Dada, One Hundred Years Later

by Michael Finkenthal (Author)
©2019 Monographs XII, 150 Pages


This book offers a general historical overview of the Dada movement and presents the individual destinies of some of its major players against the background of the historical, political, and cultural trends which dominated the twentieth century in Europe as well as in America. The author discusses in depth the reciprocal interaction between Dada as an avant-garde movement and its environment, as well as a number of the emerging phenomena born during this interactive process. Dada is viewed as a complex phenomenon dominated by the emergence of hard-to-extrapolate effects; one hundred years of history enable us to ascertain the depth and the extent of this extremely significant socio-cultural event which was Dada and its relevancy to our post-modern and in the future—perhaps—post-human societies.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Modernism, Avant-garde, and Dada
  • Chapter 2. Zürich, February 1916: The Birth of the “Dada Spirit”
  • Chapter 3. American Modernism and the New York Dada
  • Chapter 4. Wyndham Lewis and the British-American Connection Before and After WWI
  • Chapter 5. Dada in Italy, Germany, and France
  • Chapter 6. Dada Reverberations, Interferences, and Avatars in Europe and America
  • Chapter 7. Scattered Thoughts in Preparation of a Book About Dada (2015–2018)
  • Index

| ix →


The idea to write a book about Dada came as a result of the convergence of several intellectual and research interests I had during the last few years and a number of commemorative events which constituted good pretexts for the implementation of the mentioned idea. The appropriate constellation of motivations and favorable events is a necessary but not always also a sufficient condition for the implementation of such a plan. The binding element which glues together all these must be found as well. I was interested in complexity and enjoyed very much the twentieth century visual arts and literature; in particular, avant-garde phenomena in general and their associated artistic/literary products, fascinated me. When I started to look into the possibility to use my knowledge about complexity as a physicist in domains belonging to humanistic studies, I realized that I can try as a test-case one of the twentieth century vanguard movements. In a book published ten years ago,1 I wrote something which, I realize now, prepared me for such an adventure:

Any domain-related complexity study in humanities—I wrote—will have to take into account the volitional element present in any human activity, the interplay between cultural, ethical and religious values and the meaning they confer upon ideas and activities in ← ix | x → which the agents of the system are involved. Europe at the turn of the twentieth century was obviously a ‘complex system’. The First World War was the outcome of a large number of processes which took place on parallel tracks and which, in implicit or explicit ways, interacted among themselves. The conflicting interests of the various political entities were associated in strange ways with a Weltanschauung dominated by an explosive mixture of pessimism and nihilism. That the situation was perceived as such by the artists, writers and philosophers of the time, is made plain by the explosion of avant-garde movements and by the birth of the Expressionism. In England, Virginia Woolf would go as far as to say that human character changed in or about December 1910.2 Even in America, the perception was that of an impending dissolution; Henry Adams wrote during the same year, 1910: ‘Every reader of the French and German newspapers knows that not a day passes without producing some uneasy discussion of supposed social decrepitude, falling off of the birthrate, decline of rural population … multiplication of suicides …habits” of alcoholism and drugs … and so on without end’.3 But the same years were years of great discoveries in physics, psychology and philosophy, they were the years of peak activity for Freud, Einstein, Bergson, years of new political hopes … the researcher has to make a difficult choice insofar as the relevant facts and their relationships are concerned. It is obvious that the issue is not only one of hermeneutical proficiency but also one of ‘elective affinities’ with certain concepts and theories.

Complexity in humanities was on my mind in 2015 when in preparation for the Dada centennial, the Marcel Janco-Dada Museum in Ein Hod prepared an event to celebrated the 120th anniversary of the painter to which I participated in a more or less ‘tangential way’. The curator of the Exhibition Homage to the Red Sea, Ms. Raya Zommer-Tal has chosen to mark this anniversary ‘in a way that makes it possible to link Janco’s works to the contemporary artistic practice’. She distributed dozens of offset prints of the painting The Red Sea from the artist’s estate, among a number of contemporary artists who were asked to create something of their own out of and influenced by the painting. They were given no limitations regarding size, technique or artistic language. This interesting experiment made me think that some of the works chosen to be exhibited might shed light on the ways in which some of the original Dada ideas elaborated about one hundred years ago can be re-enacted in present-day artistic practices. The mentioned work, dated 1950, was painted by a Marcel Janco who was still active long after the Dada movement faded away (or did it?). Janco was not only a Dadaist but also a Constructivist influenced by the German expressionism and by the theories developed by the Bauhaus School and moreover, he was and remained considerably influenced by Kandinsky. ‘Which of these influences can be uncovered in the original Homage to the Red Sea and in the paintings chosen to be exhibited’ I asked ← x | xi → myself. And that was the trigger to get me started on a book about the Dada reverberations in the twentieth century. Along the way I had to re-arrange, re-organize and in some cases, re-write parts or even entire chapters of my work and as a result, instead of appearing in 2016, this book will be in print almost two years later than planned. A friend of mine, who is also a good connoisseur of the subject-matter told me in an understanding and consolatory tone, ‘True, Dada was born in 1916 and the centennial year was 2016, but as you well know Dada was continuously re-worked and re-shaped for several years in Switzerland, in America and in other countries of Europe, therefore it will still be OK to publish a “centennial” book about Dada in 2018’.

