Hannah Hoch at the Whitechapel, a three act play

I suppose if there was one artist that exemplifies the core of this course it might be Hannah Hoch. I was looking forward a great deal to visiting the show and I wasn’t disappointed, the work was at once beautiful and, for the most part, exploring some very important and, for it’s time, critically important subjects. However something struck me after I returned home and thought about the work, and it is about the job of curating an artists work that might be suggesting it as a ‘life’s work’. I wondered about how the curator will necessarily be limited by both the available work and the knowledge of the artist. And this slight digression has registered to me that an exhibition is of course a partial view, made so by the available work to view, the research on the artist undertaken by the curator and the ‘partialness’ of the same.

So to the work, there seemed to me to be three phases of work on show, the student life, the pre-war years and post war era – and I suppose this could be either my mis-reading of intent or that it how it was meant to be seen. The ‘student life’ seemed as much to do with aesthetics as it was about anything, the collage work didn’t seem apparent in her early work, and the works on the wall had an ‘exercise’ quality about them. My expectation of student life is that it might generally be thought of as the place where the artist might explore more widely, more cruel, more controversial. Like Laura Pannack says in one of the videos I saw yesterday – “Uni life is a place where you can fail – embrace it..” (I paraphrase), Hoch’s student work – at least what I saw – was quite sedate, pleasing, pleasant, nice and I’ve forgotten most of it.

Act II was the period from the end of her student days to WWII and this period was not only very productive for Hoch, but it was where I felt the narrative of the work had the greatest strength. Exploring the role of the female in her society might have been influenced by Hans Richter’s statement that “…she was good at buying sandwiches and making coffee…” – so much for the enlightened views of Dadaists (seemingly very similar to the Surrealists then!). Her work with collage and ideas seemed to question continually the place of women in society, how they were objectified and mute – the use of masks to reduce the personality, the presence of the female body, or parts thereof, was very common, as was the eye. The eye is clearly a reference to looking, but it’s placement within the frame was not always similar. The placement of it high up seemed to suggest the female gaze, whereas lower down (and looking up) it might as likely to be male. The depictions of women were most often parts of women and whilst this image wasn’t at the show, there seems to be a much more straightforward challenge to the viewer.

Fremde Schönheit (Strange Beuaty)

Fremde Schönheit (Strange Beauty)

This image does contain some of the areas of interest one of the conversations that we had at the show. The contents of the frame are clearly all purposeful; the background watercolour is created to host the image and therefore has narrative and contextual value, the venus like body is beautiful in form and is offered to us for our viewing pleasure. But the mask, with those spectacles – not amplified eyes – but spectacles, to magnify the intent of the wearer of the mask challenging the viewer to regard what they are viewing, not just as an object, a procurer of tea and recreation, but having depth, substance for to ignore it would be to ignore the whole.

This feminist trope was very strong in this phase of her work, Hoch didn’t contest the racism inherent in the society she live in, nor in the burgeoning National Socialists despite the clear left wing credentials of the Da-Daists and when the going got tough she moved to a cottage on the fringes of the city and waited out the war. I was particularly struck by the purposefulness of her intricate collage work, her scissor work, the precision in the placement of the layers which emphasised the narratives she was exploring. Some of it was playful, but this second act period had a strong political theme, against some of the business practices, but mostly about the depiction of the female in society and despite the main thrust of DaDaism being largely over by the mid 1920’s Hoch still held to the aesthetic very strongly until the advent of the second war. I didn’t comprehend some of the imagery, perhaps I needed to have had more research in the artist, her use of colour was very interesting and somewhat quirky, inasmuch as it didn’t always seem to chime with other works in the same period – I expect a lack of art history was at fault here, and I suspect a lot of it was of it’s time – especially the work for the ‘Ethnographic Museum” and it’s use of dark skinned people from Africa.

The third act had a much more calmer feel to it. Hoch’s problems pre war had largely been resolved, no more vilified by the society at large her work becomes softer, at ease with itself, more colour and softer colour at that, perhaps more reflective. It seemed to me to have a more settled feel to it, certainly it became much more abstract, perhaps her emotions became more difficult to define after the sharper inter-war years where things were more black and white, clearer to whichever eye was looking.

She is reported to have said at some stage ‘Gee it would have be great to have been born a man’ if so I don’t think the art would have been anywhere near as visceral as her early, post study period work was, but then she did at least survive to a good age and carried on working throughout. The main body of the exhibition seemed in my mind to centre on her pre-war work, which thinking about the curation, suggests that this period was hr most important. But what if the curator hadn’t had fuller access to the post war period? What if that necessarily encumbered the flow of narrative from the walls? The portrait of Hoch that is at this exhibition is very interesting whichever one was depicted, and curiously chimes with another artist whose work is grounded, to a much lesser extent in Da Da, that of Fontcuberta.

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5 thoughts on “Hannah Hoch at the Whitechapel, a three act play

  1. Blimey John…that was quick. I shall read this this evening and then write something far inferior and briefer! I feel very inspired since the visit and cant quite believe how engaging it was and indeed popular. I’m starting to brain dump ideas inbetween the incessant, and largely unsuccessful lead training! Also to visit with fellow students made the visit more fun and less dry I thought, thank you for organising.

  2. Interesting read, John; coincidentally, Jayne & I were there on Sunday afternoon. I agree with you on the deftness of her work – ‘craft’ being used to good effect in making some forceful points – something that women artists do particularly well? (And multi-task with the sandwiches, too, of course!) I’ve put some thoughts about the exhibition (and the other seven I saw!) here – http://standickinson.com/2014/01/22/one-city-one-and-a-half-days-eight-exhibitions-two-women-and-a-shortage-of-colour/.

  3. Thanks for the link Stan, interesting read – we missed you by 24 hours it seems! There were a number of things that impressed me about this exhibition, the continuity of style and the sense of the powerful energy emanating through the work. Very strong. Interesting that the WeAreOCA study day mentions her work around redial stereotypes, when the exhibition purposefully said that she didn’t enter into any discourse on that subject …. maybe I’ll pose that question.

    • Only just seen the WeAreOCA post, John, (thanks for the plug, by the way). I agree, it probably makes a stronger point on the issue of racial stereotypes than does the exhibition. My interpretation (on very limited knowledge & a couple of hours at the exhibition) is that there was a point being made (by Höch) but that she had a subtle, creative and humorous way of doing it; which was wise and probably deliberate in the climate of the times. (And she would always have to leave time for the sandwiches, of course!)

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