From Dada to Surrealism



On 5 February 1916, Cabaret Voltaire opened its doors in Zurich: Dada was born. This movement opposed the established conventions of the art world and expressed a revulsion against the horrors of the First World War. This new, provocative artistic form made use of unusual techniques, such as collages, reliefs, and montages, as well as performances that combined dance, theatre, music, and poetry.

Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco were central to the development of Dada. Janco made posters, masks, and costumes for most of the Dada performances. Tzara wrote the Dada manifesto in 1918 and gradually became the Cabaret's strategist. The end of the First World War also brought an end to Dada in Zurich.

Tristan Tzara

Tristan Tzara (Moineşti, 16 April 1895 – Paris, 25 December 1962)

Tristan Tzara, born Samuel Rosenstock, began writing poetry at a young age. At age 17, he collaborated with Ion Vinea and Marcel Janco on one of the first avant-garde magazines in Romania, Simbolul. In 1915 he adopted the pseudonym of Tristan Tzara (meaning ‘sad in my country’). That same year, he left for Zurich to study humanities and philosophy. There he co-founded the Cabaret Voltaire. After Hugo Ball withdrew from the spotlight, Tzara became the true leader of the Dada movement, and in 1918 he signed the Dada Manifesto, the most significant programmatic statement by this anti-art movement.

Although Tzara was primarily a poet and writer, he painted a number of abstract gouaches. In the late 1920s, when he was living in Paris, he sought contact with the Surrealists, but he never became an outspoken supporter of the movement. Tzara was a symbol of Jewish involvement in avant-garde art and left-wing politics, and in the 1930s this made him a popular target of anti-Semitic attacks. During the Second World War, his writings were even banned in Romania. In 1947, he received French citizenship and left Romania for good. A year before his death, Tzara received a prestigious prize for his poetry.

Influenced by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, Tzara experimented with visual poetry, trying to develop a syncretic form of art: the linear way in which a poem is written and read is abandoned; instead, the text became a form.

Marcel Janco

Marcel Janco (Bucharest, 24 May 1895 – Ein Hod, 21 April 1984)

Marcel Janco is regarded as one of Romania’s foremost avant-garde artists. He was a co-founder of the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, a venue for the anti-art Dada movement. He was also an editor of the leading Romanian avant-garde magazine, Contimporanul.

After secondary school, he left Romania in 1915 to study in Zurich. As one of the earliest Dadaists, he participated in many exhibitions and performances from 1916 onward. On returning to Bucharest in 1921, he became very influential in the development of the avant-garde in his native country. Janco remained affiliated with Contimporanul in the 1920s, while also contributing to other progressive art journals. He also worked as an architect, designing modernist buildings in Bucharest from 1926 on.

Janco succeeded in rendering the dynamism of dance by breaking the surface of the painting in multiple surfaces that at times even overlap. The canvas was transformed into a kind of visual puzzle in which the forms are seen as dancers—and, at the same time, the forms are perceived as flat areas of color.

Janco's masks were an essential element of Dada. They materialized what Janco called "our faith in a direct art, a magical, organic, and creative art, like that of primitives and of children."

Arthur Segal

Arthur Segal (13 July 1875, Jassy – 23 June 1944, London)

Arthur Segal is seen as the father of the Jewish avant-garde art scene in Romania. He spent the first years of his life in a town in the northeast of the country. He took no interest in schoolwork and felt excluded because he was Jewish. Arthur’s father wanted his son to become a banker and discouraged his early interest in art, but without success. In 1892 Segal went to Berlin to study painting at the city’s fine arts academy.

In 1910 he had his first solo exhibition in Bucharest, where he introduced Romanians to modern art. In 1914 Segal moved to Ascona, Switzerland, where he became acquainted with other modern artists such as Hans Arp, Hugo Ball, and Tristan Tzara. Thanks to these connections, he took part in many Dada events. On returning to Berlin in 1920, he began to develop a style of his own. After Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, the artist left Germany and settled in England. Segal died of a heart attack during a German bombardment in London.

The Railway, 1910 Most of Segal’s contemporaries would have thought of this subject, a railway, as “ugly.” It clearly shows the modernity of the artist, determined to part with traditional iconography and paint “modern life.”

Woman Reading, 1920 Segal’s theory of equivalence changed the relationship between figure and background in the painting. The primacy of the figure was overturned and the unity of the painting’s surface stressed.