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Review of Hannah Höch at the Whitechapel Gallery By Lily Magenis

 

Hannah Höch was the only female member of the Berlin Dada movement, and a pioneer in photomontage, a medium and method she used to satirize Weimar politics and subversively comment on society, gender, and race. Her first major exhibition in the UK is currently on display at the Whitechapel Gallery from January 15 – March 23, 2014.

The Hannah Höch exhibition brings together a collection over 120 pieces of work, and spans the length of her career, from the 1910s -1970s. Höch’s varying series of photomontage are presented in a chronological time line, beginning with her early work, which was heavily influenced by her career in fashion magazines. Höch critiques the way in which women are represented in the media, by ripping their images out and pulling them away from the objectified environment of a magazine page. She re-applies an image of the ‘new woman’ into a formation and structure that addresses how we perceive beauty.

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Höch’s Ethnographic Museum series questions the construction of gender and the notion of beauty, for she pairs Ethnographic masks with images of the female body. Höch’s collage “Aus der Sammlung: Aus einem ethnographischen Museum (From the Collection: from an Ethnographic Museum)” (1929), combines the body of a baby with a traditional mask and gives the figure an eye of a modern woman. Höch wants us to relate to the body in a different way, as this figure does not adhere to the idealized vision of beauty, but questions different standards of beauty. The new woman she creates here does not correlate to that of the typical woman of ‘typical’ beauty, she is a woman with a modern eye.

Höch’s art is personal, and we are greeted with a playful exploration of re-imaging. She cuts and pastes, taking familiar images and reconstructing them. Women in Höch’s collages are beautiful, feminine, and playful, but not as sexualized objects. Instead, women are depicted in a way that challenge preconceived notions of femininity. This is the new woman.

The upstairs gallery showcases a collection of Höch’s scrapbooks while the rest of the exhibition is dedicated to her experiments in abstraction and ‘Fantastic Art’ where we see her transition into color and an adjustment to her portrayal of the new woman.

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Given the extent to which the female body is included in her work, it is evident that Höch is conscious of sex and her bisexuality. However, sexuality is a factor that presents itself in her work scarcely. I was struck by the collage of a peachy pink bottom resting on a beach in “Der Schöne Po (The Beautiful Bottom)” (1959). For this was the only overtly sexual image in the exhibition. It’s bright turquoise hues and sparkling semblance stand out in comparison to her earlier collages – it has an exaggerated, girly character which I regard as a shift in the image of the new woman.

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By pulling apart and reshaping figures, most commonly female, Höch seems to be challenging the treatment of gender in 20th Century Germany. Traditionally the female figure in the artistic canon exemplifies an object of beauty. Höch contests this notion with, “Um einen roten Mund (Around a Red Mouth)” (1967). Here, a set of red lips rest on a mountain of pink petticoats. The inclusion of petticoats, which were worn by women for centuries, draws reference to a traditional and often required uniform for women. However, Höch tears at the petticoats and layers the pink horizontal frays one on top of the other, creating an abstract image of a vagina. The violence implicit in the medium Höch used here literally reshapes an image of the very core of a woman’s femininity.

Höch’s work is ambiguous, but this allows for a sort of fluid and ‘fantastic’ reading. The medium she uses is surrealistic – the multifaceted layers of cut and pasted images relax the boundaries of interpretation, and therefore we can read them in myriad ways. Her work is both political and poetic. The way she chops and splices images is political, and often comments on gender, but the finished product is beautiful and dream like.

My first impression was that Höch’s work is confused, that she struggled between different images of the new woman, as she too identified with struggles alike, (e.g. confusion with her bisexuality and being the only woman in Dada) “Two Faced” (1928), illustrates such confusion; a collage of a woman with two faces, drawn in different directions. However, this exhibition takes us on a journey of the new woman from the stiff magazine women in pearls to the effervescent pert behind. And this is exactly the point. Höch works with the notion of the fragmented self. The new woman is duplicitous and you can read her in multiple ways. Höch wants us to have our own personal and objective understanding of the ‘new woman’, as there isn’t one way to perceive her.

Höch’s exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery is a humorous critique of gender and beauty. Her work is crude, but not offensive. It is light hearted, but makes a point. It’s sexual but not sexualized. Hannah Höch cuts the perfect balance and creates a new image of the new woman.

 

 

Hannah Höch is on view through March 23, 2014.

For more information visit Whitechapel Gallery, London.

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Old masters and old mistresses: the BBC’S ‘Great Artists in Their Own Words- The Future is Now’ by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

The HIS-tory of art, as a discipline, adheres to a strict theoretical canon based on a process of constant innovation, progress and avant-garde advancement. Movement follows movement, -isms spiral into –isms. As time unfolds, so does the reduction of the canvas- style is unpicked, colour is unleashed, linear perspective and historical narrative deconstructed and transformed into an explosion of subjectivity that peaks with the onset of modernity.

