Dada was born 100 years ago in the “total pandemonium” of Zurich’s wild Cabaret Voltaire – and art and culture have never been the same since, writes Alastair Sooke.

In 1916, a young Romanian artist called Marcel Janco produced a painting depicting an evening in a Zurich nightclub. Now lost, but known through a photographic reproduction on a postcard, the picture presents a riotous scene in the fractured style of early Cubism.

A group of performers, centre-stage, make strange, unnaturally angular shapes with their bodies. They seem to be responding to the music of a nearby pianist, who tips back his chair, while remaining hunched over his keyboard. The audience, meanwhile, is a raucous, drunken mob. Sitting at tables scattered around the auditorium, they laugh, yell, point, and jabber. Above them, over the stage, an ominous, skull-like visage – a mask possibly inspired by African tribal art – keeps watch. Next to it, like a banner placed prominently above the pianist, a single word – “Dada” – is legible in the gloom.

This, of course, is the name of the revolutionary cultural movement that electrified Europe a century ago. And it all began in this cramped nightclub, which hosted an ‘entertainment’ that lent its name to Janco’s painting – the Cabaret Voltaire.

According to its co-founder, the German poet Hugo Ball (the pianist in Janco’s painting), Janco was present for the opening night of the Cabaret Voltaire, on 5 February 1916. “The place was packed,” Ball noted in his diary. Whatever occurred that night clearly excited the audience of artists and bohemians, since, not long afterwards, Ball made another entry in his diary: “Everyone has been seized by an indefinable intoxication. The small cabaret is about to come apart at the seams and is going to be a playground for crazy emotions.” Janco’s painting memorably captures the “intoxication” and “crazy emotions” that the Cabaret Voltaire unleashed.

Today, the Cabaret Voltaire is still going strong in the same building in the Swiss city where it first began. Earlier this year, it marked the centenary of Dada’s foundation by initiating a vibrant daily programme of performances and events. Recently, I visited the venue and spoke to its director, Adrian Notz, to find out how this modest, medieval building, in Zurich’s old town, came to witness the birth of one of the most important avant-garde movements of modern art.

Switzerland is a birdcage, surrounded by roaring lions – Hugo Ball

“Hugo Ball was a theatre director and philosopher who came to Switzerland from Munich,” Notz explains. Ball was accompanied by Emmy Hennings, a cabaret singer whom he later married. Like many other artists, writers and intellectuals, such as James Joyce, Ball and Hennings were exiles drawn to Zurich because it was a safe haven during the dark days of World War One. “Switzerland is a birdcage, surrounded by roaring lions,” Ball wrote. Swiss neutrality also attracted pacifists and political revolutionaries, including anarchists and socialists: indeed, Vladimir Lenin lived diagonally across the street from the Cabaret Voltaire. As a result, Zurich had a very cosmopolitan feel during the second decade of the 20th Century. This atmosphere was enhanced by the city’s thriving entertainment industry.

Banging tunes

To begin with, Ball and Hennings worked in one of the city’s many cabarets, variety theatres, cafes and bars, where incendiary ideas were often debated. By early 1916, they had resolved to open a cabaret of their own, which Ball hoped would be “a centre for artistic entertainment”. The venue they selected was the intimate back room of the Holländische Meierei, a popular restaurant-cum-tavern at Spiegelgasse 1, not far from another cabaret where they had found employment. In a press release, Ball let it be known that “guest artists” could come and give “musical performances and readings at the daily meetings”, and he prepared for the opening night by sticking “futuristic posters” onto the walls of the venue, which could accommodate around 50 people. The cabaret was named after the 18th-Century French author of the satirical novella Candide.

Like an intense fire, the light of the Cabaret Voltaire was bright but brief

Janco was in the crowd that turned up for the opening, accompanied by three friends including another Romanian, the poet and impresario Tristan Tzara, who would become an important figure within Dada. Clearly, an infectious sense of energy and expectation was in the air, and the cabaret’s success prompted Ball to write to his friend Richard Huelsenbeck, the German percussionist and poet, suggesting that he should travel to Zurich immediately to be part of what was going on. Less than a week later, Huelsenbeck had arrived. Upon witnessing what his friends were up to, he said that the cabaret would be improved with the addition of “Negro rhythm” supplied by a large African drum.

Ball’s ‘sound poems’ involved typewriters, rakes and pot covers

Like an intense fire, the light of the Cabaret Voltaire was bright but brief. It ran for six nights a week, but only until the summer of 1916. During that time, it became a byword for outlandish performances. Janco designed ferocious, primitive-looking masks and costumes inspired by Romanian folk art: “The horror of our time, the paralyzing background of events, is made visible,” Ball said, referring to them. (One of Janco’s masks can be seen in Dada Africa, an ongoing exhibition at Zurich’s Museum Rietberg.) Ball performed “sound poems” (“verse without words”) that rejected conventional language. There were concerts involving typewriters, rakes, and pot covers.

