Höch, Hannah (1889–1978)

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Höch, Hannah (1889–1978)

German artist, best known for her thought-provoking photomontages from the period of the Weimar Republic. Name variations: Hannah Hoch. Born Johanne Höch on November 1, 1889, in Gotha, Thuringia, Germany; died in Berlin-Heiligensee on May 31, 1978; daughter of Friedrich Höch and Rosa Sachs Höch; lived with Til Brugman, from 1929 to 1935; married Kurt Matthies.

In an artistic career that spanned more than six decades, Hannah Höch explored a great range of aesthetic territory, creating bold and often controversial graphics, paintings, collages, photographs, and even puppets. One of the masters of the art of photomontage, she played an important role in the intellectual history of Germany by being the only woman member of the Berlin Dada circle. In the years since her death in 1978, Höch's artistic reputation has grown dramatically. This reevaluation of the importance of her place in the history of modern art was already in evidence during the final years of her life. In November 1977, in his response to a survey by the influential New York journal ART-news as to which artists he considered to be the most underrated, influential art critic Robert Hughes gave Hannah Höch as his first (and only) choice; a similar response came from William S. Lieberman, director of drawings at Manhattan's mecca of modernism, the Museum of Modern Art. By the end of the 20th century, Höch's star had soared as she became recognized as an artist whose work reflected important facets of the modern spirit.

She was born Johanne Höch in 1889 into the comfortable upper-middle-class. Her father Friedrich was director of an insurance company. Her mother Rosa, an amateur painter, introduced Höch to the world of art. As a young girl, Höch followed a long-established custom for young girls of her status, creating books of collages made from magazine cuttings. Such collages were intended to foster a spirit of femininity and domesticity leading to marriage. In 1912, Höch moved from her hometown of Gotha to Berlin and enrolled at the municipal school of applied arts located in the suburb of Charlottenburg. Here, she was trained in various applied arts including calligraphy and embroidery, as well as wallpaper, book, glass, and textile design. Höch's desire to master a number of crafts received further inspiration in 1914 when she traveled to Cologne to visit the important Werkbund exhibition.

In 1915, soon after the onset of World War I, Hannah Höch enrolled at the teaching division of Berlin's highly respected State Museum School, where she studied with the noted graphic artist Emil Orlik. Her strong grounding in crafts can be seen in several needlework designs she published at the time in journals specializing in the preservation of German handicraft traditions. Also in 1915, Höch met and became the constant companion of the artist Raoul Hausmann, through whom she would come in contact with the literary and artistic circle which in 1918 formed Berlin's avant-garde Club Dada. Dada was an innovative artistic and literary movement launched in Zurich in 1916 by a group of young artists, many of them spiritual refugees from a grimly militarized Germany, who were angered and repelled by what they regarded as the pointless slaughter of World War I. Dada accelerated trends already revealed in prewar European intellectual life, including abstract and cubist art, German Expressionism, and the newest trends in French poetry. Embracing nonsense in an irrational world, these artists named their group after a word, Dada, which was chosen at random and meant absolutely nothing. The movement was not confined exclusively to Switzerland, quickly spreading to Berlin, Paris, New York and other cities.

Starting in 1916, Hannah Höch worked for a decade on a part-time basis for the Ullstein Verlag, a vast publishing conglomerate. For Ullstein's handicraft division, Höch created needlework patterns and lace tablecloth designs. The job paid her sufficiently to live independently and also allowed enough time for her private artistic pursuits. Of equal importance was the fact that working at Ullstein provided Höch with access to an almost unlimited number of file copies of the company's nearly two dozen mass-circulation newspapers and magazines. These furnished the material for the montages that Höch cut and reassembled. Some of her earliest works of note, dating from 1919, consist of needlework and sewing patterns that she rearranged into eye-catching abstractions.