I consider this book a contribution to the effort to re-think certain cultural categories and some of the ‘operational’ concepts implied in the (roughly) century-long story of the literary and artistic European avant-garde movement known as Dada. One way to try to structure such a discussion would be through the introduction from the very beginning of a few methodological distinctions between such concepts as those of ‘movements’, ‘trends’ and ‘fashions’ in the narratives describing artistic and literary vanguard events within the networks formed around certain individuals or groups. Next, one could carefully consider the way the protagonists of the story acted in various places under different circumstances, taking into account specific political, social and economic contexts. Often critics and/or historians proceed in this way indeed; I believe that in the case of the twentieth century avant-garde in general and specifically, in the case of the Dada phenomenon such an approach will not be appropriate. The Introduction will explain in some detail my arguments and my hope is that the following chapters will further clarify the things.

The structure of the book was thought out in such a way that it will unveil both the extent of the subject-matter as well as its intricacies and difficulties. In the first chapter entitled Modernism, Avant-garde, Dada I define the ‘target’ I will follow in the book. The second chapter addresses briefly the heart of the matter, the birth of Dada in Zürich; there are many books, memoirs, lavishly illustrated volumes on this topic therefore I tried to concentrate in my writing only on the essential. Since, surprisingly, one talks about an American Dada as a somewhat simultaneous event with the European one, I explain in the immediately following chapter how was such a thing possible. Since I am putting emphasis on complexity, a domain in which causes apparently insignificant might have important outcomes—‘the butterfly effect’—I have chosen from time to time less known (or even somewhat neglected) events, ← xi | xii → actors or works in my narrative and argumentation. The fourth chapter for instance concentrates one a few very important figures from the Anglo-American realm which prima facie were not supposed/assumed to be as important as the famous French and German names in the Dada context. Then, in the next two chapters I discuss some followers and avatars of the Dada movement, in Europe, in America and elsewhere. As always, I add at the end of my book instead of conclusions, a chapter of ‘scattered thoughts’.

I used in this book ideas and sometimes fragments of materials spread over many prefaces, introductions, journal articles and conference talks on themes relevant to the topic under discussion. I had conversations with many people: artists and writers, editors, researchers, gallery owners, and museum curators, who helped and encouraged me; since I did not have any institutional support for this enterprise I have not attached a page of formal Acknowledgments but I want to thank all those who interacted with me positively during the last couple of years that I have spent on these matters, among them Stefan Arteni, Adam Boxer, Rafael Diaz Casas, Jay Kissel, Rudolf Kuenzli, Jed Rasula, Jeffrey T. Schnapp, Timothy Shipe in USA, Doron Fishbein, Adina Kamien-Kazhdan, Dror Karta, Tali Navon, Raya Zommer-Tal in Israel and Florin Colonas, Ioan Cristescu, Catalin Davidescu, Ion Pop, in Romania. Last but not least I thank the copy-editors Jennifer Beszley and Maura Sutton for their excellent job, which significantly ‘cleaned-up’ my text and made it an easier reading.


1. Michael Finkenthal, Complexity, Multidisciplinarity, and Beyond (New York: Peter Lang, 2008).

2. This, as well as the following Henry Adams quote are extracted from an excellent book about the discussed period: Thomas Harisson, 1910: The Emancipation of Dissonance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

3. Ibid., p. 6.


XII, 150
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. XII, 150 pp.

Biographical notes

Michael Finkenthal (Author)

Michael Finkenthal, Emeritus at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and presently associated with the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, studies complex phenomena in various physical and cultural environments as well as the multi and meta-disciplinarian implications of complexity. He has written and published books in the mentioned areas as well as essays and monographs about various authors, among them, Shestov and Benjamin Fondane, D. Trost, Sesto Pals, Cioran, Ionesco, and Pessoa.


Title: Dada, One Hundred Years Later
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