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She Remembers Dada

October 05, 1986|DON STANLEY | Don Stanley is a writer who lives in Davis

A conversation with Beatrice Wood, 93, who is often called the 'Mama of Dada.' She is one of the last links to the Dadaists, a group of artists who developed an abstract and nihilistic style in Europe during World War I. A ceramicist of international renown, she lives in a combination home and studio on a promontory above a valley in Ojai. Q: Are you the Mama of Dada? A: Well, I was associated with the movement when it started, there's no question of that. I came to New York during the First World War, and it was then that I met Marcel Duchamp, Brancusi and Picabia and the Walter Arensbergs, the whole bunch of them. It was a very wonderful time, but certainly none of us was even conscious it would be historical, as it seems to have become. When French TV came to do a documentary several years ago, I said, "For goodness sake, why me?" And they said, "Because you're the last person of that group living, which was the first group to break with traditions in art." Well, you know publicity, and when you're dead everything gets exaggerated. I don't consider myself a Mama of Dada. I knew those people well, and that's that. Q: Your relationship with the Dadaists was more than artistic, though. A: Oh, yes. I was in love with (Henri-Pierre) Roche and Duchamp. The three of us, for a year and a half or two years, were very much together. I was in love with both men at the same time, but I was only sleeping with one at a time. I was having an affair with Roche while being in love with his best friend, Marcel Duchamp. I dreamed of Marcel while in Roche's arms. I used to tell Roche that. He was delighted. "Oh, you're in love with Marcel!" he would say. After I broke with Roche and he returned to Paris, then I had an affair with Duchamp. But the three of us were very much together. We were definitely a threesome. Q: Roche's best-known novel is "Jules et Jim," mostly because Francois Truffaut made it into a movie. Was your threesome the inspiration, and are you the model for the heroine, Catherine? A: Now that's a question. When I was in Paris in 1977 for an exhibition honoring Duchamp at the Centre Georges Pompidou, one of the officials told me I was. But I don't think so, for some reason. Roche had given me a copy of the book and probably put some of me in it, but I think it's also about another woman. I think he put two different love affairs together. On the other hand, "Victor," the last novel he wrote, was about me and about Louise Arensberg, and Victor is supposed to be Marcel Duchamp. I didn't recognize a thing. Roche took great liberties. About the other, I'm not sure, despite what people have said. I finally saw Truffaut's film five years ago and was bored to death by it. Q: You met Duchamp through Roche? A: No, I met Edgard Varese; then I met Marcel Duchamp. Varese had broken his leg and was in the hospital, and Alissa Frank said, "You speak French, go to see him. He's lonely." I didn't want to, but I went and I was very shy and, on a second visit, Marcel came and it was just like that! Then I met Roche, but I've forgotten how I met him. I kept a diary, three lines each day, but because of my mother, when it came to my lovers, I didn't put down their names. I've tried to remember how I met Roche but can't. Q: Was there anything between you and Varese? A: I didn't exactly click with Varese. There are people we meet and there's instant understanding, but that didn't happen with Varese, so he wasn't much in my life. He wasn't known then and he talked about his ideas, which were very interesting. The new music, you know, using the sounds of the city, the streetcars, the bells ringing, the fire engines, the horses. He said he couldn't get anybody to listen to his music and he wondered what I thought of it. Curiously enough, I loved it. I'm not at all musical, but when I heard his "Ionisation" for the first time, I went out of my mind with joy. It was the same when I first heard Stravinsky. I was 18 and in Paris for "Le Sacre du Printemps," and I thought it was magnificent. I was at the theater when it was first played, and it was wonderful. Half the audience stood and booed, and the other half bravoed. I bravoed. I can't explain this, the way I responded so completely to modern music and not to modern painting. Q: You didn't respond to modern painting? A: I don't appreciate it. You see, I'm limited--I've become an old fogy. I feel very humble on this subject because I didn't understand Miro for a long time, although now I think he's wonderful. Actually, I don't appreciate Duchamp as much as most people do. I think his "Nude" ("Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2") is an extraordinary composition, but his "Glass" ("The Large Glass, or The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even") I don't really understand at all, and people rave about it. Q: You broke with Roche when you learned he had slept with another woman while you two were together. That sounds very conventional for a Dadaist. A: In my book (Wood's 1985 autobiography, "I Shock Myself "), and unfortunately they inadvertently left it out, the first sentence is, "I'm a monogamous woman in a polygamous world." It was such a shock to me. I couldn't believe that anybody in love could behave that way. I felt terribly, but we parted friends. It was just as I said to him: "I can't take this." But I stayed in his arms weeping and he was weeping, too. So we left very lovingly. I went to Paris in 1956 to visit him and his wife--you see, there's nothing as dead as dead love--because we had remained friends. A year and a half later he died. Q: And then there was Duchamp. A: Yes, he'd done something that was spectacular, that was notorious at the time ("Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2," the sensation of the 1913 New York Armory Show). But he never exploited his fame, and he was very generous to other artists. He and Roche had known each other in Paris, where they were the first to collect Picasso and Brancusi. Yes, this was before Gertrude Stein. I met them in 1916, and all this group was in real revolt. You see, it was the first time, in the First World War, that civilians had been killed, and this little group, these European--should we say visitors?