Hannah Höch: The “Quiet Girl” With a Big Voice (Part II)
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series on Hannah Höch, in which Venetian Red examines her extraordinary work in photomontage. Part I covers Höch’s early career as the only female member of the Berlin Dada group and work subsequent to her 1922 break with the group. Click here for all entries on Hannah Höch.
By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Although trained as a painter and equally skillful at graphic and textile design, Höch is best-recognized for her thought-provoking photomontages, hundreds of images she patiently created through unparalleled dexterity in snipping and reassembling the photographs she sourced from mass-market magazines. Although largely uncredited in the past, Höch, the only female member of the Berlin Dadaists (1916-22), played a vital role in legitimizing photomontage as a fine art form.
Like her male colleagues, Höch initially used the medium to comment on the fragmented world of post-WWI Germany. Hers was a less bombastic voice (generally she avoided the addition of type-set slogans) laced with a subtler humor. The whimsical appearance of such characteristic work as Dada Panorama and Cut with the Kitchen Knife. . . belies a biting sarcasm that decries ridiculous political personages and controversial policies of the Weimar Republic.
Kurt Schwitters, Censored, 1940
Drawing, stamp, string, envelope, and paint on paper, 6 1/2 in. x 4 1/2 in.
Before long, Höch pushed beyond the thematic realm staked out by her male colleagues and began to wrestle with gender politics, specifically the contradictory nature of modern femininity and the stereotypic views of women. Gender identity would preoccupy her in one form or another for the rest of her career.
Max Ernst, Jean Hatchet and Charles the Bold, 1929
Collage, 9 1/2 x 8 inches
(Cleveland Museum of Art)
In 1922 Höch broke from Hausmann and the Berlin Dadaists. The 1920s became a period of intense experimentation for her, both tonally and stylistically. Her association with Hans and Sophie Arp, Kurt Schwitters, Theo and Nelly van Doesburg, and the Constructivists was a mutually-rewarding one, and it channeled her toward a more structured, less-chaotic visual style.
The 1925/26 Ethnographic series, for example, demonstrates a sparer style, divested of the visual frenzy of her Dada-era work. This series also exemplifies the beginning of a tonal metamorphosis in her work from commentary aimed at specific political personages and events to the invocation of universal concepts and emotions. At the same time Höch’s relationship (1926-36) with Dutchwoman Til Brugman influenced her to think more expansively about gender relations, and many of her montages from this period contain elements of androgyny, female-to-female connections (see On the Way to Seventh Heaven below), and social alienation.
To be sure, Höch had her apparently frivolous moments. Russian Dancer is characteristic of a small number of single female figure studies Höch executed between 1926-36. All breezily posed, these women would seem to have no cares in the world. Their colossal heads, which mock their puny bodies, beg us not to take them seriously. Are they simply the flirtatious cousins of the earlier, more serious “New Woman” figures or do they signify a deeper meaning? Perhaps they are a 2D continuation of Höch’s 1916 enchanting Dada dolls. The legs of ballet dancers occur frequently in her montages. They represent the athleticism of the “New Woman,” but are they also emblematic of the artist herself?
By the end of the 1920s, photomontage was generally accepted as fine art medium; it had been adopted even as a style of expression by the advertising and design worlds. Curiously, however, during most of this decade, Höch did not exhibit publicly.
Hannah Höch—On the Way to Seventh Heaven, 1934
Photomontage, 14 1/2 x 10 inches
(Barry Friedman, Ltd., New York)
That would change in 1929, when the artist participated in two important exhibits. The prestigious “Film and Photo” exhibition, the first big photography show in Europe, included 18 of her photomontages. Some 10,000 people saw the exhibition on its first tour stop alone, Stuttgart. In that year, the De Bron Gallery in The Hague mounted her first one-woman show, which included her oil paintings, numerous drawings, and watercolors, though not her photomontages.
Hannah Höch’s public career as an artist was launched. Other exhibitions followed—in 1931 at Berlin’s Kunstgewerbemuseum; and in 1932 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels. The Bauhaus mounted a show of 15 of her photomontages later that year.
Regrettably, this new-found public recognition came to an end in 1933, when Adolf Hitler seized political power.
Like many avant-garde artists, Höch and her circle were deemed “Cultural Bolshiviks” and “degenerates” by the National Socialist régime. Almost immediately, they were prohibited from showing their work. As a result, many of Höch’s friends fled Germany, among them Schwitters, Ernst, and Moholy-Nagy. Those, like her, who stayed behind generally worked quietly and out of sight.
Höch refused to overtly support the Nazis. But she also steered clear of political provocation. Despite the oppressive environment, she never lost her sense of humor, as montages like and Sea Serpent (top) and Never Keep Both Feet on the Ground make clear. During years from 1936-1946, she turned to nature with some arresting results. Sea Serpent is a unrestrained, yet wholly accessible, surrealistic fantasy, evoking all of the unseeable and astonishing life under the sea. In retrospect, one is tempted to read more into this work, though it is not clear that Höch meant to suggest a connection with Nazi authority.
