- Cut with the kitchen knife: the Weimar photomontages of Hannah HöchBy Maud Lavin
- Hannah HöchOur PickBy Ades and Daniel F Herrmann
Important Art by Hannah Höch
Höch's darkly playful Dada Dolls are quite distinct from any work created by the others in the Berlin group of Dada artists with which she was affiliated early on. Given that the Berlin chapter of Dadaists only formed in 1917, these small-scale sculptural works suggest her awareness of Dada ideas more generally from its inception in 1916 in Zurich. She was likely influenced by writer Hugo Ball, the Zurich-based founder of Dada, given Höch's doll costumes' resemblance to the geometric forms of Ball's own costume worn in a seminal Dada performance at the Swiss nightclub Cabaret Voltaire.
Ball achieved notoriety for his declamation there of sound poetry, which he recited while wearing a mechanical looking outfit comprised of geometric shapes. The costume can be read as a commentary on contradictory feelings held towards developing technology. Technology was both revered and feared at this time, since it both aided social and economic progress but also threatened humanity with its destructive power. A common belief among Dadaists was that technology caused humans to become more machine-like themselves. One intent of the Dada movement was to use art as a satirical critique of such elements of culture that were both intimidating and absurd.
As Paul Trachtman has portrayed it, in a description that is apt for both Ball's and Höch's work: "When Dadaists did choose to represent the human form, it was often mutilated or made to look manufactured or mechanical. The multitude of severely crippled veterans and the growth of a prosthetics industry struck contemporaries as creating a race of half-mechanical men."
Heads of State is built around a newspaper photograph of the German president Friedrich Ebert and his Minister of Defense, Gustav Noske. Having carefully cut the men out, Höch proceeded to create a composition with characteristically disjunctive and unexpected outcomes. The two statesmen look decidedly foolish out of context in their bathing suits, and Höch places them against a background of an iron-on embroidery pattern of flowers and butterflies surrounding a woman. At this point, in time she was still working for magazines designing similar patterns, and this work is testament to her ability to converge her disparate experiences to create new and striking images.
The effect is deliberately comical, but it also sends a powerful message. The President and his minister, who had recently and ruthlessly put down the Spartacist Rebellion, are presented frolicking in a whimsical fantasy land, as if they are unaware of the intense hardships and political and financial problems being faced by Germany and its citizens during this period.
The embroidery-pattern background alludes to a source of income and occupation for many German women at this time, including Höch herself, and serves to contrast the role of women with that of men. The collage is arranged so that it looks like the two figures have been caught in the net of the embroidery pattern, and it positions these paunchy heads of state as worthy of ridicule in the process of stripping them of their usual trappings of masculinity. At the same time, the composition attacks the patriarchy and questions the arbitrary values projected onto different art forms by society.
Though one of Höch's earliest works, this ambitious collage is unusual within her canon for being particularly large; it measures 35 x 57 inches. Here she uses cuttings from newspapers and magazines to create one cohesive image out of a myriad of disparate parts. This technique of taking words and images from the established press to make new and subversive statements was highly innovative.
The piece was exhibited in the First International Dada Fair, which took place in Berlin in 1920, and it was reportedly one of the most popular pieces in the show. In the top right corner Höch has pasted together images of "anti-Dada:" figures of the Weimar government and representatives of the old empire. Elsewhere in the collage, the proponents of Dada including photographs of Raoul Hausmann are ranged in opposition to these establishment figures.
The effect is initially one of visual confusion, and yet a kind of nonsense-narrative begins to develop with sustained attention. One figure is transformed into something else by the addition of a de-contextualised newspaper clipping, such as the Kaiser's iconic moustache replaced by a pair of upside-down wrestlers. The work encapsulates the eclecticism and eccentricities of Dadaism, but also makes a pointed political statement against the staid establishment; it is a carefully-crafted homage to anarchistic opposition.