by Sukanya DebMar 15, 2022
When we look at the age of European Modernism in its 100th year through the contemporary lens, we begin to apply specific insights to the movement, critically viewing the successes, failures and blind spots of such. When one thinks of Modernism, one immediately thinks of the male figures such as Dali, Breton, and Duchamp, who have dominated the limelight after being accepted into the art historical canon, while women and queer folks have been erased or subdued through history. One observes the political movements that were also drawn out of the 20th century linking to feminism and suffrage, black emancipation, queer re-envisioning(s) and so on. But here we focus on four innovators, women or identifying beyond gender, in the modernist time period, who were significant players in the avant garde movements that were politically as well as artistically and aesthetically charged.
European Modernism was marked by a movement away from naturalism and instead surpassed the ready forms available, towards abstraction, experimentation, surrealism, and absurdism in the form of Dada. Through the throes of historical modernism, the establishment has been cognisant and representative of the then avant-garde movements towards the museumification of their art. That being said, there has been a consistent blind spot with regards to the women innovators who were part of the very same movements, overlooking their contributions to favour their male counterparts. The male artists themselves were not much better, where they treated their female colleagues as muses and maids.
Hannah Höch was one of the women artists in the European Dada movement, particularly the Berlin branch that included John Heartfield, George Grosz and Raoul Hausmann. While she has been recognised by mainstream art history to some extent, her contributions to the field have perhaps been minimised to a large degree. Höch represented the Neue Frau or New Woman during the Weimar Republic, while also critiquing the popular representations of such, as was seen in magazines and other forms of print media. While it is unclear who was the sole originator of photomontage within the Dada movement, Höch was one of the earliest adopters and innovators, who particularly spoke to the common absurdism and critique of the Dada movement as well as feminist issues of birth control, image, suffrage. She began experimenting with photomontage in 1918, drawing from newspaper and magazine cut outs and other forms of popular print media. The possibilities that the photomontage form provided were exciting in the face of visual representation that moved away from the historically naturalistic and previously Romantic form. The possibility of creating new combinations and subjects formed the basis of the kind of communication that was possible.
Germany-born Elsa Hildegard Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven was a staple part of the downtown New York scene in the early 1910-20s. She was known for her eccentricity that translated to loud getups and assembled outfits and jewellery, made from found objects such as soup cans, spoons, feathers, and so on. Her art translated back into her life, where she made assemblage art, collages, wrote poetry, worked as a model from time to time, leading a diverse and eccentric life that not many could relate to. It has been speculated in recent years that she might have been the originator of one of the pillars of the Modernist movement, Fountain or popularly known as the upside-down urinal by Marcel Duchamp. However, from the work that is recognised as hers, Freytag-Loringhoven innovated on several counts, breaking the form of the composite structure and using found objects to create new forms, that even translated to jewellery which was much before the time of the exploration of objecthood in hybrid forms.
Meret Oppenheim was one of the only Surrealists who had any actual association with psychoanalysis, which formed much of the speculatory grounds for the movement. She was born into a family of analysts, and was known to keep a dream diary throughout her life. Oppenheim is known for her found object sculptural work Object. The fur-lined teacup and saucer continues to capture our imaginations, bringing the domestic into art practice, while at the same time considering the feral with the domestic. Oppenheim also forms a link between art and fashion, the demarcations between which have been long challenged and surpassed. She worked for the avant garde fashion designer, Elsa Schiaparelli, creating a Surrealist intervention in fashion through this set of gloves.
Claude Cahun was a French surrealist photographer, writer and performer, who worked through the interstices of gender towards performative self-portraits that were produced as part of their photographic practice. The queer representation of their gender was founded by an interest in theatre, performance and costume that accentuated the performative aspect of such. A large part of their work was a discarding of gender as a whole and instead opting for identity as a personalised form. While they have been largely discarded by mainstream art history, their work stands to contend with the Surrealist aspect of performance and the prominence of their male colleagues. The documentation of themselves through self-portraiture is one that reaches out to the modernist and contemporary mind, incorporating the performance of gender into the frame, where they switch and meld genders through their work. They even incorporated photomontage as a way to abstract and fragment the formation of gender identity.
Besides being innovators in the field and having led active, political lives, these artists are only a few of the figures that had success in their own times, apart from other feminist and queer interventions that have led to the unearthing of historical information.
Part I: When was modern?