Compositionally, it is a deceptively-sophisticated montage. The echo at the top register of the aquatic life on the lowest register (though use of the piece from which they were cut) not only ties the composition neatly together, but adds visual complexity by playing with the pictorial plane.
Hannah Höch, Never Keep Both Feet on the Ground, 1940
Photomontage, 12 11/16 x 8 3/16 inches
(Institute für Auslandsbeziehungen, Stuttgart)
As the 1930s wore on, Höch’s world became increasingly dangerous. In September, 1939, a few days after Britain and France declared war on Germany (for invading Poland), she moved to relative obscurity of Heiligensee, a suburb of Berlin. She felt lucky to have found a place where “nobody would know me by sight or be aware of my lurid past as a Dadaist” (Eine Lebenscollage, Volume I). She kept a low profile during the war years. As a result, her work was marginalized once again.
Nevertheless, Höch did not stop working. As Never Keep Both Feet on the Ground testifies, Höch was capable of suggesting the vaguely sinister in the apparently banal. As in the Ethnographic series, she mixes tribal artifacts (in this case a mask) with human forms to suggest alienation. Most definitely in the realm of the fastastic, the picture defies specific explication. And yet, one cannot help but wonder whether the dangling legs (again the ballet dancers) signify Höch’s view of her existence in the world, that is, a woman intent on being above the ground in a cloud, avoiding detection (by flying monster).
Hannah Höch, With Seaweed, 1950
Cut-and-pasted papers, torn papers, and gouache on paper, 13 5/8 x 9 7/8 inches
Hannah Höch, Glued Drawing II, 1955
Photomontage, 14 x 9 13/16 inches
(Galerie Alvensleben, Munich)
With the end of WWII, Höch began showing again; in fact, she exhibited constantly through the late 1950s. She produced a prodigious amount of work and flowered as a public persona in the process. In a testament to Germany’s cultural embrace of Dada, she organized and participated in a large show, “Photomontage from Dada to Today.” Interestingly, she staked out an expanded view of photomontage in the catalog’s introduction, in the process coining the phrase “free-form” photomontage. This view would guide her toward the abstract images of the 50s, which for the first time were devoid of any recognizable real-world reference.
With the widespread introduction of color in magazines throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, a huge amount of source material became available to Höch in virtually every color of the palette. Though not the most visually-arresting (that honor might belong Little Sun), certainly one of the most bewitching of images from this period is Homage to Riza Abazzi, which conjoins an elegant Audrey Hepburn look-alike head to a rubbery belly dancing body.
The piece references a Persian miniaturist, Riza-i Abbasi (known alternatively as Reza or Riza Abassi), the most important painter of the Safavid period for his revolutionary impact on painting at the time. It is not clear what specific significance Abbasi had to Höch. Perhaps the piece was inspired by a particular painting of his.
It is well-known, however, that the particular images that inspired her appeared in a German magazine alongside a blurb that referenced Audrey Hepburn’s dismay at having her head joined artificially to a voluptuous bikini-clad body for Roman Holiday advertising stills. Although the compositional emphasis is different, Homage. . . belongs to the lineage of single female figures. This figure also prances, not at all dismayed by her mismatched head and body conjoined. In fact, she strikes a defiant and proud pose, despite her relatively zaftig mid-section and wobbly legs. Is Höch intimating that it’s what’s in your head that counts?
The 1970s for Höch were characterized by thematic and stylistic freedom. Drawing upon five decades of experimentation Höch produced images in an amalgamation of styles during the years of her life—surrealist fantasies, colorful abstractions, and one final uncharacteristically large-scale work, Life Portrait, that harked back to her Dada-era style.
Hannah Höch, Color Composition (Head), 1975
(Sammlung Deutsche Bank)
Montage is often considered a minor art form, derided as “mere recycling” and lacking the “heroism” of painting and sculpture and even photography. On the other hand, painter and art historian Franz Roh once characterized photomontage as: “the precarious synthesis of the two most important tendencies in modern visual culture. . . the pictorial techniques of modernist abstraction and the realism of the photographic fragment” (paraphrased by Christopher Phillips in Montage and Modern Life: 1919-1942). If one has confidence in that idea, it’s hard to see how photomontage couldn’t challenge the monolithic supremacy of painting.
Höch’s photomontages, like all photomontages, disparage the notion of the painter as God, creating a world from nothing (the blank canvas). Rather than create the world anew, Höch chose to reflect our notions about it through the subtle but wicked snipping of her scissors. Cut with the kitchen knife, indeed!
Though she may have been a “quiet girl,” Hannah Höch’s voice was a big one. Over five decades of devotion to the medium, she demonstrated that in skillful hands photomontage could rival painting in illuminating our world.
Fantastic Photomontage and its Possible Influences
Max Ernst: A Retrospective (Metropolitan Museum of Art Publications)
Reza Abbasi Museum, Tehran
The Independent—“Hanging Hitler’s Painters”