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Dada’s Big Mama

Leah Ollman is a frequent contributor to Calendar

With scars from World War I still fresh on German bodies and minds, the disillusioned artists of Berlin Dada staged an exhibition that was a spectacle of irreverence toward the militaristic old regime, the suspect new government and art itself. A pig-faced dummy in an army uniform hung from the ceiling, and posters, paintings, prints and placards blared incendiary messages from the walls. Twenty-seven artists were represented in the legendary First International Dada Fair of 1920, 26 men and one woman: Hannah Hoch.

Hoch (1889-1978) exhibited nine pieces, including the imposing photomontage “Cut With the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany,” which looked just like it sounded--brash, absurd, dense and insistent. Images of two wrestlers formed the mustache of Germany’s recently fallen emperor, Wilhelm II, a dancer tossed her mismatched, cutout head up into the air above her, while nearby, a giant gear stood poised to roll over an elephant curling its trunk around a nude woman with the head of what looks like a rabbit.

Hoch signed “Cut With a Kitchen Knife,” her spirited attack on Germany’s political and cultural establishment, with a small self-portrait affixed to a map of European countries granting or about to grant women the vote. With her short, mannish haircut and involvement in the boisterous antics of the Dadaists, Hoch appeared every bit the “New Woman” of the day--independent and empowered, with a presence in the public sphere. But during those same tumultuous years between the wars, Hoch also made a career out of a quieter, more private, traditional feminine pursuit--designing lace and embroidery patterns.

“She found no contradiction in participating in the Dada fair, which lampooned everything, and publishing an article on embroidery,” says Maria Makela, who curated Hoch’s first major exhibition in the United States, opening next Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “Hoch looked forward and backward. She’s portrayed as a New Woman, a revolutionary, but like most of us, she was still rooted in the traditions she was raised in.”

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The LACMA exhibition, which originated last fall at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, includes 170 photomontages, few of which have been seen outside of Europe. They span the artist’s entire career, up through 1975, with the greatest concentration dating from the Weimar period, when Hoch’s predilection to fragment and rearrange resonated profoundly with the complex, turbulent state of German society.

Cutting out images from popular German magazines and meticulously splicing them together, Hoch made her “glued pictures,” as she sometimes called them, with great technical finesse, owing, Makela says, to her exacting work in lace design and embroidery. However artfully crafted, the montages are charged by a sense of disjunction, disequilibrium and disorientation. Human faces, often with two different-size eyes, are fused to animal parts or inanimate sculpture, large heads balance atop small bodies, ears take the form of birds’ wings, a chimpanzee wears braids.

Photocollage, of a markedly tamer variety, had been practiced since the late 19th century, but Hoch, along with artist John Heartfield, injected the medium with Dadaist verve and renamed it montage (from the French monteur, meaning fitter or assembler) to distance it from established art practice.

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“Cut With the Kitchen Knife” is Hoch’s best-known work and is widely reproduced in writings on Dada. The photomontage, belonging to the collection of the National Gallery of Berlin, appeared in Minneapolis and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York but won’t be seen in Los Angeles, the show’s final stop, because of its fragile condition.

“Of all of Hoch’s work, it’s the most characteristic of Dada, but not the most characteristic for her,” explains Makela, professor of art history at the Maryland Institute, College of Art. “Her work tends to be smaller, more intimate. This is bawdy, brash, in-your-face and overtly political.”

One of Makela’s goals in organizing the show (with former Walker curator Peter Boswell) was not just to introduce Hoch to a broader American audience but to “disentangle [her] from the knot of Dada,” which had constrained the artist personally and continues to pigeonhole her in the annals of art history.

Marginalized by the male members of the group, Hoch experienced the Dada years as painful and conflicted. Heartfield and George Grosz opposed her inclusion in the 1920 fair, and even Raoul Hausmann, her lover since 1915, belittled her work. The men involved in Dada dismissed women artists of the time as “charming and gifted amateurs,” Hoch later wrote. They championed the freedoms of the New Woman but their actions lagged far behind their attitudes, resulting in “truly Strindbergian dramas.”

“She was very uncomfortable with the aggressiveness of the Dadaists in general,” Makela says, noting how Hoch herself agonized over the period in her autobiographical notes of 50 years later. “It was obviously a catalyst that lasted a lifetime.”

Hoch had moved to Berlin in 1912 from the small town of Gotha, where her father worked as an insurance company official and her mother was an amateur painter. She enrolled in a school of applied arts and was an accomplished student of calligraphy, embroidery and book design. In 1916, she began working for Ullstein Verlag, the largest publishing empire in Germany at the time, turning out 19 newspapers and magazines as well as books. Hoch worked for Ullstein’s handicraft division, designing patterns for lacework and embroidered tablecloths, which were published in the company’s magazines and sold throughout Germany.

Hoch defended needlework as an art of great expressive potential in articles published at the same time that she was also active in the radical Dada group, whose members clambered--loudly, if not convincingly--for a sexual as well as political revolution. Straddling both the traditional and avant-garde, Hoch epitomized the composite nature of the New Woman.

