Monday, December 2, 2013

Dada Is Dead, Long live Dada!

I've recently been getting back into art history and my favorite movements, Dada, Bauhaus and Futurism (among others). Dada is a huge inspiration for my love of collage, so I read a bit and put together the following blog for a change of pace. Enjoy!

Dada Is Dead, Long live Dada: Dada’s Development of Collage (Photomontage and Typography) and the Resulting Influence on Modern Graphic Design


Dada, a nihilistic art movement born as a reaction to World War II, came into being in 1916 when a group of avant-garde artists, writers and film-makers converged in Zürich (neutral Switzerland). They protested war, government and bourgeois values, and championed collaboration, spontaneity and chance. Meeting at the appropriately-themed Cabaret Voltaire—named after the French satirist, whose play Candide mocked the idiocies of his society—Dadaists rejected traditional art and creative techniques, opting to express themselves through collage, photomontage and found-object construction rather than through painting/sculpture.

Flourishing primarily in Zürich, New York City, Berlin, Cologne, Hannover, and Paris, Dada did not constitute an actual artistic or coherent style. Members of the movement opposed all cultural norms, and embraced nonsense and inconsistency, but from city to city, focuses differed. For example, Zürich was preoccupied with war, while New York Dada centered around mocking the art establishment. The paradox “Dada is anti-Dada” was the often-heard motto from this group of contradictory artists who constantly debated the very definition of art. Still, the artists themselves, particularly Francis Picabia, who published the periodical Dada in several major cities, linked Dada’s philosophies and styles throughout Europe and in the United States.

Perhaps nothing better represents Dada’s meaninglessness than its name. While there are explanations from several members of the movement, the most widely accepted narrative depicts a group of young antiwar artists in Cabaret Voltaire inserting a paper knife into a French-German dictionary. The knife pointed at the French word for “hobby-horse” and the artists adopted the label. Despite Dada’s efforts to be random and nihilistic, it brought together mismatched ideas and materials, and accepted “lesser” media—enormous contributions to contemporary art and design. Nothing expresses this contribution more than Dada’s role in the rise of collage and this technique’s influence on modern graphic design.

Paper and Paste: How Dada Developed Photomontage

Collages weren’t new to Dadaists. Traced all the way back to 12th century Japan’s calligraphic scrolls through mid-19th century Victorian/Edwardian England where it was a parlor pastime, the technique had always been popular, but dismissed as a simple craft. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque are credited with changing this assumption around 1912, using collage as an artistic tool. Dadaists embraced and took advantage of collage over the next few years—and advanced “fotomontage" (photo engineering) into a fully-respected modern art form.

Photomontage, the pasting together fragments of photographs and printed words to create a work, was a favorite means of articulation for Dadaists. The new development of halftone photogravure and offset printing technology created a massive inventory of advertising and commercial photography. Clippings of newspapers, magazines, other press, posters, catalogs, tickets, letters, and other printed materials were widely available. With this medium, Dadaists could directly reflect the society’s structural breakdown and convey a disjoined feeling of alienation and strange realities of life. The provocative recombinations of imagery were inherently shocking and translated easily into political, anti-cultural and nihilistic expression; they were also fairly simple to reproduce and distribute.

To create works with powerful socio-political effect, they selected familiar press photographs and rearranged them to tremendously change their messages. Berlin led the way. The First International Dada Fair was held in Berlin in June 1920 and Berlin issued several publications, such as Club Dada, Der Dada Jedermann sein eigner Fussball (“Everyman His Own Football”) and Dada Almanach. Prominent graphic designers Hannah Höch, John Heartfield, Raoul Hausmann, Kurt Schwitters, Georg Grösz, and Max Ernst contributed their works and other cities soon followed suit. In Cologne, circa 1920, Max Ernst, Hans Arp and others produced ironic collages; they reconstructed popular printed material into grotesque and strangely erotic works. For example, for The Hat Makes the Man, Ernst cut, pasted and stacked images of men’s hats clipped from a sales catalog. The MoMA website notes the satirical connection between the imagery and title:
…the suggestively phallic towers and tongue-in-cheek title inscribed on the work, C’est le chapeau qui fait l’homme, were likely inspired by Sigmund Freud’s book The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious (1905), in which the famed psychoanalyst identified the hat—a requisite accessory for bourgeois men—as a symbol for repressed desire. The visual pun adds a new, bawdy spin to the cliché.

They and other Dadaists were not afraid of breaking aesthetic boundaries. In fact, true Dadaist philosophy revolved around the message. Dada poet Hugo Ball wrote, “For us, art is not an end in itself, but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in.” Modern life was to be deconstructed, challenged and explored. Their choice of materials and the subjects within the materials showed that Dadaists also embraced modernity, pushed boundaries and challenged traditional aesthetics to create unorthodox, spontaneous, irreverent, and controversial statements.

