Hannah Höch at The Whitechapel from 2014

A high profile exhibition of Hannah Höch’s work is long overdue. An important artist so often overshadowed by her contemporaries, she played a pivotal role in the Berlin Dada period and many important examples of this work are on show here at The Whitechapel Gallery from 15th January to 23rd of March 2014.

Her work really captures the pioneering sprit of that time. Collage was the great democratic medium; the artist freed from the need to ‘draw and paint’ in classical terms, so as to create by selection, new meanings and associations, taken from the world about them. The source materials for this would often comprise of photographs, but more often than not, cuttings from everyday magazines and newspapers. To thus capture the essence of the times through which the artist lived. In short, Modernity.

Höch’s idea to pursue Photomontage, or Collage, came apparently via her friend Kurt Schwitters, that maverick artist, equally at home amid the flotsam and jetsum of modern life. What is perhaps less well known about the artist is how she kept her creative integrity through the Nazi tyranny, lying low, to emerge after the war as an independent and uncompromising spirit. She lived life on her own terms; and was consistent in her dedication to the practice of her art.

Another equally less well known point (to these eyes at least) was how diverse an artist she was. Generally known for her collage during the brief Berlin Dada era, she also produced a wide range of painting and drawings over the course of her long life. This show focuses on the collage works in particular (which is just right for the dimensions of the exhibition), but it did make me want to see more of her work in other media, in order to set it in context.

It was interesting to see how she saw the need to challenge contemporary assumptions about the crafts- in her case embroidery. Pushing towards abstract form, so as to express the ‘spirit’ of the modern age. An attitude similar to that later formalised at the Bauhaus.

On entering the show, the viewer is confronted by a picture of the young artist which really gives an insight into one who so challenged accepted ideals of identity. She meets you eye to eye with the force of her enquiring intelligence and certainty of personality. You can very well imagine how such an intense and driven figure might have ruffled a few feathers amongst the less progressively minded (in terms of gender issues) of her contemporaries. Good for her I say.

The layout of the necessarily small images is well arranged and lit here; punctuated by quotations from the artist. This is successful in contextualising the work on display, as is the addition of her scrapbooks (and reproductions of these to thumb through), giving us an insight into her creative process.

Humour is never far from the surface in Höch’s art. One appealing early drawing on display was a proposed costume designed for the Anti Review, called ‘Der Grosse Englander’ (1925). This exaggerated caricature was both witty and demonstrated the heightened sense of observation that she used to such great effect in her collage.

Much of her best work is the examination, through synthesis, of ideals and assumptions about beauty and identity. In this, I was particularly struck by ‘Flight’ from 1931. This image is both playful and serious in intent. A truculent figure looking like a small child has a hybrid head, and walks away as if told off by a winged headed creature, recalling certain works by Odilon Redon, with his preoccupation of the head separated from the body. In ‘The Coquette’ (1923-5), a supplicative dog-man and a bear look in awe at a seated woman with a tribal mask for a head, sitting on a plinth. I found her use of the plinth interesting in that it both satirises the classical platform that distinguishes art from life, as well as utilising it to comment on issues of objectification.

Many of the collages are similar hybrid forms; questioning the primacy of Western ideals of perfection and identity. Distinct images and signifiers of women and western society are fused together with ethnographic representations of far off tribal cultures and landscapes. Indeed, she created a series called ‘From an Ethnographic Museum’.

In many images, she satirises the world of advertising, setting out bits of women as if on sale or display. As in ‘Made for a Party’ from 1936, which questions the nature of the viewer’s gaze. This is also apparent in ‘Fashion Show’ from 1925-35. But what I found especially fascinating in this show is her fusion of genders into hermaphrodite figures of great poise and harmony. In so doing, she asks pertinent questions about the fluidity of gender that are as relevant today as then. See ‘The Strong Man’ from 1931.

Later works exhibit flights of the imagination into poetic landscapes and states of mind, such as ‘Floating’ from 1951. In a 1964 film made of the artist and shown in the exhibition, Hoch discusses her reliance on nature in tandem with the importance of abstract forms to symbolise universal concepts. The idea that abstract forms originate in the deepest part of our being. She also distinguished the process of making collages in more than one “sitting’ from that of painting and drawing. Working so as to allow the art to emerge at its own pace. I thought the film was an excellent conclusion to the show, as was the large collage of Höch’s life on show behind it, documenting a fascinating and diverse life dedicated to her art.

(c) Gideon Hall 2014

(This article was first published in Femalearts Magazine in 2014)