Hannah Höch at the Whitechapel Gallery

-This exhibition is now closed-

Hannah Höch, Staatshäupter (Heads of State), Collection of IFA, Stuttgart

Hannah Höch, Staatshäupter (Heads of State), Collection of IFA, Stuttgart

The Whitechapel Gallery’s latest exhibition is a survey of the work of German artist Hannah Höch (1889-1978), an influential, if often overlooked, member of the Berlin Dadaists and a pioneer in the use of collage and photomontage.

In the years following the First World War, Höch worked in Berlin as an embroidery and lace pattern designer, spending her spare time involved in the city’s avant-garde art scene and developing the technique of mass-media photomontage that would come to define her artistic career. Exhibiting at the First International Dada Fair in 1920, Höch had a hit with Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Beer-Belly of the Weimar Republic (1919), a fragile collage of which a small snippet appears in the Whitechapel Gallery show. The piece is a chaotic composite of images cut from contemporary magazines and newspapers, featuring surreal machines and distorted photos of political, cultural and historic figures; the visual representation of an intellectual war between the ordered Weimar establishment and the playfully anarchist forces of Dadaism. Cut with the Kitchen Knife is photomontage at its most potent and political, demonstrating Höch’s initial enthusiasm for Dadaism’s anti-bourgeois, ‘anti-art’ agenda.

Hannah Höch, Rohrfeder Collage (Reed Pen Collage), 1922, Landesbank Berlin AG

Hannah Höch, Rohrfeder Collage (Reed Pen Collage), 1922, Landesbank Berlin AG

Yet Cut with the Kitchen Knife is something of a one-off for Höch in the directness of its protest against the political establishment. Despite her involvement in the birth of Berlin Dadaism and its showy, provocative style, Höch’s art is generally more subtle and concerned with beauty than that of her contemporaries. Her striking, monochromatic Reed Pen Collage (1922) demonstrates Höch’s interest in playing with abstract forms and developing new aesthetics. Similarly, her collage series From an Ethnographic Museum (1929), which features photos of European body parts amalgamated with traditional African masks and statues, implies an anti-racist and feminist agenda but is predominantly an aesthetic exploration of broken-down, reconstituted forms and balanced composition. This interest in formal beauty made Höch an outsider even from the Dadaists, which perhaps explains why her work has so often been overlooked in discussions of this movement.

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

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

Höch spent the Nazi era in the suburbs of Berlin, hiding in fear of denunciation as a ‘degenerate artist’, and her work from 1945 onwards is increasingly personal and introspective. Works such as Beautiful Snares (1946), Space Travel (1956) and All our Dreams (1967) are fantastical dreamscape collages with which Höch exposes the gap between physical reality and the metaphysical possibilities of the imagination. Eschewing images of recognisable, real-world figures, Höch’s use of abstraction symbolises a profound questioning of art’s capacity to effect political change in the aftermath of the Second World War. Although some of Höch’s postwar artworks do have a political dimension, notably Dove of Peace (1945), which features a solitary dove flying over a desolate landscape of dark, stylised machines, there is an atmosphere of resignation in this piece which is in stark contrast to the provocative political ambition of some of the artist’s earliest work.

Despite attracting less public acclaim than her male contemporaries for much of her life, Hannah Höch came to international recognition with major shows in Paris and Berlin shortly before her death in 1978. With this latest show at the Whitechapel Gallery, UK audiences will now, for the first time, be able to engage with the assembled work of this innovative and influential artist.

The exhibition is open until 23 March.

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