Dada is a French word for a child's hobby-horse, said to have been chosen at random from a dictionary and used as a label by a group of artists and writers who were refugees from World War I in Switzerland. It was a nihilistic precursor of Surrealism and lasted from about 1916 to 1922, spreading from Zurich to Paris, Cologne and New York. It was deliberately anti-art and anti-sense (and, unlike Surrealism, anti-politics as well), intended to shock and outrage. Its most characteristic production was the reproduction of the Mona Lisa with a beard and moustache and the obscene caption L H O O Q (i.e. elle a chaud au cul) 'by' Duchamp and, perhaps, Picabia. Other manifestations included 'readymades', i.e. any object at hand, such as the bottle-drier and bicycle wheel signed by Duchamp, or the urinal which he signed R. Mutt and tried, unsuccessfully, to exhibit in New York; Arp's collages of coloured paper cut up and shuffled at random; and Picabia's drawings of bits of machinery with incongrous titles.
An exhibition held in an annexe to a cafe lavatory in Cologne in 1920 provided a chopper for visitors to use on the works displayed.
The movement was always strongly literary, and may have been invented by the poet Tristan Tzara.
Many artists went through a Dadaist phase, often short-lived, but for some it lasted longer - for example Schwitters, who created what he called 'Merzbau', remained under its spell to the end of his short life.