August 25, 2020



Zürich today is such an efficient, orderly, and civilized city that it comes as a surprise to learn that it was the birthplace of history’s most anarchic artistic movement: Dada. In 1916, artists flocked to neutral Switzerland to escape the horrors of World War I. A group of expats started the Cabaret Voltaire (named after the 18th-century thinker whose book Candide mocked the idiocy of society).

Located in the back room of a tavern, the club featured wild, atonal music, comical dancing, and absurd satirical songs that stood as “anti-art”—a form of controlled madness that reflected the general insanity of the world at war. Among the pioneers were Hugo Bell, a German writer and theater director; his lover, dancer Emmy Hennings; Romanian poet Tristan Tzara; and French artist Hans Arp. (The radical expat community in Zürich at the time also included Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, who lived around the corner from the tavern, and famed Irish writer James Joyce, who was working on his masterpiece, Ulysses).

The name for the movement was selected by stabbing a knife at random into a French dictionary, coming up with dada (hobby-horse), which evokes a child’s first stumbling words. The movement’s works included absurd visual collages where men’s heads might be exchanged for anvils or Mona Lisa given a clown’s red nose, gibberish plays, and Marcel Duchamp’s provocative Fountain sculpture, a porcelain urinal, which caused a scandal when it was submitted to an arts competition signed R. Mutt.

Dada’s chaos reflected the growing disillusion of Europeans at the war’s meaningless slaughter, and it gained huge underground popularity for its ability to shatter any rules or preconceived ideas about art. Its members attacked everyone, even themselves: “Dada is anti-Dada,” they often declared. Many of the original participants moved from Zürich to Paris in the early 1920s, leading to the birth of Surrealism and the work of Salvador Dali. As late as the 1970s, Dada’s principles influenced punk rock.

Today, the memory of Cabaret Voltaire lingers in Zürich. The tavern where Dada was born was saved from demolition in the 1990s and renovated as a trendy arts center, now called the Spiegelgasse, where exhibitions of paintings and avant-garde theatrical works can still be seen.

Travel to Switzerland with Globus