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Hugo Ball Artworks

German-Swiss Performance Artist

Hugo Ball Photo
Movement: Dada

Born: February 22, 1886 - Pirmasens, Germany

Died: September 14, 1927 - Sant'Abbondio, Switzerland

Artworks by Hugo Ball

The below artworks are the most important by Hugo Ball - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

The Cabaret Voltaire, Zurich, Switzerland (1916)

The Cabaret Voltaire, Zurich, Switzerland (1916)

Hugo Ball met cabaret singer, Emmy Hennings in Munich in the middle of 1915. Together they fled to Zurich to avoid the turmoil of war. In February 1916, the couple opened the Cabaret Voltaire where Dada was born. There Ball organized and promoted Dada events, including performances in which he participated - most often reciting his sound poems. Other founding members of the original Zurich group were Tristan Tzara, Richard Huelsenbeck, Marcel Janco, Sophie Tauber, and Hans Arp.

Technically a nightclub, the Cabaret Voltaire was a lively hub where the artistic and political activity of the anarchic Dada movement could be freely undertaken. It was, in essence, a living example of the Dada Manifesto, which Ball drafted and read aloud at the first public Dada soiree on July 14, 1916. As the leader of the group, Ball articulated their philosophy to destroy and clear away the refuse of "the rationalized language of modernity," which for them was emblematic of the "agony and death throes of [the] age."

Most often, the Cabaret Voltaire offered music, dance, and spoken word performances and the events could be quite raucous and chaotic with audience members just as often baffled as intellectually invigorated. The spectacle was intentionally brutal and perplexing as the artists attempted to mirror the turmoil of the day.

A site for radical artistic experimentation, the Cabaret Voltaire did not limit participation by non-Dada artists and avant-garde notables such as Filippo Tommaso Marinetti of the Italian Futurist group, Wassily Kandinsky, Giorgio di Chirico, and Paul Klee, among others, were contributors to the scene. German painter, Hans Richter, described the nightclub very imaginatively, writing: "The Cabaret Voltaire was a six-piece band. Each played his own instrument, i.e. himself." Arp described an average night at the gathering spot as "total pandemonium." He recalled, "The people around us are shouting, laughing, and gesticulating. Our replies are sighs of love, volleys of hiccups, poems, moos, and miaowing of medieval Brutists." Whether Tzara was writhing erotically to the music of Janco's invisible violin while Hennings performed acrobatics in the guise of the Madonna, an average night at the Cabaret Voltaire provided attendees and participants with an unforgettable experience.

Karawane (1916)

Karawane (1916)

Ball described his poetry as an effort to "return to the innermost alchemy of the word" to invent a new language outside of the conventional one. Of the phonetic verses that he created, which he called "Lautgedichte" ("sound poems"), he wrote:, "I don't want words that other people have invented... I want my own stuff, my own rhythm, and vowels and consonants too, matching the rhythm and all my own. If this pulsation is seven yards long, I want words that are seven yards long."

A sound poem essentially combines literary and musical composition to emphasize the central role of human speech in the reading or recitation of text. The artistry of sound poetry is its focus on "the phonetic aspects of human speech" rather than on semantics or syntax. By its nature, a sound poem is meant to be performed rather than simply read silently. The Dadaist sound poems differed from their predecessors - those of the Italian Futurists, particularly Marinetti. Whereas Marinetti's poems relied heavily on onomatopoeia as with, for instance, "Zang Tumb Tumb," which described the events of a battle, Ball's sound poems were meant to disconnect completely from coherent language.

The Dadaists invented two major variations on Ball's sound poetry. The first, bruitist poetry, was similar to that of Italian Futurists in its reliance on onomatopoeia for effect. The second was simultaneous poetry, which involved several people reading poems in different languages and using contrasting tonalities and rhythms at the same time. Tristan Tzara, who replaced Ball as leader of the Zurich Dada group, was the inventor of the simultaneous poem.

Sound poetry is thought to have been a strictly 20th-century invention, although some scholars have argued that it was rooted in the traditions of oral poetry. Either way, what is unique about sound poetry is its emphasis on the nonsensical, on refusing rather than reinforcing meaning. The Dadaists felt they were both destroying language and literature, which they thought had been debased by specific modern conditions such as war and imperialism, and reinventing it.

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Costume of Hugo Ball at his reciting of the Sound Poem, 'Karawane' (1916)

Costume of Hugo Ball at his reciting of the Sound Poem, 'Karawane' (1916)

Cabaret VoltaireBall was not new to performance when he stood in front of audiences at the Cabaret Voltaire to recite his sound poems. Between 1910 and 1913, he had begun a career in the theater. He first studied acting with Max Reinhardt and also directed and worked as stage manager at a variety of theater companies in Munich, Berlin, and Plauen. He aspired to create a kind of theater grounded in the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, "a synthesis of all the arts," that he believed had the potential to provoke social transformation. So the light, sound, and visual parts all combined into a complete work of art.

