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Intellect Spring 2018

Cabaret Voltaire: Dada's Movement and Magazine

Cabaret Voltaire, 1916 
Credit: Marcel Janco
Cabaret Voltaire, 1916 Credit: Marcel Janco

By Patricia Allen ’13 (M.A.)

As the First World War cut a gruesome swath across Europe, refugees fled to Zurich in neutral Switzerland. Among them were dramaturg/poet Hugo Ball and his wife, performer/poet Emmy Hennings. They rented a back room in a bar located at Speigelgasse 1, and in February 1916, Ball, Hennings and other refugee artists — sculptor Hans Arp, painter Marcel Janco, writer Richard Huelsenbeck, dancer/visual artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp, and poet Tristan Tzara — launched Cabaret Voltaire.

Named for the 18th century French political satirist and free-thinker and billed as a center for artistic entertainment, the group produced art of many genres that they displayed at the cabaret: poetry, performance pieces, paintings, collages, and sculpture.

Inspired by the avant-garde movements of the day — Expressionism, Futurism and Cubism — the work was wildly original, anarchic, eclectic, iconoclastic and
conceived as a response to the war. “That was their common ground,” says art historian Emily Hage, Ph.D., associate professor of art. “They felt that rationality and logic, a blind faith in the machine and technology, and nationalism and the military led to this war in which millions of people were dying. They answered with absurdity.”

A famous example of their absurdism: When Huelsenbeck, Janco and Tzara’s gibberish sound poem, “The admiral is looking for a house to rent,” was performed, as Hage relates in A “Living Magazine”: Hugo Ball’s Cabaret Voltaire (The Germanic Review, 2016),

“… it was read in three different languages: German by Huelsenbeck, English by Janco and French by Tzara. Only the last line, “The admiral found nothing,” was recited in unison … the audience witnessed the cacophonic spectacle of three individuals speaking in three languages at the same time.”

Performance descriptions range from
“… total pandemonium” (Arp); to “The little cabaret is about to come apart at the seams” (Ball). They decided the new form needed a name: Dada.

“Dada is distinctive for its nonsense, and that’s the point: It’s meant to be anti-rational,” says Hage. “By choosing Dada, the Dadaists were saying: ‘We’re not making sense of something [the war] that makes no sense.’ Dada has numerous translations: hobbyhorse in French; yes, yes, in Russian; father in others; baby babbling in most. It plays with our expectations: Many interpretations are possible; none is definitive.”

A preeminent Dada scholar, Hage, a former journalist, is fascinated by the movement’s magazines, which were produced in cities across Europe and in New York where Dadaism developed followings.

The first Dada magazine, Cabaret Voltaire, produced as a single issue, was published in June 1916. Edited by Ball, it was meant it to be an anthology of everything that happened at Speigelgasse 1 — the visual art hanging on the walls, the dissonance and anarchy of the performance pieces — but it functioned as a magazine. Hage, who has a forthcoming book, Dada Magazines: The Making of a Movement (Bloomsbury, 2018), says Cabaret Voltaire launched the movement, and tells us what the first Dadaists were producing and interested in.

Traveling the world to study original versions of Cabaret Voltaire and the publications that followed it, she convinced curators and archivists to allow her a closer look. After 100 years, many magazines are crumbling, but she knew it was vital to go beyond reviewing reproductions. Upon close inspection, Hage realized even the same issues could be different, including Cabaret Voltaire.

“Two versions were made, one in German, one in French, to avoid censorship and to appeal to different audiences,” she says. “Its cover is one of the more stunning, with a gold or silver strip of paper glued on the red background and Arp’s abstract woodcut and the title printed over them. Finding censor stamps, notes, written dedications from the editors, and in the German magazines, parts of pages cut out, it was exciting to imagine that these were the publications Dadaists handled.”

The Dadaists used the magazines to share their work and ideas with members of the avant-garde when the war made travel and communication impossible. “In a way, these publications were traveling exhibitions, engendering an art movement that was non-hierarchical, heterogeneous and transnational,” Hage says.

“Being a part of Dada did not entail pledging commitment to any set beliefs, but it did require editing or contributing to a magazine, bringing Dada to readers simultaneously and spurring recipients to make their own,” she explains. “The medium’s format is unrestricted, allowing editors to print a hodgepodge of materials in one publication under the ‘Dada’ label without explanation, encouraging many, even contradictory, versions. The magazines elucidate the group as a whole without losing sight of its specific, diverse manifestations.”


The magazines elucidate the group as a whole without losing sight of its specific, diverse manifestations.

Emily Hage, Ph.D.

Acknowledging the documentary value of Cabaret Voltaire, Hage says its eclecticism makes it interactive, demanding of the reader a shift in approach on each page. “Content and formatting conspire to prevent the reader from perusing passively and relying on visual cues,” she adds. “It’s a lively compilation akin to a cabaret.”

When Hage introduces students to Dada, she emphasizes that the magazines changed how we now experience art.

“Because the Dadaists took the work out of museums and put it in magazines, they’re anti-elitist,” she says. “They challenged ideas of what art is, who creates it and who it’s made for.”


“The founders of Expressionism, Futurism and Cubism have contributions in it.”

Hugo Ball

Cabaret Voltaire 
Credit: Collection of the International Dada Archive, Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries
Cabaret Voltaire Credit: Collection of the International Dada Archive, Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries

Work Included in Cabaret Voltaire

  • Abstract woodcut, cover art
    by Hans Arp
  • Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s poem “Dune”
  • Affiche pour le “Chant Negrè” du 31iem Mars 1916, (Poster for ‘Negro Song’) by Marcel Janco
  • Two poems by Expressionist Wassily Kandinsky, “Blick und Blitz” (Look and Lightning) and “Sehen” (To See)
  • Puppen (Puppets) by Emmy Hemmings
  • “L’Amiral cherche une maison à louer” (The admiral is looking for a house to rent) – a three-part poem read in three languages simultaneously
  • Untitled etching by Cubist Pablo Picasso