General 2-2-2003

Hugo Ball III: Dada World

From time to time we run quotes or excerpts from historical sources relevant to the site's current focus (now, on how artists survive). What follows is a series of short excerpts from the diary of the Dada founder and impresario Hugo Ball.

This is the last set of excerpts from Hugo Ball’s diary. (Click on the links at the bottom of this page to access the first two: “Flight Out of Time” and “Cabaret Voltaire.”) Their emphasis on the internationalism of vanguard art is of immediate interest now. In this vein, see the Walker’s new programs “How Latitudes Become Forms: Art in a Global Age”( and “Translocations” ( As in our time, nationalistic models of culture seemed increasingly unsurvivable. Ball’s accounts of his compelling interest in non-European cultures are only hinted at in these excerpts, but then, as now, linkages among artists, between countries, between races, and between individual psyches (which presented perhaps the greatest barriers for the Dada group!) seemed essential.

May 24, 1916
. . . . Janco has made a number of masks for the new soiree, and they are more than just clever. They are reminiscent of the Japanese or ancient Greek theater, yet they are wholly modern. They were designed to be effective from a distance; yet in the relatively small space of the cabaret they have a sensational effect. We were all there when Janco arrived with his masks, and everyone immediately put one on. Then something strange happened. Not only did the mask immediately call for a costume; it also demanded a quite definite, passionate gesture, bordering on madness. Although we could not have imagined it five minutes earlier, we were walking about with the most bizarre movements, festooned and draped with impossible objects, each of us trying to outdo the other in inventiveness. The motive power of these masks was irresistibly conveyed to us. All at once we realized the significance of such a mask for mime and for the theater. The masks simply demanded that their wearers start to move in a tragic-absurd dance. . . . What fascinates us all about the masks is that they represent not human characters and passions but characters and passions that are larger than life, the horror of our time, the paralyzing background of events, is made visible.

June 4, 1916
. . . . There were Japanese and Turks there who watched all the activities with real astonishment. For the first time I was ashamed of the noise of the performance, the mixture of styles and moods, things I have not physically endured for weeks.

June 16, 1916
The ideals of culture and art as a program for a variety show–that is our kind of Candide against the times. People act as if nothing had happened. The slaughter increases, and they cling to the prestige of European glory. They are trying to make the impossible possible and to pass off the betrayal of man, the exploitation of the body and soul of the people, and all this civilized carnage as a triumph of European intelligence. . . .

August 4, 1916
Tzara has opened a Collection Dada with The First Adventure of Mr. Aspirin. The celestial adventure for me at present, however, is apathy and that desire for recovery that makes everything appear in a new, gently diffused light. Three times a day I dip my naked white limbs in the silvery blue water. The green vineyards, the bells, the fishermen’s brown eyes course through my veins. I do not need poems any more! All my clothes are lying on the bank, guarded by a snake with a golden crown.

August 6, 1916
My manifesto on the first public dada evening (in the Waag Hall) was a thinly disguised break with friends. They felt so too. Has the first manifesto of a newly founded cause ever been known to refute the cause itself to its supporters’ face? And yet that is what happened. When things are finished, I cannot spend any more time with them. That is how I am; if I tried to be different, it would be no use.

February 10, 1917
. . . . In the end we cannot simply keep producing without knowing who we are addressing. The artist’s audience is not limited to his nation any more. Life is breaking up into parties; only art keeps on resisting, but its recipients are getting more and more uncertain. Can we write, compose, and make music for an imaginary audience? . . . .

March 18, 1917
Tzara and I have taken over the rooms of the Galerie Corray . . . and yesterday we opened the Galerie Dada with a Sturm exhibition. This is a continuation of the cabaret idea of last year. We had only three days between the proposal and opening day. About forty people were there. Tzara came late, so I spoke about our plan to form a small group of people who would support and stimulate each other.

December 5, 1917
Bring all forces into play, exhaust your innate talent. Nothing must be held in reserve, nothing must be unmoved. We live only once. Reality begins only at the point where objects exhaust themselves.

Quotes taken from Flight Out of Time by Hugo Ball, ed. John Elderfield, trans. Ann Raimes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.