Dada is back in fashion in London with Hans Arp show at Hauser & Wirth and the even more interesting Hannah Höch in Whitechapel Art Gallery. Feminist have hijacked Höch’s work for a number of reasons and it pains me to say it but many of those are the right ones.
Höch’s place in Dada history was undoubtedly dealt a blow by the fact that she was sentimentally involved with one of the leaders of the Berlin branch of Dada, Raoul Haussmann who, when writing his memoirs, gave her little space in them. This was utterly unfair and gives us an opportunity to see how art history has been written until, probably, today. Haussman went as far as saying that Höch had never been a member of the ‘club’ with the exception of ‘two exhibitions’.
The problem was that those two exhibitions had been very important and probably enough to be considered a founder member of the movement. The first event was a three day exhibition of architectural sketches and Dada work. It opened with a soiree on 30 April 1919, which culminated in a Bruitist musical piece Anti Symphonie, 3 Teile by Jefim Golyscheff. A hand-written note on the programme which Höch kept indicates how she participated in the performance, in fact playing a tin drum (‘I took part’, she said). She also contributed watercolours and drawings which Adolf Behne described enthusiastically in a review: ‘Hannah Hòch and especially Jenef Golyscheff conjure up fabulous ornaments’. Being excluded and referred as ‘conjurer of ornaments’ gives us an idea of how a woman was treated in a male dominated club like the Berliner Dada.
Haussmann referred to her in his memoirs as ‘a good girl’ and one wonders how the ‘good girl lebel apply to a woman who, in her personal life, had a long term relationship with Hausmann, a married man, went on to a three year lesbian relationship with a Dutch poet, Til Brugman and finally married and divorced a younger man, the pianist and business man Kurt Matthies, before living alone?
Having said this, Hannah Höch’s relevance is that she is one of the pioneers of photomontage, the distinctive art form developed by the Berlin Dadaists. In a step further than collage, as employed by the Cubists, photomontage not only introduced new elements alongside paint but actually replaced paint altogether, making use exclusively of ready made photographic images as its material. The technique, which was unveiled most dramatically at the Dada Messe, challenged accepted notions about the artwork, the artist and the reception of art. It represented a willingness by the artist to engage with a modern world, specifically with new technology, manifesting this new approach though both content and technique. Photomontage in undoubtedly one of the most important legacies of Dada.
In Whitechapel, visitors have the opportunity to see her ‘Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany” which, it could be said, that conflates the methods and meanings of the Dada Messe into a single, iconic image. In a huge collage-like montage of images and words, Höch incorporates diverse subjects: photographs of politicians, machinery, buildings and crowds . She included Albert Einstein, General von Hindenburg, Lenin, the film actress Asta Nielsen, etc. The images and text extracts refer out of the frame to the big issues of the day and to everyday life: to posters, advertisements, newspapers, and illustrated magazines aimed primarily at women.
Instead of offering a single point perspective, a coherent image arranged according to the a horizontal and vertical plane, the dispersed elements draw the eye to numerous points, as though seeking to engage with and portray multiple simultaneous experiences. Replacing paint by commercial photography and design, photomontage opened a new cognitive way of seeing the world which must be carefully differentiated from the sense of irony proposed by Pop Art. Dada was much more than anti-art for it was a serious project, very much linked to graphic design, through which the eye could know more in less time. There is a subversion between the intuition of the artist and his or her sense of pragmatism. The trivial becomes fundamental as a component of knowledge. Of course, this positioned photomontage as a very interesting vehicle for political messages. In Höch’s works this is evident in her ‘Dada Panorama’ which is a scrapbook of newspaper images, dispersed to four corners, with headlines of text arranged horizontally, vertically and diagonall. Two men in swimming trunks are prominent in the composition and it does not take long to realise that they are the President of the Weimar Republic, Friedrich Ebert and Gustav Noske, the army Minister. These images were cut by Höch from the cover of the magazine Niz of August 1919 and had been the object of public derision. In their new context this ‘almost nudity’ becomes twice ironic and politically charged. The same could be said of images such as ‘German Women in the National Parliament’ where she puts several figures made up of dancing torsos and women’s heads. She discusses the election of women to office for the first time in 1919, following the granting of the suffrage to women in 1918. These were massive events for German political and social history and there Höch was using the latest visual techniques of photomontage to discuss issues that until today seem problematic.
I think this is a wonderful show that does needed justice to a rather forgotten figure. Having said that, this institutions (I am referring to Whitechapel and Tate’) should start reducing the length of their retrospectives because even they are academically comprehensive, they tend to be exhaustingly large. This conspires, of course, with the need of focus and attention that each and everyone one of these images deserve. To be perfectly honest, I had a serious long look at five of these photomontage and left. An amazing but rather overwhelming show. Just a thought.