Radical Mamas

Mamas of Dada: Women of the European Avant-Garde

By Paula K. Kamenish
Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2015, 208 pp., $44.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Irene Gammel

On February 5, 1916, the German poet and performer Emmy Hennings co-founded the legendary Cabaret Voltaire along with her compatriot, the writer Hugo Ball, whom she would marry in 1920. Through song, dance, and puppetry, she contributed to the birth of Dada. “I had never seen anything like it and was immediately won over by the Dadaists,” remarked the dancer Suzanne Perrottet, who had studied under the modern dance pioneer Rudolf Laban:

Emmy Hennings stood there in a roll of cardboard, from head to foot, the face was a ghastly mask, the mouth open, the nose off to one side, the arms lengthened in thin cardboard rolls, with long stylized fingers. The only living part that could be seen was her feet, naked, all by themselves at the bottom; it was so terse and impressive. That’s how she danced.

Indeed, Hennings’s performances were more felt by the audience than they were understood. Hennings, who earned her living through cleaning homes and occasional sex work, takes us inside the turbulent movement. A German citizen during war time, she was jailed for six weeks for forging passports, a traumatic experience she later dramatized in her 1919 autobiographical novella Gefängnis (“Prison”). Attuned to the carnage on the World War I European battlefields, which cost the lives of at least 10 million people and wounded and maimed another 20 million, Hennings violently rejected the traditional and embraced the radical in life and art. A photo in Paula Kamenish’s Mamas of Dada shows Hennings, petite and pixie-like, looking defiantly at the camera. She leans into Ball, who appears melancholy, as does the teenager beside him, Annemarie, Hennings’s daughter by another man. Taken one year before Ball’s early death in 1927, the photo shows little of the fun of Dada, instead confronting viewers with the trauma that underpinned the rebellious, iconoclastic movement.

As an anti-art movement, active in urban centers such as Zurich, Berlin, Paris, and New York, Dada reveled in provocations and nonsense, scatological humor and mischief. Pushing the boundaries of art and life to extremes and exhibiting exuberant creative energy, Dadaists shaped quirky and flexible new art forms such as the ready-made, the collage, and the photomontage, as well as sound poems, manifestos, and performances.

Through exploring the attitudes toward war, art, sex, and relationships of the six women featured in this book—Emmy Hennings, Gabrielle Buffet, Germaine Everling, Céline Arnauld, Juliette Roche, and Hannah Höch—Kamenish reveals both their interconnectedness, through Dada, and their individuality. She offers insights into their writing and performance across multiple languages, offering her own translations from works unavailable in English. In time for the Dada centenary in 2016, Mamas of Dada offers fascinating portraits of the radical women who, in their lives and art, confronted the inequities and complexities of sex, gender, class, and nationhood.

Although they were feminists and subversive critics of the Dada boys’ club, the six “mamas” often found themselves paired with larger-than-life Dada husbands. “For me, the Dada era began the day I met Picabia,” said the French painter and Dadaist Gabrielle Buffet, whose well-to-do background contrasts with Hennings’s impoverished life. Highly educated, Buffet had studied music and experimented with radical expression long before she became known on both sides of the Atlantic for her Dadaist commentary. An artist and intellectual, confident in her capabilities, she was a match for the French Dada leader Francis Picabia, whom she married and had three children with by 1913. A shrewd observer of the proto-Dada scene in New York from 1915 on, where Marcel Duchamp was pioneering the ready-made, Buffet engaged sharply with the movement, supplying the US press with articles and critical manifestoes that were eagerly reprinted. At that time, the word “Dada” was not yet used; as Buffet describes it, it was only in 1919 that this key term was adopted. After Buffet and her husband visited Tristan Tzara, the grand impresario of Dada, in Zurich, she recalled that she had been “very amused by the word ‘dada’ that we had never heard before.”

From there Buffet and her husband went on to found the movement’s Paris incarnation. By then, Buffet was forced to share the stage with her husband’s mistress, Germaine Everling, herself the mother of a teenage son and recently separated from her husband. The two women formed an uneasy alliance as they confronted Picabia’s egocentrism. Remarkably, in 1919, each gave birth to a son fathered by Picabia. Both signed his artwork L’Œil Cacodylate (1921), composed of some fifty other signatures, as well as photographs and postcards of his Dada friends, and both would eventually part ways from him.

During the height of Parisian Dada, Everling housed Tristan Tzara for a year. Turning her Paris apartment into a Dada headquarters, her hands and accessories were photographed by Man Ray as part of Marcel Duchamp’s cross-dressed persona Rrose Sélavy. Her 1970 memoir, L’Anneau de Saturne: Un roman d’amour (Ring of Saturn: a love story), provides a lively retrospective account, which astutely puts “Dada à la loupe” (Dada under the magnifying glass) and asserts her active role in Parisian Dada, while reckoning with her former lover. Using fictional dialogues, she conjures up outlandish Dada happenings with striking immediacy, and inserts herself into the events. One of the book’s chapters is titled, “Un enfant naît ... et Tristan Tzara arrive” (“a child is born … and Tristan Tzara arrives”), juxtaposing her child’s birth with the birth of Dada in Paris, both of which took place in her apartment, an intimate space that joined the physical with the intellectual and artistic.

