Does DADA free the artist from restraint, and challenge dominant ideologies?

“Dada’s propaganda for a total repudiation of art was in itself a factor in the advance of art. Our feeling of freedom from rules, precepts, money and critical praise, a freedom for which we paid the price of an excessive distaste and contempt for the public, was a major stimulus. The freedom not to care a damn about anything, the absence of any kind of opportunism, which in any case could have served no purpose, brought us all the closer to the source of all art, the voice within ourselves.”

Hans Richter.[1]

George Grosz and John Heartfield, The life and work in the universal city, 12.05 noon, 1919, collage.
Raol Hausmann, The Art Critic/Der Kunstkritiker, 1919-20, Lithograph and printed paper on paper, support: 318 x 254 mm, Tate Modern 

I shall be exploring the ways in which Dada photomontage refuted established frameworks of creating and selling art, and to what extent they challenged dominant ideologies. For the purpose of this exploration, we will be primarily concerned with the work of the Berlin Dada from 1918 until 1922. This is in part due to Haussmann’s declaration that the birth of photomontage occurred in Berlin in 1919, and also due to the fact that the most interesting examples of photomontage sprouted here, from the likes of John Heartfield, Raoul Haussmann and Hannah Höch. Firstly, an examination of the pre-existing climate of art production and creation in Berlin prior to the Dada manifesto of 1919 will help to set up a framework in which the methods of Dada art can be understood, and the ways in which Dada artists set out to refute these. An examination of the work of prominent Dada photomontagists Raoul Haussmann, follows on from this, to illustrate the ways in which Dada artists embodied ‘anti-art’ in their practice. Finally, an evaluation of whether Dada truly freed the artist from restraint and challenged dominant ideologies concludes as to whether the Dada were successful in carrying out what they had preached.

It has been said of Dada that “wherever it spread, it took on a different colour” and in Berlin it was political.[2] By 1918 there was a revolution occurring in Berlin, and the Dada movement here stemmed from political militantism. The political climate just after the war was incredibly turbulent; increased social and political tensions created enormous upheaval within the country. Because of this, when Huelsenbeck arrived from Switzerland in 1918, he found the perfect climate in which to set off the Dada bomb that had worked so wonderfully in Zurich. It was unleashed on a small group of intellectuals; Raoul Hausmann, Franz Jung, Johannes Baader, George Grosz, John Heartfield and a dozen young libertines recently graduated from Herwarth Walden’s Sturm.[3] The devastation of the First World War at the advent of modernity had caused within the Dadaists the desire to shake into perpetual movement everything that was static, threatening it with a revolution of its own. Due to this the Berlin Dadaists, like their Swiss counterparts, were convinced of the need to bring an end to bourgeois passivism.
In terms of their approach to the institution of art, the Dada manifesto of 1918 made clear Dada’s critical stance on hermetic modern art. They felt Expressionist art, alongside the work of Orphic Cubists and Futurists, did not affect the fundamental and revolutionary change in society that the Dadaists believed essential in order to stay in touch with modernity. Alongside this, they were criticised for their capitalistic sympathies, something which went directly against the Dadaist socialist views. Huelsenbeck writes that German Expressionism “transformed Germany into a fat idler with hope of a good pension, it had nothing in common with the efforts of active men”.[4] The Dadaists saw this idleness as a crime against art and modernity, a symptom of the bourgeois disease that had overtaken the art world. Grosz, like Huelsenbeck, felt that the work of the Berlin Dada must offer something to the increasing working class struggle for freedom as he was a great supporter of a socialist world revolution.

This was achieved in part the use of periodicals, newspapers, flyers and events that disseminated the Dada message, but also through new forms of art, such as the photomontage, which embraced collaboration, impermanence, reproducibility and iconoclasm. Distancing himself from considering dada art as ‘works of art’, Peter Bürger preferred to deal with photomontages as “Dada manifestations”. He drew attention to the fact that they were created as acts of resistance against the injustices of the art establishment and were not intended as explicitly aesthetic objects.[5] The Dadaists challenged the notion that art should satisfy a bourgeois need to “offer a beautiful appearance of a better world”, by injecting political satire and sharp social comment into their work.

