At the dawn of the twentieth century, existing and long-enshrined social conventions had already become to succumb to a gradual flux. The rise of the metropolis, the dominance of industrialism, and the creep of new and radical political ideas both reflected and caused a general change in attitude across Europe, so that new ideas and perspectives began to take root within intellectual circles and the masses alike. One variable which was particularly questioned through visual art was the definition and limitations of gender. What did the twentieth-century male look like? And how did the twentieth-century woman act? While the burgeoning years of the new age saw the exploration of differing and exaggerated conceptions of sex differences, the cataclysm of the First World War provoked a dramatic shift in these, and ultimately proscribed a much bleaker vision of humanity within the new modern world.
Initially, then, the mood was one of optimism. The fruitful marriage between man and machine re-imagined the capability of the human body, eclipsing the previous limits of the corporeal, and extending the reach of mankind to dizzying distances. Perhaps the most potent emblem of this spirit is Rock Drill, a sculpture by artist Jacob Epstein. As it was made and exhibited in 1913, Rock Drill represents an idealised version of the modern man. The “half human, half automaton” torso, vaguely human in shape but made highly geometric and metallic – although it was originally cast in plaster – personifies a mechanised heroism. Epstein even has his clearly male figure bear an organically formed embryo, suggesting an utter reversal of nature in favour of and because of the machine. Although the work rather traditionally equates masculinity with industry, Epstein also introduces the feminine role of procreator to his figure. The symbol of his power, the penis, is so potent that the very process of generation is enabled by his possession of it. Humanity has become one with the machine and thus has gained the ability to physically and well as metaphorically conquer the earth. The figure’s extraordinarily long legs seem made for striding over the globe once it has finished boring into it. In Epstein’s vision, through alliance with the machine, the male becomes a self-sufficient, invulnerable conqueror, master of all he surveys – or, indeed, mounts.
Elsewhere in Europe, Dadaist Hannah Hoch was imbuing the female with an equal dose of modern flux. Her Cut With the Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, boasts a composition filled with women in motion, whereas those of the men, even though they constitute a majority, are static. They are engaged in a number of activities, none of which confines them within the domestic realm of the ‘kitchen-knife’, as they previously had been. In the modern world, then, women are active, while men – characterised by figures of the old European order, such as the Kaiser – remain still and passive. By using ‘truthful’ medium of photo-collage, Hoch makes it clear that these visions will soon become reality, if they are not already. The images, after all, already exist and would have been recognisable to her audience as fragments of contemporary life and media, and not fantasy. Furthermore, Hoch makes it clear that art has caused and will maintain this new social order. The presence of political and artistic radicals in the ‘love’ half of the canvas is accompanied by the word ‘Dada’, which appears three times in the work. Hoch’s work shows a vision of modern life where society is changing and allowing women new freedoms, including the ability to create art. Her vision of the female is the perfect counterpart for Epstein’s futuristic man, with each artist portraying a redesigned gender role, both of which are characterised by their dynamism and potential power.
Both Hoch and Epstein also insist on the modernity of their visions by employing innovative techniques of art-making. For Hoch, this is the medium of photo-collage, which she is now credited with pioneering, if not inventing. The action of photo-collage itself mimics the machine; it is detached, and brutal, it requires a tool which separates the artist hands from their work. It also does not directly require artistic skill as such, but rather operates on the Dadaist principle that choice alone causes the transition from object to art. In terms of gender and modern life, the scissors also symbolise the ‘female’ mediums of textile work and general domesticity, as does the title of the work. However, it is clear now that the scissors and the eponymous ‘kitchen knife’ are the weapons by which woman will liberate herself, rather than the objects which symbolise her confinement via domesticity within what Hoch depicts as the old and dying world of “beer-belly” patriarchy.