This canon thrives on the romantic notion of genius as a singular individual overwhelmed with radical raw talent. This individual is often posed as depressed or neglected, misunderstood in their own time frame, only to be rediscovered after their death. Excavated like a golden nugget. But this concept of genius is not neutral. Genius follows a pattern in the history of art- white, heterosexual and masculine. Tick these three attributes off your list and you’ve got yourself a modern master. This is the history of art we’ve all been taught at school: Manet led to Cezanne who led to Picasso who led to Matisse who let to … you get the point.

The BBC often has interesting art historical programmes based (loosely) outside the parameters of this model, like Andrew Graham-Dixon’s focus on the art of Russia, that new preppy young chap (James Fox, I think his name is? I typed ‘preppy young art historian’ into Google but I realized this made me sound about 100 years old and did not surface any answers) who looked at the history of art thematically in three colours. That was interesting. Not radical, but interesting enough as a one-time formula. However, on Iplayer this week the Beeb have a brand spanking new art program called ‘Great Artists in Their Own Words- The Future is Now’ (1907-1939.) The program “unlocks” the BBC archives in order to “tell the story of the birth of modern art, in the words of the artists who created a cultural revolution” which all sounds very impressive and dramatic, so I thought I’d give it a whirl.

The notion of documentation and archiving is interesting just in itself. When you look at documentation in the light of say, 1970s feminist performance art, it becomes clear how dominant myths of modernism are perpetuated in the acts of interviewing or recording. The 1970s performance works were not well documented, and they were not supposed to be. This is because the emphasis was placed upon the ephemeral and transitive experience of the performance, as something that took place in front of an audience and then disappeared. Photographs or videos would always stand in place as a substitute for the corporeal act, becoming a tangible object that could be placed within the art institutional system of production, consumption and capital. The downside of this is that feminist artworks often remain unexplored underground, their complex meanings never to be debated within mainstream discourse. Interviewing is based on a decision; somebody has actively decided that the artist has something to say that needs to be recorded and validated. They often do. But, what about the artistic voices that were not always given (or refused) a platform for discussion? What does the history of art omit in its inclusion?

So, this program was set in the hub of late 1920s/early 30s Paris and started with a charming biography of Picasso, the man who “set the standard of what it was to be an artist” due to the fact he “shattered conventions” through the creation of cubism in a “fever of creativity” (get ready for a lot of speech marks.) Rivalry! Picasso was supposedly jealous of another artist named Matisse, who also possessed “dazzling gifts” and a “revolutionary vision.” Then along came Duchamp, who was equally as transgressive, who “completely changed human art expression” through one “simple gesture” of the ready-made. Just like that, startling really. This one man bought about a revolution! He “swept away” old art and replaced it immediately with “his idea that anyone could be an artist.” So along came Max Ernst, the lonely solider fighting on the front of WW1, he offered a “startling new direction” to the mix “like nothing anyone had seen before” which “lay the foundation for Surrealism” and “unlocked a new visual world.” Jump to photography and to Man Ray, his innovations and “incredible versatility dazzled his contemporaries.” What’s this? Leonora Carington, A WOMAN!? Have you never heard of her? That OK though because she’s a weird anomaly  “strong enough” to mix with masculine Surrealist circles. She also had a personal love affair with Max Ernst, of a sexual nature- ooh la la. Oh, and she’s also apparently a witch as it was said she “didn’t paint her pictures but brewed them up in a cauldron at night.” Nice. Then Magritte. Usurped by Dali, who eventually sold out and did loads of bizarre Alka Seltzer adverts. The end.

Apart from brief mentions of the world wars, this documentary completed omitted any references to the social, cultural or political circumstances of that time period. It relied solely on biography and personal antidotes. There was no mention of scientific discoveries, the urbanization of new modern spaces of leisure and entertainment or the rapid development of industries and production based upon capitalism. No discussion of the circulation of new forms of accessible media such as magazines and newspapers, the fact that women gained the right to vote in 1928, no mention of Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Claude Cahun, Hannah Hoch, Remedio Varo, Frida Kahlo, Meret Oppenheim, Louise Brooks, Josephine Baker or Dorothea Tanning. Not even a hint at the emerging deconstructions of binaries of sexuality and gender or the discussion of lesbian identities in Radyclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness. No psychoanalysis, which actively began questioning the formation of the self in symbolic structures of language and the murky realm of the unconscious. I get that the program is supposed to be a brief introduction, a quick summary of the Western art of this period, and so maybe there simply wasn’t enough time to critically converse with those issues. But, then again, I don’t really buy that. The discussion of the work itself, the actual art, was so minimal. The paintings appeared on the screen for a few seconds, and then disappeared without any real analysis or interrogation.

The amount of hyperbole used was excessive, and quite frankly, ridiculous. Not to mention boring. Art history, when studied as a practice invested in the meaning of works placed within a sociological, cultural and political framework, can be so rich and complex on both philosophical and psychological levels. Biography after biography like some kind of gossip-y  Chinese whispers is embarrassing, and it’s why art history often has a bad name. It does a disservice to the artists mentioned, reducing their work to two-dimensional conceptions of revolution and change, propping them up as some other-worldly god-like masters with innovative powers beyond the realms of human understanding. But, even more so, it falls back upon the same-old canon of artistic progression; completely negating and undermining the deconstructive practices of so many incredible feminist, post-structuralist and post-modernist thinkers.  Art history is better than that, you’ll just have to believe me.