The Alsatian artist Hans Arp, who was strongly associated with Dada, and is one of the protagonists of Schwitters, Miró, Arp, a beautiful new exhibition, commemorating the movement’s centenary, at the Hauser & Wirth gallery in Zurich, described a typical night at the Cabaret Voltaire as “total pandemonium”: “The people around us are shouting, laughing, and gesticulating. Our replies are sighs of love, volleys of hiccups, poems, moos … Tzara is wiggling his behind like the belly of an Oriental dancer. Janco is playing an invisible violin and bowing and scraping. Madam Hennings, with a Madonna face, is doing the splits. Huelsenbeck is banging away nonstop on the great drum, with Ball accompanying him on the piano pale as a chalky ghost. We were given the honorary title of Nihilists.”

Dada nights

The performers at the Cabaret Voltaire, though, preferred a different name: Dadaists. At some point, probably during April 1916, the word ‘Dada’ was ‘discovered’. Various members of the group have been credited with its invention. According to one account, it was selected at random, by inserting a knife into a German-French dictionary. (“Dada”, in French, is a child’s word for a hobbyhorse.) However, it may also have been the result of the Romanians Tzara and Janco repeatedly saying, “Da, da!” (“Yes, yes!”)

The culmination of the Cabaret Voltaire was an infamous performance that took place on 23 June 1916. Ball appeared onstage wearing a fantastical cardboard outfit. He then proceeded to intone gibberish in the manner of a priest. Eventually, bathed in sweat, he was carried down from the stage like, as he put it, “a magical bishop”. A celebrated photograph documenting Ball in his absurd costume has survived.

Shock and provocation were Dada’s radical tools

What united all this feverish, anarchic activity? On one level, the Dadaists simply wanted to attack bourgeois customs and conventions, which they believed were responsible for the catastrophe of the Great War. “While the thunder of the batteries rumbled in the distance, we pasted, we recited, we versified, we sang with all our soul,” wrote Arp. Shock and provocation were Dada’s radical tools. So were parody, buffoonery, and vaudevillian excess.

But, says Notz, Dada was also about bringing together different styles and disciplines: “It’s about having music, visual art, dance, poetry, sound poetry, manifestos, and so on, all in one – creating an event, a live performance.” For Notz, Dada isn’t a style in the manner of, say, Cubism, with a readily recognisable aesthetic. Rather, it’s an “attitude”: “I like to say that Dada is questioning things, going in between things,” he explains.

All cut up

The art historian Dieter Buchhart, who has curated Hauser & Wirth’s comprehensive exhibition of more than 100 artworks, agrees. “I would not talk about a Dada aesthetic, because Dada is very diverse,” he says. But he continues: “One of the unifying elements in visual art and poetry is the collage.”

This is especially evident in the work of the German artist Kurt Schwitters, who invented a new type of picture-making that he called ‘Merz’ (from the word ‘Kommerz’, which was visible on a torn advertisement that he chanced upon while walking around his native Hanover). Schwitters met Arp at Berlin’s Café des Westens in 1918 (the two became close friends), and his spellbinding Merz collages, incorporating scraps of commercial imagery found on commonplace items such as ticket stubs, are often considered offshoots of Dadaist art.

Every generation of adolescents uses Dada as a device for protest and rebellion – Dieter Buchhart

Dadaist artists such as Schwitters could even be described as ‘anti-artists’, in the sense that they wished to assassinate painting and traditional artistic techniques. Arp, who came to the fore after the initial phase of Zurich Dada was over (the movement later spread to other places in Europe such as Paris and Berlin), is another good example: he ‘designed’ many of his compositions by tearing or cutting rough, irregular squares of commercial paper, dropping them, and then gluing them, wherever they landed, on a support. “What unified all of the Dada artists,” continues Buchhart, “is that they made a clear cut with traditional art history and form the base of post-war and contemporary art history.”

Indeed, Dada’s open-endedness ensured its influence upon subsequent 20th-Century culture: “Within art, you have a kind of Dadaist heritage of Surrealism, Fluxus, Situationism, punk,” Notz says. “Even the Beat generation had connections with Dada. But Dada as a mentality or attitude – that goes beyond art. Every generation of adolescents uses Dada as a device for protest and rebellion.” He smiles. “Dada is almost like a religion. Do I believe in Dada? Yes.”

Alastair Sooke is art critic of the Daily Telegraph.

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