In his journal, he described how the performance of Karawane had reminded him of attending Catholic Mass as a child, having delivered the string of nonsensical words with an almost liturgical sobriety. For the event, he began offstage, in the dark. He continued speaking as he mounted the stage and entered the lighted space, where the audience could now see rather than simply hear him.

Ball had produced a costume made from everyday material - primarily cardboard but also paint and fabric to tie the cumbersome "collar" around his neck. The costume was reflective of the absurd, nonsensical nature of Dada: he encased his legs and body in blue cardboard tubes. Lobster-claw like hands protruded from the tubes on his arms. Another sheet of cardboard, gold on the outside and red on the inside, formed an awkward collar that flapped when he moved his arms and a towering, chef's toque-like hat covered his head. The costume seems to have been a parody of the elaborate costume designs of avant-garde groups such as the Russian Constructivists and must surely have inspired the wildly creative designs for ballet costumes by Bauhaus designer, Oscar Schlemmer only a decade later.

Related Artists and Major Works

Untitled (Squares Arranged according to the Laws of Chance) (1917)

Movement: Dada (Read Movement Overview, History, and Artworks pages)

Artist: Hans Arp (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

Hans Arp made a series of collages based on chance, where he would stand above a sheet of paper, dropping squares of contrasting colored paper on the larger sheet's surface, and then gluing the squares wherever they fell onto the page. The resulting arrangement could then provoke a more visceral reaction, like the fortune telling from I-Ching coins that interested Arp, and perhaps provide a further creative spur. Apparently, this technique arose when Arp became frustrated by attempts to compose more formal geometric arrangements. Arp's chance collages have come to represent Dada's aim to be "anti-art" and their interest in accident as a way to challenge traditional art production techniques. The lack of artistic control represented in this work would also become a defining element of Surrealism as that group tried to find paths into the unconscious whereby intellectual control on creativity was undermined.

Cut with a Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany (1919)

Cut with a Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany (1919)

Movement: Dada (Read Movement Overview, History, and Artworks pages)

Artist: Hannah Höch (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

Hannah Höch is known for her collages and photomontages composed from newspaper and magazine clippings as well as sewing and craft designs often pulled from publications she contributed to at the Ullstein Press. As part of Club Dada in Berlin, Hoch unabashedly critiqued German culture by literally slicing apart its imagery and reassembling it into vivid, disjointed, emotional depictions of modern life. The title of this work, refers to the decadence, corruption, and sexism of pre-war German culture. Larger and more political than her typical montages, this fragmentary anti-art work highlights the polarities of Weimer politics by juxtaposing images of establishment people with intellectuals, radicals, entertainers, and artists. Recognizable faces include Marx and Lenin, Pola Negri, and Kathe Kollwitz. The map of Europe that identifies the countries in which women had already achieved the right to vote suggests that the newly enfranchised women of Germany would soon "cut" through the male "beer-belly" culture. Her inclusion of commercially produced designs in her montages broke down distinctions between modern art and crafts, and between the public sphere and domesticity.

The City Rises (1910)

The City Rises (1910)

Movement: Futurism (Read Movement Overview, History, and Artworks pages)

Artist: Umberto Boccioni (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

This pioneering work launched Futurism when it was exhibited in Milan in the 1911 Mostra d'arte libera (Exhibition of free art). The painting combined the brushstrokes and blurred forms of Post-Impressionism with Cubism's fractured representations.

Originally entitled Il lavoro (Work), it depicts the construction of Milan's new electrical power plant. In the center of the frame, a large red horse surges forward, as three men, their muscles straining, try to guide and control it. In the background other horses and workers can be seen. The blurred central figures of the men and horse, depicted in vibrant primary colors, become the focal point of the frenzied movement that surrounds them, suggesting change is born from chaos and that everyone, including the viewer, is caught up in the transformation. As art critic Michael Brenson notes "Horses and people are forces of nature pitted against and aligned with one another in a primal struggle from which Boccioni must have believed something revolutionary would be born".

The work is a celebration of progress and of the working men that drove it, consequently the workers are depicted on a large scale (the canvas measures 6 ½ x 10 foot) and in a style which references Renaissance ideas of the heroic nude. Boccioni visually conveys modern labor as a glorious battle with the past to create a new future.

Theater Piece No. 1 (1952)

Movement: Neo-Dada (Read Movement Overview, History, and Artworks pages)

Artist: John Cage (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

Cage's Theater Piece No. 1, also known as simply "The Event," was a seminal performance for the evolution of Neo-Dada, paving the way for the movement's signature collaborations and multimedia basis. Conceived by Cage, the piece involved several simultaneous, unscripted performance components including a poetry reading, music, dance, photographic slide projections, film, and four panels of Robert Rauschenberg's White Paintings (1951) suspended from the ceiling in the shape of a cross. While Cage set certain guidelines for which medium each performer used, he let each individual artist determine the specifics of their role within the performance, emphasizing the function of chance in determining the course of the event. The aspects were all integral to the development of the Neo-Dada aesthetic as well as later performance art, and were encapsulated within this one work in which many of the key artists within the Neo-Dada movement played integral roles.

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