- A somewhat unexpected announcement appeared in the Zurich press on 2 February 1916: "The Cabaret Voltaire. Under this name a group of young artists and writers has formed with the object of becoming a center for artistic entertainment. In principle, the Cabaret will be run by artists, permanent guests, who, following their daily reunions, will give musical or literary performances. Young Zurich artists, of all tendencies, are invited to join us with suggestions and proposals." [Hugo Ball, La fuite hors du temps (, 1993) 111].
When Hugo Ball, a German poet and playwright, exiled in Switzerland since 1915, wrote these words he couldn’t have imagined they would spearhead an adventure that would cross national borders. The Cabaret was inaugurated three days later in the back room of the Holländische Meierei, a popular tavern located in a seedy section of Zurich. Jan Ephraïm, the owner of the establishment, turned the job of emcee over to Ball with the hope of attracting a large audience. Ball took as his model the Parisian cabaret tradition, born with the Chat Noir in 1881, which he associated with the cabaret spirit that had existed in Berlin before the war. For him, no one other than the emblematic figure of Voltaire could play the role of godfather for his association. It was from the pamphleteer and master of satire that he drew his vision of a reality radically out of step with its time.
- Refugee artists from all over Europe quickly besieged the scene at the establishment. Emmy Hennings, a German singer and Hugo Ball’s partner, sang her own songs as well as many from the repertoires of Aristide Bruant, Erich Mühsam and Frank Wedekind. Those individuals, who were to become the "hard core" of Dada, were present from the beginning of the Cabaret: the Alsatian artist, Hans Arp and the Romanians Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco. Richard Huelsenbeck joined the festivities on 11 February 1916 at the behest of Ball, who had met him in Munich in 1912 in connection to the Der Blaue Reiter group.
- A spirit of negation and mockery soon took over, making the Cabaret Voltaire the scene of all excess. Huelsenbeck described it from the outset as "a center for the newest art," hosting poets, musicians and artists of all types [Richard Huelsenbeck, En avant Dada (, 1983) 10]. Each evening included a succession of spectacles of all types: dances, modern songs, plays, a balalaika orchestra, etc. The French or Russian evenings were occasions for readings by Tzara of poems by Max Jacob and Jules Laforgue, or extracts of Ubu Roi read by Arp, as well as texts by Ivan Turgenev and Anton Chekhov. Sometimes, 20 people in the style of the Futurist manifestos, read manifestos out loud simultaneously. All who wished to do so – artists or others – took part in the performances, which were presented to the cheerful audiences, mainly composed of students and middleclass people. Marcel Janco evoked the presence of Lenin, who lived at No. 12 Spielgasse, not far from the Cabaret, which was situated at No 1.
- Works by the artists who frequented the establishment – Arp, Janco, Viking Eggeling, Otto van Rees and Marcel Slodki, as well as those of Pablo Picasso and Elie Nadelman, plus the map-poems of the Futurists Filippo Marinetti, Francesco Cangiullo and Paolo Buzzi – were exhibited in the same space. All the arts (poetry, dance, music and painting) were brought together to create "a complete work of art," [Hugo Ball, La fuite hors du temps (, 1993) 35],
which associated visual, aural and tactual effects into a unit capable of eliciting strong sensations from the spectator. Ball borrowed the idea of the complete work of art from Kandinsky, corrupting it by adding humor and disorder. At the Cabaret, artists engaged in childish behavior as a reaction to the intellectualism that had
been responsible for the war. Hiding behind this apparent regression were various attempts at innovation in language and the visual arts. The artists were in search of an elementary art that was a direct expression of life.
