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Dada's Big Mama

Hannah Hoch was the archetypal New Woman among the male-dominated Berlin crowd. But as a new exhibition reveals, there was a quieter, traditional, feminine side to her work.

June 22, 1997|Leah Ollman | 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."

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."

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