Wednesday, November 28, 2012

            The complex politics of the Weimar Republic created a state of confusion and unrest that became the ideal breeding grounds for artists and thinkers to speak their minds. A group of such thinkers coalesced into one of the most well-known and well-loved art movements of today. They called themselves Dada, and through their presentation of cut-paper, nonsense word images, they present to us a clear view of the German frustration with the Weimar condition.

            The Weimar Republic is a fourteen year period of democracy that existed in Germany from 1919 to 1933, between the end of World War I and the rise of Hitler’s Nazi party. The severe damage suffered in Germany as a result of the first world war was political, economic, and emotional more than structural. The chaos and confusion centered around the end of WWI allowed for the German monarchy to be pushed out and a republic established. However, the desire for rapid political change caused the framers of the Weimar Constitution to create a flimsy document that would not be able to support the fragile new republic.

             Realizing that the war was lost, military leaders attempted to pacify the Allies by creating a new German government “based on representative character and liberal philosophy”1. As they fled, the princes of the Hohenzollern monarchy named Friedrich Ebert, head of Social Democratic Party (SPD), as the new Reich Chancellor. Ebert and Majority Socialist Gustav Noske would become the most important political players in the early years of the republic. Ebert commanded the drafting of the Weimar constitution as his way of legitimizing his political claim. The next ten years would become a constant battle between the Majority Socialists, the soldiers’ and workers’ councils, the Independent Socialists, and the Spartacus Union (later the Communist Party of Germany).

              Reparations outlined in the Treaty of Versailles required that Germany take full responsibility for the war, reduce their military to 100,000, surrender land that included important industrial areas, and make reparations payments that would cripple the German economy.2 Suddenly, German civilians were acutely aware of the devastating effect of the war. They were faced with crippled and disabled veterans on the streets of large cities like Berlin. Their economy was brought to a near-standstill. The mark quickly lost value due to serious inflation caused by printing more bills in order to pay the impossibly high monetary reparations demanded by countries like France and Belgium. The political leaders in charge of the new Republic were drowning in responsibility and failing to restore order.

             Three years before the Weimar Republic was established in Germany, the Dada Movement began during a meeting at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. Among those artists present were Hugo Ball, Jean Arp, Richard Hülsenback, and Emmy Hennings. Legend has it that Ball and Hülsenbeck decided to point to a random word in the dictionary, which so happened to be “Dada” meaning “hobby-horse” in French, in order to name the movement.3 A few years after its creation in Zurich, the movement traveled to Berlin where it recruited the artists Franz Jung, John Heartfield, Hannah Höch, Raoul Hausmann and George Grosz.

              Characterized by absurdity and rejection of reality and social norms, much of the Dada art produced served as political commentary or satire, even incorporating recognizable images of German politicians, such as in Hannah Höch’s Heads of State (Figure 1). The group held “meetings” where they charged entrance fees and then shouted obscenities and insults at the audience. These events often ended in violence and had to be broken up by police officials.4  The Dadaists were also known for bizarre theatre productions and for passing out cards with random slogans such as “Dada ist da” on them.

 Figure 1, Heads of State, Hannah Höch, 1919

             With a strong desire to manipulate and shift the current modes of modern communication, the Dada Movement also created several politically charged publications. The periodical Neue Jugend, published in 1914, started off as an Expressionist publication. Editors of the journal had sharply contrasting opinions on the war, and the periodical fell out of publication that same year. In 1916 Wielande Herzfelde (whose brother was Helmut Herzfelde, better known as John Heartfield) resumed publication of Neue Jugend, stepping lightly around strict German laws of censorship.5 While the journal got away with many Dada publications, it was last published in June of 1917. In 1919 Hausmann began the publication Der Dada, which was a review consisting of woodcuts, poems, and drawings pertaining to the Dada Movement.6 This periodical also served as a means of experimentation for Dada artists, especially with collage and typography.

              In Zurich, Dada was born out of the ideas of strangeness and anarchy, but it was in Berlin that Dada adopted a political agenda and became a mode through which artists expressed criticism of World War I. The First International Dada Fair of 1920 exhibited the Berlin Dadaists views on the SPD, World War I, and the nonsense of art that they felt was German Expressionism. Held from June 30 to August 25, 1920 in a Berlin gallery owned by Otto Burchard, who helped fund the show and earned the title “Financedada,” the fair was advertised as an “exhibition and sale of roughly two hundred Dadaist products.”7  Organized by George Grosz, Raoul Hausmann, and John Heartfield, the exhibit reflected the Dada perspective on government as being highly disorganized, as well as presented the effects of war. 8  The works shown were crowded together, and even displayed paintings on top of paintings.  In addition, the subject matter in a few works displayed missing limbs and revolvers, as evident in George Grosz and John Heartfield’s electro-mechanical sculpture, The Petty Bourgeois Philistine John Heartfield Gone Wild (Figure 2).  In this fashion, the Dadaists were able to make their point clear:  Germany is a mess under the SPD and war destroyed humanity.  Not only were the SPD and World War I criticized, but so was German Expressionism.  Since the movement was backed by the SPD, the Dadaists sought to expose the “nonsense” that expressionism put forth.9  There was nothing factual or clear in expressionism, and the Dadaists wanted to change that.  Their tactic was to push materialism, simply for factual clarity that the government was hiding.10  As a result, the Dadaists aimed to break down the conventions of painting and sculpture.
Montage became the medium of choice for the Berlin Dadaists, as it used mixed media as “a way of making objects that engage ‘reality’ and ‘the actual’ through means of representation that are anti-illusionistic.”11  In other words, the mixed media used throughout the works of the First International Dada Fair represented the absurdity of the government, yet brought about a truth about the state of Germany post-war.  In addition to the use of montages, the fair displayed various mottos, slogans, and signs against the SPD and the war, to emphasize the Dadaists strong hatred against those subjects.  In juxtaposition to the works displayed at the exhibit, the artists of the fair were nonchalant and well dressed.  They wanted to distinguish themselves from the art they produced, for it did not represent them but rather who they were critiquing. In an effort to overturn the SPD, the First International Dada Fair aided in projecting the Dadaist message to the masses to reveal the truth about their government and the war.

