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Subversive Desires

Isabel Stevens on the Whitechapel Gallery’s retrospective exhibition of Dadaist artist Hannah Höch, on view in London until March 23, 2014.

Kleine Sonne (Little Sun), 1969. Landesbank Berlin AG

In the early twentieth century, photo and text snippets could be found everywhere, from film posters and political propaganda to magazine covers and artworks. Dadaists were most taken with intervening with photography specifically: photomontage was the closest thing to visual anarchy and in their eyes, the perfect tool for satire and social commentary. With so many artists mocking society with scissors and scalpels, what makes the photo scraps of German artist Hannah Höch so radical, even now, ninety-odd years later?

As the Whitechapel Gallery’s outstanding retrospective makes clear, she too was a provocateur, intent on destabilizing dominant viewpoints and opinions: she took aim at bankers’ collusion with the military and ridiculed politicians. In Heads of State (1918–20), Weimar president Friedrich Ebert is seen in trunks at a fantasy beach resort; in Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany (1919–20), she fuses his head with the body of a topless female performer. While fellow Dadaists treated figures in a more forensic, impersonal manner, Höch’s delicate assemblages have people at their center, and addressed especially women and their role in society. Collage was her act of liberation: images of women in traditional feminine roles were rescued from fashion weeklies and given subversive desires and identities. Her most challenging series, From an Ethnographic Museum (1924–30), questioned narrow definitions of beauty by mixing together pale and dark-skinned bodies (although her gleeful appropriation of tribal objects demonstrates an uncomfortable fascination with exoticism).

Staatshäupter (Heads of State), 1918-20. Collection of IFA, Stuttgart

Feeling and emotion in Höch’s work also set it apart. Yes, there’s humor, particularly in her more Surrealist human-animal hybrids. But many of her figures from the ’20s and ’30s possess a melancholy air, their large, out-of-place eyes (one of Höch’s favorite body parts) full of longing and life-weariness. The many screaming faces she assembled convey an acute sense of anxiety and desperation. It’s easy to trace a lineage from Höch to contemporary photo-compositors like John Stezaker and Wangechi Mutu.

Although her work was reappraised during her lifetime, none of the recent retrospectives have taken place in the United Kingdom, where many male avant-gardists of the 1920s have been the subjects of recent major solo exhibitions (Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Alexander Rodchenko, Kurt Schwitters, and Theo Van Doesburg among them). Indeed, had some of Höch’s male Dada colleagues had their way, her work would have been totally forgotten: the artist herself recalled how they often regarded her as a “charming and gifted amateur” (Schwitters and Van Doesburg were the exceptions). Many, including rather shockingly her one-time lover Raoul Hausmann, excluded her from their memoirs of the Dada years. “A good girl” was Hans Richter’s patronizing description while George Grosz and John Heartfield opposed her inclusion in the First International Dada Fair in 1920. She responded with her largest photo collage, at 44.9 x 35.4 inches (114 x 90 cm), Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Beer-Belly of the Weimar Republic (1919–20), where the heads of Grosz and fellow Dadaist Wilhelm Herzfelde appear skewered onto women’s bodies. The one disappointment of the show is that only a small study of this massive work is on view.

Slide 1

Für ein Fest gemacht (Made for a Party), 1936. Collection of IFA, Stuttgart.

Slide 2

Ohne Titel (Aus einem ethnographischen Museum) (Untitled [From an Ethnographic Museum]), 1930. Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg. Photo: courtesy of Maria Thrun.

Slide 3

Ohne Titel, aus der Serie: aus einem ethnographischen Museum (Untitled, from the series: From an Ethnographic Museum), 1929. Federal Republic of Germany - Collection of Contemporary Art. Image: bpk / Kupferstichkabinett, SMB / Jörg P. Anders.

Rohrfeder Collage (Reed Pen Collage), 1922. Landesbank Berlin AG

The Whitechapel exhibition makes clear that Höch was not interested in photomontage as a means to an end, but as a craft, “a new magical territory” that she experimented with throughout her life. In 1934, as many artists abandoned the technique, Höch created a long, loose personal collage of sorts called Album. This scrapbook is one of the exhibition’s highlights, including expected motifs such as posed starlets and distorted body parts, but also architectural forms and aerial landscape views that demonstrated her growing interest in abstraction.

Of her work in the post-war decades it is not her abstract collages but the psychologically charged fantasies, often made with images of nature or everyday household objects, that are most beguiling: a flying sea serpent made of photographs of leaves, images of water lillies soaring through the sky like alien spaceships. Flight and escape were perpetual concerns. Höch spent the war living as a recluse on the outskirts of Berlin hoping that the Gestapo would never discover her hidden collection of misshaped women, dreamy beings who had no place in Nazi Germany. After seeing her world fall apart, she built strange, imaginary replacements, testaments to her unwavering faith in the power of art to unsettle, and her belief that you should “never keep two feet on the ground.”

Flucht (Flight), 1931. Collection of IFA, Stuttgart

Isabel Stevens works at Sight & Sound magazine. Her writing on film and photography has appeared in numerous publications, including The Guardian, Icon, Source, and World of Interiors. Follow her on Twitter @IsStevens

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