Hanover, founded by the poet and painter Kurt Schwitters, whose collages entitled Merz were formed of unusual materials and all sorts of litter (vide Ernst, Grosz, Schwitters).
Dada was less an artistic movement than an intellectual revolt, born of the convulsions of the 1914-1918 war, and too directly bound to its anguish to be anything other than a cry of negation, which inevitably carried within itself the seeds of its own destruction. But it was necessary for the coming of Surrealism, which was to build on its rains.
Dada had little appeal in England, and, in the U.S.A., existed only briefly in New York. The living members of the original Dada groups, such as Hülsenbeck and Tzara, still pursue old feuds and keep alive controversies which no longer arouse public interest. Hülsenbeck lives in New York and practises as a Jungian psychiatrist under the name of Charles R. Hulbeck. Grosz also lives in America. His current work, though sometimes more spectacular than the old, is considerably less effective. Dada's main contribution to this century was its satirical character, and that, at least, is not quite dead.