Hannah Höch: The “Quiet Girl” with a Big Voice (Part I)
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series on Hannah Höch, in which Venetian Red examines her extraordinary career, as well as her impact on the photomontage medium and impact on subsequent generations of artists. Click here for other Venetian Red entries on Hannah Höch.
By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Hannah Höch, Dompteuse (Tamer), 1930
Photomontage with collage elements, 14 x 10 1/4 inches
Of all the practitioners of the photomontage medium, Hannah Höch (1889-1978) ranks as one of the most consistently innovative and clever. Yet, despite a prodigious career that spanned over half a century, for many years, if she was recognized at all, Höch was categorized simply as a minor Dadaist, an unfortunate legacy of her early association with the über-macho Berlin Dadaist group (e.g., Raoul Hausmann, Georg Grosz, Hans Richter, John Heartfield, born Helmut Herzfeld).
The narrow label belied the profusion of themes explored by Höch over her career. It failed to consider the range of styles she employed beyond Dada-inspired political commentary— surrealist fantasy, intimate portraiture, outright abstraction. And it ignored her masterly manipulation of the photomontage medium, which to this eye reached far beyond the skills of the other Dadaists.
Thankfully, since her death, a wider appreciation for her work (photomontage, painting, and textile designs) has emerged through exhibitions and new scholarship. The full impact of her influence on subsequent generations of artists has yet to be charted.
Collage has a long history—the earliest surviving examples may be 12th century Japanese calligraphic scrolls. With the invention of photography in the mid-19th century, collaging photographic fantasies became a hugely-popular pastime in Victorian and Edwardian parlors. In 1912 Picasso and Braque introduced the fine-art world to “collage” (reputedly they coined the phrase), specifically the addition of actual materials (like chair caning) to their painted canvases.
But it was the Berlin Dadaists who established fotomontage (literally “photo engineering”) as a fully-respected modern art form.
Hannah Höch met Raoul Hausmann in 1915, and they became lovers for seven years (although he remained married). It was a difficult relationship, which brought Höch much emotional pain. The Berlin Dadaists begrudgingly admitted her as the only woman into their ranks, but they never accepted her as an equal. Hausmann dismissed her work. Hans Richter referred to her pejoratively in his memoirs as the “quiet girl” with a “tiny voice.” Grosz and Heartfield were set against her participation in the Dada Fair of 1920.
Ironically, it was Höch who experimented early on with photomontage, the medium which the group would later adopt as its own. Her first mature work of photomontage can be reliably dated to a 1918 summer vacation with Hausmann on the Baltic coast. (Although Hausmann also takes credit for having invented the medium on the same trip.)
Imported from Zürich, the Dada movement gelled in Berlin around 1918 as a statement against the unstable political and social situation brought on by the destruction wrought by WW1, Germany’s stuggle to pay reparations and the formation of the Weimar Republic with its extremist elements. On the other hand, German artists benefited from the “golden” years of the Weimar era (1923-29) which witnessed a rich blossoming of German culture with Berlin as its hothouse center.
Hannah Höch, Design for Darned Filet, 1920
Graphite on paper
(Landesmuseum für Moderne Kunst)
Dada may have launched Höch into her life’s work, but it never completely defined her. When she met Hausmann, she was studying graphic arts and book design at the School of the Royal Museum of Applied Arts, having already attended the Charlottenberg School of Applied Arts.
Further, between 1916 and 1926, Höch held down a part-time job in the editorial department of the handiwork division at Ullstein, one of the largest publishing houses in Germany. There she designed fashions, sewing and embroidery patterns, and occasionally penned an article on “domestic arts” topics. She considered this work to be on a par with her fine arts pursuits.
The job allowed her to maintain an artistic foot in the very different worlds of avant-garde and commercial art. The creative synergy that flowed from this dual life benefited her montage work. Tailor’s Flower (above), formed from bits of sewing pattern paper, demonstrates Höch’s regard for woman’s “crafts,” as well as early foray into abstraction.
Additionally, the job provided her with an income, which she used to support Hausmann, and at times, various gatherings with the other Dadaists. Höch once pointed out to Hans Richter that the “the sandwiches, beer and coffee she managed somehow to conjure up despite the shortage of money” (his view of her contribution to Dada) had actually been provided by her income.
Thus, while Höch embraced the political and socially agenda of Dada, ultimately she distanced herself substantively and stylistically from her male colleagues.
Hannah Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany, 1919
Photomontage, 44 7/8 x 35 9/16 inches
(Preubischer Kulturbesitz, Nationalgalerie, Berlin)
The tour de force Cut with the Kitchen Knife. . . demonstrates how different her compositions were from those of her male colleagues. A consummate statement about the Weimar era, it is a visual rollcall of virtually every military, political and cultural figure in early Weimar Germany. Höch herself once observed that it was a cross-section of the turbulent times. In true Dada fashion, the piece presents the world according to a”them” vs. “us” diacotomy. Communists consort with Dadaists, while Weimar officials are consigned to the “anti-Dada” corner in the upper right.
