August 23, 2019

Her Life as a Montage

Hannah Hoch’s first major U.S. retrospective has arrived at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; it’s been a long time coming.

The photomontage artist, who lived from 1889 to 1978, was considered one of the foremost media artists of her time. Her work long has gleaned attention in Europe but was virtually unknown in the United States until the current exhibit brought 170 of her works to New York, Minneapolis and Los Angeles.

Actually, she is best known as the only woman to belong to the bad-boy club of Berlin Dada, that radical group of anti-art subversives who held court in the late 1910s and early 1920s. With scissors and glue, through two world wars and beyond, Hoch, who was dubbed a “degenerate artist” by the Nazis, moved from political parody to surrealist fantasy to outright abstraction. She chronicled the century and unflinchingly explored the lives of women.

A small-town girl from a bourgeois family and the daughter of an insurance-agency official, Hoch took up the typically feminine pursuit of fabric and embroidery design at an early age. But, by her late teens, she had become what the Germans called a “New Woman”: free-spirited, independent. She carried on an affair with a married man, Raoul Hausmann, with whom she conceived two children (both aborted), and she joined the flamboyant Dada circle. With the monocled Dadaists, she pioneered the art of photomontage, a collage technique using printed photographs from the popular press.

It was a boisterous, political medium, and Hoch’s most famous work has the wicked Dada bite. The title says it all: “Cut With the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany.” (The piece, alas, is too fragile to travel to Los Angeles.)

“Dada Panorama” ridicules Weimar Republic leaders as comic, ineffectual and, yes, beer-bellied: They appear middle-aged, pudgy, with flowers stuck into their sagging swimsuits. Just under the president’s immaculate military boots (he’s wearing them with the swimsuit) is a slogan used to advertise a popular foot antiperspirant. The powers-that-be impotently float amid more silly slogans and soldiers standing stiffly at attention.

Around this time, Hoch was also becoming preoccupied with women’s issues, perhaps because she was encountering some of her own. Publicly, the Dadaists clamored for the rights of the “New Woman”; privately, they belittled Hoch’s work, which was wry and more whimsical than theirs. George Grosz and John Heartfield opposed her participation in the First International Dada Fair of 1920; Hans Richter condescendingly referred to her as the “good girl”; and even her lover, Hausmann, barely mentioned her in his memoirs. Rather, he asserted that she should support him because he was the artist; Hoch often hid her work from him when he visited her studio.

It was a period of considerable anguish for the photomontage artist, who, nevertheless, still was able to produce an impressive body of work. She achieves a not-so-subtle revenge in “Da Dandy” (1919), where several bob-haired “New Women” exist merely as fragments of the Da(daist)’s male fantasies. They are literally contained inside his head, which is a silhouette outlined in red.

The exploration of gender issues continues in pieces such as “The Coquette I” and “The Coquette II,” where grinning, doll-like women are objectified by men-beasts who place them on pedestals.

Hoch dared overt political satire, however, only in the earliest years of the Nazi era. She parodied their racial politics in “German Girl” and “Peasant Wedding Couple” (1931) — the groom wears storm-trooper boots and the bride, blond braids, though their features are ape-like and African. A silhouette of Max Schmeling, the champion boxer and Nazi Aryan superhero, looms over “The Strong Men” (1931).

Just before World War II, however, Hoch realized that she was in danger. She was a bisexual, an ex-Communist, and an ex-Dadaist besides. The Reich had blacklisted her as a “degenerate artist” and “cultural Bolshevist” and had canceled her show at the Dessau Bauhaus.

Actually, the Bauhaus itself had been shut down. Hoch’s avant-garde friends were being ridiculed in the infamous “Degenerate Art” exhibit, and most had left the country.

Hoch could not leave, due to poor finances and ill health — a thyroid condition had nearly killed her. And, so, she bought an old guardhouse on an abandoned World War I airfield in a distant Berlin suburb and retreated there to escape the watchful eyes of the Gestapo.

She survived the war by making herself as obscure as possible, by raising chickens and vegetables in her beloved garden (where, legend has it, she buried her Dada art and artifacts) and by limiting much of her work to escapist fantasy. A typical piece, “On the Nile II,” is a magical dreamscape awash with bright colors and strange, hybrid creatures.

Other works describe Hoch’s Hitler-anxiety in oblique fashion. In “Never Keep Both Feet on the Ground,” disembodied ballerinas’ legs dangle lifelessly from an amorphous, winged cloud. One cannot help but recall the image of Hitler descending through the clouds at the opening of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi epic, “Triumph of the Will.”

All in all, Hoch described the Nazi years as the time of her “great loneliness.”

In the end, she rode out the war in her hideaway guardhouse; there, she continued to live and to quietly paint until her death, at the age of 88, in 1978. By that time, she had attained a modicum of acclaim in Europe.

What riled her all her life, however, was that she was usually associated only with the Dada movement. “I’m sick and tired of Dada,” she said, not long before her death. “Everything else that has developed goes unnoticed.”

The Photomontages of Hannah Hoch, through Sept. 14, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 WIlshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 857-6000.