Ahead of Her Time, German Artist Challenged Accepted Social Values

Hannah Hoch's work addressed beauty, youth, and gender roles

The name Hannah Hoch is absent from many art-history textbooks. And yet, she is one of the most important German artists of the 20th century.

A retrospective exhibition, "Photomontages of Hannah Hoch," on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through Sept. 14, chronicles the 60-year career of one of the few, if not the only remembered, female Dadaist.

The 170 photomontages - crafted from deftly seamed and delicately hand-colored magazine fragments - introduce Americans to this little-known artist.

Hoch is most remarkable for challenging accepted social and artistic values early in the course of the 20th century, for working doubly hard to do so because she was a woman, and for the innate sophistication she brought to her craft.

The prototype for every art movement that has challenged the meaning of our aesthetic and social mores, Dada began in Zurich on the heels of World War I. Responding to a world that seemed too brutal to comprehend, members embraced tradition-busting not only in visual art, but also in theater, music, and poetry.

Presented in two sections, the exhibit samples works done from the 1920s to roughly the rise of Hitler, then highlights works from the end of World War II through final pieces executed around 1975.

By day, young Hoch worked as a designer of complex embroidery patterns published in homey women's magazines. At night, she made challenging, politically tinged, and stunning art from hand-colored, evocatively disjointed snippets taken, ironically enough, from those journals.

Schooled in art and possessing a facile mind, she was showing with the predominantly male Dada group before long, taking part in their art fairs and weird performances, playing utensils in Dada anti-symphonies.

Hoch's entry into the Dada world came in part from her romance with Raol Hausmann, a lesser-known early Dadaist. Well after, Hoch formed close personal and creative ties with major pioneers of modern art like collagist Kurt Schwitters and sculptor and painter Jean Arp.

The artist's life and work are harbingers of the conflicted forces bearing on European women particularly and Western culture generally beginning in the first decade of the 1900s and continuing today.

Hoch was involved in a string of tempestuous relationships, donned masculine garb, and became politically radical during the freewheeling, corrupt Weimar Republic. During Hitler's reign, she moved to the city outskirts where she waited out the war, raised chickens, and buried controversial Dada documents.

Viewers of the show may be surprised to discover that issues like the objectified female body or gender-typed roles were not invented by feminist theory of the 1970s and 1980s; rather, these motifs were handled astutely 70 years ago.

As early as the 1920s, Hoch's work addressed beauty and youth, the control of roles and mores through mass merchandising, as well as the political and visual marginalizing of Jews, blacks, and women.

In "The Coquette I" (1923-25), a playful image, Hoch addresses female sexuality in relation to global politics.

"The Strong Men" from 1931 questions imposed roles for both men and women with a bodybuilder clipped from a popular magazine set against a scary female mask made of jumbled beauty shots.

Until her death in 1978, Hoch's work, her written and spoken memories, rendered this artist one of Dada's longest-lived spokespersons.

What a delight to find such rich work with themes that are still relevant today.

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