"Switzerland was a birdcage surrounded by lions,” wrote the German poet Hugo Ball, looking back on his time in Zurich in 1916. As the First World War entered its deadliest phase with up to tens of thousands killed daily on the battlefields of Verdun and the Somme, the largest city in neutral Switzerland was crowded with refugees, intellectual exiles, political dissidents and draft-dodgers from all over Europe.
James Joyce was here, as was Lenin, barely 18 months before the October Revolution. Also present were a bunch of impecunious misfits, aspiring artists and attention-seekers who kick-started one of the most radical developments in early 20th-century culture and whose impact is still felt everywhere in art today: Dada.
Dada is anti-art. It replaced the object with the provocative gesture, advocating “no – sense, which is not nonsense”, in response to the rationalism it saw as responsible for the carnage of the trenches. The subject of a superb exhibition at Hauser & Wirth in Zurich, featuring three of its key figures – Kurt Schwitters, Hans Arp and Joan Miró – Dada was art about attitude rather than form; an attitude embodied in those two infuriatingly infantile syllables that mean rocking-horse in French, there-there in German and are the most primal, basic utterances in any language.
Dada’s best-known exponent is Marcel Duchamp, the French artist who signed a urinal and called it art, and is widely regarded as the most influential artist of the 20th century. But at the time of the new movement’s inception, Duchamp was thousands of miles away, sitting out the war in New York, oblivious to events in Zurich.
Several of Dada’s principal instigators, meanwhile, have all but disappeared into history. The city, too, displays few clues to its revolutionary past. Europe’s wealthiest city, Zurich today is a comfortable, relaxed sort of a town. Walking up Niederdorfstrasse, a cobbled street running through the picturesque old town, lined with touristy restaurants and branded clothing outlets, it’s difficult to imagine that anything remotely revolutionary could ever have happened here. But on the corner of Spiegelgasse lies the site of one of the most infamous institutions in the history of the European avant-garde: the Cabaret Voltaire, birthplace of Dada, where for a few short months in 1916, every norm of Western culture was, proverbially, stood on its head.
Abstract “sound poetry” was declaimed from the stage, often in several languages simultaneously. Collages were assembled from rubbish in the street, opening up the possibility that anything could be art. Dancers in bizarre masks intoned African songs to a booming bass drum, amid walls hung with paintings and prints by the likes of Picasso, Kandinsky, Modigliani and Dadaists such as Hans Arp. The stolid burghers of Zurich were not amused.
Today there is a tastefully decorated façade with the words “Cabaret Voltaire since 1916” over the entrance, but no such sign graced the original building. The Cabaret Voltaire was simply the upstairs back room of a restaurant, which Hugo Ball and his girlfriend Emmy Hennings – soon to be joined by the Romanian poet Tristan Tzara – hired for cabaret evenings six nights a week from February 5 1916, inviting artists in all disciplines to “report for duty”. It was to be the most influential open-mic session in history.
The building now houses an arts centre with regular performances, a Dada-themed gift shop and a hipster coffee shop on the first floor, where I’m sitting with the centre’s director Adrian Notz. At the end of the room through a glowing plastic screen, lies the original performance space, which has been extensively refurbished in honour of the Dada centenary and Manifesta, the “European contemporary art biennale” which is currently taking place in Zurich.
Dada gave birth to Surrealism and conceptual art, and ultimately to Pop Art. Walking round the vast Manifesta exhibition earlier in the day, I was struck by how pervasive the influence of Dada still is: it is impossible to imagine the so-called YBAs or any of the short-listees for this year’s Turner Prize having existed without Dada. Yet sitting now in the very place where the phenomenon was born, I’m finding it difficult – like many before me – to put my finger on what Dada is.
“They were trying to reinvent art from a mystical point zero,” says Notz. “They were fighting against the idea that life is defined by rationality and science, that everyone’s personality is determined by economic forces. They saw the First World War as the climax of this era of reason.”
It is impossible to understand the Dadaists’ antipathy to art with a capital A without appreciating that many artist and intellectuals throughout Europe welcomed the First World War as a cleansing force that would sweep away the jadedness of Belle Époque society.
