Wearable Art Contextualized: Hugo Ball and Cabaret Voltaire

I’ve already written about the confluence of art and fashion in the work of male artists in the early twentieth century including Rodchenko, Man Ray, and Malevich, but the zany costumes worn by the early Dada artists involved with Cabaret Voltaire–Hugo Ball in particular–warrant a post of their own.

Ball was part of a community of artists–refugees, dissidents and objectors– who fled from the atrocities of the First World War in their respective countries, to the neutrality of Switzerland. Once there, he and his partner, Emmy Hennings, along with poet, Tristan Tzara, painter, Marcel Janco, and artist, Jean Arp, got permission to use the back room of a failing nightclub in Zurich, to host their own cabaret and on Feb 1, 1916, Cabaret Voltaire was born. Together, they formed an artistic movement that was notoriously (unsurprisingly) anti-war and anti bourgeois: Dada. Six months later Ball read the Dada Manifesto at Cabaret Voltaire. Over its short lifetime, Cabaret Voltaire hosted numerous radical artists who went on to define the various “isms” that constitute what we refer to as Modern Art today.

The tenants behind Dada were influenced largely by Ball’s devotion to the concept of Gesamtkunstewerk, meaning “total work of art”, which was a radical new philosophy whereby a one-dimensional society could be regenerated through a totality that combined all the arts. This “totality combining all the arts” manifested itself for Ball through an expressive art form that espoused shock-value entertainment, of which whacky costumes played a key role.

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Costumes designed by Sophie Tauber Arp for a dance performance she and her sister performed to accompany a poetry reading by Ball.
Image courtesy of pietmondriaan.com

The performances at Cabaret Voltaire ranged from theatrical performances by Sonia Delaunay, African dances in elaborate costumes by Sophie Tauber (Arps’ wife), nonsensical poetry readings in which the poems were interrupted by a cacophony of voices, and of course one of Ball’s most famous performances, “Gadji Beri Bimba”, through which he sought to “shed the common dialect and communicate through pure vowels and symbols.”

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Ball performing Gadji Beri Bimba from behind an absurd Cubist mask.
Image courtesy of criticsatlarge.ca

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Hugo Ball reciting a poem in costume at Cabaret Voltaire c. 1916.
Image courtesy of tate.org.uk

The absurd, unsettling costumes no doubt aided the artists in leaving the audience unsettled, uncomfortable, of which was the aim of Ball’s subversive war-time cabaret. In respect to the audience, critic Kevin Courrier writes, “there was nowhere to hide, no way for them to discern the difference between the outside world and the swirling upheaval surrounding them.”
Although Cabaret Voltaire was the birthplace of the Dada movement, by 1917 artists who identified themselves as such moved outwards to Paris and Berlin and soon after, Ball himself returned to a life of religion, dying in Switzerland in 1927.