Hannah Hoch at the Whitechapel Gallery
By Anna Leung
From the start Hannah Höch’s most famous collage, Cut with a Kitchen Knife Dada through the last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany, was singled out from among the work of her fellow male Dadaists when displayed at the First Dada Fair in Berlin in 1920. The Dada Fair or Messe was a central event in Dada’s history as a movement. Introducing to an unsuspecting public Dada’s many innovatory strategies, it was made up of a cacophony of paintings, collages, photomontages, and puppets that overthrew all artistic hierarchies. That it was called a ‘Messe’, which translates from German as fair or market, implicitly reinforced its relationship, not with the rarefied world of high art and culture, but with commercial fairs, and its photographs and publicity were not just a part of their propaganda but featured as art. Now that Dadaist stratagems have long been cannibalised by the advertising corporations and photomontage is viewed as mainstream, Hannah Hoch’s Cut with a Kitchen Knife has become canonical.
Dada had announced its irruption into the art world in 1916 at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich where the members of the nascent group staged anti-art and agitational cabaret performances. Made up of a group of young, mostly German pacifist artists taking refuge from conscription in World War I, it was not so much an artistic movement as in Hans Richter’s words: ‘a storm that broke over the world of art as the war did over the nations.’ Not content with rejecting the bourgeois conception of art, which they considered as no more than a consolatory sticking plaster, concealing but not healing a festering wound, they also rejected the Avant Garde which, mistakenly in their eyes, elevated Art to a higher realm where one could find refuge from the mundanity of everyday reality and the cataclysmic events of world politics. They argued that Expressionism, Cubism, and Fauvism all belonged to the rarefied sphere of individualistic aspirations that promoted the cult of the artist as genius but which had no bearing on the senseless tragedy of mechanised and barbaric carnage that was taking place around them. Dada was a no holds barred attack on the financial, social, cultural and political institutions they judged as responsible for the war and they included those religious organisations that, sermonising on the dignity of patriotic duty, exhorted wave after wave of soldiers to futile acts of heroism. Choosing the name Dada was a means of escaping categorisation as yet another modern art ‘ism’. Moreover dada had many international connotations: a dada in French means a rocking horse, in German da means ‘there’ in Romanian and Russian ‘yes’ while in English it has the childlike associations of baby babble.
An American journalist described the Berlin Dada performances as a kind of group therapy for the ‘neurasthenia’ that afflicted the German people, body and soul. The war and its military machine had had the effect of galvanising the technological forces of modernity so that by the time it ended everything seemed to have changed. A whole generation, already traumatised by a new sort of war that targeted non-combatants as well as combatants, were confusedly thrown into this new world of automobiles, aeroplanes, wireless and telegraphic communications, motion pictures and commercial media, all of which was reported on by the up-and-coming fashion magazines and illustrated journals. And for all their seeming nihilism the Dadaists were quick to exploit these new areas of experience, seizing upon the glut of conventional and conformist images to question the manifold ways society constructed and conditioned the individual. More than any other group of artists they understood the value of the printed word and of the photographic image, of slogans and catchphrases, manipulating them to generate a state of creative tension between their utopian strivings and the socio-economic hierarchies that dominated the lives of the average Berliner. However, despite the fact that the Dadaist Manifesto of 1918 defined itself as a non-elitist club ‘where everyman is president and every man can have his say in artistic matters’ this was strictly speaking untrue. The founding members called themselves by nicknames alluding to their various functions such as Dadasoph Hausmann the theoretician, Grosz the Propagandadada and Progressdada Wieland Herzfelde (brother of the photomontagist John Heartsfield), whose main involvement with Berlin Dada was as a publisher of the Verlag Neue Jugend that distributed proto-Dadaist books and pamphlets. The only member of Berlin Dada not to be given a title or a distinct role was Hannah Höch, who was known, demeaningly, as ‘the good girl of Dada.’
Anna Therese Johanne Höch was born in 1889 in Gotha, Thuringia. Her father was in insurance and the family comfortably off. Though she showed an aptitude for art early on the family was not willing to support her ambitions and it was only in 1912 that she left home to study painting at the Charlottenburg School of applied Arts in Berlin. The war temporarily interrupted her studies but in 1915 she met Raoul Hausmann, who was to become her lover and dada collaborator, either at the School of the Museum of Applied Arts, where, in deference to her father, she was studying handicrafts such as lace making and embroidery, or at the Sturm Gallery, the centre of Expressionist painting. It was at about this time she changed her name, simplifying it to Hannah. Her main source of income from 1916 to 1926 was with the Ullstein Verlag creating embroidery and lace designs for popular magazines such as Die Dame, which provided her with a ready-made library of photographic images with which to create her photomontages.
