The original Dada Divas were interdisciplinary artists involved with poetry, performance, feminism, modeling, and visual art, often made with found objects or even junk picked up from the streets. They lived and worked in some of the same locales and shared many of the same experiences, including being regarded as accomplished peers by the many significant artists and writers with whom they associated. At various low points in their lives, they all endured significant poverty and its consequences. Two suffered the loss of a child, all suffered from neurasthenia, and individually they experienced drug addiction or serious illness; braved prostitution out of necessity; and withstood imprisonment. All died in relative obscurity, largely overlooked by history despite their influential roles.
Emmy Hennings (1885–1948)
Mina Loy (1882–1966)
A pioneering artist lauded in her day as “The Star of the Cabaret Voltaire” and “The Danish Futurist,” Emmy Hennings still receives far less credit than deserved for her works as well as for her leading role in the birth of Dada.
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Hennings was an outstanding singer, actor, and dancer; a prolific writer of novels, poetry, prose, and autobiography; a puppet and doll maker; a model; and a staunch feminist. At a young age her works were published in important anarchist journals, and she was heavily involved in both Expressionist and Dada movements. Her performances took her throughout Europe, from Berlin to Budapest, from Moscow to Zurich. Yet history has tended to neglect her, perhaps since she was primarily a performer whose work left few traces, but also since she was a female artist living in a patriarchal age.
Hennings lived an unorthodox life as a bohemian and itinerant woman who purposely repudiated the bourgeois ethos of her time. She financially supported herself, as well as several of the men in her life, through a combination of performing, hawking goods door-to-door, and Gelegensheitprostitution—occasional prostitution forced by dire financial circumstances. Her life was difficult beyond her forays into prostitution and hucksterism. After one of her children died in infancy, she was forced to choose between an artistic career and staying with another child; was addicted to both morphine and ether; was imprisoned for prostitution, theft, and forging documents for war refugees; was forced to live in exile; and suffered from numerous serious illnesses including typhus, venereal disease, and the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. That despite these challenges she could remain a strong performer, travel extensively, and be artistically prolific is astonishing.
Hennings was experimental, anarchic, provocative, and sexually liberated in both life and performance. She was a compelling and often irreverent performer, taking well-known songs or arias and stripping them of their usual lyrics, substituting subversive or impious words instead. She changed the context and content of works by adding bizarre and outrageous gestures that she meticulously practiced in front of a mirror. She was responsible for the dada practice of combining high- and low-brow art, performing “proper” material alongside music-hall and banal ditties. And she subverted the requisite beauty of female performers by incorporating grotesquerie, overly powdering her face in white and thus making herself look rather sickly and worn, and wearing costumes that hid her femininity within giant cardboard containers while hiding her face under freakish masks. Whether or not by choice, her voice also contravened standards of beauty, frequently referred to as shrill, screeching, or strident. At times she yelled rather than sang, especially in political songs meant to shock the audience about the effects of war. While under a performing contract in Munich she refused to sing patriotic songs, leading to her losing her job and fleeing Germany for fear of imprisonment. For her and her associates, true art meant action designed to undermine polite art and behavior and to wake audience members from their genteel slumber.
In her writings Hennings also did not focus on beautiful subjects or attempt to uplift her audience. Her poetry and novels openly addressed prostitution, prison, poverty, and her own drug use and addiction. She wrote about the abject misery of imprisoned women in order to let others know how awful conditions truly were. Escape was as common a theme in her writing as in her life. She wrote about escape from prison and escape via drugs or mystical, altered states. She frequently mentioned or alluded to escape from convention, bourgeois society, home, marriage (at least her first marriage), war, and ultimately life itself. Her performing could be seen as an escape or as an embracing of peak reality: escaping by playing others and thus temporarily being someone or somewhere else, or having a cathartic experience in which she released her own repressed emotions. Her considerable involvement in Catholic mysticism may have been another source of escape. Hennings did not try to gloss over the ugliness of life or the situation of “undesirables” in society, but spoke forthrightly and brought real life into the realm of art.
Though Hennings wrote extensively, and we can glean a great deal about her performance from descriptions, it may be hard to know what motivated her. She seems to have been a rather enigmatic figure. Moreover, even though there exist many first-hand accounts of the birth of Dada, the complicated, inherently conflicted nature of the movement precludes firm agreement about its founding. Hence when some writers variously describe Hennings as an angel, a Madonna, a child, a visionary, or a grotesque woman, we are left to wonder who she really was. How was it that she was able to consistently be among the avant-garde, pursue an unconventional lifestyle and virtue-questioning career as a cabaret performer, while simultaneously pursuing devout Catholicism? And why did she speak so little about her own work as she grew older? Her fellow Dada instigators offer quite differing impressions of her, though probably few of them, aside from her second husband, writer Hugo Ball, knew her well. Ball, to whom history has rewarded the lion’s share of recognition, wrote that without Emmy, there would be no cabaret—and, one dares to think, no Dada.
