The Radical Legacy of Hannah Höch, One of the Only Female Dadaists
Portrait of Hannah Höch, ca. 1970. Photo by Zemann/ullstein bild via Getty Images.
Photomontages were the original remix. In the early 20th century, a group of European artists spliced together images they’d found in popular media, creating singular artworks via a strategy of sampling. The results show both individual statements by their makers and cross-sections of visual culture from a particular historical moment. While these creators called their movement by the nonsense word “Dada” (“DADA, as for it, it smells of nothing, it is nothing, nothing, nothing,” said artist Francis Picabia), their strange new artworks offered significant polemical ideas about gender, politics, and creativity during a particularly tumultuous era in Western history.
In Germany, most Dada artists working in photomontage were men—George Grosz, Raoul Hausmann (an Austrian émigré), and Kurt Schwitters, for example—and their art reflects it. One famous example of the medium, The Art Critic (1919–20) by Hausmann, offers a particularly masculine perspective. The work features a man in a suit, his clothing and head snipped from different sources. He wields a proportionally massive pencil, which points directly from his crotch to become a phallic symbol linking power, art, and manhood.
Hannah Höch, one of the few female members recognized by the movement, offered a refreshing antithesis to such macho constructions. Her own photomontages offer kaleidoscopic visions of German culture during the interwar era, often from a distinctly queer, feminist perspective.
Höch was born in 1889 in Gotha in central Germany. In 1912, she moved to Berlin to attend the School of Applied Arts. She studied glassworking and book arts design, but took a brief hiatus from her studies during the war, when she worked at the Red Cross. After the war was over, in 1915, Höch met Hausmann, who introduced her to his circle of Dada artists and became her lover.
Despite Höch’s significant skill, Hausmann’s cohort didn’t take her seriously, and nearly rejected her participation in the First International Dada Fair in Berlin in 1920, a major inaugural showcase for the movement. Painter Hans Richter, to cite one denigrating example, designated her a “good girl.” But it wasn’t only Dadaists who dismissed Höch because of her gender: As late as 1951, the American artist Robert Motherwell failed to include her in his study of the movement, titled Dada Painters and Poets.
Raoul Hausmann and Hannah Höch at the International Dada Fair in Berlin, 1920. Photo by Apic/Getty Images.
In a catalogue essay for a major 1997 Höch show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Kristin Makholm describes how, after a 1918 vacation to the Baltic Sea, Höch and Hausmann began creating photomontages. In the aftermath of World War I, during Weimar rule, they were inundated with propaganda in the form of posters, pamphlets, and advertisements. “They discovered a type of commemorative military picture with the heads of different soldiers pasted in, a practice with deep roots in folk tradition and popular consumer imagery,” Makholm writes. “With photomontage [Dada artists] could call into question the very ways that society viewed itself.”
One of Höch’s early works, Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany (1919), is among her most enduring. The poster-sized photomontage features a riot of overlapping images so diverse that the composition at first appears chaotic and impossible to parse—a perfect aesthetic for an artist concerned with the nonsensical noise of modern life, a sentiment reflected by the work’s title.
Upon closer inspection, two distinct groups of pictures emerge: those of people and those of machines. Both jostle for space, evoking the 20th-century tension between humanity and mechanization. Overall, the artwork exudes the frenetic energy of a society emerging from its deadliest conflict and contending with rapid industrialization. A map of Europe in the lower right corner indicates a distinctly Continental sense of angst (and also highlights, according to The Guardian, the countries where women could vote at the time).
Of course, Germany’s problems were only just beginning. Throughout the 1920s, the country’s finances became increasingly unstable, leading to mass inflation. Despite political and economic unrest, German women gained suffrage in 1918, and the Weimar Republic ushered in an era of somewhat greater gender equality. At least in the media, new images of liberated women began to appear (whether that portrayal was a reality is still up for debate). Although women could work, their labor conditions were often subpar. According to scholar Maud Lavin, “behind the New Woman myths of flexibility and women’s economic opportunities, legal rights, and political participation continued to be circumscribed.” Even as they entered the workforce, women received the lowest-paying jobs and often had to retain all their duties as homemakers.
Höch addressed such gendered discrimination in photomontages such as The Beautiful Girl (1920). In the work, a woman has not a head, but a lightbulb. A car tire and a lever box her in on either side. BMW logos multiply behind her, while a hand holding a circular pocket watch emerges from behind a pouf of hair. Corporations and new technologies, apparently, have overtaken the subject’s individuality, while the clock suggests how time and labor were being monetized in new ways.
Still, Höch, who maintained a bob haircut and an androgynous look, found freedom in her self-presentation, art practice, and personal life: She left Hausmann in 1922 and, four years later, began a lesbian romance. Her family was ultimately accepting of her relationship with writer Til Brugman, and the pair briefly lived together in The Hague. After that liaison ended, however, Höch married a young male pianist named Kurt Matthies. “Her shifting sexual preferences, of course, are not directly reflected in her representations,” writes Levin. “Rather, in keeping with representations of the New Woman and certain leftist ideologies of the Weimar, her androgynous images depict a pleasure in the movement between gender positions and a deliberate deconstruction of rigid masculine and feminine identities.” Höch often spliced ethnographic images onto women’s bodies to explode gender norms, uniting a pair of breasts with a tusked mask, for example, or pairing high-heeled legs with a stone torso and a masculine, mustachioed face.
Even as the fascists rose to power in Germany in the early 1930s, Höch refused to flee the country, unlike much of her creative cohort, who left for France or the United States. Her career suffered. The Nazis closed the Bauhaus in Dessau before Höch could enjoy her solo exhibition there, which was slated for 1932. The government regarded her work as “degenerate,” and she relocated to a new home outside Berlin, as she said, to “sink into oblivion.” Nevertheless, her art practice persisted; in 1945, not long after World War II ended, she began exhibiting again and showed internationally throughout the rest of her life.
In Höch’s post-war work, writer Brian Dillon finds “a blithe turn towards an almost decorative abstraction, all vestiges of her radical past fallen away in favour of dizzying arrangements of colour.” However, he also notes “the astonishing complexity of pieces such as her 1967 Industrial Landscape,”which transforms leisurely pictures of a swimming pool and a Swiss resort into images that resemble factories and smokestacks.
The artist passed away in 1978, but not before reclaiming some late appreciation for her oeuvre. Ten years earlier, in 1968, curator William Rubin included two of her artworks in a major exhibition, “Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage,” at MoMA. According to the catalogue, the Nationalgalerie in Berlin loaned Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, while famed art critic Robert Hughes offered High Finance (1923)—which juxtaposes images of two suited, patrician-looking men; a gun; and a city plan. By the last decade of her life, at least, Höch had high-profile admirers and collectors.
In the digital age, Höch’s photomontages could seem quaint, but they’ve found their place among a significant artistic lineage that extends far beyond Dada. American artist Martha Rosler’s own photomontages from the 1960s, ’70s, and the 2000s,which contrast war imagery with domestic settings, share a kinship with Höch’s work. Höch’s many juxtapositions of women’s legs with objects and artworks seem like an obvious forerunner to some of photographer Laurie Simmons’s most famous works. Long before The Pictures Generation adopted a program of appropriating mass-media imagery, Höch had discovered the radical freedom of a cut-and-paste aesthetic—especially in a society trying to hold her back.