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If only the world boasted more uppity women

Date

Sydney Morning Herald columnist, author, architecture critic and essayist

View more articles from Elizabeth Farrelly

Illustration: Rocco Fazzari

Illustration: Rocco Fazzari

History is seldom kind to clever women. I do not hold with the postmodern revisionism that turns every great man's wife, aunt, sister or daughter into the true behind-throne power. That just validates the veil. But a new retrospective of an obscure artist at a small London gallery makes me wonder, again, how different history might be if smart women spoke.

We generally presume that this battle is over, and that the good guys won. But did they? This time last year we had a female prime minister, governor and governor-general, all firsts. By this time next month, only one of those will remain.

Of course, we have plenty of women famed for their beauty and talent - actors and singers, comics and cooks, celebrity know-nothings and failed drug smugglers. But smart women who speak, eloquently, purposefully, publicly, are staggeringly few.

There's Germaine Greer, of course. But name another - a female equivalent to a Keating, a Whitlam, a Turnbull, a Luhrmann - on whose every word we hang.

Perhaps this is unsurprising. All the great religious traditions work to silence women. It is not just Judaism and Islam. Christianity too. This is disturbing, since in every other way the Bible can be read as a primer on fairness, freedom and eco-consciousness. But its women are veiled and silent.

I haven't read enough of it to know for sure, but friends assure me that Bible women do speak. I haven't found them. Women populate it, certainly. There's any amount of wailing and washing of feet. There's even the odd prophetess - Anna, Deborah - though their speech is mainly indirect. And, you'll say, there's Mary. Mary speaks.

Well yes, four times. Most of it is housewifery, enjoining submission. She does sing the lovely Magnificat. ''He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.'' Mary, I'm told, was a radical disciple. But her radicalism is silent. And what is spoken about her is blindingly womb-centric.

Is it just me? Worshipping someone for their womb, or even fruit of same, is repulsive. It's like worshipping someone for their sperm. Or their scrotum. I mean, hello? What are we saying? You are what you breed? From the neck up, forget it?

Don't get me wrong. Motherhood is great. Better than great. Wouldn't have missed it for quids. But it's not everything. It's not all we do, nor all we are. Motherhood is not definitive.

Naturally, evolution has selected against smart women. After all, most of them, through history, have been burnt. The Julia Gillard thing wasn't misogyny. It wasn't hatred of women. It was hatred of uppity women; of smart women who speak.

My one experience of really serious trolling wasn't about my femaleness. It was a combination of femaleness with cycling, education and - most egregious - a presumption to speak. Smart women speaking makes many men angry. Looking back, I see that this has been a leitmotif of my life. This may not surprise you, but it surprises me, every time.

Hannah Hoch is in the same boat. Years ago, when I first discovered her work, I was shocked. She's so damn good. A real stand-out. Yet, though I'd loved Dada since my student days, I hadn't known. So the Hoch retrospective - a British first - at London's Whitechapel Gallery is both hugely welcome and hugely overdue.

Hoch was a Dadaist from the start. She was mates with Hausmann and Groszand Mondrian and Schwitters and better than most of them - funnier, wiser, more twisted, more complex, more prescient. But, or perhaps so, they deliberately excluded her from recognition. Hoch's Dada colleague Hans Richter characterised her contribution as ''sandwiches, beer and coffee''. And history bought it. Until now.

Dada, experimental, subversive, critical, began in Zurich's Cabaret Voltaire, June 1916. It arose, as Tristan Tzara famously said, from disgust - at the war but also at fatuous art, social decadence and a world governed by high finance. Sound familiar?

The second item on Dada's timeline was in Berlin, 1920; the First International Dada Fair. The fabled opening shot shows Hoch and others in a room like a Kienholz dreaming, dominated by a ceiling-mounted Nazi officer with the head of a pig.

Hoch, born 1889, had worked in fashion, designing dress and embroidery patterns for Die Dame (The Lady) and Die Praktische Berlinerin (The Practical Berlin Woman). But there was nothing ladylike about her gloriously titled 1919 collage, Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Beer-Belly of the Weimar Republic.

It is savage, funny, beautiful, playful, perverse. A chaotic mix of war, wildness and typography, Kitchen Knife embodies Hans Arp's Dada manifesto ''to destroy the hoaxes of reason and discover an unreasoned order''. In so doing, Hoch revealed herself as a direct descendant of Bosch and antecedent of Warhol, Hamilton, Kienholz, Monty Python and Tom Waits.

Hoch's photomontages figured in The Mad Square at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2011. Expressionism and Dada in two rooms, alive with emotion, fat with humour, aquiver with satire. Hoch starred. Then came the Bauhaus. Everything went flat.

