Anarchy + Absurdity = Dada: The Cabaret Voltaire at 100
4 February 2016
On 5th February 1916, in the back room of a small bar in Zurich, a group of artists launched a nightclub which changed the course of modern art. Cabaret Voltaire was the home of Dada, a movement that revolutionised European culture. A century later, this historic club is still going strong. WILLIAM COOK visited the city as it prepares to celebrate 100 years of Dada.
One hundred years on from that opening night, Cabaret Voltaire is hosting a season of events to mark Dada’s centenary, and the rest of Zurich is joining in. Zurich’s art museum, the Kunsthaus, is mounting a Dada exhibition. So is the Landesmuseum, Zurich’s historical museum. The tourist office has devised a walking tour around the city’s Dadaist landmarks. So why did Dada happen here in Zurich, of all places? And does Dada still matter today?
Today Zurich is a busy crossroads at the heart of Europe, but in 1916 it was a refuge from the horrors of the First World War. Lenin, Einstein and James Joyce all sought sanctuary here. German artist Hugo Ball came here to escape the carnage of the trenches. In February 1916 he teamed up with a bunch of eccentric emigres to stage a Dada show at Cabaret Voltaire.
Not even the Dadaists know what Dada is...Johannes Baader
So what was Dada? Well, that’s rather hard to say. Right from the start, this anarchic movement defied easy definition.
‘Dada signifies nothing,’ declared one of Dada’s main players, Tristan Tzara.
‘Not even the Dadaists know what Dada is,’ concurred one of his key collaborators, Johannes Baader.
The word itself was enigmatic: French for rocking horse; German for farewell; the name of a popular Swiss shampoo. Hugo Ball summed up its absurdist nature in his Dada manifesto: ‘How does one achieve eternal bliss? By saying Dada. How does one become famous? By saying Dada.’
Was he serious? Or just joking? Like everything to do with Dada, it was impossible to tell.
Dada was anti-establishment, but it wasn’t pious or puritanical. When the workers marched through Zurich on May Day, the Dadaists went with them, dressed as Dandies, swigging champagne.
They weren’t Hooray Henrys - they were more like New Romantics. Perverse and provocative, they refused to be categorised, or subsumed into any ideological group.
Robert Hughes on Dada in Zurich
Cabaret Voltaire was a weird mash-up of everything from free-form dance to nonsense verse. The punters were bewildered, but enthralled.
Life is completely confined and shackled. Is there anywhere a force that is strong enough to put an end to this state of affairs?Hugo Ball
‘Life is completely confined and shackled,’ wrote Hugo Ball in his diary. ‘Is there anywhere a force that is strong enough to put an end to this state of affairs?’
For a few amazing months in Zurich, that force was Dada. ‘Everyone has been seized by an undefinable intoxication,’ wrote Ball. ‘The little cabaret is about to come apart at the seams.’
He was right. Such inspired madness couldn’t last. By the summer of 1916, Cabaret Voltaire had closed.
There were several subsequent happenings at various other venues in Zurich, including the Zunfthaus zur Waag, now one of the city’s smartest restaurants.
Klee and Kandinsky exhibited at the Galerei Dada above the Sprungli chocolate shop on Zurich’s smartest street, Bahnhofstrasse (the gallery is long gone but the chocolate shop is still there).
However by the autumn Zurich’s Dadaists had dispersed. In Zurich, Dada had been abstract and philosophical.
Tristan Tzara took Dada to Paris, where it became more surrealist, attracting artists such as Salvador Dali. Richard Huelsenbeck brought Dada to Berlin, where it became overtly political, incorporating satirists like Georg Grosz.
Remarkably, the building where Dada began is still standing. It remained a nightclub until the 1990s, but its historical importance was largely forgotten until 2002, when local artists moved in, as squatters, and revived its avant-garde origins.
They’ve staged shows by The Chapman Brothers, and Russian iconoclast Alexander Brener. True to the spirit of 1916, there have been controversies, and complaints by conservative politicians.
The club still has the power to shock. It’s still front page news.
Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, Monte Carlo Bond, 1924
Marcel Duchamp, 'Fountain', 1917
‘Dada is the total opposite of the Zurich mentality, which is more about being tidy and precise,’ says Cabaret Voltaire’s director, Adrian Notz, over coffee at the club.
For me, it’s much more than just the building. It almost has a religious dimensionAdrian Notz, Director, Cabaret Voltaire
‘Dada was a movement mainly run by immigrants. There was only one Swiss artist.’ (This was Sophie Tauber-Arp, wife of Hans Arp, whose face now adorns Switzerland’s 50 Franc banknote).
The city council now pays the rent – one million Swiss Francs a year – but not everyone in Zurich is enthusiastic. In 2008 unsympathetic politicians forced a referendum. Everyone in Zurich got to vote on whether to continue funding this historic club. Cabaret Voltaire won, with 65% of the vote.
Despite this official seal of approval, Cabaret Voltaire hasn’t lost its rebellious ambience.
There’s a gift shop, but the bar still feels like a proper rendezvous rather than a heritage site or a museum. The clientele is a lively mix of locals and foreign visitors, just as it was in 1916.
After all these years, you still get the feeling that anything could happen here. ‘For me, it’s much more than just the building,’ says Notz. ‘It almost has a religious dimension.’
Even though it didn’t last, Dada’s influence endures. From Pop Art to Punk Rock, contemporary culture is inconceivable without it.
It pioneered the use of collage, plundering newsprint and photography. It initiated the concept of cut-ups, half a century before William Burroughs or David Bowie. Like Punk it survives as an attitude, a rejection of aesthetic convention and authority.
Dada is more than an artistic movement – it’s a state of mind.