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Reviewed by:
  • Dada’s Women
  • Andrew Rothwell
Dada’s Women. By Ruth Hemus. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. vi + 250 pp, ill. Hb £30.00; $60.00.

If Dada has come down to us as a ‘Men’s club’, it is largely because the movement’s history was documented in memoirs by its famous male protagonists (Tzara, Ball, Arp, Richter, Huelsenbeck, among others). In this perspective, the five creative women whose work is presented here, Emmy Hemmings and Sophie Taeuber (Zurich), Hannah Höch (Berlin), Suzanne Duchamp and Céline Arnauld (Paris), have appeared as, literally, ancillary — partners or siblings of subversive giants whose own contributions (including to the business of earning a living) could be dismissed as minor. Ruth Hemus’s chapter on Hemmings, who was most widely known for her colourful personal life and as Hugo Ball’s partner, gives a detailed sense of the anarchic and eclectic beginnings of Dada at the Cabaret Voltaire as background to a sensitive presentation of Hemmings’s key performance role and close readings of some of her texts. The masculine-derived ‘simplistic characterisation’ of Taeuber as just the ‘gentle, calm and unassuming’ (p. 53) wife of Hans Arp is then shown to have led to near total neglect of Taeuber’s abstract painting and handicraft work (like Hemmings and Höch, she made extraordinary puppets, and also contributed greatly to developing the performance aesthetic of Dada through dance). Of the five, Höch has achieved the most recognition, as a brilliant exponent of photomontage (Hemus offers excellent analyses of Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser Dada durch die letzte Weimarer Bierbauchkulturepoche Deutschlands and other works), although even her creativity is overshadowed by a ‘good girl’ reputation. Duchamp’s presence in the Parisian avant-garde has been almost completely occluded by her famous brothers (she apparently threw away the ‘original’ of Marcel’s ready-made bottle drying rack). Yet she was a ‘bold and experimental innovator’ (p. 134), especially in the early use of machine imagery in her paintings, again impressively discussed by Hemus — although ‘imagination sans fils’ (derived from the technological marvel of wireless, the ‘TSF’) should probably be translated ‘without wires’ rather than ‘without strings’ (p. 143), and a likely allusion to Verlaine in the title Ariette d’oubli (pp. 157–58) might suggest an alternative identification of the bearded man in the picture. The final figure in the book is also the most obscure: Céline Arnauld’s basic biography was previously hazy and much remains to be discovered. Hemus makes strong claims for Arnauld’s originality as a writer and editor of avantgarde journals, even drawing comparisons with automatic writing; however, the samples presented here seem weaker and more derivative than those of the other four, suggesting that Arnauld was perhaps more of a fellow-traveller than a creative artist of similar stature. Overall, this very readable and superbly illustrated book ranges widely across verbal and visual media and themes that include sexuality and the body, gender politics, and art theory. The meticulously researched historico-biographical presentation (including numerous archive photos) required by Hemus’s ambition of ‘recovering neglected individuals’ (p. 5) is deftly complemented by close analysis of specific works, which succeeds admirably both in illuminating the personal ethos of the five Dadaists, and in showing how each enriches and expands our understanding of the movement. If the Conclusion’s hints of exciting future research agendas, particularly concerning links between Dada’s women, écriture féminine, and the practices of female [End Page 361] artists in more recent decades, are now taken up and explored, the outcome could well be a significant revision of twentieth-century cultural history.

Andrew Rothwell
Swansea University


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pp. 361-362
Launched on MUSE
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