That women were to enjoy a specific presence in her collages reflects the fact that the Weimar Republic was characterised by a redefinition of the role of women caused by the increasing number of sexually emancipated working women in the aftermath of the war. German women, moreover, had just earned the right to vote in 1918. The New Woman, with her new bobbed hairstyle and her short skirts, symbolised modernity. Consequently young women were targeted as primary consumers by the advertising industry. In turn the phenomenon of ‘the New Woman’ generated a proliferation of New Women images that centred on the athlete and the dancer, both of whom signified social change, and whose images Höch would frequently use in her interrogation of women’s changing roles in society in relation to fashion, feminism and domesticity.
Höch was to live all her life in Berlin except for three years between 1926 and 1929 spent in Holland with her female partner Til Brugman a Dutch writer. After breaking up with her lesbian partner she lived with a German businessman, Kurt Matthies, quite a number of years her junior, whose passion was music, and whom she married in 1938 and divorced in 1944. Regarded as a cultural Bolshevik by the Nazi regime she was banned from exhibiting and though, unlike the majority of her Dadaist contemporaries, she did not leave Germany during the Nazi period, she retreated into what was called ‘inner emigration’, cutting herself off from the art world and surviving in the relative isolation of the Berlin suburb of Heiligensee. Here she hid her own art work, archives of dada objects and documents she had collected, as well as the work of other artists such as van Doesburg, Moholy Nagy, Kandinsky and Schwitters, with whom she had become closer after her break with Hausmann in 1922. Keeping her head down, Höch cultivated her garden, painted landscapes and flower paintings, and gradually turned to the private realm of her own imagination. Consequently her quasi abstract post-World War II photomontages reveal a deep affinity with Surrealism and the world of fantasy and are made all the more fantastical by the inclusion of colour.
Collage was invented or discovered in 1912 by Picasso and Braque when they began to paste newspaper fragments, oilcloth chair caning and other commercially printed patterns on to their own drawings and paintings thus setting up a tension between unique handmade and mass produced machine made elements. For the most part, the Berlin Dadaists abandoned high art’s traditional media with alacrity and enthusiasm. Instead, using scissors, they assembled images from ready-made photographic material replacing the work of the hand with that of the machine and in this way questioned not only the status of art but, more pertinently, the role of the artist. Modelling themselves on the Russian Constructivist Tatlin they saw themselves more as engineers than as artists. As Hausmann explained, ‘We called this process ‘photomontage’ because it embodied our refusal to play the part of the artist. We regarded ourselves as engineers, and our work as construction: we assembled [in French: monter] our works, like a fitter.’ The artwork was no longer seen as an expression of an artist’s interiority. Bypassing genius or intuition, it was arrived at through a production process that was based on the accumulation and assemblage of pictorial elements taken from magazines, advertisements and newspapers. The initial stimulus of Berlin Dada was definitely political. This had also been true of Zurich Dada, but by the time Dada arrived in Berlin, urgent peacetime problems with all their confusing social, political and economic permutations beset the new state and claimed the attention of the Dadaists, including Höch. This can already be seen from the myriad anti-militarist and anti-establishment elements that make up Cut with a Kitchen Knife. The difference between Höch’s collages and those of her fellow Dadaists was that she cut into an image, cutting across its contours and juxtaposing the resulting fragments in such a way as to dismember the original image and so invest it with a new power of alienation.
Höch’s collages have tended to be interpreted according to feminist discourse, notably around the position of the New Woman within Weimar society; Cut with a Kitchen Knife already includes many references to women with the dancer Nidda Impekoven and the head of the graphic artist Kathe Kollwitz holding the work together centrifugally. But there is no doubt that she was politically motivated, and not exclusively as a result of her feminist sympathies. Like her fellow Dadaists Höch held pacifist, anti-militarist and anti-nationalist beliefs, and after World War I she exhibited with the left wing November Group. Her aim was, in her own words, ‘to try to capture these turbulent times pictorially.’ Photomontage did not simply afford a means to make political comment through a choice of images and texts culled from the popular press, which would probably have been familiar to her contemporaries. Juxtaposing these ready-made elements from Berlin photo weeklies gave rise to the possibility of multiple political readings without directly implying the artist’s opinions or beliefs. This would have been all the more disconcerting given that photography tended to be regarded as a scientifically truthful and objective reproduction of the real world. But Höch’s re-assemblage of fragmented images overthrows this naïve assumption, supplants conventional communication, and often brutally dislodges the illusion of a stable world. Heads of State 1918-20 is an interesting example with the images of Ebert, the President and that of Noske, his army minister who had brutally put down the Spartacist Revolt, set against the background of an embroidery pattern that features a mermaid holding a parasol. Depicted in their swimming trunks it suggests they are frolicking in some holiday paradise, totally unconcerned by the debacle taking place in Weimar Germany. Furthermore the lace background ridicules them by undermining their masculinity and attacking their patriarchal pretensions. In High Finance Hoch’s Dadaist kitchen knife cuts through the hidden connections between the military industrial complex and the bankers while in Gold a hand cuts across the image to collect the stacks of coins embossed with the double eagle looked over by an impassive classical mask.
