Art or Craft?: Hannah Höch’s Collages Embraced the Conflict Between Art and Craft, Dada and Commercialism

“[Embroidery] is an art and ought to be treated like one … you, craftswomen, modern women, who feel that your spirit is in your work, who are determined to lay claim to your rights (economic and moral), who believe your feet are firmly planted in reality, at least Y-O-U should know that your embroidery work is a documentation of your own era.”—Hannah Höch, in Embroidery and Lace, 1918

Though German artist Hannah Höch is now famous for her politically charged photomontage and collage works, for much of her career she remained marginalized by fellow Dadaists and underestimated by the male-dominated art world through the 1950s. Especially since a recent retrospective of her work at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, many arguments have been made to try to explain her earlier marginalization. One possible reason may have been the apparent incongruity between her political and social satire, including frank critiques of gender and racial stereotypes—important forerunners of feminist art—and her decade-long career as a graphic artist for Weimar women’s magazines. By day Höch designed embroidery patterns for women’s hobby periodicals and illustrated daily magazines, while by night she quite literally ripped those images apart in her artwork. Her work often violently attacks the ideals of femininity and glorified domesticity that those magazines repackaged and popularized as fashionable.

Having set aside her plan to become a painter in favor of more practical skills, Höch arrived in Berlin at the age of 21 to study glass design and the graphic arts. For the ten years after she obtained her degree, from 1916 to 1926, she worked for the magazine publisher Ullstein Verlag. At the same time, she showed with the Berlin Dada group, became active in local Communist movements, and produced her best-known body of work including the seminal Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany (1919).

How can we reconcile her day job with her collages? Höch proclaimed in a 1918 manifesto published in a hobby magazine that embroidery could be the art of the modern “craftswoman,”—a documentation of its era. Combining existing images culled from print media, Höch’s work occupied a nebulous space between art and craft as well—a primary feature of the Dada art movement was to straddle the gap between high art and mass culture. Just as Höch’s art rejected the ideals of femininity and domesticity, she also seemed to believe (perhaps half-ironically) that by closing the gap between art and craft, creative work of any kind could empower women, whose creativity was confined at the time to those appropriate domestic hobbies described in magazines. After all, wasn’t Höch herself an embroiderer of images?