Modernism didn't need to wither on minimalism's sterile plains. The 20th century's design trajectory from authenticity to abstraction to joyless mechanisation was not predestined. Hoch offered another path.

Her 1929 series, From an Ethnographic Museum, collaged African masks, Egyptian stelae, Melanesian adzes, flapper-era cosmetics and patent stilettoes in a way that calls for revolution while embracing humanity's core pathos. It's like a Le Corbusier-Dali love child, where ego is replaced by humour.

Hoch wanted to enrich people's vision, so ''they may feel more kindly towards the world we know''. Whether this is distinctively female matters less than that the modernism that followed was (for all its rhetoric) distinctively and exclusively male.

We can still rescue culture from the jaws of scientistic materialism. But we won't do it by ignoring the wit and wisdom of half the world.

Twitter @emfarrelly

76 comments

  • Oh dear, why does the rib has to be so opiniated ?

    Again you lost me, couldn't really follow that threat ending up with Hannah Hoch. Since my lavish travel plans don't incorporate at quick trip to London this weekend I can't see why you mentioned it.

    Anyway getting back to the main issue, which I hope is about feminism and the recognition of the great intellect most women have. I feel sad that we are taking a step back in recognising women as the true equal they are and the great part they have in our society in general. After rubbishing the likes of Julia Gillard and other public females of great intelligence and grace we are reverting back to the old ways, one of aprons and kitchen rules. Even propose a great maternity leave so they get used to the stove again. Sign of the times I guess. Let's empower the Devine voices of knowing ones place in the house of God and husbands I guess.

    Still, to even attempt to find a female equivalent to Luhrman will be hard task. Let me grab a coke and have a think about it.

    Commenter
    Rainer the cabbie
    Location
    Darlo
    Date and time
    February 13, 2014, 3:22AM
    • How on Earth is Julia Gillard - who spoke in primary school cliches much like Abbott - a great woman? What an insult to great women. I can't think of a single great man or woman amongst any of our politicians in any party for the last 20 years.

      Commenter
      Blimp
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      February 13, 2014, 9:59AM
  • Julia Gillard, Mirriam Margoles, Quentin Bryce, Marie Bashir, Elizabeth II, Ruth Cracknell, Lara Giddings, Sarah Hanson-Young, Joanna Lumley, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Margareta Broadbent (my Gran) - when these women speak, or spoke, I took notice, because what the had/have to say is worth listening to than what a lot of others have to say.

    Commenter
    Andrew
    Location
    Blackheath
    Date and time
    February 13, 2014, 6:47AM
    • Surely you jest by having Sarah Hanson-Young in that list?

      How many ACL's has she torn from all that knee-jerking?

      Commenter
      Joe
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 13, 2014, 9:14AM
    • Please, for the love of God, remove Sarah Hansen-Young from that list. The woman thinks Sea Patrol is real, amongst innumerable other blunders.

      Commenter
      Gary C
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      February 13, 2014, 10:02AM
    • Damn those uppity women who are aspiring to high office but refuse to wear a blue tie. Elizabeth Farrelly knows full well that Tony has set certain dress standards and those who don't conform have no right to seek to climb the ladder to success. Anyway as our worthy prime minister says, if only they knew their place (in the kitchen) then the world would be a much happier place. In any event, we already have a token woman in cabinet, what the hell do those feminists expect?

      Commenter
      JohnC
      Location
      Gosford NSW
      Date and time
      February 13, 2014, 11:00AM
    • +1

      Commenter
      Mais51
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 13, 2014, 11:23AM
    • Joe and GaryC, you've demonstrated Elizabeth's point. Thanks.

      Commenter
      alto
      Date and time
      February 13, 2014, 1:39PM
  • Of course women are equal and deserve equal opportunity. In elections, a bias amongst certain voters definitely exists which makes it difficult for women to be elected. However, many voter perspectives need to be challenged so that our election outcomes truly reflect the best ideas and choices.

    Commenter
    Good Logic
    Date and time
    February 13, 2014, 7:05AM
    • Yes the Age of Entitlement that must end is the male entitlement to power and the huge percentage of the world's resources. No wonder the world is in such a mess because of the imbalance. We see it carried out in male violence in the streets, in rape of women not only in others countries but here even recently, in institutions such as the Catholic Church, in countries such as Pakistan and Aphganistan when Taliban have control. It may seem like women against men but unfortunately there is a war against women that is often up front and at times quite subtle coming under weasel words such as " merit" as is demonstrated in the Australian Government where women are generally excluded from decision making powers. I'm speaking about male power not about good men who use power in an inclusive way and enhance our society

      Commenter
      Kris
      Location
      Kanahooka
      Date and time
      February 13, 2014, 8:51AM

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