Raoul Hausmann, ABCD, 1923-24
Photomontage, 16 x 11.1 inches
(Centre Pompidou, Paris)
But there is an underlying social message in the work as well. Though male figures appear as the majority, it is the women who occupy the limelight. They are the only figures in motion. In their running, dancing, and jumping the artist celebrates the concept of the “New Woman”—the energetic, professional, somewhat androgynous woman, who emerged in the wake of WW1, ready to take her place as an equal to men. In the right-hand corner a map of Europe identifies the countries in which women already could or soon would be able to vote. (A small portrait near the map links Höch herself to the political empowerment of women.) Even the title, “kitchen knife,” alludes to the role woman’s work would have in the new world order. Thus, does this seminal work stake out what would become Höch’s lifelong preoccupation with gender identity and relationship between the sexes.
This was a topic which male members of the group, for all their rhetoric about emancipation, never tackled. As Höch observed:
None of these men were satisfied with just an ordinary woman. But neither were they included to abandon the (conventional) male/masculine morality toward the woman. Enlightened by Freud, in protest against the older generation. . . they all desired this ‘New Woman’ and her groundbreaking will to freedom. But—they more or less brutally rejected the notion that they, too, had to adopt new attitudes. . . This led to these truly Strinbergian dramas that typified the private lives of these men.
—from scraps of undated notes found among Höch’s posessions.
In Da Dandy (above) women meld into men, as fragments of contemporary female heads in modern fashions of the day recombine to form the profile of a man (facing right and identified by a thin red line). Höch’s work never seems to offer a conclusive answer as to the true identity of the “New Woman”; on the contrary, it often raises the question of whether the economic and social status quo has changed.
Hannah Höch, The Bride, 1933
photomontage with collage elements, 7 7/8 x 7 3/4 inches
(Collection Thomas Walther, New York)
Perhaps it was the training at Ullstein that facilitated Höch’s finely-tuned eye for both snipping and re-assembling, which is so amply on display in Cut with the Kitchen Knife. . . . Even the simplest of her images are built from a complex array of pictorial fragments, which in the work of the teens and 1920s often reached reckless heights. Höch loved wild disjunctions of scale, and the juxtaposition of unlikely elements, particularly animals and machines with humans.
And yet, for all their mapcap surface energy, her compositions are for the most part highly unified, their elements anchored by good compositional structure. For the most part, this quality is missing in the male Dadaist montages.
Raoul Hausmann, The Art Critic, 1919/20
Photomontage, 12 1/2 x 10 inches
Höch’s focus on the nature of female identity (and its depiction in the media) would reach a crescendo in the 1930s in works like Tamer (above), while also expanding to include racial identity in works similar to The Bride. Most probably Tamer relates to her new life with Dutchwoman Til Brugman (they were together for 10 years); it represents the general move toward increasing gender ambiguity in Höch’s imagery.
By juxtaposing the features of a non-white with the ceremonial accoutrements of a European bride, The Bride asks viewers to consider the tension between “Self” and “Other,” as well as the nature of subjugation (by marriage, by one people against another).
Both works point toward the simplification of imagery that be the hallmark of Höch’s style in the 1930s.
Hannah Höch, Abduction (from the Ethnographic Museum series), 1925
Photomontage with collage elements, 8 3/8 x 8 11/16 inches
(Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)
Höch finally broke with Hausmann in 1922 and started to come into her own as an artist. She turned to friends Kurt Schwitters, the Arps, Lazslo Moholy-Nagy and the van Doesburgs, who embraced her readily, supported her work, and furthered her contact with artists beyond the Dadaists.
Her most exciting work during the 1920s must surely be the ambitious “From the Ethnographic Museum” series (Abduction above), 17 montages that constitute an epic foray into the notion of Lebensraum (colonial expansion), “primitive” cultures and “underdeveloped” (i.e. inferior) peoples, and female alienation. The series is remarkable for its thematic coherence, elegant visual impact, and technical virtuosity.
“From the Ethnographic Museum” was visually influenced by the newly-redone tribal art displays in the Ethnological Museum. A predominant number of snippets Höch used came from a single issue of Querschnitt magazine entirely devoted to the displays. Each delicately reconstituted object in the series is showcased on its own pedestal, thus reflecting the idealization (and trivialization) of “primitive” artifacts by “developed” nations.
Abduction represents the type of complexity at work in the seemingly-simple images of the series. The female face may be a stand in for Höch. In any case, one might read this image any number of ways—the nobility of “primitive” culture, civilization being carried away by tribal culture, the subjugation of the female identity.
The 1920s were a particularly fruitful decade for Höch, as she explored new emotional and thematic territory. Curiously, however, she exhibited virtually not at all publicly during this period. Nontheless, by the end of the 1920s, photomontage had become an accepted medium, and Höch was gaining public recognition for her work.
Hannah Höch, Sea Serpent, 1937
Photomontage, 8 3/4 x 10 inches
(Institute für Auslandsbeziehungen, Stuttgart)
Next: following Hannah Höch through the Nazi era and later life.
“Dating the Dompteuse: Hannah Höch’s Reconfiguration of the Tamer” by Joe Mills & Peter Boswell (Courtesy of Stephen Perloff/Photo Review Magazine)
Virtual Tour, “Hannah Höch—All Beginnings Are Dada” exhibition, 2008
Hannah Höch: Album (English and German Edition)
Eva Lake—Tough Cuts
Luc Sante—Dada’s Girl (1997 Museum of Modern Art)
Landesmuseum für Moderne Kunst/Berlinische Galerie
The Photomontages of Hannah Höch—Walker Art Center exhibition catalog
Marsha Meskimmon—We Weren’t Modern Enough: Women Artists and the Limits of German ModernismCut & Paste—A Hisory of Photomontage
Artsvis 54 on collage