Hannah Höch on How to Be an Artist

Alexxa Gotthardt
Aug 21, 2019 4:41PM

Photomontage master Hannah Höch faced countless obstacles as a boundary-pushing female artist in the 1920s—not least of which was blatant disregard from the bulk of her male colleagues.

During an interview for Arts in 1959, Höch reflected on her early career, asserting that “thirty years ago it wasn’t easy for a woman to impose herself as a modern artist in Germany.” And for a long time, she added, male artists continued “to look on us women artists as charming and gifted amateurs, denying us any real professional status.”

This continued even as late as the mid-1960s, when Höch was finally recognized by the art establishment for her revolutionary Dadaist, photomontage, and abstract work. In the 1966 memoir Dada: Art and Anti-Art, her longtime Dada compatriot Hans Richter offered only patronizing descriptions of Höch. In his account, she was a “quiet girl from the little town of Gotha” and a “hostess” of studio evenings where she “[managed]…to conjure up buttered rolls plus beer and coffee.”

But Höch never bowed to belittlement. Instead, she forged her own artistic path that, while certainly linked to Dada’s absurdist underpinnings, veered boldly away from her male colleagues. She blended political critique with elements of fantasy, autobiography, gender identity, queerness, and craft. Over the course of Höch’s long life—she passed away in 1978 at age 88—she produced numerous essays and gave interviews that reveal her unflagging ingenuity, curiosity, and self-assurance. Below, we’ve extracted several words of wisdom around these themes.

Lesson #1: Embrace a broad definition of art

Hannah Höch
Ohne Titel, aus der Serie: aus einem ethnographischen Museum (Untitled, from the series: From an Ethnographic Museum), 1929
Whitechapel Gallery

Throughout her career, Höch embraced a wide range of art forms. Even in her famed photomontages built from mass-media magazine cutouts, she embeds the tenets of painting—a respect for color and pattern. And she references processes that were considered craft and women’s work at the time: embroidery, lace, textile, and fashion design.

Starting in 1912, Höch received her formal art education at the Kunstgewerbeschule Charlottenburg (Charlottenburg School of Applied Arts) and the Unterrichtsanstalt des Königlichen Kunstgewerbemuseums (School of the Royal Museum of Applied Arts), where she explored a wide range of disciplines and mediums: graphics, calligraphy, glass, embroidery, book design, and more. From 1916 to 1926, in the midst of developing her own practice, she worked three days per week at Ullstein Verlag, a renowned Berlin publishing house where she worked as an archivist, and designed embroidery and lace patterns for magazines centered on homemaking. As scholar Maria Makela pointed out in the Walker Art Center’s watershed 1996 catalogue The photomontages of Hannah Höch, Höch’s early design work “provided an important thematic, formal, and technical base for her collage aesthetic.”

The Ullstein Verlag job also offered up materials. There, Höch had access to countless publications, which became fodder for her fast-developing photomontage practice. Höch carefully extracted and spliced images of lace, fabric, and patterns for her collages, along with cut-outs of idealized female figures. She used this imagery to playfully—and sometimes causticly—allude to traditional women’s roles and domestic spaces.

Simultaneously, Höch celebrated and elevated domestic crafts, reclaiming them as art forms. In 1918, she wrote several articles in the publication Stickerei- und Spitzen-Rundschau that vociferously argued for the aesthetic merit of embroidery, in particular. “Embroidery is very closely related to painting,” she wrote. “It is constantly changing, with every new style each epoch brings. It is an art and ought to be treated like one.” Höch believed the medium had great abstract potential, and called for a move away from depicting “flowers, baskets, birds, and spirals” towards an approach fed by “innermost intuition.”

Lesson #2: Resist boundaries imposed by the establishment

Höch’s practice matured in Weimar-era Berlin, where artists and progressives chafed rebelliously against the increasingly conservative, restrictive government. In part, her views aligned with the Dadaists: a group of artists intent on critiquing both the art establishment and political authority. They made work that rejected formal artistic concerns and openly lampooned the European leaders floundering in post–World War I chaos. But even in the Dadaists’ anarchic approach, Höch recognized limitations. Her male Dada counterparts were misogynistic and looked down on art forms that foregrounded color and pattern, referenced traditional “women’s work,” or implied personal narrative.

