Hannah Hoch has always been a reoccurring and inspiring figure in my artistic research. First discovered aged 15, she has always been this shorthaired, eccentric Dadaist that no one seemed to know a whole lot about. Fast-forward 10 years, and the story is still the same. Here I was, holding my breath in excitement about being able to catch her first UK exhibition at the Whitechapel a day before it closed, and 40 years after her death. I had visions of what the work would look like in the huge space, the same huge space I had last seen engulfed in Sarah Lucas’ concrete phallic objects and ceiling height prints. How would they display? Actually, how big are they? The decade of unanswered questions were now playing round in my head. The Whitechapel Gallery visits I had made in the past had never involved a queue- or an admission fee for that matter. The idea of paying for the exhibition just excited me more, it must be really good. The curators must have searched high and wide for some rarities to display!
Post-queue, my excitement started to wane slightly. The amount of people in the gallery was bordering on making the work un-seeable. Telling myself not to lose faith, I began the ritual of moving around in the socially acceptable gallery snake that naturally forms, leaning forward respectfully and moving around at a snails pace. Unusually, I found myself skipping things. I loved the work I was seeing, but having it set out in this painful chronological order was doing it no justice. How else could they display it, I thought to myself, instead of concentrating on the work.
More interestingly, perhaps? But how?
The collages Hoch made were full of wonder and excitement, yet these huge spaces made me think of the ceramic section of a museum- the bit I avoid at all costs. The exhibition was advertised as showing ‘over 100 works’ which was by all means true, however the sheer amount of petite framed works amongst glass cabinets full of related material made it tedious rather than a rich collection. On the Nile ll (1940s) was the first piece to really make me stop. The edges of the assembled pieces were visible; a small fingerprint on a glossier style paper was easily identifiable. The colours were rich and vivid. All things a collage artist would get excited about. The early works displayed were varied, and many contained human features. A mixture of collage, watercolours and drawings demonstrated experimental techniques and a comfort to eventually be found with collage. The early work was busy, and the key relationships in Hoch’s life with Hausmann and Schwitters were an obvious influence. Each piece entirely different, but all with the same emerging energy of an artist who had found their place and was running with it. Moving around with the endless snake took me upstairs to join a queue for something I wasn’t sure of, as I couldn’t see past anyone. Time then told that there were a few copies of Album (1930s) laid out for visitors to browse through. Album is a collection of Hoch’s collage materials containing newspaper, advertising and magazine cuttings carefully inserted into a huge scrapbook. There seems to be a theme to each section, although some cuttings do find their way in randomly. Browsing through this was an insight into the time in which Hoch lived. A lot of cuttings outlining the war hovering over her native Germany reminded the viewer of Hoch’s solitary years living on the outskirts of Berlin with only chickens for company. Album is a book to leaf through leisurely at your own pace, not at a pace of the snake now tutting and reading over your shoulder. Reluctantly, I moved on. Moving through the war years was rather depressing. Hoch’s busy, exciting work all of a sudden became melancholy and void of people. The war is hugely apparent when viewing her work chronologically, with all aspects taking a definite turn. Juxtaposed landscapes filled with dark colours and densely populated areas, huge confusing works that had both text and images aligned seemingly randomly over her paper. They seemed angry and rushed almost, like the label of ‘degenerate artist’ from the Nazis had taken its toll on her artistic output.
The remaining third of the exhibition outlined her work after the war had ended. Here, pieces of Hoch’s collage puzzles were more and more abstract with elements such as body parts and colours not playing their usual role, being rotated and being merged into a wider display. No longer surrealist, Hoch had categorised the work as ‘fantastic art’ although they weaved more into a reexamination of the abstract. Barren landscapes with built up suns and fantasy worlds were in front of me. A part of Hoch’s work I was not familiar with one bit. It felt like the calm after the storm, the winding down. There were less people in this part of the Whitechapel, giving me access to zigzag across and really think about what I was seeing. The Everyday was more and more apparent in Hoch’s later work (1950s-1960s), with the material she was using coming from mainstream advertising for a mass audience.
I had turned my back slightly to the last piece in the show; the biggest piece yet, a self-portrait containing photographs and scraps from her entire existence. Stepping backwards, I realised I was now out of the exit doors and on my way down the stairs. Still, a few weeks on from visiting I cannot determine whether I enjoyed the exhibition or not. On one hand, it was hugely underwhelming, but I don’t feel that was due to the work itself, or the gallery. The idea that this was Hoch’s first UK exhibition ran around in my head. Maybe the work wasn’t meant to be viewed in this way. It comes from cut outs from books; people have forged their knowledge on her from books until now. People were queuing to read Album and the exhibition catalogue is now selling on Amazon for £250- the gallery space may just not be the vehicle needed to transport Hoch’s work. Building up a decade of fantasy and mystery around an artist in your mind is probably not the most open-minded way to approach such a rich and well positioned exhibition, still, I have gone away with this mystery in tact and I still don’t really know much about Hannah Hoch- the way I like to think she intended it to be.