Dada in Zurich: The Birthplace Of A Movement

You may have heard of Dada and the fact that it had its humble beginnings in the heart of Zurich!

Dada became a rebellious and revolutionary movement that began in 1916 right in the center of Zurich’s old town.

It was founded by a group of artists from all over Europe whose goal it was to challenge the establishment during the dark times of World War I.

Dada’s Beginnings in Zurich

Opening of Cabaret Voltaire in 1916
Opening of Cabaret Voltaire in 1916 – Image from Wikimedia

Zurich was a haven for artists, writers, and intellectuals during these tumultuous times. They were seeking refuge from the chaos and destruction of the First World War. And more than likely, avoiding conscription as well.

The outbreak of the war was understandably a catalyst for the disillusionment and revolt that characterized the Dada movement. If you have ever seen any footage of WWI, you can understand how harrowing these times really were.

Artists such as Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, and Tristan Tzara, who had been part of avant-garde circles in various European cities, ended up in Zurich, bringing with them their artistic and intellectual influences.

But it was Hugo Bell who is credited with founding Dadaism. With his Dada Manifesto being the spark that was said to have started it all.

It was during the first Dada-Soirée at the now infamous Cabaret Voltaire that Hugo Ball read from his manifesto on July 14th, 1916.

He is quoted as saying

How does one achieve eternal bliss? By saying Dada. 

Hugo Ball, July 14th, 1916

A movement was born!

The Cabaret Voltaire: Birthplace of Dada

Cabaret Voltaire on Niederdorfstrasse, Zurich
Cabaret Voltaire on Niederdorfstrasse, Zurich

The Cabaret Voltaire holds a particular significance as the birthplace of the Dada movement.

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It is located along the now tourist-filled Niederdorfstrasse, in the heart of Zurich Altstadt. And for many years, I did not even know of its significance. It is indeed very inconspicuous, despite its fame.

It was essentially a small venue where the eccentric artists, poets, writers, and intellectuals of the Dada movement would meet and share ideas, art and influence.

A huge variety of performances were held in Cabaret Voltaire from:

  • Sounds Poems (a favorite of Ball’s)
  • Multimedia Presentations
  • Dance, Recital, Plays & Music
  • Unusual Performances (costume, provocation, audience interaction)
  • Rapid-Fire Performances of every variety

It truly was the melting pot of ideas and methods and went on to inspire and lure a huge range of European artists to head to Zurich.

Interestingly the Cabaret Voltaire was only open for a few months starting on February 5, 1916, and closing during the summer of that same year.

The Dadaists went on to other locations within Zurich such as Galerie Dada at Bahnhofstrasse 19.

Key Figures of the Dada Movement in Zurich

Hugo Ball performing at Cabaret Voltaire
Hugo Ball performing at Cabaret Voltaire – Courtesy of Wikimedia

Hugo Ball was one of the key figures of the Dada movement in Zurich. Born in Germany, Ball was a writer, poet, and theater director. He was a co-founder of the Cabaret Voltaire, the birthplace of the Dada movement. Ball’s performances at the Cabaret Voltaire were known for their avant-garde and experimental nature, often involving nonsensical and abstract elements.

He also wrote influential manifestos and contributed to various Dada publications, including the magazine “Cabaret Voltaire”. Ball’s writings and performances played a crucial role in shaping the artistic and intellectual landscape of Dada in Zurich.

Another prominent figure in the Dada movement in Zurich was Emmy Hennings. Dancer, actress, and writer, Hennings was deeply involved in the cultural and artistic scene of Zurich during the early part of the movement. As a performer at the Cabaret Voltaire, she was renowned for her provocative and unconventional acts.

Hennings is also known for her poems and writings that embraced Dada’s spirit of rebellion and rejection of traditional norms. Her contributions to Dada’s manifestos and publications shed light on the movement’s political and social context, making her a central figure in the development and dissemination of Dada’s ideas.

Some of the other more notable members of early Dada include:

  • Marcel Janco
  • Richard Huelsenbeck
  • Tristan Tzara
  • Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Jean Arp

Written by Ashley Faulkes
As a twenty-year resident of Switzerland, I am passionate about exploring every nook and cranny of this beautiful country, I spend my days deep in the great Swiss outdoors, and love to share these experiences and insights with fellow travel enthusiasts.

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