Putting Vagina Dentata and other terrifying ghoulies to bed
To all intents and purposes, the discipline of art history, as it has been taught throughout the whole of the last century to countless burgeoning art historians and students with a compulsory credit to attain, is tired. Exhausted, finished, out of the picture.
The whole discipline was written within in specific frameworks with very specific (and rather exclusionary) agendas at hand. Scholars have become savvy to this type of manipulation of young minds, and the structure of the discipline is corroding. The world is a completely different place than what it was throughout the modern era. The ‘detritus’ left in the wake of the art history discipline, interestingly enough, is not a similar kind of imposing structure at all. Rather, it is very consciously and articulately aware of the stamp of hundreds of years of modernist arrogance.
Enter Women in Dada. Edited by Naomi Sawelson-Gorse, this anthology of essays, like any collection of diverse material, is uneven, but its modus operandi is sound and its careful forethought succeeds in holding the whole thing together. This book is as much a product of contemporary sensibilities as it is about the Dada mindset, which makes for juicy and relevant reading. Of course, ideologies like feminism, queer theory, and the trend toward the redressing of certain values are themselves becoming fairly long in the tooth, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen as pithy a reassessment of a 20th century modernist European movement.
Women in Dada does that and more. Not only does it paint a startling but credible image of the misogyny of well-respected practitioners like Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, it focuses on women Dadaists, who blow all misconceptions out of the proverbial water. Many of these women, like Beatrice Wood, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Florine Stettenheimer, and Clara Tice, to name but a few, were extraordinarily original practitioners of the Dada mindset. In large proportion, they were also the movers and shakers behind the movement itself. Overwhelmingly, not one has enjoyed a presence of any sort in the annals of mainstream library-bound modernist art history books or conventional lessons. Rather, as Rudolf Kuenzli points out, in the professedly comprehensive mainstream Dada texts, women’s contributions are relegated to anecdotal accounts, playing the role of comic relief, and at that, given pride of place in footnotes, if at all (447).
Dada as a visual arts movement came about in the period between the World Wars, in both Europe and the States. It was a reaction to the senselessness of violence, and challenged the established codes of conduct with which the artists involved had been reared. Every single code? Of course not. Being also a product of modern hegemony, certain values remained sacred and unchallengeable to the practitioners, academics, gallery owners and collectors who were able to lubricate Dada’s position on the modernist plateau.
One of these was the position of women. This is thoroughly given voice to throughout Women in Dada. It’s a big publication, containing nineteen substantial essays that rigorously take apart their respective issues of focus. Divided into seven broad sections, the contents covers a rich diversity of areas of subtext that feeds into the multiplicity of roles which women played in Dada. These areas extend from the traditionally expected roles like artists’ fans, collectors, wives and models to the more complex and richly endowed understanding of the term ‘woman dadaist’. Here we can find women who are proudly and independently lesbians, or better still, men dressed or projected in some form of drag. We can find a ‘female presence’ in formal elements of a work, serving as contradistinction between harsh, brash, mechanical ‘masculine’ lines. The concept ‘woman’ is also dealt with and from within the broadly paralleled framework of the African artifact, an inanimate object with history placed on the same type of socio-political, ever so slightly discriminatory platform as the 1950s traditional western woman.
These women in Dada are the artists, the art journal editors, the people who bravely challenged the miens of convention as their male counterparts were doing, but in spite of (or perhaps because of) the poor publicity about their sex. It’s kind of a given that the woman sibling or child will land up caring for her ailing parents or being the proverbial shoulder for her close family. What indeed happens to this woman, if in addition to being a domestic asset, she’s a Dadaist, albeit a bit of a closet one? Barbara Bloemink takes this problem apart in the light of a fascinating essay on Florine Stettenheimer, the ideal sister and daughter under any scrutiny, but pure Dadaist the rest of the time. Somehow, it is critical biographical forays into lives such as these women that belie and downplay the modernist dream of exhibiting artist who is free to explore his navel, because he fashionably will don his beret, slip into his atelier, and have the world’s unabated respect for this.
Kuenzli quotes numerous accounts that describe the garb of the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. The costumes she elected to wear as a practicing Dadaist are, by any account, a tad more daring than the rather demure soap sculpted hair, drag or subverted identity-based costumes of Duchamp, for instance. As Marisa Januzzi comments, the extravagant dress of the Baroness wasn’t a touch on the outrageousness of her poetry, but that of course, was not tabloid or gossip material (593). The point was “these men were all cowards who, while producing unconventional works, still insisted on a conventional lifestyle and traditional gender roles” (Kuenzli, 458).
The authors of the essays in this book are drawn from a broad spectrum of specialities, ranging from the traditional field of art history and museology to that of contemporary popular culture. This is one of the ways in which the book is given ‘spice’. Margaret Morgan, writes her piece, “A box, a pipe and a piece of plumbing” about how Dada values are rearticulated and fed into principles dealt with by women artists of the 1990s, which considerably contextualizes the straightforward relevance of Dada in this, the 21st century.
The other ways in which this book is relevant are of course, from within feminist sensibilities, but the accent of the book is not judgmental or radical. In a clean and readable cohesive articulation of the period and its women protagonists, all is revealed in an objective light. Indeed the ‘real’ Dada movement was about a much less compromising approach to the nature of visual culture, or, better still, universal culture, as it attempted to bring about a marriage between art and life.
The essays in this book reveal the women protagonists to be far more radical, courageous and non-dogmatic than their male counterparts in cobbling together this movement, which questions the larger issue of framing factual narrative to toe a (moralistic?) line. Were the outrageous shenanigans of women Dadaists just too much for the wise old visual arts scholars of time past? Kuenzli records how many men who knew the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, for instance, acknowledged a very palpable fear of her, which maybe embraces a broader more scholarly-embracing mindset as well. All over the text, the well-worn image of the vagina with teeth pops up terrifyingly in sculptures, in references, in horror stories made by men—which is, indeed, key to what it’s about. Made by men, with very little real relevance, once the actual flesh and blood women of the movement are allowed credence and given voice.
In its bigness, this book is very accessible. On the whole, the tone of the essays is clean of academic jargon and stuffy hypothesizing or pedantic historical detail. The style is almost uniformly bold, and the neglect of these women in mainstream art history makes the biographical tone to some of the essays very important to the discipline.
The book’s visual dynamics derive sensitively from a 1940s design sensibility, in terms of color, image, typeface and layout, but using technology that’s sixty years more sophisticated. In this way, as a publication in form, appearance and content, it serves as a fresh exercise in redressing preconceptions.
And in redressing all those musty and slightly nervous preconceptions from the modernist era, suddenly the modus operandi behind what Dadaism is all about takes on an almost sexily contemporary relevance. When it’s addressed in this way, you or I or anyone else could subscribe to the principles of a between-the-world-wars movement. After all, our contemporary world is leagues crazier that it was then!