Cut with the Kitchen Knife: The Weimar Photomontages of Hannah Hoch (12/93)

Maud Lavin - Cut with the Kitchen Knife

This is the first full-length study in English of the most original Dada/post-Dada collage artist, and as such it’s valuable on its face. Going well beyond Hannah Hoch’s generally exhibited or reproduced work is a discussion and inclusion of 26 pages from Hoch’s ca.-1933 “mass media scrapbook,” newspaper and magazine images roughly juxtaposed to make up a sort of visual commonplace book. Still, the main effect of Maud Lavin’s essay may be to close off the market from any book on the same material for a long time.

Lavin’s text is timid and flat-footed, incapable of suggestion, of moving beyond its own blinkered literality. It’s not until her third-to-last page that she brings her subject into focus: “Within Hoch’s avant-garde circle and throughout Weimar Germany, the images and attitudes of modernity were consistently projected onto women.” This rich idea is left bare. Perhaps it sparks in the reader’s mind a Weimar specter of a coherent, dangerous past (and future?): women are forced to assume the threatening promises of the modern; they become cosmopolitan aliens or invaders in their own society. At the same time, fascism overwhelms both the artistic and the commercial avant-garde, reempowering men as volkisch rebels against the modern, as carriers of salvation and truth. It’s a thought–but you have to read this topic sentence back onto the whole book to make it work.

Most dispiriting are Lavin’s pages on Hoch’s big, dense Dada montages–notably the 1920-21 Dada-Ernst and the 1919-20 Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany, both reproduced so poorly, in black and white and in color, that you can barely follow Lavin’s readings. These are great pictures, explicitly political but also unstable. They speak an altogether different language than the contemporaneous work of Hoch’s Dada fellow-traveler John Heartfield. Hoch is allusive, funny, obscene, mysterious, playful, and cool, not just making meanings with visual puns but seeking meaning in punning–and all on a complex field where no image makes merely a single connection to any other. But Lavin has no theory of montage (Guy Debord and Gil Wolman’s 1956 “Methods of Detournement” would not have been irrelevant), and her attempts to walk the reader through Hoch’s crowded fields, so alive with movement, with meanings changing as your eye slips, are like a badly guided museum tour.

Prose as lifeless and unsensuous as Lavin’s can’t criticize art as sensuous and tactile as Hoch’s; it can’t even describe it.

Artforum, December 1993

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