Epstein’s work also clearly proclaims its own modernity, with the inclusion of the new pneumatic drill. It’s presence acts as a temporal co-ordinate for the piece, locating clearly within the twentieth century and the dawn of the machine age. Beyond this, the inclusion of an object not crafted by the artist is a similarly avant-garde decision: when we consider that Marcel Duchamp had only just begun to pioneer ‘ready-mades’ with his Bicycle Wheel, the decision to include the pre-made drill becomes even more radical. Its equation with a penis ensures the drill functions as a new symbol of masculinity, reinforcing the traditional parallel between the male and industry. Furthermore, the drill itself was produced in America. This glorifies that country as the forerunner in all things modern, archetype of the new world, corresponding to the idea of a crumbling Europe indicated by the mockery of the Kaiser and his generals in Hoch’s piece. Hoch and other Dadaist’s also to an extent romanticised the modernity of America, using Americanised slogans in their work and images of American celebrities. In adopting these symbols of modernity to articulate their new presentations of gender, bot artist’s insist upon the contemporarineity of their definitions of gender – making them an facet of life indiscernible from other aspects of the current moment.
As war dawned, however, Epstein’s optimistic glorification of the machine, and of the heroic new race which would be created when humanity truly embraced it was undermined by the mechanised slaughter of the war. The machine made warfare irrevocably modern and exponentially more terrible. Not only did Epstein lose close friends, but – along with the rest of Europe – he was constantly confronted with the sight of men returning from the front with horrific physical injuries. It was clear that man’s embrace of the machine resulted not in the robotic Adonis, “virile and threatening”, he had conceived in 1915, but rather yet another body which will not recover from “the violence of modern life”. Epstein proceeded to mutilate his art in accordance with this new vision. His figures legs and right hand were removed, the means by which he operated his drill and held it in place, symbolising the mastery of the invention which had now become uncontrollable. These amputations meant that the figure could no longer protect its immaculate foetus, evoking the sense of helplessness of generation in face of mechanised slaughter. Perhaps more importantly, however, the drill itself was removed, so that only the torso remained. This literal castration resulted in a complete change of meaning for the piece. Once triumphant and conquering, the truncated torso seems defensive and afraid, its neck craning to sense the impending danger against which it is now unable to defend itself. Thus, the traditional equation of masculinity with martial violence is shown to be destructive and demeaning rather than edifying, as the propaganda of the time continued to insist it was.
Hoch’s vision of modern life, and the place of women within it, was equally altered by the effects of the war. Her 1919 Pretty Girl is completely opposed to her earlier Kitchen Knife. Woman is no longer dynamic, but a vapid composite that no longer moves nor thinks, so passive that she needs to have sense knocked into her by the boxer on her left. Though some critics have read the light-bulb face as indicating enlightenment, it is perhaps more appropriate to think of this revelation in terms of the artist rather than the figure. The return of demobilised soldiers to everyday life in crippled post-war Germany meant that women were inclined to sacrifice the better paid jobs they had been filling for those fighting. Aside from having the juggle the humiliation of gender-based demotion and housework, Weimar women had to cope with the fact that the men who had returned to her life neither respected her achievements nor encouraged her independence. In short, they advocated that she pick up the ‘kitchen knife’ and put it back to its original use, while they reinstated traditional order. It is arguable that this was Hoch’s enlightenment: the realisation that nothing had really changed. The attitude to women, as suggested by the title of the piece, once more boiled down to their sexual appeal and their dependence on men, who infantilised them as ‘girls’. Hoch associates this realisation again with the visual language of the technology, by surrounding her central figure with the composite parts of machines which, as they are, are of course impotent and have only the potential for promised potential for power but not power itself.
For both artists, the promise of the twentieth century had provoked a new vision of the their most basic aspect of self-identity: their gender. Embracing the dynamism and change of a new age, and the machines which defined it, each expressed themselves using artistic techniques that were as modern as their ideas. Ultimately, however, the horror of war both neutered and neutralised their roles they had promised themselves as, in the face of tragedy, each re-evaluated their wounded visions with a sense of tangible disappointment. Disarmed and caught unawares by the catastrophe of World War One, Hoch’s woman was forced once again to pick up her kitchen knife, while Epstein’s man dropped his drill in stunned disbelief. The promise of modernity had soon transformed into a nightmarish curse, a new burden for the artists of the European avant-garde.
Adapted from an essay ‘To what extent did assumptions about gender inform artist’s conceptions of modern life?’submitted as part of undergraduate study at the University of St Andrews, academic year 2013-2014.