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Redefining gender roles was not just a theoretical or artistic exercise for Hoch, who followed her relationship with Hausmann with a nine-year lesbian relationship with Dutch writer Til Brugman. In 1935, she separated from Brugman after falling in love with a young German businessman, with whom she had a brief marriage.

Hoch’s photomontages abound in images of fluid sexuality, or what writer Maud Lavin calls “gender oscillation"--same-sex couples mingle in coquettish flirtation, androgynous figures congeal out of both male and female body parts. In “Tamer” (circa 1930), muscular male arms cross over a sexually ambiguous torso topped by the head of a female mannequin. In another montage, Hoch used a widely recognizable photograph of an actress crossing genders to play the part of Hamlet, and in “Indian Dancer” (1930), she uses a picture of film star Renee (Maria) Falconetti playing Joan of Arc, recalling the moment in the popular 1928 film “Passion of Joan of Arc,” directed by Carl-Theodor Dreyer, when the heroine is called upon to renounce her male clothing. In Hoch’s image, Joan’s crown of straw is replaced by a headdress of knives and spoons.

Hoch’s fascination with gender roles resonates with several artists working today, appropriationists who, as Makela puts it, similarly “use the mass media against itself.” In Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” of the late 1970s, for instance, the artist presents herself in the guise of various cliches that have circumscribed women’s representation on film. As with Hoch’s work, familiarity with the popular imagery that served as source material is a precondition to the artist’s subversion, her probing and skewing of the stereotypes. Through film and the myriad new picture magazines, mass media emerged in Germany of the ‘20s and ‘30s as a defining force in the society’s construction of its own self-image. Seventy years later, that force has all but subsumed our other options.

Barbara Kruger, like Hoch before her, responds in her work to this ubiquity of the photographic image and its powerful, sometimes perverse influence on culture and its values. “More and more, people learn their visual literacy through TV and movies,” she says. Her own collages mix pithy, pointed texts with recycled snippets of photographs from the mass media. Like Hoch, she too worked for a major publishing conglomerate (Conde Nast) as a young woman and sees herself as “100% influenced by that,” rather than by fine art traditions. While Kruger’s work is blunt and provocative, however, Hoch’s remains elusive, open-ended and ambiguous.

Hoch’s series “From an Ethnographic Museum” is a prime example of how difficult it is to pin down the works’ meaning. In this series (circa 1924-30), Hoch wove together truncated images of men and women with reproductions of masks and other ritual objects from tribal cultures. Human eyes, mouths and legs contrast startlingly with the elegant carved wood forms, forming an edgy union between differing concepts of beauty. The montages were made in the wake of the Versailles Treaty, which dictated that Germany give up its colonies in Togo, Cameroon and parts of Samoa and New Guinea. The media at the time ran frequent commentaries on the unfairness of losing the colonies, and even in more avant-garde magazines like Die Querschnitt, articles on tribal cultures and objects assumed a condescending tone. Just how Hoch regarded the colonial issue is not obvious from the works themselves.

“My gut feeling is that these are works about the display of ‘the other’ in Germany at a time when there was a lot of propaganda about Germany’s right to have colonies,” Makela says. “It would be foolish to ascribe to Hoch a post-colonial consciousness, but she was a shrewd observer and commentator on stereotypes that were propagated in mass culture.”

Irony and allusion in the arts suffered a mortal blow when the Nazis assumed power in 1933, and Hoch, like many others, was considered suspect. Though not a party member, she was a communist sympathizer and was thus blacklisted as a “Cultural Bolshevist.” Most of her colleagues and friends, including Kurt Schwitters and Hans and Sophie Tauber Arp, left Germany, ushering in what Hoch called her “great loneliness.” A major show of her work scheduled to appear at the Dessau Bauhaus was canceled when the famed school itself was shut down, and Hoch, who had enjoyed great acclaim in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, didn’t exhibit again until 1945. “The arts,” she later wrote of the period, “vegetated like a macabre wasteland.”

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Retreating into inner exile, Hoch moved to a northern suburb of Berlin just after the war broke out. She lived there until her death in 1978, painting as she had done since the 1910s and leaning more toward abstraction and surrealism in her montages. When color reproduction became widespread in the 1950s, her work took on a new, slightly garish intensity as she excised images for their textures and patterns, reworking them into designs that relate to the gestural, abstract painting of the time.

With the resurgence of interest in Dada in the 1960s, Hoch enjoyed a second wave of attention that lasted through the 1970s, leading to several German-language publications and a European retrospective. Up until now, however, Hoch has had little exposure in this country.

We’re late to recognize her importance, Makela says, as “one of the greatest collagists of the 20th century. On aesthetic grounds, she’s been neglected.”

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“The Photomontages of Hannah Hoch,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. Next Sunday through Sept. 14. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, noon to 8 p.m.; Fridays, noon to 9 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Closed Wednesdays. Adults, $6; senior citizens 62 and older and students with ID, $4; children 6-17, $1. (213) 857-6000.

* The museum will hold a panel discussion on “Dada and the New Woman,” Sept. 13, 1 p.m.


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