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arts

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European Art: Twentieth Century  
 
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Hannah Höch

Like Cahun and Duchamp, the German artist Hannah Höch (1889-1978) also experimented with androgyny in her artistic production. While Cahun created seamless, believable images, however, Höch worked with the collage, frequently emphasizing its constructedness.

Affiliated with the Dada movement, Höch's works are characteristically nonsensical; Dada artists frequently poked fun at the art world. The very nature of the collage, made from pre-existing, or found, materials, challenges the definition of art as an original creative production.

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In the photomontage (collage of photographs) titled Dompteuse (Tamer, ca 1930), Höch leaves the ripped edges of the photographs exposed to reinforce the point that the fantastical being created in the work is constructed. This seated, slim-bodied figure wears a woman's skirt and shirt, sports hairy, muscular arms, and possesses a demure, black and white face of a mannequin (the rest of the photograph is in color).

By combining stereotypical male and female imagery, Höch forces the viewer to consider what characterizes specific gender traits, and perhaps also why. Dompteuse could also be viewed as a joke about which combination of qualities constitutes a "third sex" since some theorists at the time ascribed bisexuality to a visible, physical combination of masculine and feminine attributes. This investigation may have been of particular interest to Höch since she was bisexual.

Höch sometimes addresses the objectification of women in her work. In the photomontage Marlene, for example, two male viewers gaze at a pair of gigantic legs adorned with stockings and high heels that are mounted upside down on a pedestal.

This image is not a simple illustration of male desire for the female form, however. The bright red mouth positioned in the upper right hand corner is outside of the males' sight lines, and so is presented to the viewer, whether male or female, as an object of desire.

Adding another layer to the work, the name "Marlene" is scribbled across the center of the image. This is probably an allusion to Marlene Dietrich, an actress well known for her androgynous image and her ambiguous sexual identity.

Keith Vaughan

Different in style and in content from Dada and Surrealist works is the art of the openly gay British painter Keith Vaughan (1912-1977). Untaught as an artist, though tutored at Christ's Hospital in London, Vaughan developed his skill through unrelenting practice.

From his early twenties until the end of his life, taken through a suicide that resulted from Vaughan's struggle with cancer, the artist portrayed the male form within the landscape. As his works demonstrate, he conceptualized man as integrated into nature.

The oil painting Head with Raised Arm (1948) features a blocky torso and head surrounded by patches of color. The repetition of forms and tones creates an ambiguity between figure and ground. The male figure, in fact, is so much a part of the surroundings that his body seems to become part of the landscape, with only the mouth and an ear fully articulated.

Vaughan's mixed media work Ochre Figure (1952) features a sinewy, linear male form that, like the figure in Head with Raised Arm, blends into its surroundings. The face, sketchily articulated, is set into a small head that ultimately functions as a design element.

As Vaughan's career progressed, his work became more abstract. In the 1963 oil painting Group of Dinkas, for example, the artist uses a minimum of brushstrokes to suggest three human forms.

Francis Bacon

Widely recognized as Britain's most important twentieth-century painter, Francis Bacon (1909-1996) is best known for his elegantly composed works featuring ugly and disturbing subject matter, especially crucifixions, screaming faces, and beaten bodies. His work has been seen as reflecting the violence and trauma that has characterized twentieth-century Europe, but it also reflects the artist's interest in gay male sadomasochism.

Although Bacon was openly gay and his work presents uncensored radical sexuality, he has nevertheless enjoyed wide praise from mainstream critics. Even works such as Two Figures (1953), which depicts male-male rape, have been acclaimed for their symbolic significance and beauty of composition.

Indebted to the old masters, but strongly influenced by modern psychological insights and awareness, Bacon produces deeply disturbing works that nevertheless appeal even as they repel. What has not been sufficiently recognized by mainstream critics is the autobiographical roots of Bacon's paintings, especially its origins in his psychosexual make-up.

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