Featured in
Issue 123

Dada’s Women

Ruth Hemus (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2009)

BY Sally O'Reilly in Culture Digest | 05 MAY 09

Ruth Hemus, Dada's Women, 2009, Yale University Press, New Haven

Ruth Hemus’s Dada’s Women is not so much a revisionist attempt to reclaim the avant-garde for women, but rather a measured account of five artists’ methods and their effect on and parity with their male peers. The book comprises five chapters, focusing individually on the biography and artistic output of Emmy Hennings, Sophie Taeuber, Hannah Höch, Suzanne Duchamp and Céline Arnauld. While all were either the wife, mistress or sister of major male Dadaists, Hemus is at pains to attribute them independent creative agency and status. Suzanne Duchamp, wife of Jean Crotti and sister of Marcel Duchamp, Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Jacques Villon, is perhaps most well known for having thrown out her brother’s bottle rack when tidying his studio. Hemus, however, systematically analyses her collages (among the first to incorporate found objects such as cogs and plumb-bobs) in terms of the issues of a society overshadowed by World War I, from the impact of technology to the drop in birth rate. Taeuber’s marionettes, dance, tapestries and geometric paintings are construed as the negation of genre and category, as well as an exploration of gender representation and the prefiguring of Concrete art and the Surrealist imaginary. Irreverent attitudes to language, central to Dadaism’s anti-nationalist impulse and its refutation of the supremacy of sense, are closely examined in the work of poet Arnauld, while Höch’s photomontages are aligned with the formulation of fragmentation and mass reproduction as key components of Modernism.

Dada’s Women has developed out of a PhD thesis, and this is evident in the occasional over-summarising and prefiguring of each section’s intent. And, while Hemus insists that the woman and the art must not be conflated – a tenet of New Criticism prominent between the 1920s and ’60s – she is inconsistent in her methodology. At times she whisks through biographical contexts, yet elsewhere conducts analyses of single works that can run to pages. In the case of Hennings, this emphasis is reversed. Hennings was a ribald character, by all accounts, who occasionally resorted to prostitution to support herself and her partner Hugo Ball, and her performative contributions to Cabaret Voltaire have consequently been viewed through a moralising lens in the memoirs of her peers. Compared to the fine-toothed comb of formal and associational analysis applied to Suzanne Duchamp’s paintings and collages, Hennings is represented through a kaleidoscopic montage of firsthand accounts and ruminations on cultural and historical relativism, partly due to the ephemeral nature of Hennings’ stage-based performances, of which little visual documentation exists.

American painter Fairfield Porter described the avant-garde as being simply the people with the most energy. While we now acknowledge that the art-historical dominance of the white, European or North American male has hindered visibility of others, Dada’s Women reminds us of other arbitrary forces that affect the canon. From inaccurate analysis for the sake of a turn of phrase to personal or professional favouritism, historiography is an extremely sensitive, and potentially irreversible, process.

Sally O'Reilly is a writer, critic, teacher and editor.