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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

"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.


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.

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