Dadaism and Duchamp
Dadaism was an artistic and literary movement that began in Zurich, Switzerland. It arose as a reaction to World War 1 and the nationalism that many thought had led to the war. It was very much influenced by Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, and Expressionism. The content made out of that genre was highly varied and ranged from performance art to poetry, photography, sculpture, painting, and collage. The movement fell away with the development of Surrealism but it gave rise to many of the various realms of modern and contemporary art.
Dada was the first conceptual art movement where the focus of the artists wasn’t on creating aesthetically pleasing objects but on making works that often upended bourgeois sensibilities and that asked difficult questions about society, the role of the artist and the purpose of art. In fact, the group were so intent on opposing all the norms of middle-class culture that they were often barely in favour of themselves, often crying “Dada is anti-Dada.” So the realm of dadaism could often be confusing, contradictory and in a constant state of flux. Artists like Hans Arp, for example, went against all norms of traditional forms of art making where a work was meticulously planned and completed. Arp used methods of chance in the creation of his works, an example being his artwork Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance, which involved his signature technique of tearing paper into rough shapes and dropping them onto a larger sheet, pasting them down where they happened to fall. Dada artists are known for their use of readymade objects – everyday objects that could be bought and presented as art with little to no interference from the artist. The use of readymade art forced questions about artistic creativity and the very definition of art and its purpose in society. The term ‘readymade’ art was first used by French artist Marcel Duchamp to describe the works of art he made from already manufactured objects. For example, Duchamp’s earliest readymade art piece was titled Bicycle Wheel and was made in 1913. This was simply a wheel mounted on a wooden stool. Duchamp particularly chose ordinarily functional and rather dull objects.
Marcel Duchamp was one of the pioneers of Dadaism. Dadaism was primarily about creating what many called ‘nonsense art’ but was, in reality, a movement that challenged ideas about what could be art and what art was. Duchamp particularly looked at turning mundane objects into sculptures. Despite working with a lot of the same themes as surrealists, he refused to actually align himself with any particular art movement. So even despite his significant contribution to the Dadaist movement, he refused to label himself as a Dadaist. This could be contributed to the idea that even Dadaism itself seemed to contradict itself and he did not want to label himself or his art for fear of falling into that. However, despite this, he is widely considered to be the father of Conceptual art. For that reason, I want to focus a little bit on who he was and what he did because it really highlights the Dada movement and what it stood for.
Marcel Duchamp was born on July 28, 1887, and died on October 2, 1968. He was a French artist whose work broke down the boundaries between works of art and everyday objects. He was a painter, sculptor and chess player, and his disinterest in conventional ways of making art led him to create his most famous works, the ‘ready-mades’ that started the new artistic revolution. Few artists can boast about having changed the course of art history the way Duchamp did. His influence on later contemporary artists was monumental and many future art movements were influenced by him.
Duchamp was raised in Normandy, in a family of artists. He moved to Paris in 1904 to join his two brothers who were also there working as artists. Duchamp earned a living by working as a cartoonist and his early drawings show his interest in both visual and verbal puns. He became an American citizen in 1955 where he became a big influence on the New York art scene.
Duchamp began to work as an artist when he moved to Paris to pursue his career. When he eventually retired from the art scene he reportedly spent his time playing chess. In 1911 Duchamp met Francis Picabia and the following year attended a theatre adaptation of Raymond Roussel’s Impressions d’Afrique, a play about the eccentric travelers of a vessel which has become shipwrecked. It had a profound effect on Duchamp. Duchamp noted that for the first time he felt that as a painter it was much better to be influenced by a writer than by another painter.
Duchamp was constantly captivated by new approaches to art and he particularly enjoyed the Fauvists, Cubists, and Impressionist for that reason. He related especially to the Cubist way of working, which focused less on representing reality and rather on reordering it. His earlier paintings, such as Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) show his interest in machinery and its connection to the body’s movement through space. His interest in crossing between genres of creativity and drawing in other disciplines for inspiration would later become one of the core ideas of Dadaism.
Dada artworks, in general, aim to present intriguing overlaps and paradoxes where the intent is to demystify artwork in a sense of accessibility. The main idea was that art did not have to be elite or cost a lot of money and this contradicted the world of art history before it, where art and being able to afford artworks was a sign of status. Even in a more modern time, seeing art meant that you had the luxury to visit a gallery and view and appreciate the work. At the same time, they tried to remain quite cryptic about the intention and concept of the works so that the viewer could interpret it in a variety of ways. The key to understanding Dada works lies in reconciling the seemingly silly, slapdash styles with the profound anti-bourgeois message.
Dada was easily the first conceptual art movement and is now considered a watershed moment in 20th-century art. Postmodernism as we know it would not exist without Dada. Almost every underlying postmodern theory in visual and written art as well as in music and drama was invented or at least utilized by Dada artists. Dada explored all the genres of art in this way, from art as performance, which overlapped with everyday life, the use of popular culture and audience participation and the act of embracing the absurd and the use of chance.