At the International Dada Fair of 1920, when Berlin Dada was at its zenith, the largest pictorial collection of Dada work was placed together in an exhibition of 174 items. Hausmann and Baader had put assembled a group of ‘corrected masterpieces’, featuring the collages of Haussmann and Hoch alongside the deeply political work of Grosz, Heartfield and Baader in an unconventional exhibition.[6] The catalogue featured the montage ‘The life and work in the universal city, 12.05 noon’ by Grosz and Heartfield. In this, Grosz original sketches are exploded through an amalgamation of collaged text and image, making direct reference to the pop culture of the United States. You can see this kind of aesthetic repeated in the photomontages on show, such as ‘The Art Critic’, created by Hausmann and completed in 1919. The montage was a direct attack on the art institution, and parody of the art critic. The central figure, the art critic, was constructed out of a photograph of Grosz, whose head had been blown out of proportion. Childlike drawings of his eyes and mouth were posted onto his face, downturned so to give him an expression both ridiculous and cartoonish. His ludicrousness was further reinforced by the enlarged pencil in his right hand. Lodged into the back of his neck, a triangular cut out of a German banknote. The critic is blinded and unable to ‘see’ the woman to his right as she leans closer to his mouth, listening with a bemused expression. Large overblown words, so enlarged they become unreadable, are pasted to the background. These could be interpreted as the voice of the critic, whose words are so aggrandised and over inflated that they become nonsensical and meaningless. Further critique can be read into the banknote, which suggests that money is never far from the mind of the critic. It serves to reveal the capitalist intention of the art institution. In one image, Hausmann used the fragmentation of multiple different images to coalesce into a parody of the art critic as an undisputed authority on art. He used photomontage to “shatter the surface” in more ways than one, both shattering the pictorial surface of the canvas and the pretentions of the art institution.

In order to successfully critique the structures that dominated the art institution, photomontage needed to pictorialize an attack on rational and traditional art production. The overarching aesthetic message of the exhibition was that Dada art, like photomontage, rejected the material methods of aesthetic tradition in place of a new materialism, one that adopted an unconventional approach to materials. Assemblage, became the technique of choice for its multiple layers of signification. It challenged defined artistic practices in craft, control and intentionality whilst it rejected the use of traditional subject matter, materials and classical composition; “we painted with scissors, adhesives, plaster, sacking, paper and other new tools and materials”.[7] Photomontage was a method that both encapsulated the desire of the Dadaists to be considered anti-artists, (they used scissors and not paintbrushes) and deliberately attempted to challenge the authority of non-objective art. The result was meant to suggest a haphazard construction. Hausmann stated that photomontage allowed them to see themselves as engineers, not artists, and the work as a construction as opposed to a piece of art. The Dadaists did not want to create eternal works of aesthetic genius, instead they wished to pave the path for a new society, by exposing what they saw as the “stale cultural conventions of a decayed European civilization which had led the world into the conflagration of the Great War of 1914-1918”.[8]

They attacked bourgeois methods of communication as they effectively used images circulating in print media to re-organise meaning, transforming something recognisable into a resignification in a new context. Similarly, by reproducing these images, they were questioning the notion of authorship. Established conventions dictated that the production of art required one isolated individual with an artistic vision, but with photomontage images were taken from a variety of sources Was it the person that took the photograph that was to take credit, or the one who assembled it? The answer was technically neither, and yet both at the same time. This collaborative method further decreased the significance of the ‘original’ in the work of art, a consequence that in Walter Benjamin’s terms would contribute to the loss of the “aura”.[9] Hausmann recognised in photomontage the subversive potential of the medium, the power it had to shock. This can be seen in ‘The Art Critic’, the medium provided Hausmann with an innovative way to explore multiple points of view, and to imbue within his work multiple levels of signification. As an optical device, it served to juxtapose images close and far, opening up new possibilities of perspective and depth.[10] By incorporating the debris of everyday life into their work, they aimed to replicate unflinchingly the “simultaneous whirl of noises, colours, and spiritual rhythms” of modernity, with all “its brutal reality”.[11] Through this they hoped to confront a crazy world with its own image, and create a new unity in an age of war and revolution.

With this in mind, it is useful to evaluate to what extent the Berlin Dadaists, with their photomontage, challenged dominant ideologies of art practice. On the one hand, it is hard to underestimate the effectiveness of Dada methods and ideology when measured against the legacy that they have created for contemporary art, something which Richard Kuenzli was keen to stress in his work dada, stating that they had permanently “shaken society’s notions of art and cultural production”.[12] Most conceptual art movements after 1923 traced their roots to Dada, as the anti-institutional and anti-hierarchical approaches to art inspired other anti-establishment movements such as Surrealism, Constructivism, Situationism and Fluxus.

