In February 1916, as World War I raged on, Dadaism was invented in Zürich by a German refugee, the poet Hugo Ball, and his companion, Emmy Hennings. They were soon joined by other artists who had moved to Zürich to escape the war: the Romanian poet Tristan Tzara and the German poet Richard Huelsenbeck, the Romanian painters Marcel Janco and Arthur Segal, the German painters Hans Richter and Christian Schad, the Dutch artists Otto and Adya van Rees, the Alsatian Hans Arp and the Swiss painter and dancer Sophie Taeuber. With the exception of Arp and Taeuber, all of the painters were still using figuration when they came to Dada in 1916, and the general tendency of their works was quite Expressionistic. The group got together regularly in a tavern on the Spiegelgasse, a little street where Lenin was living at the time. The Dadaists transformed this tavern, rechristened the Cabaret Voltaire, into a sort of literary and artistic café where poetry readings, art exhibitions, and all sorts of performances were held.
In 1916, following the example of the Blaue Reiter almanach, Hugo Ball launched a journal called Cabaret Voltaire. With a handsome cover designed by Hans Arp, the first issue included poetic works by F.T. Marinetti, Blaise Cendrars, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Dadaist writers, as well as reproductions of artworks by Picasso, Modigliani, and the Dadaists. In 1917, following the example set by Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber, more and more Dadaists began to express themselves using nonfigurative forms, influenced in particular by Kandinsky's abstract works.
These artists were all horrifed by the war, which they blamed on Western civilization itself. Turning against their own murderous civilization, they joined forces to form a movement called "Dada," a name the apparently found by opening a dictionary at random. To express their revolt, they organized "anti-artistic" events at the Cabaret Voltaire; these events were principally directed against Western art, which the Dadaists saw as the highest expression of the culture they abhorred. During the "Dada Evenings" - one of which is depicted in a painting of Janco's - poets and painters recited poems, put on theater-ballet performances, exhibited works of a particularly provocative nature, in form as well as content, and generally tried to create as big a scandal as possible.
Hugo Ball described how the masks that Marcel Janco made for one such occasion were used:
"For our next event, Janco made a certain number of extraordinary masks. They evoked Japanese theater and Greek tragedy, yet were resolutely modern. Designed to be seen from a distance, they produced an incredible effect in the relatively small cabaret. We were all there when Janco came in with his masks. And the minute we saw them, we couldn't wait to try them on. When we did, something quite strange happened. Each mask dictated not only what costume should be worn with it, but also certain precise, pathetic gestures, which approached madness. Although we would never have suspected it five minutes earlier, we were soon moving in a bizzare ballet, draped and adorned with incredible objects, trying to outdo each other as we danced around the room.
The masks transmitted their power to us with an irresistable violence. We understood instantly why such masks are so important for pantomime and theater, for these masks simply forced anybody wearing one of them into an absurd and tragic dance.
As we examined these painted cardboard constructions more closely, their ambiguous character suggested various dances to us; and for each of these dances, we immediately composed a little tune. One dance was called the "Flycatcher". With the corresponding mask, the dancer heavily stamped his feet and raised his arms in broad, rapid gestures, as if he was trying to catch something as it flew by, to the sound of a shrill, nervous music. The second dance was called "Nightmare". The dancer emerged from a squatting position and hurled himself forward. The mouth of the mask gaped wide open; the nose was flat and crooked. The dancer's arms, raised in a threatening way, were extended with special tubes. The third dance was "Despair of Celebration". Long, golden hands, cut out of cardboard, were hanging from the dancer's curved arms. The dancer faced right, then left, several times, slowly turned around, and collapsed in utter despair before returning to the first movement.
What fascinated all of us in these masks was that they incarnated emotions and passions on a superhuman scale. Suddenly, the horror of our age, against the paralyzing backdrop of the war, was clearly perceptible."
