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  • Niki Cleland-Hura

Revisiting Dada’s Women

Updated: Jul 31, 2023

Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq

Dada – an early 20th-century art movement often dubbed ‘anti-art’ or ‘absurdist’ – emerged as a reaction to World War I. Dada rejected the logic-based Enlightenment thinking which its members saw as the root cause of the war, challenging established institutions and embracing the nonsensical and the chaotic. The movement’s rejection of institutions (art and otherwise) spurred a fascination in the marginalised. Its ‘status as an outsider on the fringes of the institutions of art’, as Ruth Hemus puts it, allowed Dada artists to explore non-traditional materials, trans- and intermedial expression, and artistic influences from Africa, South America, and other exotified cultures.

Fig. 1: Hannah Höch, Das Schöne Mädchen (The Beautiful Girl), 1919-20. Collage. Private collection.

Though the movement was largely male-dominated, Dada’s rejection of art traditions made it possible for women artists to develop and present their work to the world and to collaborate with others. At the time, traditional institutions like art academies and fine art salons rarely (if ever) accepted women artists; but Dada worked outside of these institutions, meaning that women were not automatically precluded from participating in the movement. In addition, art forms that were historically considered ‘women’s work’, like embroidery, beading, and tapestry, were generally not accepted as fine art by these institutions – but Dada had no such restrictions. Artists like Sophie Taeuber, Hannah Höch, and Suzanne Duchamp were enormously innovative in their approach to their art, using materials and techniques traditionally excluded from the world of fine art. This included embracing modern technology, such as Höch’s use of photography and printed mass-media in her ‘photomontages’ (fig. 1), or Duchamp’s inclusion of mechanical elements in her collages (fig. 2). All three artists also worked within the traditionally ‘feminine’ fields which were considered crafts, not art forms – particularly embroidery, puppet- and doll-making, and dance. Duchamp included materials associated with femininity in her collages, such as beads and pearls, and several of Höch’s photomontages include embroidery patterns as their main feature. Dada’s fascination with and embracing of the marginal, the non-traditional, and the anarchic allowed these artists to challenge what counts as art and why these delineations exist to begin with.

Fig. 2: Suzanne Duchamp, Un et une menacés (A Male and Female Threatened), 1916. Watercolour, clock gear, metal rings, plumb bob and string on paper. Private collection.

Too often, however, these women – all prolific artists working with a variety of media – are referred to only as the companion, ‘muse’, or assistant of the better-remembered male artists with whom they had personal relationships – sister of, mistress of, wife of. Even beyond these relationships, Dada’s women are often referred to in a mothering or nurturing role, rather than as innovating artists within the movement. Emmy Hennings, for instance, is known as the ‘mother’ of the Cabaret Voltaire, the Swiss epicentre of Dada which she established with Hugo Ball in 1916. In accounts written by her circle, she is often presented as a hostess and provider, conjuring refreshments rather than contributing to the art and conversation at hand (a characterisation she herself denied). Hennings’ accomplished career as a singer, performer, poet, and writer deserves attention as much as any of her male contemporaries.

Katy Hessel of The Great Women Artists frequently writes about the unequal discussion of women artists. Recently, she wrote a fantastic piece analysing the coverage of artist Françoise Gilot’s passing. Gilot was an incredibly prolific artist with an octogenarian career, but the pieces following her death largely focussed on her relationship with Picasso (which occurred in her twenties; she died at 101). Why, Hessel asks, are Gilot’s achievements as an artist – and her long, fascinating life after leaving Picasso – not enough? Why must these women always be reduced to their relationships with men, perhaps with an ‘artist in her own right’ tacked on as an afterthought?

Certainly, to ignore or deny these relationships would be to miss something profound from an art historical perspective. But women artists’ personal relationships with men should not supersede (or worse, altogether replace) their collaborative, explorative working relationships with their male friends, family, and partners. In trying to understand Suzanne Duchamp’s collaborative relationship with Marcel Duchamp, it is valuable to know that they were siblings as well as fellow artists; but that does not mean that she should be discussed only as his sister and sometimes assistant. After all, Suzanne and Marcel’s two other artist brothers are never discussed exclusively as brothers-of.

For Hennings, Höch, Taeuber, Duchamp, and the other women of Dada, their personal relationships often facilitated or complemented collaboration and mutual artistic experimentation that was fruitful for both individuals. Their historical status as ‘muse’ to their male co-artists is, at times, applicable, but it was always an active, not passive, role. Equally, the men with whom they worked and whom they loved were frequently muses themselves for these women; Hennings and Höch, for instance, drew on their personal and working relationships for much of their writing work, especially later in life. It gives a fuller picture of each of these artists’ careers and creative processes to consider their relations and artistic exchange with other artists. Marcel Duchamp’s ‘invention’ of the readymade becomes much more layered and interesting when one delves into his collaborations with Suzanne Duchamp and New York Dadaist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. It is a rare artist, and a rarer Dadaist, that can be said to work in a vacuum. But no artist, especially not those as prolific and innovative as these women, should have their work passed over in favour of an identity based upon a personal relationship. At the very least, we should be even-handed in our coverage; I look forward to the headlines discussing ‘Gilot’s lover, a Cubist painter in his own right’.

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