However, to state that Dada was effective in shattering the art institution is perhaps over emphasising their isolation from it. Bürger noted that an inherent issue within the Dada movement was how to continue to create an aesthetic that shocked people into action.[13] Once it had been accepted into the art world, (i.e. once Duchamp’s ready-made was accepted into the gallery) it became a part of the institution, and the shock value was reduced to nothing. The photomontages, whilst being intended as manifestations of political and social critique only, were not devoid of artistic sensibility. In ‘life and work’, what is meant to be an illogical assemblage can be read as an organised composition with a procession of figures moving from left to right along a row of buildings. This desire for visual and pictorial representation within Dada was an issue that challenged the very notion of their ‘anti-art’ tendencies, and challenged their distinctness from other modernist movements.

Yet no other movement came as close to shattering the myths of the art establishment than Dada. We must recognise that contextually, the methods employed by the Dadaists were revolutionary. They irreversibly pushed the boundaries of what qualified as art, and paved the way for the art that was to follow. They questioned and ultimately effectively changed what was considered art, as well as its purpose within society. Dada forever altered the landscape of popular culture; they created a visual language that had an enormous influence on the pictorial development of graphic design, advertising, film and photography. It can be argued quite vehemently that they, to a large extent, challenged dominant ideologies by breaking down barriers between high and low art.

It is hard to do justice in so few words the extent in which Dada effectively refuted dominant ideologies. The Berlin Dada used photomontage to refute established methods of creating and selling art by challenging bourgeois autonomous art, the myth of originality, the artist as individual creative genius and the hierarchies within art. Through the rejection of traditional methods of art creation, they aimed to re-establish modern life as an essential facet of art production. By the supposed shattering of aesthetic values in their work, they aimed to rally people into action both politically and socially, making them aware of the bourgeois structures that dominated art production at the time. This was meant to provide a solution to the passivity of other modernist movements, such as Expressionism. The impact of their legacy is not to be under-estimated, although the extent of their power to refute the art institution did and still does face challenges. And yet, the influence of Dada is still visible and powerful, even today.

“Dada siegt!—Dada triumphs!”.




Ades, Dawn. Photomontage. Thames & Hudson Ltd: London, 1986.

Benjamin, Walter, and J. A Underwood. The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction. London: Penguin, 2008.

Benson, Timothy O. “Mysticism, Materialism, And The Machine In Berlin Dada”. Art Journal 46, no. 1 (1987): 46. doi:10.2307/776842.

Bürger, Peter. Theory Of The Avant-Garde. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Chametzky, Peter. Objects As History In Twentieth-Century German Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

Hausmann, Raoul, and John Cullars. “Photomontage”. Design Issues 14, no. 3 (1998): 67. doi:10.2307/1511895.

Höch, Hannah, Peter W Boswell, Maria Martha Makela, Carolyn Lanchner, and Kristin Makholm. The Photomontages Of Hannah Höch. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1996.

Huelsenbeck, Richard. Dadaistisches Manifest. Berlin: E. Reiss, 1918.

Huelsenbeck, Richard. Memoirs Of A Dada Drummer. New York: Viking Press, 1974.

Hugnet, Georges, and Margaret Scolari. “Dada”. The Bulletin Of The Museum Of Modern Art 4, no. 23 (1936): 3. doi:10.2307/4057867.

Kuenzli, Rudolf E. Dada. London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 2006.

Lavin, Maud, and Hannah Höch. Cut With The Kitchen Knife. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Richter, Hans. Dada: Art And Anti-Art. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965.

Shipe, Timothy. “The Dada Archive”. Books At Iowa, no. 39 (1983).

[1] Hans Richter, Dada: Art and Anti-Art (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), 49.

[2] Peter Chametzky, Objects As History In Twentieth-Century German Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 35.

[3] Timothy Shipe, “The Dada Archive”, Books At Iowa, no. 39 (1983), 4.

[4] Richard Huelsenbeck, Dadaistisches Manifest (Berlin: E. Reiss, 1918), 36.

[5] Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 51.

[6] Dawn Ades, Photomontage (Thames & Hudson Ltd: London, 1986), 11.

[7] Hugo Ball as quoted by [7] Hans Richter, Dada: Art and Anti-Art (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), 49.

[8] Timothy Shipe, “The Dada Archive”, Books At Iowa, no. 39 (1983), 10.

[9] Walter Benjamin and J. A Underwood, The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction (London: Penguin, 2008), II.

[10] Raoul Hausmann and John Cullars, “Photomontage”, Design Issues 14, no. 3 (1998): 67.

[11] Richard Huelsenbeck, Dadaistisches Manifest (Berlin: E. Reiss, 1918), 36.

[12] Rudolf E. Kuenzli, Dada (London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 2006), 14.

[13] Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 55.


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