Veritable "happenings" combining all of the many forms of human expression, these events were quite Futuristic in inspiration. And, like the Futurists, the Dadaists aimed to be provacative. Hans Richter remembered an evening devoted to a reading of phonetic poems (Lautgedichte) by Hugo Ball:
"A public reading of abstract poems by Hugo Ball had been announced at our gallery. Arriving a little late, I found the room crammed; only standing room places remained. Ball: 'I was wearing a costume that Janco and myself had designed especially for the occasion. My legs were covered by a sort of bright blue cardboard column that made part of my body look like an obelisk. Over this, I was wearing an enormous gold cardboard collar lined with scarlet paper, attached around my neck so as to allow me to flap it like a pair of wings by raising and lowering my elbows. The costumed was topped off with a magician's hat, a very tall, blue-and-white striped cylinder. On three sides of the podium, I had set up music stands and placed manuscripts, written in red, on them; as I recited, I planned to position myself near one or another of the stands. Tristan Tzara knew about my preparations; and we couldn't wait to see what the audience's reaction would be. Everyone else was dying of curiosity to know what I was going to do. Since my column prevented me from walking, I was carried to the podium in the dark, and then began reciting in a slow and solemn cadence: gadji beri bimba...... This was too much. At first confused by such unfamiliar sounds, the audience finally exploded.'
At the eye of the storm, Ball remained motionless (he could not move in his cardboard costume) facing the crowd of pretty girls and serious representatives of the middle class as they burst into laughter and applause - motionless like a tower, motionless like Savonarola, uncanny and pure.
'As I went on, the accents got heavier and heavier, the sounds grew increasingly intense as the consonants sharpened. I quickly realized that if I wanted to stay serious - and I did - my expressive means would not be up to the pomp of the staging... I had just finished Song to the Clouds of Labadas on the music stand to my right and Caravan of Elephants on the left, when I started vigorously flapping my wings and turned to the center. The heavy series of vowels and trailing rhythm of the elephants had just provided a last gradation. But how was I to end? I suddenly realized that my voice, for want of any other alternative, was taking on the ancestral cadence of a sacerdotal lamentation, the wailing style of the hymns that fill Catholic churches in East and West: zimzim urallala...
I cannot say what this music suggested to me. All I know is that I began to sing my series of vowels like a kind of liturgical chant; and as I did so, I tried not only to stay serious myself, but also to impose my seriousness on the audience. For one fleeting moment, I thought I glimpsed, beneath my Cubist mask, an adolescent's pallid, distressed face, the half-scared, half-curious face of a trembling ten-year-old eagerly haning upon a priest's each and every word during the mass for the dead or some other important mass in his native parish. Just at that moment, the electric light was switched off, as I had requested it be beforehand; and, dripping with sweat, I was carried off the podium to the exit.'"
Considered today, with the notable exception of those of Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber, the artworks produced by the Zürich Dadaists may seem somewhat disappointing. After his figurative period - which was, for that matter, fairly mediocre - Marcel Janco (1895-1984) was never very convincing with his nonfigurative plaster reliefs and highly Expressionistic woodcuts. Hans Richter (1888-1976) was influenced by Kandinsky, as his rather derivative Visionary Portrait (1916-17, Paris, Musée national d'art moderne) shows. Otto van Rees did collages which, though they may have influenced Arp, are not themselves very successful. Arthur Segal (1875-1944) proved more interesting with his use of painted frames around compositions broken up into compartments of equal diminsions traversed by a spectrum of colors (Port in the Sun, Zürich, Kunsthaus).
With their collages, paintings, watercolors, engravings, reliefs, and embroidery, Hans Arp (1886-1966) and Sophie Taeuber (1889-1943) - later to become husband and wife - produced the Zürich group's major works. Arp's beginnings were Expressionistic, and show the influence of Kandinsky's Blaue Reiter and Klänge woodcuts. Taeuber came from the world of the dance, but also had a background in the decorative arts. Already in 1914, Arp, who was born in Strasbourg and had received part of his training in Germany, was exploring the possibilities of nonfigurative collage: Papier collé (1915, Bern Kunstmuseum) shows the influence of Cubist aesthetics in the choice of materials, but the composition is much closer to Kandinsky.
