Hannah Höch at The Museum of Modern Art

Hannah Höch, Cut With The Kitchen Knife Through The Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany (1919-1920), photomontage and collage with watercolor, 44-7/8″ x 35-7/16″; courtesy Staatliche Museeun Zu Berlin

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There is a gratifying modesty in how The Photomontages of Hannah Höch at the Museum of Modern Art has been properly, if not perfectly, scaled to its subject. Hannah Höch (1889–1978) was the sole woman artist associated with Berlin Dada, a group known for its strident politics and anti-art stance. In contrast to renowned Dadaists such as George Grosz and John Heartfield, Höch has been, until recently, a modernist footnote. At the time of her death in 1978, she was remembered as the “Bobhaired Muse of the Men’s Club” and, most infamously, the “good girl” of Dada, a moniker given to her by the artist Hans Richter. The exhibition at MOMA attempts to correct this dubious recognition by spotlighting the work for which she is best known, and though the hundred or so photomontages on view are as small in scope as they are in size, they are not negligible. While The Photomontages of Hannah Höch does not reveal a major talent, it does show us why Höch is an artist worth considering in the first place.

This is, of course, seeing the glass half full rather than half empty. Yet at a time when marginal artists are hyped with claims that have little to do with art, The Photomontages of Hannah Höch is, as an exhibition of pictures, the equivalent of straight talk. Indeed, the curators’ focus—which, by its very nature, excludes Höch’s paintings, drawings and watercolors—involves something resembling connoisseurship. Admittedly, the resuscitation of Höch’s career owes much to feminist art history, and the catalogue underscores (in the jargonistic parlance of the times) her “poignant commentaries on the strains and confusions caused by culturally exacted gender performances.” One doesn’t have to be an ideologue to find the “good girl” tag belittling, but politics is never a good reason for salvaging (or judging) art. If a few reputable artists have been rescued from oblivion because of their race, gender, or what have you, then we are less blessed than lucky. So it is with Hannah Höch.

Just how much the revitalization of Höch’s reputation is due to extra-aesthetic matters can be divined from the attention bestowed upon the large collage Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany (1919–20). With its snipped and jumbled photos of politicians, artists and entertainers, Cut with the Kitchen Knife is a bona fide artifact of the Dadaist epoch. The title alone is fraught with enough symbolism to launch a dozen thesis papers. (Cut with the Kitchen Knife did, in fact, serve as the title of a recent study of the photomontages.) In her catalogue essay, Maria Makela pinpoints the work’s imagery—from Marx and Lenin to Pola Negri and Kathe Kollwitz to a map of Europe that identifies the countries in which women were able to vote—and makes a kind of sense of it, though scant attention is paid to it as a work of art. And, as such, Cut with the Kitchen Knife is a mess. Physically, it has not held up well; the piece’s discolored and mottled surfaces suggest a work that once had graphic power. As it is, Höch’s composition—or, should one say, non-composition—is diffuse. Portions of it are funny, but they don’t coalesce into anything consequential; it lacks the basic armature a good joke requires. What seems a jolting piece of propaganda is, finally, a dissipated rebus. The appeal of Cut with the Kitchen Knife to contemporary taste may be precisely this fragmentary quality. There are, it would seem, few things more validating for a confused culture than a confused work of art.

Cut with the Kitchen Knife is the largest and most overtly political of Höch’s photomontages. Yet both its scale and “content” were alien to her sensibility. Most of the collages are small—“intimate” is not an inappropriate word—and without the vitriol typical of Berlin Dada. A German critic described the photomontages as being “skeptical in an almost tender way” and this seems about right. For Höch never took great interest in expounding an anti-art agenda. “A clear aesthetically resolved statement” (as the artist had it) was important to Höch. It is noteworthy that not until 1929, almost ten years after the First International Dada Fair, did she feel confident in exhibiting her photomontages publicly. During this time Höch was not completely convinced of photomontage’s viability as an art form and exhibited, albeit sporadically, only her paintings and textile designs. Nonetheless she found within its “traditionless” parameters an artistic and imaginative freedom absent from her other work.

Although the philosophy of Dada didn’t altogether jibe with Höch’s world view, the movement itself was an essential catalyst for her art. She clearly benefited, artistically if not emotionally, from being in proximity to the “men’s club.” Höch’s vision, however, was not fueled by anger or despair. What emerges from the photomontages is a sly and not ungentle intellect with a deft eye for design and a love for absurdist disjunction. She was a quirky miniaturist at the beginning of what seemed, at the time, an impossibly big century. The century turned out to be bigger (and more impossible) than anyone in 1920 could have predicted, and if some of Höch’s collages seem dated it isn’t due to yellowing newsprint alone; the fractured juxtapositions of scale, image, and text in the photomontages have long been a part of our cultural life. The artist (and Höch’s one-time lover) Raoul Hausmann, writing in 1931, griped that photomontage was rapidly being shanghaied by commercial and political interests. In this respect, he was prophetic—more than he could ever imagine, in fact. If the edge in Höch’s work has dulled a bit, her portrayal of the new century—dizzying and open to possibility and paradox—is often still exhilarating. It is impossible, for instance, not to read the rush of overlapping images in The Beautiful Girl (1919–20) or Untitled (1921), with its glamour girl spinning atop a turntable, as anything but paeans, albeit acerbic ones, to a world in flux.