A Font Free-For-All: How Dada Developed Typography

At the beginning of the 20th century, much like collage/photomontage, typography was considered a technique rather than an art, but Dadaists realized that using typography as a bold design element would bolster their voice and vision. Dadaists’ use of the written word may have seemed to contradict their aim to strip out the literal, but, as in all other aspects of the movement, they sought to breakdown and reinvent traditional uses of typed words. They considered the typography itself—how the type face (shapes, structure, hierarchy, weight, etc.) created meaning (or no meaning…). Arranging words non-linearly and non-contextually, they played with typographical characteristics, sonority and double meaning.

Like other elements in their photomontages, they upset typographical harmony and disregarded functionality. Repetition of the same word, disproportionate white space, seemingly mismatched images and words, and multi-directional typesetting were all common elements in Dada design. Although Dada borrowed many of these methods from Futurism, these typographical experiments revealed Dadaism's dissident nature and eventually Dada’s contributions became more prominent. For example, Theo van Doesburg and Kurt Schwitters (touring Holland on their “Dada Campaign”) designed a poster for the Kleine Dada Soirée in The Hague that the MoMA website describes as: …a jumble of words that shift direction and overlap. The word “Dada,” is repeated in bold red letters in various orientations. Within the cloud of black lettering sit a few small images—a deer’s head, an arrow, pointing hands—cut from various sources and transferred onto the surface. Slogans in various languages proclaim: “Dada is against the future, Dada is dead, Dada is idiotic, Long live Dada!”

Dadaist’s use of typographic collage and typography in photomontage reinforced its ideologies of destruction, randomization and rebellion.

Dada’s Influence on Modern Graphic Design

Early Dadaists claimed to be anti-art to scorn the modern world, but fans and art scholars have found profound social commentary and useful communication techniques within the body of this era’s work. Bringing to the world a new approach to typography, photomontage, negative space, layout, and spacing, Dada influenced later art movements—Surrealism, Conceptual Art, Minimalism, Pop Art, and others—and touches many aspects of today’s art and graphic/communication design. Today, we often see Dada’s impact on meaning, space, typography, and the manipulation of the familiar, as well as the link it created between images and words.

Modern technology—digital photography, vector manipulation and cost-effective reproduction—is partially to thank for the growth of techniques associated with Dada. Collages have found a strong niche because both professionals and amateurs can produce them in a relatively short time frame. Another advantage is that collage easily allows for abstraction; abstract work requires audience participation and with each audience comes a new interpretation and connection to the work. To find this connection, viewers must engage with the work, trying to find elements they recognize and can interpret. This dynamic relationship makes collage a guaranteed attention-grabber for a wide audience, fulfilling the mission of graphic design.

Modern design has shifted Dada’s ideals of nonsense, irrationality and intuition; unexpected juxtaposition is everywhere, as designers use this method to create a sense of irony. Unbalanced and asymmetric images and words grab attention. Skewed typography, mismatched sizes and styles create a pulse, while photomontage serves a foundation for re-imagination of preconceptions. Perhaps even more importantly, Dada’s qualities allow design to hold strong meaning for different reasons for different people—the message relates to viewer exposure and interpretation, which means designers can target more than one audience and make each feel like the message is especially meant for them. From movie posters to wine labels to web design, collage surrounds us, waiting for us to decode it and connect it to our lives.


Dada was chiefly an intellectual movement; collage was only one part of this anti-war, anti-cultural movement that involved visual arts, literature, poetry, art manifestoes, art theory, theatre, and graphic design. Using scraps, Dadaists built a movement. Through collage and Dadaist values—experimentation with messaging and the contradiction of aesthetics built on breaking down the very idea of aesthetics—modern graphic designers can communicate in exciting ways. As Tristan Tzara’s writes in his 1918 Dada Manifesto, “Every page should explode, either because of its deep seriousness, or because of its vortex, vertigo, newness, timelessness, crushing humor, enthusiasm of its principles, or the way it is printed.”

Today we are used to collages and creating or extracting meaning from them. Oddly, this is contrary to their artistic origins as rejections of pictorial conventions that reflected the chaos and meaningless of an era after war. Dada pushed art to it limits and defied classical aesthetics, but still used elements of classic graphic design (arrangement, language, hierarchy, color) in an inverted sense to convey opposition and inconsistency—a challenge to the meaning of art and design. Dada publications show that graphic design was crucial to the movement's visual identity, and today, as we adopt Dada’s aesthetics into the mainstream, its founders would be proud of the paradox their movement creates today: graphic design was indispensable to Dada and now Dada is indispensable to graphic design.


Dada. (2013). Encyclopedia Britannica online.

Dada Companion. (2013). Typography.

Meggs, Philip B. (1998). A History of Graphic Design 3rd Edition. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

MoMA. (2013). MoMALearning: Kleine Dada Soirée (by Theo van Doesburg with Kurt Schwitters).

MoMA. (2013). MoMALearning: The Hat Makes the Man (by Max Ernst).

MoMA. (2013). MoMALearning: World War I and Dada.

National Gallery of Art. (2006). DADA: Cities.

National Gallery of Art. (2006). DADA: Techniques.

Riding, Alan. (2005). After almost a century, is Dada still among us? The New York Times.

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