I suspect I am not alone in finding it surprising to encounter at the close of this exhibition an unexpected Hannah Höch — a gently spoken elderly lady filmed wandering among the overgrown flowers in her garden, talking of beauty. A far cry from the radical firebrand and Dada collagiste of interwar Berlin whose works epitomised the edgy fragmentation of Weimar life and culture. It was a long journey, and one traced with admirable even-handedness by this first and welcome UK survey of Höch’s works on paper, at the Whitechapel.
Hannah Höch arrived in a Berlin teetering on the brink of the first world war, a student of applied arts whose avid curiosity about modernism quickly led her into friendships with Kurt Schwitters, Hans Arp and other artists of the Dada undergrowth. Her day job as pattern designer for the Ullstein Press and its women’s magazines exploited her natural flair for composition, but the demands of decoration were not going to sustain her restless spirit for long. By 1918 she had issued a ‘manifesto’ of embroidery, urging modern women to produce art that acted ‘on behalf of the spirit and changing values of a generation’, and she set out to lead by example.
Postwar Berlin was a city reeling in defeat, former certainties blown apart amid the accelerating modernity of the Weimar Republic. The Berlin Dada circle, more serious than their Zurich counterparts, set out to challenge the system on every front. Embracing the blizzard of photographic imagery in the new age of mass reproduction, they took up scissors like scalpels, eviscerating the icons of the past and creating novel and unsettling images from collage and photomontage. ‘They swap heads in photographs, cropping and redefining things, and have developed a technique filled with uncanny suspense’, a review of The First International Dada Fair of 1920 observed, singling out Höch’s work (along with that of her lover Raoul Hausmann and George Grosz) as ‘exceptional’ and well worth the detour. She was indeed swept up in this new aesthetic but, as this show confirms, she brought to it a feminine sensibility and a wry humour that set her distinctively apart from her male peers.
Höch was hawk-eyed, and adept at pressing the random detail into service to deliver a well-aimed swipe at her target. Her background in pattern design informs her send-up of the president and minister of defence, as she poses her ‘Heads of State’, paunchy apparatchiks in bathing trunks, against an iron-on embroidery pattern, emasculating them en route. The baleful Nobel Prizewinning playwright Gerhart Hauptmann, respected face of Weimar culture, is bisected by the seductive smile of some moll, his probity undermined at a stroke. ‘High Finance’, the greed of capitalism and the false promise of revolution all present prime targets for Höch’s scabrous wit, as does ‘Fatherhood’, where slivers of violence and vulnerability are spliced in a precarious balance.
Höch’s deft collaging of disparate elements creates a new grammar of fragmentation — poetic, melancholic and wry. Short-circuiting convention, she could say the unsayable by juxtaposition alone. As an independent woman of ambivalent sexuality — her long affair with Hausmann preceded an equally intense lesbian liaison, then a brief marriage to a musician — Höch was sceptical about the much-trumpeted freedoms of the New Woman. Gender and racial equality both concerned her, and her most powerful work of the late 1920s and early 30s was her series ‘From an Ethnographic Museum’, where she creates a truly subversive gallery of hybrid types. Photomontaging masks, limbs and torsos from around the world, she articulates the post-colonial angst of the West with her customary throwaway, if sinister, touch. It’s a bravura performance.
Black humour was Höch’s weapon of choice during the Weimar era, but by 1940 many of her targets had been snuffed out. She resumed her work in another, more lyrical register, with complex images of flight and poetic assemblages that aimed at an art of the fantastic, ‘on a higher plane than reality itself’. Her later collages might veer towards the abstract but they never lost their bite. She once said, ‘I would like to show the world today as an ant sees it and tomorrow as the moon sees it…I should like to help people experience a richer world so that they may feel more kindly towards the world we know.’ Though she had once thought collage the surest route to alienation, and art to rebellion, she ended her quest in subversive pursuit of beauty, and found it.
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