The mamas take their place with the dadas

The feminist reclamation of the absurdist movement

In 1971 Linda Nochlin asked “Why have there been no great women artists?” Taking this question as the title for what became a seminal text, she suggested that the answer lay in the systematic exclusion of women in a male-orientated society, or, as she put it, in “the entire romantic, elitist, individual-glorifying, and monograph-producing substance upon which the profession of art history is based”. This, she maintained, had prevented the emergence of any “great” women artists. Her essay catalysed many elements of contemporary feminist thinking, and, over the next 35 years, was instrumental in the launch of art-historical discoveries, reclamations, revision and rehabilitations of hitherto submerged women artists. Dada’s Women by Ruth Hemus is the latest addition to this list.

Dada as an art movement is often overshadowed by its ostensibly more glamorous and eccentric child, surrealism. Often described as the phoenix risen from dada’s ashes, surrealism elevated Woman to mythical status, making her Muse, Object and Other. This objectification has ignited fierce feminist debate—Whitney Chadwick, Dawn Ades, Rosalind Krauss and Mary Ann Caws, among others, all turned their attention to the subject. As a result, many women artists have been inscribed in the surrealist canon: Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington and Claude Cahun, to name but a few.

Dada, which formed the very ideals on which surrealism was based, has, however, failed to undergo the same overhaul, and is still perceived as a boys only club. Naomi Sawelson-Gorse made an effort to redress this in Women in Dada (1999), but, apart from a handful of specialist essays, little else has been attempted. Indeed the book under review is not the fruit of long gestation, but began life not so long ago as a PhD thesis that has been polished up by Yale University Press for a public debut. A specialist, academic, feminist thesis may sound more than a little forbidding, but this book exceeds those daunting adjectives. Ruth Hemus presents a well ordered, clear and concise account of the place of women in dada, focusing on five individual artists connected with the movement: Emmy Hennings, Sophie Taeuber, Hannah Höch, Suzanne Duchamp and Céline Arnauld. The introduction, which accuses many of the best known accounts of dada as being “at best lazy and at worst an indication of patriarchal ideologies at play in art and literary histories” states the author’s aim to “challenge and stretch the perceptions of dada”.

This aim is particularly well realised in her presentation of Emmy Hennings and Céline Arnauld, the least known of the five women. Arnauld particularly deserves reconsideration. Her work has long been out of print, there have been no studies of her life and there was no existing bibliography of her work until Hemus compiled one for this publication. It is surprising to learn that Arnauld was relatively prolific and produced 11 volumes of poetry, a novel and an anthology, all of which had been forgotten until now. Hemus examines in depth three of Arnauld’s poems (in French) and reveals her to be a clever and witty craftsman whose work, in keeping with dada itself, touches both on the horrors of war (“the rain falls suspicious and petty/ Your words are shrapnel/ on the sunflower wheels/ The cemeteries extend to the dead grass…/ Watch out for the open graves”) and the comic absurd (“Well then, that’s all I have to say to you. It’s Poetry, believe me.”)

The most vivid chapters are those on Höch and Taeuber, not least because of the smart colour reproductions of their works. Taeuber in particular (who is, in fact, mentioned in Nochlin’s essay as an example of an artist whose work can’t be classified as “feminine” and yet has been overlooked because of her sex) is presented as an enormously talented and versatile artist. Indeed previous writings on Taeuber, both in her lifetime and after, focus on her personality rather than her standing as an artist (as is the case with Hennings, whose life as a heroin-addicted prostitute has been paid more attention than her life as a poet, performer and founder of the Cabaret Voltaire, the birthplace of dada). Taeuber’s paintings and tapestries, and Höch’s collages, would hold their place next to work by their male counterparts.

As well as highlighting the work of these five artists (in Arnauld’s case, for the first time), Hemus demonstrates the correlation between the different geographical centres of the movement: Zurich, Paris and Berlin. In juxtaposing the work of these five women, the reader is exposed to the sheer diversity of medium which distinguishes dada from other movements at the time. Hemus has succeeded in introducing the reader to the women of dada, and in bringing to life a subject often regarded as a museum curiosity.

Ruth Hemus, Dada's Women (Yale University Press), 256 pp, £30 (hb). ISBN 9780300141481

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