Arp soon transposed this particular combination of materials and compositional tendencies to the polychrome relief. In Abstract Configuration (1915, Teheran, Museum of Modern Art), various elements of the same thickness are arranged in two levels on a wood panel. The shapes are geometric, but the overall design is quite free. The Burial of the Birds and Butterflies (1916-17, Zürich, Kunsthaus) illustrates much the same idea. Three levels of wood are held together with exposed screws; the irregular forms are smoothly painted (without any visible brushstrokes) in a hightly restrained color range (black, dark red, and white-speckled black), but are not attached to a rectangular support. The relief's irregular silhouette stands out directly against the wall, as it also does in Dada Relief (Basel, Kunstmuseum), which dates from the same period. It is thus no exaggeration to credit Arp with the invention of cut-out form. In a different vein, the artist also did collages of "neutral" pieces of paper, using more or less regular squares and rectangles cut out of gray, blue, and brown wrapping paper; his 1916 Geometric Collage (Paris, F. Arp Collection) is a good example of this approach. Building on these investigations, and eager to experiment with new techniques, Arp turned to embroidery (Pathetic Symmetry, 1916, Paris, Musée national d'art moderne); he also did collages whose composition, i.e., the arrangement of the forms, was left entirely to the intervention of chance. In Elementary Construction According to the Laws of Chance (1916, Basel, Kunstmuseum), each piece of paper was, in theory, chosen at random and then randomly placed on the support. As defined by the Cubists, the papier collé had limited the artist's role to arranging elements; Arp went even further and eliminated the traditional "artistic" notion of arranging forms in relation to each other. On this subject, Arp declared:
"In 1915, Sophie Taeuber and I did our first works based on the simplest possible forms in painting, embroidery, and collage. These were probably the earliest manifestation of a new kind of art. These works are Realities in themselves, without meanings or cerebral intentions. We rejected everything having to do with copying and description to leave Simplicity and Spontaneity in complete liberty. Since the arrangement of surfaces, as well as their proportions and colors, was left to chance alone, I said that these works were arranged 'according to the law of chance' found in nature, chance being for me a tiny part of a greater order which, elusive and inaccessible, cannot be wholly grasped. Russian and Dutch artists who were at this time producing works that seemed to resemble our own fairly closely were, in fact, following quite different intuitions. Indeed, their works, unlike our own, are a tribute to modern life, a declaration of faith in the machine and technology. Although they made use of abstraction, these artists were still drawing on naturalism and trompe-l'oeil to some extent."
In 1916, Sophie Taeuber began to do nonfigurative drawings, watercolors, and embroideries dominated by horizontal and vertical structures, in reds, blues, and yellows, arranged in two-dimensional space. Her investigations along these lines led to the creation of a masterpiece, the Vertical-Horizontal Composition with Reciprocal Triangles (1918, Zürich, Kunsthaus), a triptych consisting of three identically-sized panels structured in vertical strips which intersect with several horizontals to define surfaces painted in black, brown, various shades of red (from orangey to pinkish), blues, and golds. The orthogonal grid is disturbed in the upper section of each panel by two isoceles triangles that add a dynamic emphasis to the whole. In size, composition, and color, this painting does, on some levels, evoke the style of Gustav Klimt's works. Sophie Taeuber soon transposed the aesthetic principles found in her paintings to sculpture. Her Portrait of Hans Arp (1918-1919, Paris, Musée national d'art moderne) is a polychrome "head" in turned wood. She also transposed them to the applied arts and, in 1918, made a puppet theater for Carlo Gozzi's play Le Roi-Cerf.