Cover of the Theo van Doesburg brochure, Wat is dada? 1923
Cover of the Theo van Doesburg brochure, Wat is dada? 1923
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Theo van Doesburg Writes Brochure on Dada

Dada or Dadaism is a cultural movement that began in Zürich, Switzerland, during World War I and peaked from 1916 to 1922. The movement primarily involved visual arts, literature—poetry, art manifestoes, art theory—theatre, and graphic design, and concentrated its anti-war politics through a rejection of the prevailing standards in art through anti-art cultural works. Its purpose was to ridicule what its participants considered to be the meaninglessness of the modern world. In addition to being anti-war, dada was also anti-bourgeois and anarchistic in nature.

Dada activities included public gatherings, demonstrations, and publication of art/literary journals; passionate coverage of art, politics, and culture were topics often discussed in a variety of media. The movement influenced later styles like the avant-garde and downtown music movements, and groups including surrealism, Nouveau réalisme, pop art, Fluxus and punk rock.

In the Netherlands the Dada movement centered mainly around Theo van Doesburg, most well known for establishing the De Stijl movement and magazine of the same name. Van Doesburg mainly focused on poetry, and included poems from many well-known Dada writers in De Stijl such as Hugo Ball, Hans Arp and Kurt Schwitters. Van Doesburg became a friend of Schwitters, and together they organized the so-called Dutch Dada campaign in 1923, where Van Doesburg promoted a leaflet about Dada (entitled What is Dada?), Schwitters read his poems, Vilmos Huszàr demonstrated a mechanical dancing doll and Nelly Van Doesburg (Theo's wife), played avant-garde compositions on piano.

Van Doesburg wrote Dada poetry himself in De Stijl, although under a pseudonym, I.K. Bonset, which was only revealed after his death in 1931. 'Together' with I.K. Bonset, he also published a short-lived Dutch Dada magazine called Mécano.

Nothing was more influential, or outrageous, or emblematic of its time, than Dada. "Dada is useless, like every thing else in life," announced the founder of the movement, the poet Tristan Tzara. Dada swept aside traditions and all perceptions of what constitutes art. Its influence is felt right up to the present day. Tracey Emin's unmade bed is Dada. Randomly selected members of the public doing whatever they pleased on the fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square in London is Dada. The only difference is that Emin's bed and Antony Gormley's curation of the fourth plinth were rather tame, while Dada raised hell.

In Weimar, while pursuing his ideas at the Bauhaus, Van Doesburg had organised the Congress of Constructivists and Dadaists which included such luminaries as Hans Arp, Kurt Schwitters, Tzara and El Lissitzky, the Russian constructivist. In 1923, directly after returning to Holland from Germany, the Van Doesburgs partnered the wonderfully barmy Schwitters in a grand Dada tour of Holland. They'd done this performance in Jena the year before; now they performed in 10 different cities before a succession of suitably bewildered audiences. Nelly would play the piano – perhaps Rieti's "Wedding Breakfast of a Crocodile" or an Erik Satie piece they advertised as "Ragtime-Dada". On stage, wearing a monocle and with his face whited up, Van Doesburg would recite from his recent pamphlet Wat is Dada???, while Schwitters, incognito at the back of the auditorium, would interrupt the lecture by barking like a dog. Later Schwitters would be invited on stage where, indifferent to laughter or abuse, he would recite one of his mad Dada poems. In Utrecht a fight broke out after members of the audience invaded the stage and tried to present Schwitters with a wreath of dead flowers and a copy of the Bible. It was, everyone agreed, a most successful evening.

Although few knew it at the time, Van Doesburg's active involvement in Dada predates all this. In 1920 De Stijl magazine published a Dada poem by a certain IK Bonset. More Bonset poems followed in subsequent editions and the same poet also edited the short-lived Dada Magazine Mécano (1922-24) as well as contributing to other Dada publications. "IK Bonset" is actually a Spoonerism (surely the most Dada figure of speech) for "I am a fool" in Dutch (Ik ben sot): it is a nom-de-plume for Theo van Doesburg. To complete the picture there is a wonderful photograph of Nelly playing the part of IK Bonset, wearing false moustache, aviator's helmet and goggles, and smoking a pipe. All this is very Dada. The true identity of the poet was not revealed to most of Van Doesburg's friends until after his death.