Many of Hennings’ own writings include her own life as subject matter, but her later writings barely do so at all, instead focusing on Hugo Ball’s career or on a somewhat alternate view of her earlier life, seen mostly through the lens of her intense Catholicism. Despite all her own writing, including several semi-autobiographical novels, she remains a closed book. Very little of her written work has been translated into English, and some works in their original German remain unpublished, accessible only at the Swiss Literary Archives in Bern. Perhaps the best way to bring her work to life again is by using it as inspiration for new artistic works that continue to illuminate the issues of her time—and now, ours. Enigmas can offer incredible stimuli through the questions they raise, and Hennings’ life and work offer an exceptionally rich source of inspiration.
Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874–1927)
“She is not a Futurist,” claimed Marcel Duchamp, “she is the FUTURE!” This German-born artist, who became “the first American Dada,” was decades ahead of her time, presaging the rise of performance art and works ranging from Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Can” paintings to Lada Gaga’s dresses made of meat.
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Else Hildegard Plötz, or the Baroness Elsa, as she came to be known—she was an actual baroness from her third husband’s peerage—became the avant-garde of the avant-garde. Even today her live art would no doubt still draw outrage, and it remains the embodiment of Dada. By turning every aspect of her life into art, she not only removed art from the museum and the theatre, but turned herself into a living, breathing, “shitting” work of art (she was fond of scatological language and topics). Besides working in such typical genres as painting, sculpture, poetry, acting, and the newly developed collage form, she made her clothing, make-up, and jewelry into artistic statements. Most of all, her day-to-day actions became a lived art. Jane Heap, editor of the forward-looking journal “The Little Review,” claimed that “When [the Baroness] is dada she is the only One living anywhere who dresses dada, loves dada, lives dada . . . . ”
Baroness Elsa was a high-spirited woman who did not take herself seriously as an artist until after she was abandoned in Kentucky by her second husband, whose mock suicide and disappearance from Europe she had helped stage. Prior to moving to the United States, she worked and traveled as an actress, chorus girl, and model, and frequently served as a muse for male artists and various avant-garde artistic circles. During that time she seems to have focused on pursuing “love” and finding men to support her, leading to some peculiar situations and relationships. She flitted from country to country and relationship to relationship. Her autobiography describes many of her exploits and various love affairs, which early in her career seemed to take precedence over artistic pursuits. Only after moving to the United States in 1910 did her artistic work become central.
The Baroness’s work from 1910 until her death in 1927 is extraordinary and provocative. During those years she led a notoriously bohemian existence, often in dire poverty. At least at first, such circumstances seemed to enable her artistry. In her creations she used found objects, garbage, and recycled, stolen, or repurposed items. Not content with making physical collages or writing poetry, she turned herself into a work of art, albeit a reportedly sometimes foul-smelling and dirty one. She earned a modicum of a living through modeling, occasionally for quite well-known artists, by selling her poetry to the “little” magazines that were prevalent among the avant-garde at the time, and even by working in a cigarette factory. In her younger days she had sometimes resorted to prostitution, though she states many times that she was never very good at asking men for money—either her partners or “clients.”
By 1915 the Baroness walked the streets of New York as a living artwork, invading bourgeois events in her outrageous costumes and shocking the public with her antics. Her wardrobe and make-up included, for example, porcupine quills as eyelashes, postage stamps as beauty marks, red lacquered nails and head, a tin-can bra, a skirt with a tail-light, a hat adorned with gilded vegetables, a birdcage necklace with a live canary, and tea-balls as earrings. She made the most of other people’s cast-offs and created her own regularly changing art exhibition. She engaged in various projects and escapades with Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. She had frequent run-ins with the police and was often arrested for dressing indecently, but escaped their paddy-wagons, laughing as she went.
The Baroness’ poetry is truly unique. Published alongside the first appearance in the US of Joyce’s “Ulysses,” her writing was regarded by many to be of the same caliber as Joyce’s. The Baroness herself certainly felt a kinship to Joyce and his work, and believed she deserved similar recognition. With other poets she had what could be called love/hate relationships, including with William Carlos Williams, whom she scathingly criticized for one of his major works. The Baroness’poetry passes easily from irony to despair, from nonsense to the pithy, and from the scatological to the philosophical. Most of her English language poetry is minimalist in the extreme, written in a column with one word per line, with economy and precision of thought. Her writing process (examples of which may be found among her archived papers) seemed to involve whittling away at ideas and concepts and phrases until she reached a sort of core or nucleus. Among her most “Dada” poetry is her sound poetry, in which she concocts new words and “languages” from a mish-mash of phonemes and syllables that appear to have Germanic, Slavic, Scandinavian, and Latinate roots, leading the reader to imagine all kinds of meanings. Another “Dada” style is her “Ready-to-Wear American Soul Poetry,” composed of collaged advertising jingles that she heard or read on billboards—yet another use of found objects. Many of her poems focus on sexuality and are especially risqué for their time, while others seem to praise lovers in a psalm-like or “Song of Solomon” manner. Archaic-sounding verses sometimes evoke old masters of German poetry, until one recognizes the sexual or scatological subject. Whatever its subject or style, her poetry is distinctly recognizable as hers, and it has withstood the test of time.
