It probably began in Zurich in 1915, and there were active dadaists in New York such as Marcel Duchamp and the American art student, Beatrice Wood, who had left France at the onset of World War I. At around the same time there had been a dadist movement in Berlin. Slightly later there were also dadaist un-communities in Hanover, Cologne, and Paris. In 1920 Max Ernst, Hans Arp and the social activist Alfred Grunwald[?] set up the Cologne Dada group.
The French avant-garde kept abreast of Dada activities in Zurich due to the regular communications from Tristan Tzara, who exchanged letters, poems, and magazines with Guillaume Apollinaire, André Breton, Max Jacob, and other French writers, critics and artists. The first introduction of Dada artwork to the Parisian public was at the Salon des Indèpendants in 1921. Jean Crotti exhibited works associated with Dada including a work entitled, "Explacatif" bearing the word Tabu.
By the dawn of World War II many of the European dadaists fled or were forced into exile in the United States. The movement became less active as the founders died off and post-World War II optimism led to new movements in art and literature.
The origins of the name "Dada" are unclear: some believe that it is a nonsensical word, others that a group of artists assembled in Zurich in 1916, wanting to form a movement, chose a name at random from a French-German dictionary. "Dada" in French is a child's word for "hobby-horse".
According to its proponents, Dada was not art; it was anti-art. For everything that art stood for, Dada was to represent the opposite. Where art was concerned with aesthetics, Dada ignored them. If art is to have at least an implicit or latent message, Dada strives to have no meaning--interpretation of Dada is dependent entirely on the viewer. If art is to appeal to sensibilities, Dada offends. Perhaps it is then ironic that Dada is a precursor to modern art. Dada became a commentary on art and the world, thus becoming art itself.
The artists of the Dada movement had become disillusioned by art, art history and history in general. Many of them were veterans of World War I and had grown cynical of humanity after seeing what men were capable of doing to each other on the battlefields of Europe. Thus they became attracted to a nihilistic view of the world and created art in which chance and randomness formed the basis of creation.
The basis of Dada is nonsense. With the order of the world destroyed by World War I, Dada was a way to express the confusion that was felt by many people as their world was turned upside down. There is not an attempt to find meaning in disorder, but rather to accept disorder as the nature of the world. Many embraced this disorder through Dada, using it as a means to express their distaste for the aesthetics of the previous order and carnage it reaped. Through this rejection of traditional culture and aesthetics they hoped to reach a personal understanding of the true nature of the world around them.
Surrealism evolved from Dadaism.
Interestingly, at the same time that the Zurich dadaists were busy making noise and spectacle at the Cabaret Voltaire, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was writing his revolutionary plans for Russia in a nearby apartment. It is known that he was unappreciative of the real revolutionary activity occurring next to him.