Among them, in the initial instance, was the author of the Dada Manifesto Hugo Ball. A poet, theatre director and journalist, with an air of “priest-like earnestness”, born into a strongly Catholic background in 1886, Ball was an elusive character – even some of his Dada collaborators claimed they never really understood him. A self-created intellectual, influenced by the German philosopher Nietzsche and by the great Russian expressionist painter Wassily Kandinsky’s search for “the spiritual in art”, Ball believed the war would strip away the “economic fatalism” that crushed society. A visit to the Belgian Front in 1914, where he saw first-hand the nightmare of mechanised slaughter, completely changed his view. “Art” he realised was just another aspect of the culture that had created the war.
Ball arrived in Zurich penniless in May 1915, on forged papers, in flight from the war, along with his girlfriend Emmy Hennings, a striking singer and poet. After sleeping rough and nearly starving, Ball managed to make enough money playing piano in cabarets to open his own, the Cabaret Voltaire, “to remind the world,” he claimed, “that there are people of independent minds – beyond war and nationalism – who live for different ideals”.
In the audience on the first night was a 20-year-old Romanian philosophy student, Tristan Tzara. A published poet, Tzara immediately abandoned his studies at Zurich university and threw himself into the organisation of the cabaret. He was to become the other great force in the creation of Dada – Ball’s foil and nemesis.
Beside Ball, the ascetic lapsed Catholic, Tzara was short, dandyish, Jewish and an irrepressible self-publicist. “Here you have two dynamics, two energies,” says Notz. “Ball was aiming for an ecstatic metaphysical release. Tzara was a teenager having fun. But he was the one who turned Dada into a movement. If it wasn’t for Tzara, we’d never have heard the word Dada.”
The Cabaret Voltaire started out as a relatively conventional beer-drinking, popular cabaret, with Ball playing the piano as the charismatic Hennings vamped it up like some anarchistic Marlene Dietrich. But it soon transcended its origins in Germanic music hall culture, with the leading Dada artist Hans Arp recalling, “total pandemonium. The people around us are shouting, laughing and gesticulating. Tzara is wiggling his behind like the belly of an oriental dancer. Madame Hennings with a Madonna face is doing the splits… with Ball accompanying them on the piano, pale as a chalky ghost.”
Arp, who had defaced his papers and stripped naked at his military call-up, decorated the space, and was responsible for our view of Dada as an art phenomenon, rather than a literary one.
Ball’s most famous contribution to Dada’s “playground of insane emotions” was his recitation of his sound poem “Gadji Beri Bimba”, an African-inspired collage of abstract sound. Dressed in a cubistic costume of silver cardboard, with a tall hat that gave him the appearance, an onlooker recalled, of a “magic bishop”, imbuing the mysterious syllables with an ecclesiastical ring: “Zimzim urullala zimzim zanzibara zimzalla zam” – words which aimed to dispense with “everything nice and right, blinkered, moralistic…” as he put it in the Dada Manifesto, stripping language of “all the filth that clings to it… as if put there by stockbrokers’ hands.” Finally he got so carried away, he had to be dragged from the stage.
Tzara, meanwhile, was printing fliers and magazines, all prominently featuring the word Dada, writing letters on Dada-headed paper to important artists all over Europe, turning Dada into a formalised art movement.
Ball, however, opposed this. The two men fell out and, after complaints about noise and drunkenness, the restaurant owner curtailed the room hire. By the time of the first official Dada soirée, which took place in the slightly more formal setting of Zurich’s Guild House on July 14 1916, where Ball read out the Dada Manifesto for the first time, Dada was almost over for the poet. By the end of the month he had left Zurich for southern Switzerland. He died in obscurity in 1927 aged only 41.
Dada, however, was just hitting its stride. The movement re-emerged in Berlin, where it took on a more political character, while Tzara established a Dada scene in Paris, which morphed into the Surrealist movement in the early Twenties. Arp is the best known of the Zurich Dadaists, because being an artist, his work is still very visible in galleries around the world.
But the real beneficiary of Dada was Marcel Duchamp. Interviewed on American television in the Sixties, by which time he was well established as the King of Conceptual Art and Godfather of Anti-Art, Duchamp was asked if any contemporaries had shared his ideas.
“Oh,” he said, with a wry smirk, “I had some friends in Zurich who were doing similar things.”