They developed an abstract art that accorded primary importance to materials, to the detriment of representation. Ball composed a phonetic poem, Karawane [»], which played with sounds and phonemes and was completely void of meaning. In its pre-language role, the poem does not refer to a conscious process, but to an unreality that is somewhat pre-conscious. The poet thus expresses his refusal of all logical discourse seeking to renounce a "language corrupted by journalism." [Hugo Ball, La fuite hors du temps (, 1993) 146]. On 23 June 1916, Ball recited Karawane dressed in a suit he created. He metamorphosed himself into a shaman to accomplish what resembled a ritual.
The staging or mise-en-scène proved to be of elemental importance to the Dada spectacles that often used costumes and masks – inspired by the so-called 'primitive' peoples of Africa and Oceania – such as those made by Sophie Taeuber and Marcel Janco. For wearing a mask, the person was able to overcome inhibitions and communicate with the audience in a more direct way, dancing and chanting. Influenced by these references, Tzara, Janco and Huelsenbeck composed a simultaneous poem in French, English and German to profit from the disturbing qualities of cacophony. L’Amiral cherche une maison à louer was performed in March 1916, along with a whistle, a big box and castanets serving as sound accompaniment.
- It is once more Ball who described the subversive nature of their activities: "The cultural and artistic ideals – taken as a music hall program – are our way of doing 'Candide' against the times." [Hugo Ball, La fuite hors du temps (, 1993) 139]. By adopting the character of Candide, the artists undertook a coming-of-age journey to the heart of creation so as to reveal its ludicrous nature. They claimed madness and illusion and consumed it in
an enormous burst of laughter. Emil Szittya, a contemporary close to the Zurich Dada milieu, described their laughter as "laughter-spit," thus putting an emphasis on its paradoxical violence [Emile Szittya, 'Tristan Tzara' in Tristan Tzara, dompteur des acrobates (1992) 47].
In May 1916 the magazine Cabaret Voltaire [»] appeared, edited both in French and German. Ball saw in it the first synthesis of modern artistic and literary movements. In 32 pages, it brought together never before seen pieces, as well as artist’s works and poems already presented at the Cabaret. It included a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire, texts by Kandinsky, Parole in libertà by Marinetti, the reproduction of a poster by Janco and a drawing by Arp (on the cover). With a print run of 500 copies, the magazine allowed the artists [p. 58] to reach a larger public. Ball and Tzara took the opportunity to announce the future publication of a magazine entitled Dada. Thus the word 'Dada' – whose paternity is claimed by several of them – appeared for the first time. In addition, they wanted to establish a Societé Voltaire and organize an "international exhibition".
In spite of the effervescence of its projects, the Cabaret closed it doors in early July 1916. The soirées would continue to take place in the Zur Waag hall, and later at the Galerie Dada, an initiative of Tristan Tzara.
- Through their telling, the Dada artists would create a myth around the Cabaret. In Arp’s writing, the protagonists in Janco’s painting Le Cabaret Voltaire take on the traits of "fantastic characters" straight out of a story from the Thousand and One Nights or from a gathering of wizards [Jean Arp, Jours effeuillés (1966) 308]. The Cabaret Voltaire surrounded itself with a magical aura that gave it a utopian dimension. It is a sort of non-place, void of conflict, where all experiences were possible. That which was only supposed to be a "center for artistic entertainment," little by little gave way to the emergence of a movement of international proportions, which laid the foundation for a new aesthetic – in spite of the refusal on the part of some members to become a school.
- TEXT CREDITS
Nadia Ghanem, 'Cabaret Voltaire', translated from the French text, published in the catalogue Dada (Editions du Centre Pompidou : Paris 2005) 202-207. The translation was part of the Press Kit, published by MNAM Centre Pompidou 2005, p. 56-58 [Press Kit. Courtesy MNAM Centre Pompidou].
- IMAGE CREDITS
banner: (detail) Raoul Hausmann, 'Mechanischer Kopf' (Der Geist unserer Zeit), 1918 [Collection Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris].
- left: Cabaret Voltaire, Spiegelgasse 1, Zurich [photographed in 1935; collection Baugeschichtliches Archiv Zürich].