Gallery, Whitechapel, Art Monthly
Too many recent treatments of Dada and its artists have been urgently concerned to demonstrate the relevance to our own historical moment of a self-willingly ephemeral, fragmentary art movement of the 1910s and 1920s. Perhaps the most explicit example of this 'Dada-for-now' impulse came from the critics associated with the journal October in the wake of 9/11 and its subsequent historical crises. The Whitechapel's Hannah Hoch show -- the first monographic exhibition devoted to her work in the UK -- thankfully doesn't try to over-emphasise her contemporary significance. Instead the exhibition presents an authoritative survey of the career of a woman who lived and worked through some of the most troubled years of the 20th century, in its iconic 'troubled' city -- Berlin. Through all of those vicissitudes, Hoch survived and got on with the work of making art. Daniel Herrmann and Dawn Ades, with the assistance of Emily Butler, do a quite excellent job with Hoch's oeuvre in its totality, and it is notable that of the curatorial team two are not merely 'curators' but Dada scholars of considerable standing. Indeed, professor Ades set the benchmark all the way back in 1976, with 'Dada and Surrealism Reviewed', and has maintained it throughout her scholarly career. If you ever want to see illustrated the compelling argument for allowing academics who know their stuff to curate shows, rather than lumpen-intellectual celebrities, go to the Whitechapel. This is an exhibition steeped in both a profound knowledge of the aesthetics and politics of Modernism and modernity, and a profound awareness of German and European history.
Hoch's art ranged from Dada's post-First World War activism to post-Second World War quietism: at the core of her practice throughout was collage. Within Berlin, Dada that used this form widely was directed towards critiques of both reactionary politics and new formations of capital, and their association, as well as at other formations of the Avant Garde. Political montage is exemplified here by the conflation of Krupp sporting rifles, rather than artillery pieces, with politicians in the superb Hochfinanz, 1923. It is notable that the Dadaists used the term 'Messe' -- commonly used for trade fairs -- rather than the conventional 'Austellung' (exhibition) to describe their show of 1920. This was a deliberate strategy. Dada never quite put itself in the loop, that after the First World War the Avant Garde entered into, between radical aesthetics and the market presented by the haute-bourgeoisie. If Dada's radicalism manifests itself in performative parodies of its objects of political loathing, as Timothy O Benson has shown, here the critique is also directed towards the declining effectiveness, and perhaps the market-driven orientation, of the avant-garde art show.
If Dada as a movement wasn't quite at home in the conventions of the Avant Garde, that ambivalence also manifested itself in Hoch's practice. The extraordinary series 'Aus einem ethnographischen Museum', 1924-29, can be read as a critique, in part, of Germany's prewar colonial aspirations and anthropological curiosity -- especially in its use of materials from the Pergamon Museum. …