Dada was the first gender inclusive avant-garde art movement in Europe. It is impossible to understand its history without knowing something about the many women in Dada. However, the structure of art history led to the men acting as if they were being written about and writing much of the group’s history. So it was not until recently that these women artists and writers have been studied.
Mamas of Dada is a scholarly examination the lives of six women involved with Dada: Emmy Hennings, Gabrielle Buffet, Germaine Everling, Céline Arnauld, Juliette Roche, and Hannah Höch. They come from variety of backgrounds, working class to upper class, and gives a perspective on the lives of avant-garde European women. Some of these Mamas of Dada were actual mothers (someone should write Children of Dada).
Emmy Hennings was obviously the star of the Cabaret Voltaire but before this book all I had were a series of contradictory impressions — the Berlin cabaret singer, the Dada puppeteer and the devoted Catholic convert. The only child of work-class parents Hennings had been a maid, cleaner, washer woman, actress, nightclub singer, part-time prostitute, thief, poet, and later in life, a novelist.
Although neither Gabrielle Buffet and Germaine Everling were exactly participants because of their relationship with Picabia both provide a view of Dada in New York, Barcelona, Zurich, and Paris. Although Buffet’s music career ended when she marries Picabia she continued to write and lecture about avant-garde art. Everling, Picabia’s lover, provides more critical views of the Dadaists along with her hat and arms for Man Ray’s photo of Duchamp as Rrose Selavy.
Before Kamenish’s book I knew nothing about Céline Arnauld, the one woman poet and publisher amongst the Paris Dada. Aside from her name appearing in lists of contributors to many Dada publications and her face in photographs, the one woman amongst all the men.
Likewise I was ignorant of the painter and poet, Juliette Roche. Kamenish explains Roche’s privileged background: “everything converged to make the daughter of Jules Roche the most perfect of snobs, she was saved by painting.”
Hannah Höch the mother of photomontage is the best known of all the women in Dada. She preserved an archive of Dada material from the Nazis by burying it in her Berlin garden. In this chapter Kamenish’s interest in literature rather than visual arts is clear as she even examines a poem by Höch; Kamenish is an associate professor of Enblish at the University of North Caroline Wilmington.
Kamenish exposes the sexism in Dada – Francis Picabia and Raoul Hausmann the whole of Berlin Dada club. Their famous nihilism did not extend to male chauvinism. Who amongst all the men in European Dada who could act towards women as a colleague (and was not as a sexist pig)? Hannah Höch’s list is Kurt Schwitters and Hans Arp.
In the final chapter Kamenish provides brief biographies on seventeen other women involved with Dada including Sophie Täuber, Susanna Duchamp and some of the women in the Von Laben School of Dance in Zurich. There is much more to the story of these women that needs to be researched and written especially on their influence on textile and performing arts. Then there are women involved in New York Dada: Mina Loy, Beatrice Wood, and Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven. More needs to be written about these women but Paula K. Kamenish’s Mama of Dada is an important step.
Paula K. Kamenish Mamas of Dada – Women of the European avant-garde (The University of South Carolina Press, 2015)