Dadaism in Zurich
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At the same time as both a pre-Revolution Lenin and a Ulysses-obsessed Joyce were staying in Zürich, a group of maverick European intellectuals was also seeking refuge in the city from the bloodshed and misery of World War I. In 1915, Hugo Ball, a writer and theatre-director, had arrived from Munich with his partner Emmy Hennings, a dancer and singer. It seemed to them, as to many horrified by the brutality of war, that Western civilization had finally lost all reason; with a group of like-minded friends, they made an arrangement with the owner of the Meierei tavern at Spiegelgasse 1 to use the pub’s backroom for a “literary cabaret” to demonstrate to the people of Zürich and the world the moral bankruptcy of Western culture. On Saturday, February 3, 1916, Ball, Hennings, the Romanian poet Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp (an artist from Franco-German Alsace), and a handful of other emigrés inaugurated the Cabaret Voltaire with a night of wild music, poetry and dance, intended to satirize art and literature by placing unreason against reason, anti-art against art. On June 15, they published a magazine with contributions from Kandinsky, Modigliani and others, and presented themselves as “Dada”, the most significantly meaningless name they could find, picked at random out of a dictionary (dada is French for “hobby-horse”).

Dada’s poignant absurdities aptly expressed the mood of dislocation and crisis seizing Western society, and the movement spread rapidly. In New York, Dada was centred at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery “291”, meeting point for Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and others. In Berlin, Dadaists such as George Grosz relentlessly lampooned high society, and were the initiators of the brand-new technique of photomontage. In the Netherlands, Dada became De Stijl, led by Mondrian. In 1920, some of the Zürich Dadaists moved to Paris and there formed the Surrealist movement, which later attracted artists such as Dalí and Miró. The greatest legacy of Dada was its liberating influence in overturning previously unquestioned strictures of style and order, not only in art and writing but across society as a whole. What is both appropriate and extraordinary is that such a movement should have emerged from – of all places – neutral, bourgeois Zürich.

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