Höch’s works of the early 1920s are impeccably constructed and the best of them is High Finance (1923). Here we are presented with a surfeit of images: an aerial photograph of the Ausstellungsgelände and Jahrhunderthalle in Breslau; British chemist Sir John Herschel; machine parts; a truck riding over a tire clipped, one imagines, from an advertisement; the red-white-and-black striped flag of the empire; and a double-barreled shotgun. With its provocative scraps of imagery, High Finance can be read as a satirical comment on industrialism and power. Yet what makes the collage truly memorable is, for example, how the graphic slickness of the oversized rifle offsets and dominates the grainy photographs of the piece’s two main figures or how the ball bearing at the bottom left corner serves as the collage’s anchor. Höch snaps her units of information into place and the results positively hum. (The dead-on stability and rhythmic counterpoints of the composition would have impressed Mondrian.) High Finance is neither novelty nor propaganda; it is an expertly executed work of art and Höch’s masterpiece.

High FinanceThe Beautiful Girl, and The Coquette I (1923–25), a sardonic depiction of courting that has the delicacy of a Persian miniature, all have Dadaist overtones. But the movement, such as it was, petered out in the early 1920s. Höch drifted away from her Dada contacts but not from the avant-garde. Friendships with Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Kurt Schwitters, Theo and Nelly van Doesburg, and Hans and Sophie Tauber Arp provided Höch with an artistic community more conducive to her temperament. “Hans Arp and Kurt Schwitters …” said Höch in a 1959 interview, “were rare examples of the kind of artist who can really treat a woman as a colleague.” (The Dadaists, more often than not, condescended to her.) Yet, the strongest influence—if that is, indeed, what we can call it—on Höch’s post-Dadaist work may have been National Socialism. The Nazi rise to power, and its concomitant antagonism toward “degenerate art,” were felt early on by Höch: a planned 1932 retrospective of her photomontages at the Dessau Bauhaus was canceled when the local wing of the party closed down the school. In 1939 Höch, keenly aware of the threat to “cultural bolshevists,” moved to Heiligensee, a suburb of Berlin, where she lived and worked in relative isolation until the end of the war.

It is little wonder, then, that Höch’s work of the 1930s and 1940s becomes increasingly private and prone to Surrealist reverie. These works are problematic in that Höch’s chopped up and rearranged figures had already become routine, rarely rising above the limits of a good formula. (There are, perhaps, one too many mismatched sets of eyeballs here.) While the work of this time is not as tight as the Dada-inspired collages, cumulatively, it makes Höch’s pressurized world felt. There are numerous moments of arresting weirdness—the floating, disembodied legs of Never Keep Both Feet on the Ground (1940), for example, approach the magical. The best of this group, The Accident (1936), however, is atypical. While it uses recognizable motifs—wagon wheels, baskets, and polka dot fabric—The Accident is, essentially, an abstraction. Its clunking, circular rhythms create the pictorial equivalent of a perpetual motion machine. Höch would work abstractly again, primarily during the 1950s, but she never equaled the off-kilter beauty of The Accident.

The mistake the curators make is in trying to revamp Höch as a contemporary artist. It is surprising to learn that an artist associated with the Weimar Republic was also a contemporary of Robert Rauschenberg, and one sympathizes with Höch when, in 1976, she wearily states: “I’m sick and tired of Dada.” Many artists are unfairly stuck in historical brackets that limit our appreciation of their life’s work, but Höch is, well, fairly stuck. The most unsettling aspect of her postwar collages isn’t necessarily that they are bad. On the contrary, works like Synthetic Flowers (Propeller Thistles) (1952) and Burst Unity (1955) are accomplished, handsome, and utterly bland. Whether abstract or pseudo-Pop satires, the late photomontages are without bite or artistic necessity. Höch may well have flourished best in an artistic and historical context that made demands of her gifts. At a time when the heritage of Dada was being mainstreamed—courtesy of Rauschenberg, Pop, et al.—Höch was, at best, coasting. It is sad that the most “memorable” work here is also the most embarrassing, simply because it breaks out of the final gallery’s monotony. Homage to Riza Abasi (1963)—which juxtaposes the head of an Audrey Hepburn look-alike with the ample body of a belly dancer—is so simple-minded it would make a sophomore art student blush. It isn’t Dada-inspired so much as it is Dada-lite. Surely, the exhibition would have been better if it had ended with Dove of Peace (1945), a scary and incredulous take on world events, but such are curatorial prerogatives. Instead, we get a finale that is beside the point.

Despite the anticlimactic nature of the final gallery, The Photomontages of Hannah Höch is a welcome exhibition. If Höch’s work doesn’t elicit the intense pleasure we associate with the greatest art, its unassuming pleasures should not be dismissed. “Höch-watchers,” including the catalogue essayists, may use terms like “genius” and “dazzling” in describing the work, but these words are too strong for what is, in the end, a pretty good artist in a pretty good exhibition. Such a statement may be interpreted, in some quarters, as the merest chauvinism. Yet it is entirely possible to be a feminist and deplore the politicization of art. Privileging ideological intention over aesthetic fact results in little more than political placebos and diminished art—results, I daresay, Höch herself would have found questionable. Hannah Höch’s contribution to twentieth-century art is modest and solid. The crowds I attended the exhibition with seemed to be having a good time. We should take our cue from them and leave the proselytizers to fend for themselves.

© 1997 Mario Naves

Originally published in the May 1997 edition of The New Criterion.

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