Five Little-Known Facts About the Irreverent Art Movement Inspiring Marni

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Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917Via WikiCommons

Francesco Risso, Marni’s creative director, looked towards the tactile whimsy of Dada when creating the house’s latest pre-fall collection

Since taking the reins of Marni last year, Francesco Risso has been nicknamed the Willy Wonka of fashion, and for good reason. Sugary sweet on the surface, his offbeat designs reveal a bitter, liquorice-laced aftertaste; his signatures of mismatched proportions, spliced prints and wonky hemlines have marked him out as one of fashion’s most refreshingly individualistic designers.

For pre-fall, Risso’s carousel of confections had a very different subversive undercurrent. Inspired by the artists and writers of Dada – the playful, provocative movement that probed the absurdity of modern life with a winking sense of humour – he delivered a riot of colour and texture, packed with references to the tactile whimsy of Dada sculpture.

The Dadaists couldn’t be more of a perfect fit for Risso’s childlike eclecticism: if anything, we’re surprised he didn’t get round to them sooner. Tracing the line from the movement’s origins to its unlikely legacy in fashion, these are the five things you need to know about this oddball pocket of the Parisian avant-garde.

1. The movement was born in a Swiss nightclub

In keeping with the raucous spirit of Francesco Risso’s Marni, the origins of Dada lie in a group of artists and thinkers who congregated in 1916 around the Zürich nightspot, Cabaret Voltaire. Dada’s unusual name developed from the work of German writer Hugo Ball, a pioneer in the obscure field of “sound poetry” – he liked the word for its nonsensical, infantile rhythm and Absurdist flavour.

Even the club itself, where they would meet for regular literary salons and performances, has a touch of titular serendipity: it was named after the celebrated Enlightenment satirist Voltaire whose novels, most famously Candide, skewered the intellectual culture of his day in the shadow of the Seven Years War. The Dada took Voltaire’s impulse to épater le bourgeoisie and ran with it to, at times perplexing, extremes.

2. It was a direct response to the horrors of World War One

Part of the reason these important cultural figures were gathered in Switzerland in the first place was the First World War: many of them Jewish, they had fled persecution in Germany and other Nazi-occupied countries. Another infamous Nazi policy was the condemnation of what they considered “degenerate art”, a category that encompassed almost every Modernist artist. To the Dadaists, this posed a challenge: what could art have left to say in the age of mechanised warfare?

Their answer was a kind of anti-art, characterised by its refusal to subscribe to conventional rules of what makes an art object and rejecting the centuries-old paragone of painting, sculpture and architecture – after all, if that was the dominant artistic culture of the West, it had reached a barbaric endgame. Their response was to relentlessly create as an act of protest: as one of the movement’s pioneers, the artist Hans Arp, puts it, “while the guns rumbled in the distance, we sang, painted, made collages and wrote poems with all our might”.

3. There’s no easy way to identify a Dada artwork

This anarchic spirit resulted in a movement that is notoriously difficult to define in aesthetic terms. Perhaps the best-known Dada piece is Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, causing a sensation by taking a porcelain urinal and placing it in a gallery context, signing it ‘R. Mutt’. Rather than focusing on the production of the art object, it was an act of wilful, performative defiance; a two fingers up to the cultural establishment. 

Elsewhere, artists explored everything from collage and poetry to music and theatre in order to expand their free-thinking creative universe – it was as much a state of mind, an experimental spirit, as it was a movement defined by any kind of visual motifs. As other centres of Dadaist activity appeared in Paris and Berlin, the movement splintered further, eventually evolving into styles as diverse as Surrealism, Pop Art and Fluxus.

4. Marni isn’t the first place Dada has sprung up in fashion

While Francesco Risso might be an interesting case of a designer explicitly referencing Dada as an inspiration, the movement’s iconoclastic spirit has reared its head before in the world of fashion. Elsa Schiaparelli may usually be associated with Surrealism for her close ties with artists like Salvador Dalí and Jean Cocteau, but she was first inspired by the irreverence of Dada. During her time collaborating with Man Ray, Schiaparelli contributed to his explicitly Dadaist magazine Société Anonyme, and she was close friends throughout her life with Gabby Picabia, the wife of the celebrated Dada painter Francis. 

Her designs famously included an upturned shoe as a hat and a transparent bra that featured silhouettes of hands covering the breasts – all fully in the tradition of Dada’s topsy-turvy world. A case could also be made for the chopped and screwed couture of Viktor & Rolf as continuing the Dada tradition: whether their S/S10 tulle ballgowns with Swiss cheese holes cut through them or their A/W15 dresses constructed to resemble paintings smashed and ripped out of their frames, they have consistently approached high fashion with a progressive – and distinctly cheeky – wit.

5. Why Dada is more than just an art movement

In many ways, Dada and fashion are perfect bedfellows: against the high-minded seriousness of the art world, fashion has always seen itself as the fun-loving, rebellious younger sibling. Dada’s enduring appeal lies in its accessibility; it’s more a way of thinking than a particular artistic process requiring specific materials or training.

If you’re game enough to repurpose everyday objects to make a sartorial statement, or simply flout the conventional rules of how to put an outfit together, your wardrobe has been inadvertently sprinkled with a little bit of playful Dada magic – although few designers channel this spirit into clothes as desirable as those of Francesco Risso. After all, if you can’t laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at?