Amid the “transitory Parisian Dada” one also finds Céline Arnauld, born Carolina Goldstein, “a single prolific female artist,” as Kamenish observes, “sandwiched by art historians between the widely known French versions of Cubism and Surrealism.” In contrast to Dada’s anti-aesthetic, Arnauld crafted poetry that she published in fourteen volumes—The Magic Lantern (1914); Openwork Poems (1920); and Chess Game (1921)—in addition to writing a novel and editing a literary magazine. Set in Paris and using Paris landmarks (“Wooden horses revolve around the Eiffel Tower/and the sun at its summit awaits the pilot”), her well-wrought verses have a modernist edge that refuses Romantic conventionality and pleasure. Her poem “Alarm,” for example, evokes the unsettling discomfort of World War I:

Your words are shrapnel
On the sunflower wheels
The cemeteries extend to the dead grass...
Watch out for the open graves.

Relevant here is the poet Pierre Reverdy’s observation that avant-garde poetic images are most powerful when they are born “from the juxtapositions of distant but true realities”; in other words, as Kamenish writes, “The more distant and accurate the correspondences between ideas are, the stronger the image.” A constant presence in the mercurial world of Parisian Dada, Arnauld used arsenic-green paint to sign her name in the upper right corner of Picabia’s L’Œil.

Whereas Arnauld created poetic images in words, the French painter Juliette Roche shaped poetry in pictures. Well-to-do and attractive, Roche was married to the Cubist and Dadaist painter Albert Gleizes. She held strong feminist views—advocating for “equal artistic, industrial and economic opportunity for men and women”—and was critical of the war, which she believed was fuelled by greed. Her 1917 pictorial poem “Brevoort” brilliantly depicts one of New York City’s landmark hotels near Washington Square, then a vibrant meeting point for the cosmopolitan avant garde. The poem is arranged visually and contains “overheard conversations, recorded then chopped up and arranged to move the viewer’s eye around the page,” Kamenish explains. Composed of flashes of pictures and verbal fragments of conversation, the pictorial poem has the typographical layout of a poster. Although fascinated by New York’s modernity, Roche satirized the city’s commercialism, critically comparing the bank vaults on Wall Street to military weapons (“The new [safety deposit vaults] are shaped like naval cannons,” she wrote.)

Like Roche, the book’s final example, Berlin Dadaist Hannah Höch, used Dada’s cutting and pasting technique, which enabled her to pioneer the photomontage. The proliferation of illustrated newspapers provided the raw material, and the collage became a hallmark of Dada art. In Höch’s words, “collage was born with the Dada Movement, and it never ceased to hold me… it was a form of expression complete in itself and could culminate in purely aesthetic work.” One of her most famous works, with the elaborate title Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany (1919-1920), illustrates Höch’s scathing critique of militaristic, nationalistic bourgeois culture. She was equally acerbic in lambasting stereotypical femininity; Höch, like many of her Dada sisters, saw Dada’s potential to challenge gender and sexual conformity. Höch had long-term relationships with both men and women, including the Dadaist Raoul Hausmann, who was married, prompting her twice to terminate pregnancies; and the Dutch poet Mathilda (Til) Brugman, who wrote sound-poems and a heartbreaking love poem-elegy when the two women broke up in 1936 (“your thighs/ delicious, elongated basin/ that I lasciviously adored … // but agonizing pain you left me”).

Ultimately, Mamas of Dada makes a forceful case for these women as Dada agents, illuminates their fascinating lives, and expands the category of Dada by highlighting their various roles as its facilitators and champions. However, Mamas of Dada does not delve deeply into the ideas and gender nuances behind Dada; the plethora of books on women in Dada are listed in the preface but never engaged with. As a result, some readers may miss the connection between Emmy Hennings and the outrageous Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven; or the radical queering of gender championed by Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, the formidable lesbian editors of the Little Review; or Höch’s fascination with Weimar’s sexual subcultures and early gender-reassignment surgery. Feminist readers are bound to query the lack of nuance in a chart listing male Dadaists as “the most recognizable participants,” which relegates the women to a list of “less-known contributors.” The gender divide postulated at the book’s outset seems overdrawn, considering that artists like Höch have long enjoyed impressive international cachet and high market value for their work, and deserve credit for these achievements and successes.

Nevertheless, Mamas of Dada offers an unequivocal and enthusiastic tribute to six women who helped give birth to Dada, adding to the pantheon of formidable women Dadaists. The book will appeal to readers keen to learn more about the daring and experimental women who were “instrumental in birthing new techniques,” as Kamenish says, and who both sustained and challenged the movement from within. In the process, they embodied radical impulses in both their lives and their art, and gave us innovations that continue to resonate a century later.

Irene Gammel holds a Canada Research Chair in Modern Literature and Culture at Ryerson University in Toronto. Among her books are Looking for Anne of Green Gables (2008) and Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity (2002). She also coedited Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (2011) and Crystal Flowers: Poems and a Libretto by Florine Stettheimer (2011). She is the director of the Modern Literature and Culture Research Centre. For more, see http://mlc.ryerson.ca/ and and follow her on twitter (@MLC_Research).

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