Beatrice Wood, celebrated for her wit and style, is one of the few women credited with pioneering an art movement.
The “Mama of Dada” was born into a wealthy San Francisco family in 1893. Defying her family’s Victorian values, she moved to France to study theater and art. On the brink of WWI, Wood returned to the United States, where an encounter in New York with avantgarde artist Marcel Duchamp changed her life. In the midst of an animated conversation, a fly flew into her mouth. Etiquette eluded her, so she swallowed the insect. “At that moment, we were lovers,” Wood recalled. Soon, Henri-Pierre Roché, a diplomat, writer and art collector joined the duo, becoming creatively (and romantically) entangled. Together they wrote and edited The Blind Man, a magazine that poked the conservative art establishment and helped define the Dada art movement.
The magazine’s first issue defended Duchamp’s once controversial, now iconic readymade work, titled The Fountain, a urinal he submitted to the First Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in April 1917. The critics were outraged, but redefining a common object as art changed the world. Countering the criticism of The Fountain, Wood wrote the oft-quoted statement, "As for plumbing, that is absurd. The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges."
This period kicked off her lifelong penchant for defying societal norms to pursue her passions for matters of the spirit, love, and art.
In 1947, Wood moved to Ojai, Califonia. Her drawings and sculptures are included in museum collections throughout the world, yet it’s the luster glazed ceramics, created in her Ojai studio, which gained Wood the most recognition.
Her friend Anais Nin wrote of her pottery: “Beatrice Wood combines her colors like a painter, makes them vibrate like a musician. They have strength even while iridescent and transparent. They have the rhythm and luster both of jewels and human eyes. Water poured from one of her jars will taste like wine.”
In her late eighties, Wood published her first book, The Angel Who Wore Black Tights. The memoir, originally written in 1930 and illustrated with her spirited drawings, recounts her travels in Europe with her actress friend Helen Freeman, and their pilgrimage to a spiritual retreat helmed by Jiddu Krishnamurti. A few years later, she published her autobiography, I Shock Myself, which was followed by Pinching Spaniards and 33rd Wife of a Maharajah: A Love Affair in India. There were also books written under the pseudonym of Countess Lola Screwvinsky, which allowed Wood to express her mischievous and provocative personality.
Beatrice Wood influenced countless artists and writers. Her relationship with Marcel Duchamp and Henri-Pierre Roché was said to have inspired the latter's book Jules and Jim, which was made into a celebrated French film by director François Truffaut. She was a peer to art world luminaries like Francis Picabia, Alfred Stieglitz, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Man Ray, and Mina Loy. She was also the subject of the documentary Beatrice Wood: The Mama of Dada, created on her 100th birthday. She inspired the character Rose in James Cameron’s Titanic, and lived to 105, declaring she owed her longevity to “chocolate and young men.”
Today, The Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts in Ojai, Ca celebrates her life and work with exhibitions, performances and educational programming.