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Judy Chicago, Tracy Emin, Helen Chadwick and Louise Bourgeois at Ben Uri Gallery by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

Judy Chicago is one of my favourite artists. I discovered her in my second year of university through a module by Griselda Pollock. In fact, I have even written a little bit about her before on this very blog. So, when I heard she was exhibiting in London for the first time since the 80s, well, I was rather excited. The Ben Uri Gallery in London seemed like the perfect place for her return to the country, having 1300 works in their permanent collection by women artists. Many of these works are currently focusing on themes such as autobiography, erotica, feminism, the nude and issues of masculine power.

Which is precisely what Chicago is most well known for. During the 1970s, she founded the first feminist art program in America, aiming to incorporate these themes into the realm of art. This was a time when the personal was truly political and Chicago encouraged and inspired her students to create feminist artworks that validated women’s experience.

On entering the gallery, I was instantly hit by Chicago’s famous works. On the left wall, recent dynamic lithographs such as Into the Darkness (2008) and Signing the Dinner Party (2009) stood opposite her pioneering feminist works, such as Red Flag (1971) and Menstruation Bathroom (1972).  This was a nice touch. For example,  the iconic image Peeling Back (1974)  on the right echoed  the Return of the Butterfly (2009) on the left, mirroring the core values of the initial work. This sense of dialogue seemed tangible, connoting the idea that these conversations are still vital. The writing underneath Peeling Back reads, “In this transitional image, I “peeled back” the structure to reveal the formerly hidden form. What a refuge to finally say: ‘Here I am, a woman, with a woman’s body and a woman’s point of view.'” After thirty or so years, it appears there is still many more peeling back to do and many more layers to explore.

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Judy Chicago, Peeling Back, 1974
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Judy Chicago, Return of the Butterfly, 2009

Also in this room were the ethereal smoky goddesses from the series Women and Smoke which drew on the “eternal power” of womankind. Helen Chadwick’s In the Kitchen (1977) dealt with issues of domesticity and confinement, reputing the idea that women should be confined within the home. Next to Chicago’s  expressive and free nude figures dancing in the mountains, it seemed impossible to disagree.

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Immolation IV from the Women and Smoke Series, 1972

As I walked down the steps to the lower floor, it felt like moving into a more private, personal space. At the top of the staircase, a photograph of a pouting Emin wearing a ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ T-shirt stood alongside Chicago’s piece What is Feminist Art? “Weren’t art and life separated?” the text read, “Like men and women, good and evil, body and mind.” 

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I kept this question in mind in the first downstairs room. The space was smaller, more intimate and slightly cramped. Four walls were covered with A4 autobiographical drawings, expressing the moods and emotions of Chicago during a year of her life. A lot of these diary-type accounts seemed negative and  hyper-judgmental; dark holes, wounded trees and swathes of despair in black, blue and ruby red watercolours. It was a sharp contrast to the bold graphic prints on the first floor but it was interesting to see a different side to Chicago. Much of her popular work is so strikingly strong, this softer and more personal side was somewhat easier to interact with, to relate with despite its extremity. Sometimes, the pressure of fighting for what you believe in is draining. I felt that the pictures seemed cathartic, a release of daily pressures and tension. I am  no artist myself, but it appeared like a healthy means of expression that I could consider trying out in my  own life.  A way of clearing a sometimes muddled head.

 

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The final room included work by Emin and Bourgeois and it seemed to bring all the main themes of the exhibition together.  Chicago’s sensual and erotic side was depicted brilliantly and beautifully through her intricate work Nine Fragments from Delta of Venus (2004) and the “Cat-erotica” pieces were playful  and funny, a trait not often associated with feminism. On the last wall hung two nude portraits, one of Emin called Love is What You Want (2011) showing her running away from the viewer in a moment of vibrant spontaneity alongside a portrait of Chicago taken for her 70th birthday, as  a triumphant Eve  holding up her apple and laughing in a contemporary Garden of Eden.  Again, it felt like the two portraits were in dialogue with each other, two confident and creative women exposing their own skin. It seemed like Chicago was handing her feminist mantle down to Emin in a proud and confident manner.  A celebratory and positive ending.

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Tracy Emin Love is what you want, 2011
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It was so refreshing to go to an art exhibition as a young woman and a feminist and be instantly included;  in a space where women’s experience is expressed and celebrated, where their bodies  and sexuality are explored honestly and openly.  Often with art, I can appreciate it, I can  understand it, I can read and research and learn about the Old Masters or the marvels of the Renaissance  but I never really truly felt a part of it.  My friend had never heard of Judy Chicago before yet we both left feeling like we knew her. And learnt a little bit about ourselves along the way.

Judy Chicago and Louise Bourgeois,Helen Chadwick, Tracey Emin: A Transatlantic dialogue is at the Ben Uri Gallery until the 10th of  March 2013. For more information see:  http://benuri.org.uk/public/?event-details

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