Figure 2, The Petty Bourgeois Philistine John Heartfield Gone Wild, John Heartfield and George Grosz, 1920

            While many artists became involved in the Berlin Dada movement from 1918 to 1922, the five primary contributors were Richard Hüelsenbeck, Raoul Hausmann, George Grosz, John Heartfield, and Hannah Höch.  Together, they were responsible for creating much corrosive propaganda against the war effort, staging many public demonstrations, and publishing various works such as Club Dada, Der Dada, and the Dada Almanach.12

            While the political and social contributions of the group as a whole were extremely impactful, each of these individual artists also directly influenced the group in unique ways.  Richard Hüelsenbeck, who returned to Berlin in 1916 after spending some time in Zurich, is considered the founder and organizer of Berlin Dada.  He published numerous periodicals, such as Neue Jugend and Die freie Strasse, that gave momentum to the movement from 1917 to 1922.13  He worked closely with other members of the group as well, such as George Grosz who provided the illustrations for Hüelsenbeck’s novel Doktor Billig am Ende and book of verse Phantastische Gebete.  Individually, George Grosz also played an important role in the group.  In 1920, he developed the medium of photomontage alongside fellow Dadaist John Heartfield.  He employed this medium as a means of critiquing the contemporary art world, especially the work of the German Expressionists.  For Grosz, Dada was highly political, and he used his art to comment on the current situation in Germany under the Weimar Republic.14  Throughout his career he shared a studio space with John Heartfield, so many of these themes are also present in his work.  Like Grosz, Heartfield criticized the Expressionists and the German bourgeoisie.  In addition to photomontage, he was also an innovator in the use of photographs in the design of book jackets.  For John Heartfield, photography and photomontage became a means for reflection upon current political issues.15 

           Another primary contributor to Berlin Dada was Raoul Hausmann.  Called the “dadasophe”, his work existed in many mediums, including painting, drawing, sculpture, writing, theater, poetry, and journalism.  In particular, he initiated many of the key innovations of the movement through his manifestos, satires, and political or social critiques. All of these demonstrate his understanding of the contradictions of the time.  All of his work conveys the same desire to abolish bourgeois culture and a strong feeling of revolt.16  In 1915, he met Hannah Höch, the final member of the nucleus of Berlin Dada.   The two would share a romantically turbulent relationship until 1922 that resulted in much collaboration in their work.  However, Höch also provided her own contributions to Dada.  She primarily used the medium of photomontage as a personal response to the instability that resulted from the war and in opposition to German Expressionism.  As the sole female member of the group, Höch is unique because she was particularly interested in conveying a new type of woman that emerged in the 1920s.17  

           Over the course of the Dada Movement, the Dadaists accomplished a radical shift in the ways in which artists communicated through both self expression and mass communication. By the 1920s, Dada’s popularity in Berlin began to subside and by 1923 the movement ceased to exist altogether. However, Dada did not fall out of the artistic consciousness as it continues to inspire contemporary artists to this day.

1 Gordon Alexander Craig, Germany, 1866-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press), 1980, 397.
2 “History Learning Site: The Treaty of Versailles,” last modified 2012,
3 George Grosz, George Grosz: an Autobiography, trans. Nora Hodges (New York: Macmillian Publishing, 1983), 133
4 Grosz, George Grosz: an Autobiography, 134.
5 Timothy Shipe, “Dada Periodicals at Iowa” in Books at Iowa no. 39 (1987): Accessed November 1, 2012,
6 Irene E. Hofmann, “Documents of Dada and Surrealism: Dada and Surrealist Journals in the Mary Reynolds Collection” Art Insitute of Chicago (2001): Accessed November 1,2012,
7 Wieland Herzefeld and Brigid Doherty,  “Introduction to the First International Dada Fair,”  October vol. 105, (2003):  93,  Accessed October 2, 2012.
8 Herzefeld and Doherty,  “Introduction to the First International Dada Fair,” 93.
9 Douglas Kahn, John Heartfield: Art and Mass Media, New York: Tanam Press, 1985, 35.
10 Timothy O. Benson, “Mysticism, Materialism, and the Machine in Berlin Dada,” Art Journal vol. 46, no. 1 (1987): 53, Accessed  November 3, 2012,
11 Herzefeld and Doherty,  “Introduction to the First International Dada Fair,”  99.
12 Annely Juda Fine Art. “The Twenties in Berlin.” Exh. Cat., (London, 1978), 19.
13 Richard Huelsenbeck, “En Avant Dada: A History of Dadaism,” The Dada Painters
and Poets: An Anthology, edited by Robert Motherwell (Boston: Wittenborn Art Books, Inc., 1981), 42-48.

14 George Grosz, "I Teach Fundamentals," College Art Journal 9.2 (1949-1950): 199-201.
15 Robert Matherwall and Jean Arp, The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology, (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1989), 89-91.
16 Timothy O. Benson, Raoul Hausmann and Berlin Dada (Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1987), 94.
17 Brigid Doherty, “Fashion Ladies, Dada Dandies,” Art Journal 54 (1995): 46-50.