13 March 2014

Hannah Höch at the Whitechapel Gallery

Art in Germany between 1919 and 1933 fascinates me and there have been posts here about the Bauhaus, George Grosz, Kurt Schwitters and the German Expressionist pictures in Leicester. So, very better late than never, I was glad to have been able to visit Hannah Höch at the Whitechapel Gallery before their show of over 100 works closes on 23 March.

Höch was born in Gotha in 1889 and escaped from a kleinburgerlicht family to Berlin in 1912 to study the applied arts and textile crafts. By 1919 she had become part of Berlin’s Dada movement, its only woman member, alongside Schwitters, Grosz, László Moholy-Nagy, Paul Citroën and her lover, Raoul Hausmann (left). There are two portraits of Höch by Hausmann in the show, one a 1917 nude, the other a woodcut on a banknote from 1923, the year of the most severe Weimar hyperinflation. However, it was arguably Schwitters who had the more enduring influence, possibly introducing her to collage (as is claimed at the end of the exhibition), and adding an h to Hanna to make her forename palindromic. Grosz and John Heartfield (born Helmut Herzfelde) tried to keep her work out of the First International Dada Fair in 1920, but as a fine riposte to their chauvinism she produced a large collage, Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through Germany’s Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch (Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser Dada durch die letzte Weimarer Bierbauch-Kulturepoche Deutschlands, 1919, not at the Whitechapel, above).  Smaller pieces of sardonic social criticism are Heads of State (Staatshäupter, 1918-20, below top) and High Finance (Hochfinanz, 1923, below bottom). The first shows the Weimar President, Friedrich Ebert, and his defence minister, Gustav Noske, who crushed the Sparticist uprising in 1919.

In the 1920s Höch was working for the publishers Ullstein and had easy access to magazine illustrations and articles addressed to the emerging New Woman. From 1924 to 1930 Hoch worked on a series called From an Ethnographic Museum (Aus einem ethnographischen Museum) combining photographs of contemporary women and non-Western women and sculpture (Untitled, 1930 right). The Whitechapel tells us:
At once beautiful and monstrous, these compositions allow for a complex discussion about the presentation of the female body, of notions of exoticism and of the legacy of colonial aesthetics and politics.
No, I’m not sure either.  Not all of her work was as serious, for example, Marlene 1930 (Dietrich’s legs, doubtless, below left) and the later Made for a Party (Für ein Fest gemacht, 1936, below right).

Höch’s relationship with Hausmann had ended in 1922 and in 1926 she embarked on a nine-year affair with the Dutch female writer Til Brugman. Unlike many artists who fled Germany when the Nazis came into power, Höch (“constantly being watched and demonised”) went into internal self-imposed exile by obscurity in a house on the outskirts of Berlin and in 1938 married Heinz Kurt Matthies, a German businessman, though they would divorce in 1944.

In 1945 she would emerge from what she called “12 years of misery – forced on us by a mad, inhumane, yes, bestial ‘clique’”. The exhibition includes many works after 1945 which show the effects of the expansion of colour printing on her source material and the tendency of her compositions to become either more fantastical and surreal or more abstract than before the war. The exhibition ends with a video which draws on documentary interviews with Höch in the 1960s and her ‘collage of collages’, Life Portrait (Lebensbild, 1972-73, below). Höch died in 1978, probably the last of the Dadaists.  There are few opportunities to see her work in the UK so get to the Whitechapel before it's too late!

(Some reviewers have titled the exhibition as “Hannah Höch: Radical Works from the Woman Behind Collage”, but the shorter the better, I think.)


Just an afterthought, but I wrote above:
Unlike many artists who fled Germany when the Nazis came into power, Höch (“constantly being watched and demonised”) went into internal self-imposed exile by obscurity in a house on the outskirts of Berlin…
Not an elegant sentence for sure, and I’m wondering also whether it wasn’t quite that simple. Nazi Germany was a police state so it seems a little doubtful that a marked man or woman could avoid attention from the authorities, starting with the local gauleiter, for long. Was it that the Nazis, who thought the proper concerns of women were Kinder und Küche, didn’t want to draw attention to a woman like Höch? It might have undermined the credibility of their attack on Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) to make too much of a collage artist, and was she considered best ignored as long as she kept quiet?

I envy those interested in this subject and in New York where the Neue Galerie currently has a show, Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937.

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