Hannah Hoch and the Dadas: Artistic Expression as Political Activism During the Great War

Hannah Hoch in A Self-Portrait in Mirrors (1931) | Image via artblast.com

At the onset of World War I, few keen-eyed political spectators were surprised or concerned for war. The tensions between European powers had been building for quite some time. Very few, however, thought that the war would be such a bloody and atrocious war. By the end of the global affair, Europe was in ruins, particularly the Germans, who suffered the consequences of massive reparations and massive inflation.1 Disillusionment among the common people was high even by the middle of the war, and women were making a stand for voting rights while they united with pacifists against the war.2 Hannah Hoch was one woman who expressed her desire for equality, and she did so by radical expression through art. The aftermath of World War I was especially a time when art was more than a reflection of societal changes; art served as a plea for change, as a tool for political expression, and as a critique of society and culture. The rapid explosion of political art at the dawn of the twentieth century was felt across the western hemisphere through the works of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, through Pablo Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky, and for a short period of time, through the Dada Movement.

The Dada Movement was a trend in art, literature, and music beginning shortly before the end of World War I. While Dada had no official set of principals by which it operated, the main characteristic of Dada was revolt against the Bourgeois, against tradition, against restrictive government, and against the commonly accepted restrictions of what was or was not art. Dada often encouraged and espoused left-wing ideology, particularly communism and anarchism.  The movement came to fruition in Zurich, Switzerland at the Cabaret Voltaire. Hugo Ball, the founder of Cabaret Voltaire, named it after the French philosopher Voltaire who praised rational and scientific thought and condemned irrational superstition. The salon quickly emerged as an epicenter for artists in exile; the emergence of a movement opposed to the bourgeoisie, the status-quo, and what might be called today “The Man,” “big brother,” or “the system,” flowed naturally from a confluence of radical thinkers at the Cabaret Voltaire.3 This movement, though not completely united, emerged as a trend in Berlin around 1916 during the war, particularly out of the leadership of the young woman Hannah Hoch and her lover Raoul Hausmann. Hausmann introduced Hoch to avant-garde art and to the Dada movement in Zurich shortly after her return to Berlin in 1916. Hoch had been serving as a member of the Red Cross throughout 1914, taking a short break from her time at university, which had begun in 1912. Hoch and Hausmann became consumed by the Dada movement, innovating and perfecting a new artistic medium of their own, the photo-montage. Hausmann also created Dada poetry, which, according to the National Gallery of Art, was supposed to offer, “both a metaphor for the destruction caused by war and a commentary on the deceitfulness of language.”4 Here is a video recording of his poem, Fmsbw.

Although it may not seem significant by today’s standards, the photo-montage broke the boundaries of classical art. Rather than paint on canvas, Hoch and Hausmann manipulated pieces of photographs to create a new piece of art. Although Hausmann and Hoch were romantic partners and associates in art, Hoch stood out on her own.5 In 1919, one of Hoch’s most famous works was published. It was called “Cut With a Kitchen Knife: Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany,” and it was featured in 1919 in the First Berlin Dada Exhibition. Viewed closely, a feminist agenda is clear in the photo-montage. At the bottom right corner of the artwork, Hoch placed a cutout of her face in place of her signature; immediately to the right of that cutout is a map of Europe highlighting all of the nation-states that acknowledged women’s voting rights at that time. But Hoch’s artwork addressed more than feminism. The same painting depicts a sort of spectrum of political ideology, with followers of the Dada Movement on the bottom, communist theorists and social scientists in the middle, and German political authorities like Kaiser Wilhelm II at the top right. Near the head of Wilhelm is a script that reads “die anti dada istiche,” or the “the one who is anti-Dada.” Hoch’s work was also promoting the Dadaist movement as a political movement, as an anarchist movement still farther left than communism, and as opposed to the machinery of the German regime. Hoch’s art was displayed again in 1920 at the First International Dada-Fair.

Hoch’s “Cut With the Kitchen Knife” (1919) | From Wikipedia Commons

Two years later, Hoch and Hausmann parted ways and Hoch became romantically involved with Dutch writer, Til Burgman, after meeting her on a trip in Italy. Hoch never publicized her lesbian affair. The couple lived at The Hague for three years, and for another six in Berlin until their split in 1938. Although Hoch was called a “cultural Bolshevik” by a Nazi commentator in 1937, and her art was declared “degenerate art” by the Nazi party, Hoch lived and worked in Berlin throughout World War II, and until her death in 1978. Hoch’s work received little historical attention for some time due to her refusal to allow researchers to view her papers during her lifetime. However, upon the sale of her estate after her death, historians have begun to illuminate the story of this fascinating woman.6

 

  1. Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2017, s.v. “World War I,” by Robert F. Gorman.
  2. Helen McCarthy, “Pacifism and Feminism in the Great War,” History Today 65, no. 4 (April 2015): 4–5.
  3. Carmen Stonge, “Dada Movement Emerges at the Cabaret Voltaire,” Great Events from History: The Twentieth Century (Online Edition) (Salem Press, 2013).
  4. “DADA – Techniques – Sound,” https://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/2006/dada/techniques/sound.shtm.
  5. “Höch, Hannah (1889 – 1978),” in Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History,  edited by Robert Aldrich, and Garry Wotherspoon (New York: Routledge, 2002).
  6. “Höch, Hannah (1889 – 1978),” in Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History,  edited by Robert Aldrich, and Garry Wotherspoon (New York: Routledge, 2002); C. Townsend, “Exhibitions: Hannah Hoch,” Art Monthly  no. 374 (2014): 20.
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33 Comments

  • I enjoyed reading this article a lot. I love to read about how art plays an important role in society and in history. Art is meant to change and influence the world for better. Also, the fact that it was a woman who tried to create an impact, makes it even more admirable. Women were not always welcomed with their new ideas and innovations.

  • Art is a form of expression that demonstrates the feelings and thoughts of people during the time they are living in. For example, Hannah Hooch illustrated her thoughts and feelings of The Great War, because it was her way of letting the public know how she viewed things during that time. I’m glad I read this article, because art to me is history and culture. Furthermore, the power of art is more than illustrating and being creative. It is about sending a message.

  • This article was very interesting to me because I had never heard of “The Dadas Movement” I was so captivated by both her artistic skills and her powerful attitude! I’m glad this article was writing to give the artist Hannah Hoch the spotlight she truly deserves. Also, the images are really cool! Great job!

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