Today would have been the 125th birthday of feminist Dada artist Hannah Höch — dubbed “art’s original punk” by The Guardian earlier this year. As the article points out, Höch was an unlikely addition to the early 20th-century group — which favored the irrational, nihilistic, collaborative, and spontaneous — namely, because Höch was a woman. One of the group’s pioneering photomontage artists, Höch critiqued the role of women, beauty standards, marriage, the politics of her home country, Germany, and the oft-misogynist Dada group itself. Take Höch’s 1919 work Cut With the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany, for instance. The title says it all. In celebration of Höch’s essential contributions to Dada and the art world at large, we’re visiting the works of other female Dadaists who you should know.
The youngest of the Duchamp siblings, Suzanne Duchamp lived in the famed Montparnasse Quarter of Paris so brother Marcel could help her establish her career (they were perhaps the closest of all the siblings). Female painters struggled for legitimacy at that time, despite being formally trained as Suzanne was at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Rouen. But the painter’s legacy was assured after an impressive showing in the Salon des Indépendants in Paris at 22 years old. One of Duchamp the Younger’s key Dada works, 1919’s Multiplication brisée et rétablie (Broken and Restored Multiplication), possessed the holy trinity of Dada: an anti-aesthetic sensibility, collage, and text. “The mirror would shatter, the scaffolding would totter, the balloons would fly away, the stars would dim, etc.” her abstract cityscape reads.
Collaborator and wife of Dadaist Jean Arp, Sophie Taeuber’s work demonstrated an affinity for color and geometric forms. “Her austerely geometric art arose from her belief in the innate expressive power of colour, line and form, and was informed by unusual wit and freedom. She rejected her contemporaries’ progressive schematization of objective form,” writes Oxford University Press. “During the years of Dada in Zurich (1916–20), Taeuber-Arp not only painted but also made a series of polychrome wood heads, including the portrait of Jean Arp (1918–19; Paris, Pompidou), and designed the sets and marionettes (Zurich, Mus. Bellerive) for a performance of Carlo Gozzi’s König Hirsch in 1918 in conjunction with the exhibition of the Swiss workshop in Zurich. She was an accomplished dancer and performed at Cabaret Voltaire evenings.” Taeuber performed at the opening of exhibition space Galerie Dada, wearing an elaborate mask fashioned by one of Dada’s founders, Marcel Janco.
“What is Dada about this lecture is that I know nothing about Dada. I was only in love with men connected with it, which I suppose is as near to being Dada as anything,” Beatrice Wood told an audience at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1978. Indeed, in her day Wood was known for her sexual flings (and several imagined relationships she portrayed in her art) more than her artistic contributions to Dada. But today she holds the title of the “Mama of Dada,” after a colorful career and a lifelong passion for ceramics lasting until her death at 105 years old. “[Her] drawings have the combined openness and intimacy of a daily diary, revealing the wit and humor, pathos and joie de vivre for which Wood’s so well known,” writes Art Forum. “For example, works from Touching Certain Things, 1932–33, depict sexually tinged interactions between women with a directness and sweetness that remains, despite a quaint illustrative style, radical for our times.”
A fixture at Zurich nightclub the Cabaret Voltaire (co-founded by her husband, leading Dadaist Hugo Ball) and the Galerie Dada — where she sang, recited her written works, danced, and performed with puppets — Emmy Hennings was publishing poetry in anarchist publications well before the days of Dada. Poet, professor, and performance artist Crystal Hoffman writes a fascinating history on Hennings, who remains largely absent from the Dada library:
Hennings preferred to keep from history most of the creative work produced during her long career as a member of Munich and Zurich’s Avant-Garde inner circles, as it would unfortunately also reveal a long career as a morphine addict, prostitute, and hustler, who frequently promoted free-love, anarchy, and social revolution, and spent several stints in prison, at least once for forging passports for draft dodgers. For this reason, it seems that Emmy Hennings welcomed individual artistic anonymity in favor of becoming a footnote to Hugo Ball’s career.
Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven
No spinsterlollypop for me!
Yes! We have no bananas
I got lusting palate
I always eat them…
There’s the vibrator
Coy flappertoy! …
A dozen cocktails, please!
She was a living work of art who embodied Dada in ways that her male counterparts only dared to dream of. Artist model, vagabond, poet, radical performer, fashion icon, and freewheeling feminist Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven was keeping Greenwich Village weird decades before the ’60s (“often arrested for her revealing costumes and ongoing habit of stealing anything that caught her eye, she ‘leaped from patrol wagons with such agility that policemen let her go in admiration'”). It’s also written that she was the inspiration behind Duchamp’s Fountain. And you should absolutely read about the Baroness’ first meeting with The Little Review editor Margaret Anderson.
British bohemian Mina Loy became a Dada ally by way of her writings, though she was also an artist who explored unconventional forms and materials (including trash from Manhattan garbage bins). Another well-known Greenwich Village figure, Loy enjoyed provoking the status quo (and all its gender norms) — evidenced in the work she published in modernist poetry mag Others. “We looked too wholesome in Court representing filthy literature,” she once recalled after the publication’s editors were forced before judge and jury.
“Queen of Greenwich Village” Clara Tice was a fashion icon, but her cutting-edge style was only one point of fascination. She helped organize one of the first independent art exhibitions (with the Society of Independent Artists), battled censorship when the Society for the Suppression of Vice tried to shut down one her art shows, and graced the pages of popular mags like Vanity Fair — bridging the uncomfortable gap between true Dada and its mainstream dalliance.
On gender-bending artist Toyen (aka Marie Čermínová), who took her name from the French word “citoyen” — which translates to “citizen”:
From artistic, political and personal point of views, she was one of the most independent creative artists in the last century. Toyen rejected her name (Marie Cerminova) and chose to pursue her career as an artist under an assumed name – a mysterious name without a gender. She broke all links to her family in favour of several friends who were “bound by choice”. Toyen protested against bourgeois tendencies and endorsed the anarchist movement. She disclaimed any suggestion that she play a traditional woman’s role by leading an independent way of life and, on the other hand, displaying no compromise for the quality of her work.
Born into a wealthy Parisian family, Juliette Roche’s not-so-humble beginnings offered her a first-row seat at various art-world and political happenings, which she was exposed to since an early age. She channeled this knowledge into innovative paintings and poems (like the 1920 book Demi Cercle), but she also maintained a critical eye when it came to the Dada boy-club hijinks.
“The career of Florine Stettheimer, painter, poet, and designer, disproves the myth of the artist as a lonely and misunderstood genius, struggling to produce works that transcend his (and less frequently, her) own historical time and place,” writes the Jewish Women’s Archive. “Stettheimer’s paintings are lively, diarylike accounts of her life, but also acute examinations of upper-class ways in New York between the wars. Her decorative, figurative style, often characterized as feminine, offers an alternative to prevailing modes of contemporary modernist painting.” Stettheimer also founded a New York City salon, where she hosted the who’s who of Dada — including Marcel Duchamp, whose portrait she frequently painted in an androgynous manner (radical for the time and from a woman).