Much of the Baroness’ later life was tragic, especially after her return to Germany in 1923. Disillusioned with her native country’s post-war condition, she also found that she had been disinherited from her father’s estate. Since her late husband’s family refused to recognize her marriage (years later they recanted), she was unable to find support from them either. Thus destitute, she ended up living in squalor, selling newspapers on street corners in Berlin and begging her old acquaintances for financial and emotional support. More than once she was committed to a “charitable home” or asylum, having suffered breakdowns from living under severe stress. Attempting to move to France, she was repeatedly refused visas, though finally with Djuna Barnes’ help and continued financial assistance, was able to relocate to Paris. But there too, she was unable to restart her life and regain the vitality she had felt in New York. One night, while the gas was left on in her apartment, she was asphyxiated. It has never been clear whether she died by suicide or accident, or if she was murdered. All are plausible given her fragile mental state, her mother’s suicide, her practice of bringing unfamiliar lovers into the house, and the unsafe conditions in which she lived. Regardless of her tragic death, her work lives on, and she finally is receiving the recognition for which she fought so long.
“DIE in the Past. Live in the Future.” So begins Mina Loy’s “Aphorisms on Futurism,” presaging her own public reception that alternated between renown and obscurity. Now, a century after she first arrived in New York and was lauded as “THE Modern Woman,” she might finally be staying.
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“Who is she, where is she, what is she—this ‘modern woman’ that people are always talking about? Is there any such creature?” The New York Sun found their modern woman, despite Loy’s efforts to hide behind such pseudonyms as Gina, Ova, Geltrude, Dusie, and Imna Oly. Some even thought she was invented, not a real person. Paradoxically, Loy wanted to remain incognito while striving to be the most unique and innovative woman alive.
She certainly succeeded in being a distinctive artist, given the many artistic movements in which she was involved, her continuously changing style, and involvement in several genres. This self-proclaimed “loy-al” woman wore not only several names, but also several hats—literally and figuratively, including some of her own design—as a visual artist, poet, writer, actress, inventor, designer, model, and playwright. She moved easily through Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, and Modernism. A true Renaissance woman, her inventions and designs include toys, games, clothing, lampshades, and other disparate items.
Loy’s poetry and other writings were so radical that they seem contemporary even now, and her subjects—sex, feminism, parturition, poverty, war—maintain their import as well. She tended to write with a satirical tone and an unusual mixture of words: quasi-scientific, erotic, archaic, and invented. Her satire, often directed towards the Futurists and their ideas, paradoxically adopted many of their techniques. She eschewed traditional syntax, rhyme, and meter, scattering her words across the page and utilizing its space in a completely new manner. Kenneth Rexroth spoke of the “extreme exceptionalism” of Loy’s poetry and language, and of the unconventional way she approached her subjects through juxtapositions, for example combining erotic and scientific language. Her poetry was considered difficult and scandalous, and though she was published extensively, her poetic cycle—“Love Songs for Joannes”—was for a time censored and banned in the US. Loy did not shy away from displaying her intellectual prowess or defying those who held regressive views on women’s roles in life and the arts. Her poetic subjects often revolve around such issues, while her techniques offer an integration of her ideas and convictions. Ezra Pound’s term for Loy’s technique—Logopoeia, the “dance of the intellect among words”—speaks to incorporating the larger context of a particular word with its specific meaning. Yet, despite her reliance on the abstruse, Loy referred to poetry as “visual song” and “visual music,” embracing still another paradox.
Loy’s lifestyle was as uninhibited as her verse. She broke numerous social and artistic conventions while reveling in her personal intellect and moral code. She embraced a taboo, sexually free lifestyle, joined avant-garde communities, and answered only to her own conscience. A proponent of women’s personal and sexual freedom, Loy went to extreme lengths in her “Feminist Manifesto,” demanding the “unconditional surgical destruction of virginity throughout the female population at puberty.” She fought against a woman’s value being tied to her virginity, and against the sacrifice of that virginity within the confines of marriage that essentially “purchased” a woman’s life-long financial support. Whether a prostitute or a virgin—she points out—a woman still “sold it.” Unlike some other feminists, though, Loy wanted to maintain and use her physical beauty, and suffered from her perceived loss of this beauty as she aged. As her youth faded, she grew reclusive.
A young prodigy in the visual arts, Loy returned to them late in life, making collages out of found objects and garbage that represented the poor, “the saints of the street.” Born into a comfortable bourgeois Victorian family, she befriended the vagrants near her house in New York’s Bowery, frequently conversing with them and drawing them while also collecting garbage from which to make her collages. Whether fighting for women’s rights or the poor, she fiercely eschewed convention, and was not afraid to shock people out of their complacency. Throughout her career Loy embraced paradox, change, and innovation, living a life that was singularly hers. Perhaps by now her wishes to be inconspicuous yet renowned have both been fulfilled.