The Series from an Ethnographic Museum raises questions concerning Western Europe’s assumption of racial superiority, though whether these are our questions rather than Hoch’s is difficult to tell. Similarly it is difficult to gauge to what degree this series of collages represents an implicit criticism of colonialism. Certainly her use and understanding of tribal artefacts and masks should be differentiated from those of the German Expressionists who believed in the universal creative power of primitive art to re-energise western art forms. Concentrating on the fascination with the ‘primitive’ and ‘exotic’ prevalent in mass culture and scientific journals as well as in cultural circles during the inter-war years and exemplified by Surrealism’s appropriation of exotic and primitive art, Hoch combines fragments from women’s beauty magazines with photos of Oriental and African tribal masks to create hybrid images that question our understanding of beauty and our own blindness to what is conceived as radically other. Negro Sculpture 1929 for instance is made up of a tribal mask overlain with the coquettish eye of a western fashion magazine model that is attached to a child’s torso which in turn is supported by a small block and a clawed foot, presented on a pedestal which announces its status as an artwork. Combining fragments of the New Woman with those of tribal artefacts makes for strange composite figures that put into question the artificiality of the New Woman and its social function as a media icon. Furthermore, some collages in this series that seem to come closer to racial caricature, e.g. Peasant Couple, still give rise to genuine discomfort.
What is worth noting is that despite the seemingly fortuitous nature of collage and the complexity of Höch’s work her images have strong aesthetic properties. Like Schwitters’s collages, Höch’s exhibit a high degree of formal sensitivity. Despite her collaboration with Dada her collage work is hardly ‘anti-art’ for each composition is a careful and considered creation – she might have said production – of interconnected and juxtaposed images that encourage an open reading. This is especially true of the Ethnographic Series in which single or composite figures are set against a simple coloured background and placed upon a pedestal that often abuts the framing edge. Traditionally, the pedestal reinforces the aesthetic aspect of the object on display by isolating it. Here, it contributes to the ambiguity of an image that is not identifiable as either male or female and adds to the figure’s multicultural discordance, e.g. Denkmal 2 which is male above the waist, female below the waist with its tribal mask surmounted by headgear taken from the photo of a Masai medicine man.
An important record of her own times, its fixations and fascinations, is provided by the display of Höch’s Album, a scrapbook of images garnered from the popular press and which, significantly, have been left whole. Höch chose images that highlight coincidences between organic and cultural phenomena; one page gives examples of photographs of individuals transformed into a collective body, a practice popular in entertainment, e.g., The Tiller Girls and among gymnasts, another contrasts hand gestures. The Album functions like an image bank that reflects Hôch’s interests and activities and makes her collages all the more intriguing.
Höch virtually disappeared during the Nazi period, knowing that her life and work were endangered. She later commented that she had had enough hidden artistic material to take her and all the Dadaists to the gallows. She experienced the end of the war as a release from silence and was able to resume her own work and to re-enter artistic circles. She tended to revert to past styles, recycling earlier material, e.g. Red Textile Page 1952, but gradually veered towards abstraction while never fully adopting non-objective subjective matter, e.g. Angel’s Dream 1958. Her collages became far more complex and less legible, e.g. Industrial Landscape 1967. Hoch died in Berlin in 1978, aged 88.
The foreword to her first solo exhibition at The Hague in 1929 still stands as her objective in her life as an artist:
I would like to blur the firm borders that we human beings, cocksure as we are, are inclined to erect around everything that is accessible to us. I paint pictures in which I try to make this evident, tangible. I want to show that the small can be large, and the large small, it is just the standpoint from which we judge that changes, and every concept loses its validity, and all our human gestures lose their validity. I also want to show that there are millions and millions of other justifiable points of view beside yours and mine….I should like to help people to experience a richer world so that they may feel more kindly towards the world we know.
January 15 - March 23, 2014
© Anna Leung, March 2014
Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-retired from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking occasional informal groups to current art exhibitions.
Kleine Sonne (Little Sun), 1969, Collage.
Landesbank Berlin AG.
Für ein Fest gemacht (Made for a Party), 1936, Collage.
Collection of IFA, Stuttgart.
Ohne Titel (Aus einem ethnographischen Museum) (Untitled [From an Ethnographic Museum]), 1930, Collage.
Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg.
Photo courtesy of Maria Thrun.
Hannah and her scissors… Modenschau (Fashion Show), 1925-35 (detail).
Photograph: Berlinische Galerie – Landesmuseum für Moderne Kunst, Fotografie und Architektur, Berlin.