The 'bob-haired muse', the 'holy shears' and 'Dada's good girl' are a few of the epitaphs that prevail in the comfortable little niche art history has carved out for Hannah Höch. These sound bites are seriously challenged by this travelling retrospective organised by the Walker Art Center. 'The Photomontages of Hannah Höch' momentously reconstructs her marginalised role in early 20th-century art and perhaps even ordains her as the single most influential female artist of the century. The exhibition surveying Höch's 55 years of photomontage not only rescues her from the anti-art antics of the legendary Berlin Dada circle but inclusively chronicles her private and aesthetic journey through the social and cultural constructs that have emerged in the 20th century. While she may have been remembered by her bombastic Dada colleagues for her 'sandwiches, beer and coffee', her lifetime of artistic practice reveals a vital and critical woman who could magically collide disparate reproductions of needlepoint patterns, political figures, film stars, animal life and non-Western artefacts into explorations of androgyny, Aryan activity, gender roles, imperialism, race and lesbianism.
Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimer Beer-belly Cultural Epoch of Germany (1919-20) is the photomontage most associated with Höch's tenure with Berlin Dada. This anti-compositional Dada ideal is a complex cross-section of cogwheels, text and composite human figures. Unusually large, the photomontage heralds social confusion while highlighting the polarities of Weimer-era politics, government radicals, oppositionists and Communists. However, a more visually prognosticative political commentary of the same period is Höch's Head of State (1918-20) in which she clearly sidesteps Dada's anti-art posture and exposes her interest in formal elements and handicraft. Without excluding political satire, Höch collages two flabby swimsuit-wearing politicians with a blueprint embroidery pattern of butterflies and beach balls. Unlike Cut with the Kitchen Knife..., this simple composition is pictorially ordered on a ground line, celebrating the decorative beauty of the embroidery design while associating important male heads of state with female activity and leisure.
As a designer for a German publishing company that mass-produced sewing and craft designs for bourgeois subscribers, Höch had access to a seemingly limitless stockpile of decorative sewing, embroidery and needlepoint patterns. Increasingly aware of Constructivism and Bauhaus design, Höch created an exquisite series of monochromatic abstract collages comprised solely of tulle patterns and cut-and-sew lines. Design for the Memorial to an Important Lace Shirt (1922) conveys the best of Futurist energy, Duchampian humour and Schwitters' obsessions through modest proletarian means. Her decision to enrol commercially produced designs in her work was an important first attempt to close the gap between modern art and traditional crafts, the public arena and the home, and women's activities and men's work.
Höch's frustration with the hypocrisy riddling the 'New Weimer Woman' became the focus of much of her work in the 20s. Newly gained freedoms, like the right to vote and hold government positions, were undermined by low wages and lost jobs. The Gymnastic Teacher (1925) undeviatingly illustrates the dichotomy between the popular 'Weimer Woman' stereotype and reality. Collaged typography, photographs and coloured paper expose a cut-out contour of a lean, youthful, firm-bodied woman juxtaposed with a stubby apron-clad hausfrau. Not surprisingly, this photomontage conveys some of the same anxieties of women today.
In a handful of portraits on vacuous dark grounds, Höch disagreeably reconstructed women's faces with incongruous female features. In response to the manipulative propaganda surrounding Germany's modern woman, Höch brutally created images that foretold cosmetic surgery, genetic engineering and morphing technology. The Melancholic (1925) is a candid profile of a female face collaged with a large morose eye and small pouting lips; a pathetic victim of the new Republic.
Once they found each other, Höch's women began enjoying life again. Perhaps as a response to her homosexual relationship with poet Til Brugman, Höch produced several curiously erotic photomontages in the early 30s. Love (1931) combines a three-legged reclining odalisque below a hovering winged creature composed of a cicada head, plump bare buttocks and long legs garnished with black pumps. Androgyny also piqued Höch's interest by providing her with an ideal resolution to polarising gender issues.
Höch's photomontages reflect an intimate dance with a myriad of social and cultural issues raised in the 20th century. In the hands of Höch, scissors, glue and magazine reproductions rival the best Surrealist canvases, painterly abstractions and Pop silk-screens of the past 70 years. She unlocked the door for the feminist artists of the 70s and 80s, accomplishing this brilliant feat with the most pedestrian of all media.
First published in Issue 33