Thursday, November 1, 2007

Cuts Like a Knife

During the days of the Weimar Republic in Germany between the wars, Hannah Hoch created some of the most caustic, cutting images challenging the culture around her. Born November 1, 1889, Hoch critiqued in photomontage what George Grosz and Otto Dix critiqued in paint, bringing the bizarre world of Dada to bear on the bizarre world of Germany. As Germany struggled to its collective feet after the horrors of World War I and under the burden of the Treaty of Versailles, Hoch captured the festering wounds that would bloom into the Third Reich. Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany (above, 1919) uses text and photos from newspaper and periodicals of the period to form a “group portrait” of the period in all its buffoonish humor and barely hidden menace. The gears and mechanical parts surrounding the faces threaten to grind them up and swallow them to feed the hungry self-destructiveness of Weimar society. To a modern viewer, Hoch’s photomontages recall the animated photomontages that Terry Gilliam created as part of Monty Python using Victorian Age images to mock the stuffiness of that age. Hoch’s uses humor as well, but the Weimar was never stuffy.

Hoch created Marlene (above) in 1930, the year that Marlene Dietrich rose to fame in the film The Blue Angel. In The Blue Angel, Dietrich’s nightclub singer, Lola Lola, seduces a professor into ruining his life for her love, using her sexuality to cruelly debase a proud man. While singing, Lola Lola wears men’s clothing and even flirts with women in the audience, which definitely caught the bisexual Hoch’s eye. In Marlene, Hoch places Dietrich’s famous legs on a pedestal with her admiring male fans gaping up from the lower right corner. Dietrich’s sexuality objectifies her, reducing her to mere body parts, but also gives her power over others that can be used to control those who wish to control her. Hoch comments here on the sexual politics of her time that were just one aspect of the decadent politics of the Weimar Republic, where life had become increasingly cheap and greater and greater thrills were sought, culminating in the “thrill” of World War II.

Amazingly, Hoch survived through the Nazi years, never facing the usual consequences of her art or her sexuality. After World War II, Hoch turned to abstraction in her photomontages, a safer choice as the victorious nations split up her homeland into conflicting political philosophies. From the early 1960s up until her death in 1978, Hoch returned to more figurative work to analyze again the issue of sexual politics of earlier works such as Marlene and Strange Beauty (above, from 1929). Even at the end, Hoch wanted to tear away the masks of “beauty” that hid the real person behind, rendering them sexual objects. Hoch’s humanity and humor make her one of the most fascinating and continually relevant Dadaists.

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