In her own practice, Höch eschewed constraints in favor of art that combined the political and the personal, the conceptual and the formal. “I would like to do away with the firm boundaries that we human beings so self-assuredly are inclined to erect around everything that is accessible to us,” she wrote in 1929, in the foreword to the catalogue for her first solo exhibition at the Kunstzaal De Bron, in The Hague. She found freedom from society’s limiting views by employing fantasy, or assuming the perspectives of non-human creatures and objects. “Most of all I would like to depict the world as a bee sees it, then tomorrow as the moon sees it, and then, as many other creatures see it,” she continued. “I am, however, a human being, and can use my fantasy, bound as I am, as a bridge.”

In her 1919–20 magnum opus Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, Höch revealed her ability to engage in Dadaist political critique while simultaneously poking fun at her male counterparts’ machismo and myopic bravura. Across the large-scale collage work, old- and new-guard politicians clash in a chaotic tornado of machines, Dada slogans, and the heads of her male colleagues, which she mischievously affixed to female bodies. More personally, she boldly explored gender roles, sexual fluidity, and mating rituals in series like “Liebe (Love)” (1931), where male and female body parts fuse, and traditional gender roles are obscured and eradicated.

Lesson #3: Experiment with new technologies

Höch dabbled in many media over the course of her career, including an extensive engagement with painting. But her experimentation with photography and mass media images from contemporary magazines and newspapers led to her most enduring, inventive, and incisive work.

In a 1934 artist statement, which coincided with an exhibition of her photomontages in Brno, Czechoslovakia, Höch emphasized the creative potential of the up-and-coming photographic medium—which had only recently begun to be used journalistically—and her remixing of it. “The peculiar characteristics of photography and its approaches have opened up a new and immensely fantastic field for a creative human being,” she wrote. Höch went on to equate the emerging technology with liberation and invention, calling it “a new magical territory, for the discovery of which freedom is the first prerequisite.”

At the time, photomontage was a hot-button topic, coming under scrutiny for its use in mass media as a tool for political propaganda as the Nazi regime came into power. In her essay, Höch distinguished photo editing used for advertising and political purposes from artistic experimentation—“an art form that has grown out of the soil of photography.” She defended photomontage, pointing to its potential to inspire progressive and even revolutionary lines of thought and social critique. “Whenever we want to force this ‘Photomatter’ to yield new forms, we must be prepared for a journey of discovery, we must start without any preconceptions; most of all, we must be open to the beauties of fortuity,” she wrote. “Here more than anywhere else, these beauties, wandering and extravagant, obligingly enrich our fantasies.”

Lesson #4: Be curious about the world around you

In Nazi Germany, the work of Höch and her contemporaries was deemed degenerate. But unlike many of her fellow artists who escaped to France or the Americas, Höch remained in Germany, seeking refuge in a small town on the outskirts of Berlin. She lived there for the remainder of her life, removed from the epicenter of artistic activity in her home country, but still deeply curious about and engaged with the world around her. “I am an introverted person, but my profound interest in everything that is happening during my time here on Earth leads me, to this day, even in my retirement, to participate in everything that is interesting to me,” she told curator Suzanne Pagé in 1976, just two years before her death.

Indeed, all of the paintings, sculptures, and especially photomontages Höch made throughout her career evidence a passionate fascination with the world around her. By deftly suturing and splicing sundry references together, she made bold, perceptive statements that were personal and of the moment. But they’ve also gone on to transcend time and lay bare the most contemptuous—and regrettably enduring—aspects of human nature.

In a telling 1976 portrait of Höch, taken by Stefan Moses, she looks into a magnifying glass, one eye so enlarged and alert it seems all-powerful, able to peer deep into souls and through time. “Hunched over her worktable, looking through her glass at the printed ephemera of her world,” art historian Peter Boswell once wrote of the image, “she slices it delicately apart and pieces it carefully back together so that we may see it more clearly.”

Alexxa Gotthardt