Hugo Ball, iconoclasm and the origins of Dada in Zurich

Lewer, D. (2009) Hugo Ball, iconoclasm and the origins of Dada in Zurich. Oxford Art Journal, 32(1), pp. 17-35. (doi: 10.1093/oxartj/kcn031)

Full text not currently available from Enlighten.


It will be clear to anyone who peruses the vast literature on Dada even casually, or who visited the labyrinthine Dada exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2005–2006,1 that there are almost as many ‘Dadaisms’ as there were Dadaists. Hugo Ball (1886–1927) was a founder, a key theorist and the most self-reflective of the Dadaists in Zurich.2 His Dadaism was deeply ambivalent and contingent. Having opened the Cabaret Voltaire, the much-mythologized ‘birthplace of Dada’, in February 1916, he renounced the emerging movement just six months later, worrying that ‘all Expressionism, Dadaism, and other -isms are the worst kind of bourgeoisie’.3 Persuaded back by Tristan Tzara, with whom he ran the Galerie Dada from March until May 1917, Ball broke definitively with the movement in a state of exhaustion that summer. But in public and in private, he wrestled for decades with the concerns that will be outlined here. They affected his work, life, political views, and shifting religious convictions before, during, and after the time that he was a ‘Dadaist’. <br></br> Ball's complex thinking on language, philosophy, theology, mysticism, history, and politics has been the subject of research and critical analysis for several decades now.4 Without unhelpfully exaggerating disciplinary difference, it is still fair to say that while scholars in the field of Germanistik have tended to cast Dada as a brief episode in Ball's history, art historians have tended to see Ball as a brief episode in Dada's history.5 Kurt Schwitters even went so far as to declare in 1947, ‘Ball was never one [a Dadaist]’.6 It is useful, however, to widen the focus in both fields and to bring together what may loosely be distinguished as Ball's ‘Dada’ and ‘non-Dada’ activities. <br></br> The focus of this discussion is on particular aspects of Christian politics, theology, revolution, and Reformation in relation to Dada. As such, it leaves to one side the many other spiritual texts and traditions that provided rich sources for Ball, Hans Arp, Emmy Hennings, Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco, and other Dadaists in Zurich—ranging from Talmud and Kabala to Daoism, Buddhism, elements of Hinduism and beyond—though these were important. The Dadaists also read and recited Christian mystic texts. In the spring of 1917, two evenings at the Galerie Dada in Zurich were almost wholly devoted to readings of them.7 However, there is little immediate affinity between Dadaism and Christian mysticism. As Richard Sheppard has argued in an important essay on Dada and mysticism, fundamentally, Christian mysticism tends towards distinctions between God and Creation, spirit and matter, while Dada is more monistic, affirming the unity between them.8 Not only do Dada's world-views contradict basic Christian concepts of God and of Good and Evil, but the Church, seen as an outdated, hierarchical repository of power, also provided a ready target for Dada ballistics. In Zurich, the Cabaret Voltaire was named after a man who believed that humanity must be liberated from the grip of religion and by a man—Ball—whose greatest formative influence had been the ‘first immoralist’ and herald of the ‘death of God’, Friedrich Nietzsche.9 Philip Mann has provided an exemplary analysis of Ball's changing views on Nietzsche in terms that are very relevant here: <br></br> Nietzsche's pronouncement of the death of God was both liberating and inhibiting for Ball. For the ‘expressionistic’ Ball, God's death provided release from the restraints of authority and the ultimate father-figure. For the orthodox Ball, God's death left an awful vacuum whose chaos and irrationalism contained no immanent order whatsoever. And while he was eventually to advocate the strictest order with which to oppose this chaos, these two conflicting attitudes towards the death of God formed a continuing debate between 1916 and 1920.10 <br></br> Hugo Ball's subsequent ‘way to God’ led decisively away from Dada.11 Already in 1916, he recognised ‘blasphemy’ in the new movement.12 Given all this, what needs closer examination is the apparently paradoxical fact that some of Dada's most radical impulses may in fact share more with the conflicts within Europe's religious history—especially the upheaval of the sixteenth-century Reformation—than scholarship has yet been ready to admit.

Item Type:Articles
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Lewer, Dr Deborah
Authors: Lewer, D.
Subjects:N Fine Arts > N Visual arts (General) For photography, see TR
College/School:College of Arts > School of Culture and Creative Arts > History of Art
Journal Name:Oxford Art Journal
Journal Abbr.:OAJ
ISSN (Online):1741-7287

University Staff: Request a correction | Enlighten Editors: Update this record