Hannah Höch’s 60-year career was spent in full flight, from Dada provocatrix to dreamy mystic, away into glittering abstraction and finishing in a pop art flash. This is the first major retrospective of her work to be staged in the UK since she died in 1978 – what, you have to wonder, took everyone so long? Curators Dawn Ades and Daniel F. Herrmann have assembled an exhibition of rare energy and expansiveness, illuminating an artist who remained loyal to her own strange and playful chimera, utterly untroubled by the stagger of time.
Arranged in chronological order, the hundred or so works on show present an oeuvre of riddling oddness and breathless invention. While still a teenager, Höch plays around with costume design and painting, quickly discovering a gift for striking, spiky composition. Her photomontages take carnivalesque pleasure in mixing together the masculine and feminine, the erotic and monstrous, long before it was the done thing for a female artist. When Dada hits its deranged peak in the 1920s, she makes those howling, satirical collages and catches the Weimar Republic’s mood of apocalyptic festivity. Fascism ascends and Höch flees to the outskirts of Berlin. Classified as ‘degenerate’ by infamous Nazi decree, her work somehow escapes the fate of destruction and ‘disappearance’ suffered by so much else in that category. ‘I had to disappear,’ she later wrote, ‘as completely as if I lived underground.’ Höch makes some of her most bewitching work covertly during Hitler’s reign. In the last two decades of her life, she remains intoxicated by the possibilities of photomontage as she drifts into lush psychedelia.
Her influence has such promiscuous breadth that she could be counted as both the sibylline mother of a spooked aesthete like Joseph Cornell (her 1925 work The Dream of His Life looks exactly like one of his lovesick boxes) and a witty sphinx like Linder. Yet she feels distant from whatever commotions followed her, in part because she made a solitary, secretive kind of art. She was never as dirty or abrasive as the other Dadaists. Contemplate those exquisitely eerie Picnic at Hanging Rock-ish portraits from 1920, in which the adolescent Höch caresses her two little junkyard puppets with angelic delicacy. (She spent the rest of her life conjuring similar creatures on paper.) Or the sunlit snapshot from Berlin, five years later, in which Höch appears, saturnine, eyes shut, like Louise Brooks’s neurasthenic sister. Photomontage let her explore what she called a ‘magic territory’ of the imagination, full of fantastical beasts, melted logic and deranged scale. Perhaps those photographs catch her drifting into that space, meticulously shutting out the world.
The ‘magic territory’ is precisely what you find mapped out over her life’s work: an interior landscape full of dreamily veiled meaning that reflects an artist fascinated with mythology and glamour, symbols and mysteries. (Nobody, not even Freud, was more intoxicated by the fairytale’s play between honeyed surface and grotesque depth than Höch.) Sea Serpent (1937) is an enchanting example of the secret life that feels eerily submerged within her finest pieces. The eponymous monster is imagined as a trio of reindeer heads drifting through a seascape in a melancholic procession, attached to a ray-like silver form. Everything is pregnant with spooky suggestion: the serpent swims through a haunted region of the unconscious. A lucid mind is no assistance when examining Ohh (1926), with its smokily dissolving tree and that shrieking mouth thrown onto a frightened cat’s face. Höch must have retrieved that piece from the deepest recesses of a childhood nightmare. Disembodied limbs drift through her pictures like ghoulish premonitions of the obedient servants’ arms hanging on the palace walls in Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946). Höch likes those non-sequiturs that pick away at your thoughts.
But the retrospective’s most peculiar treasure is its selection of pages from a private scrapbook, titled simply Album (1933). Spread out under glass, they provide a tantalizing glimpse of the raw material she used for her collages. There’s a profusion of untouched photographs from the 1920s and ’30s: footsteps stumbling tipsily through wet sand; a sinister mirage by Man Ray involving two hounds; and ten jellyfish-limp fingers, for which Höch records her adoration in a giddily twirling script. Uncanny reflections of her work come into focus through the glass, clues that hint at where pictures sprang from and what attracted her eye. There are 100 pages in all, maybe ten arranged here, and imagining this catalogue of images in its full density makes Album feel like a sprawling account of her mind.
Höch’s most famous tableaux still possess a staccato elegance and remain full of wild surprises. The Singer (1925), for example, finds a wailing dwarf floating next to a grand piano. With its lid aloft, the piano casts the shadow of something damaged and winged – misshapen birds are never far away in her work – which, looked at askew, transforms into the silhouette of a woman in a headdress. In a final detail, the legs of the piano conclude with a boot and a ballet slipper, their stances suggesting a boy and a girl awkwardly starting to dance. Something about that mixture of nervy life and inanimate weight is touching. Höch’s bodies always look anxious, as if thrown into wayward choreographies they can never master.
A swamp of critical anxiety surrounds ‘From an Ethnographic Museum’ (1924–30), 17 pieces featuring African tribal masks thrown over typically deformed anatomies. But note the lissome white legs, voguish stilettos and what might be one of Marlene Dietrich’s moony eyes peeking out of a mask, giving you a minxish ‘come hither’. That fascination with African primitivism, which took hold of so many artists in those early decades of the last century, doesn’t always lead into dark waters. These collages have a puckish spirit and their coupling of European and African womanhood to suggest a kind of fevered glamour was, for the time, a radical act.
Höch was always a fashion maven and the treats within her later work are the pieces that find her imagining a surreal kind of haute couture. Around a Red Mouth (c. 1967) contains a huge pink dress, deliquescing fabulously like a cake left in the sun. The mixture of lasciviousness (red mouths flowering bloodily) and Victorian decorum (the endless petticoats like so much elaborate icing) is a thrill. Leigh Bowery might have slid into something similar before a decadent soirée in the 1980s. Sexuality teases and feints its way through her work like a sly ghost, often conjured in fetishistic circumstances. The Coquette (1925), for instance, begs to be understood as a sadomasochistic bacchanal in which a dog-headed jester cavorts for a hysterical prince adorned in ball gown and pearls.
For all the illicit joy in that piece, there’s also the suggestion of political discontent soaked in black humour: the roles of master and servant are social commonplaces as much as they are sexual games. Höch’s satirical fury vanishes in the works she made throughout the Nazi era. Good People from the Mountain (1940) is a deeply painful tableau that seems to express the angst of her wartime ‘disappearance’ and a longing for escape. Two gargoyles are mid-crooked flight against a blank sky littered with skeletal trees, with their arms outstretched like rescuing angels. The substitution is poignant, as if angels are necessarily replaced during wartime, too difficult to summon.
After the war, Höch’s work loses some of its vivid strangeness but she keeps experimenting. She starts using colour with cartoonish exuberance. The sun emerges, grinning, from a flood of red thorns, and yet more girls appear, dancing on distant beaches and in Moroccan daydreams. Dancing often feels like the echt obsession of Höch’s art, mischievously gliding through it from beginning to end. There’s a collage from 1940 that shows numerous lithe ballerina pins in the middle of an air-light leap. The picture carries as its title what may be the great Höch moral, bright-eyed, anarchic and happier than that of many a fairytale: Never Keep Both Feet on the Ground!