The intriguing world of Hannah Hoch

By | Art & Design
Kleine Sonne (Little Sun) 1969, Landesbank Berlin AG

Whitechapel gallery inaugurates today the opening of the monographic exhibition dedicated to the extensive career of German artist Hannah Hoch. Mainly known for her involvement in the former Dada group between 1919 and 1922 (she also participated to the International Dada Fair in Berlin in 1920), Hannah Hoch is a key figure of modern art often overlooked by critics and the public, especially as far as her post-Dada work is concerned.

Um einen roten Mund ( Around a Red Mouth)
c. 1967, Collection of IFA, Stuttgart

In more recent times the work of the German artist has attracted more attention by a generation of German feminist critics such as Jula Dech, Hanne Bergius and Ellen Maurer. The 70s’ definitely marked a breakthrough for the historiography; events like the exhibition in Paris and Berlin (retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and the Berlin Nationalgalerie) in 1976 followed by the artist’s loss in 1978 and the neo-avant-garde interest in the Dadaist movement (especially with New Dada) casted light on the artist’s important role and influence on European modern art. Nevertheless the work exhibited on this occasion at the Whitechapel Gallery is the first significant show in the UK about the German artist. It showcases about 120 works from international collections and is accompanied by an interesting program of talks and a catalogue which stands out as one of the first English publications fully dedicated to the artist’s work.

Hoch is extremely popular for being one of the pioneers of the practice of collage and for being a master in the use of such medium. While the subject matter of her works has changed over the years and also her relationship with figuration (she switched to abstraction after World War II), technique-wise it seems that Hoch has celebrated more than anyone else the most revolutionary medium of the 20th Century. Differently from her colleagues though, she combined the revolutionary or anti-art avant-gardist power of the technique with her interest in the more traditional approaches to fine and applied arts. Therefore the practice of collage and photomontage has been a consistent key to read her work by art historians and has been at the core of previous retrospective exhibitions such as “The Photomontages of Hannah Hoch” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1997 (which also travelled to Minneapolis and Los Angeles) and “Hannah Hoch” at Reina Sofia, Madrid (2004).

Staatshäupter (Heads of State) Collage Photomontage, Collection of IFA, Stuttgart

The exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery – curated by Daniel F. Herrmann, Eisler Curator and Head of Curatorial Studies and art historian, Prof. Dawn Ades  summarizes and presents the Hannah Hoch work from early days (1910) to the 70s. Starting from early works influenced by her education in the applied art and especially by the technique of embroidery the show moves to major works of the Dadaist period for which she is mostly known such as Staatshäupter (Heads of State, 1918-20) and Hochfinanz (High Finance, 1923).

Her 20s’ production – the period characterized by the artist’s meditation on gender roles (especially the alienation of the female figure and female body) – is represented with works from the famous series “From an Ethnographic Museum” realized mainly with photomontages of female bodies’ images and African masks that form hybrid creatures; among these we find Indian Dancer (1930), Mother (1925-26) and The Sweet One (1926).

One of the most interesting moments of the exhibition is certainly the display of the Album; a sort of scrapbook atlas of mass-media illustrated images from the postwar period. Rather than collages, this catalogue-based collection of images represents an endless source for the artists inspiration and shows Hoch’s interest in ethnography and the woman body and role in society.

The exhibition continues with a wide selection of collages of the artist from the post-war period that show her move towards abstraction and the use of colourful images taken from the new media and now related to the consumer culture of the 50s’. Some collages of the 60s’ show instead the artist’s occasional return to the female figure. Certainly the most interesting piece of this part of the show (which concludes with a video from the 60s’ in which the artists explains her views about collage and art making) is Life Portrait (1972-73) a sort of Boîte-en-valise of Hoch’s production which acts as a documentary piece about her previous work.

What is the historical contribution of this exhibition to the artists’ work? How does it re-open and reframe the discourse on collage practice?


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