A century ago, a group of exiled artists from across Europe did something radical in a time of war: they worked together, regardless of national background or language, to create art aimed at challenging the status quo.
Based in Zurich, Switzerland, they called their movement Dada. Legend has it the word was chosen at random from a French dictionary, in keeping with the artists’ disdain for formal, establishment systems.
“It gradually crystallized into essentially an anti-war movement,” said Timothy Shipe, curator of the International Dada Archive at the University of Iowa Libraries. “It was against everything that led up to the war, things like extreme nationalism and misuse of language for propaganda.”
Now, an exhibit exploring their art and philosophy is on display in the gallery at the University of Iowa Main Library.
The library has a long history with Dada materials — in 1978, UI hosted an international conference on Dada, during which scholars discussed the need to collect and preserve work related to the movement. The library’s Special Collections department became the place for that repository, the International Dada Archive, and UI now holds one of the world’s largest Dada collections. UI also publishes the peer-reviewed Dada/Surrealism journal, available at bit.ly/dada-archive.
The Dada movement began in February 1916 with the founding of Cabaret Voltaire, a performance venue in a Zurich cafe. Much of the movement centered on performance, and it helped spread the concept of performance art. A notable example: the reading of “sound poems,” which included a poem read simultaneously in three languages. Other sound poems published later, when the movement spread to Germany and beyond, were simply nonsense words, performed with the same pomp and circumstance as any traditional poem and once even sung as a sonata.
Along with performances, the artists also published zines and pamphlets, many of which are on display in the exhibit. They were notable for a new kind of typographical design, using varying fonts and sizes, printing on diagonals instead of in straight lines and integrating collage. In visual art, the Dadaists often centered everyday objects — such as a notorious case of a urinal being submitted (and rejected) for an esteemed galley show.
Often, the goal was to provoke.
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“They didn’t want a passive audience,” Shipe said. “It was all about making people think. Some of their events broke up in fist fights or with people walking out.”
Shipe, who has been working with the collection since 1980, said he first became fascinated with Dada as a child, during a class trip to the Philadelphia Art Museum.
“I like just seeing how innovative it is, how much it influenced the later art scenes, how people used art to influence human society, particularly anti-war sentiment,” he said.
He said he also likes that despite taking on serious topics, the Dada art often is playful.
“The idea of political art that has a sense of humor really appeals to me,” he said. “It foreshadows later things like the yippies — protesting the war but having fun doing it. It shows how fun art can be and at the same time be meaningful and relevant.”
If You Go
• What: Documenting Dada/Disseminating Dada exhibit
• Where: University of Iowa Main Library gallery, 125 W. Washington St., Iowa City
• When: Through April 28
• More information: lib.uiowa.edu/gallery/
• What: Andrei Cordrescu’s Posthuman Dada Guide
• When: 7 p.m. Feb. 18
• Where: University of Iowa Main Library, Shambaugh Auditorium, 125 W. Washington St., Iowa City
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