--they knew what it was. They were all in revolution against so-called civilization and that, in a way, started a revolutionary approach to art. Now, the moment I met Duchamp, in a way we were lovers. We clicked. I don't in any way want to stress that I was the important person in his life. I wasn't, but he was a very important person in my life. He didn't ask anything of other people, he didn't make judgments, and he had a heavenly smile. Q: You say you don't appreciate his work as much as you might. Did you talk about it with him? A: Duchamp was a very wonderful, simple human being. Not caught up in the racket of art. I don't know that we talked art very much. A great thing between us was the silences. We had great silences between us, and they were such easy communication that, unfortunately, it didn't occur to me that they would be of interest to anybody. The things that we remember usually are the things that hurt us. The things that are easy between us we don't remember. Q: Do you try to keep up with new currents in art? A: I take a lot of art magazines and art books, so I see myself looking at art. But I'm not too interested. That's really not very nice but so it is. I think it's because I'm very busy, very much in art, as it were. I meet a lot of people connected with art, and it kind of beats me up because we're such exhibitionists. I don't like talking about art--it's such a racket--so I say this more or less with hesitation. But you see, Marcel responded to the true in art. So many people are in art to be clever or to make money. The really great artists, whether it's in painting, science, medicine, pottery, writing, are dedicated in spite of themselves. What they do is almost organic: They can't help doing it. To me, that's quite different from all the frosting on the cake that goes on. Q: So you're still a rebel. Where do you suppose that resistance comes from? A: I went through years of having no money. I know what it does to you. I cut myself off from my friends; I went meekly asking for a job. They said, "We don't have anything for the likes of you," and one becomes negative. Believe it or not, I packed books for Mrs. Austin Strong, the stepdaughter of Robert Louis Stevenson, and she said, "You're the most negative person I've ever met." Q: That negativity, or at least that reason for it, is a far cry from your beginnings, though. A: Yes, it is possibly deep inside me because I was brought up in a home of considerable comfort. We weren't millionaires, but even years ago we always had a car. I was born in San Francisco, and when I was a child, we went to New York and then immediately to Europe. I was put into a French convent; there were 500 students, and I learned French before English. At the beginning--a hundred years ago, more or less--little girls were little girls. We had to curtsy when we met people, and all my underwear had real lace. A different world. The convent was very strict--the nuns, once accepted in, never got out. Even then I had this rather naughty mind, I think, because I always used to wonder what happened between the nuns and the priests--we're born sexual, you see. By some blessing from God, I began reading good books when I was 14. I was very naive, but somewhere I knew that the world was not enclosed the way my world was. Q: You once studied at the Comedie Francaise and for several years you worked in the theater. What turned you away from that? A: It was very fascinating, and I might have stayed in the theater if it was approached as an art. But instead, it was approached as a business, and as a lustful activity--there goes the puritan Miss Wood. But the directors were impossible. When Stanislavsky came to America with the Moscow Art Theater, I went to so many performances not understanding a word of Russian. If I'd been in a company like that, where acting was an art, I would have remained in the theater, I'm sure. But here it wasn't like that. The actors were very crude, and you know the old story of the casting couch--true--and I wouldn't go with it. Q: Your work, which is all around us here--do you see any of Duchamp's influence in it? A: The last thing that would interest Duchamp would be something like that, anything you see here. It wasn't his expression of art. I enjoy making them. They're not going to change the world, but they're all right. I'm a good little artist and I enjoy what I do. But Duchamp--to show you what a really sweet person he was, after we broke the close relationship that we had, we went on in great friendship. I moved to California, and occasionally I came to New York. I was having an exhibition there, and I wrote him that I was going to come see him, of course. He had continued to paint, but he didn't let people know. He didn't want to repeat himself and he didn't want to exploit his fame, I think. Well, he came to the opening, and he even took me then to an art dealer and said something nice about my work. You see? For a man of his attitude about art? I'm not like that. I'm very snobbish about art. I don't want to look at it unless it's great art, so that gave me a lesson. Q: And you forswore snobbery ever after. . . .

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