The unexpected collapse of the imperial German regime in November 1918, after four years of war, shook an already troubled nation to its foundations. Within months of the armistice, Berlin became the site of deadly political struggles which soon culminated in dashed hopes for a socialist transformation. In January 1919, the radical, Bolshevik-inspired Spartacist uprising was suppressed. During this failed attempt at a German Communist revolution, the leaders of the extreme Left, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg , were both assassinated. Berlin's intellectuals, including Höch, were deeply troubled by these events. Although they desired the creation of a new moral, artistic, and political order in Germany, the Dadaists of Berlin were by no means a united group when it came to their political thinking. One group—led by the brothers Wieland Herzfelde and John Heartfield (who had Anglicized his name as a protest against the war), and by George Grosz (who had done the same thing)—was strongly in sympathy with the Bolsheviks and their revolutionary transformation of Russia. In their art works and writings, they attacked a servile militaristic spirit they saw at the heart of Germany's woes.

The other wing of the Berlin Dada movement, of which Hannah Höch was an active member, was led by her lover Raoul Hausmann, "theoretician of contradiction and promoter of direct action." Hausmann advocated a new world order based on radically individualistic anarchy. In this, he was seconded by Johannes Baader, who had previously worked as a mausoleum architect and now reveled in his role of shocking Berlin's bourgeoisie with art flowing from a rich sense of the absurd. Although the ideological differences between the two wings of Berlin Dada were fundamental, the artists remained on friendly terms largely because of the conciliatory and balanced disposition of another leading Dadaist, Richard Huelsenbeck. Höch was in sympathy with the leftist ideals of all Dada members but avoided their often crude forms of social criticism and political propaganda in favor of making points in a more subtle and indirect fashion.

Photomontage was the new and innovative art form through which Höch and several of the other Berlin Dadaists made known their thoughts about the unsatisfactory state of the new Weimar Republic. One of Höch's earliest photomontages, Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Era of the Weimar Beer-Belly Culture (1919–20, Nationalgalerie Berlin), is a large work—measuring nearly 45×36 inches—which was exhibited at the First International Dada Fair in 1920. Reflecting the chaos and despair of Germany's immediate postwar years, Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife presents an absurdist panorama of the Weimar Republic's public life. Among other things, the work depicts the forces of political and social reaction, irreverently placing the head of Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, the venerable "wooden titan" of World War I fame, on top of a belly dancer's body.

Additional touches in Höch's best-known photomontage include the head of Käthe Kollwitz hovering above the shoulders of a popular child dancer of the period, as well as Höch's own head on a corner of a map depicting those European nations that had recently granted women the right to vote. With its jumbled photographs of artists, political philosophers and leaders, including Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, as well as celebrities of the day, such as silent-film star Pola Negri , this photomontage attempted to capture the complex spirit of the chaotic postwar world as it played itself out in Germany's unstable Weimar Republic, which had become the most artistically vibrant nation in Europe.

Although more than one account claims that Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann had invented photomontage in 1918 during a vacation to a village on the Baltic when they both noticed photographic portraits affixed to commemorative engravings of soldiers, the technique in fact dates back several generations. In the 1870s, it was a popular pastime to combine photographs with watercolor paintings, and the practice was revived with a new energy in the first decade of the 20th century when cubist painters hit on the idea of mixing mediums. By gluing onto their canvases such odds and ends as wine and cognac bottle labels, words and phrases cut from newspapers, and even actual objects, they gave birth to a new genre of art. During wartime, Dadaist leaders like George Grosz used photomontage to fight censorship, by using, he said, "a mischmasch of advertisements for hernia belts, student song books and dog food, labels from schnapps and wine bottles, and photographs from picture papers, cut up at will in such a way as to say, in pictures, what would have been banned by the censors if we had said it in words."

Hannah Höch did not have to worry about censorship in the intellectually freer Weimar Republic. She thrived in the newly liberalized atmosphere, producing witty and subtle photomontages which commented on the major issues of the day. Her works were innovative in their use of materials gleaned from exhibition catalogues, paper of various colors and textures, typography, fabrics, lace, delicate transparent patterns, the tailors' marks from those patterns, the filet net used as a base for embroidery, as well as the expected fragments from postcards, magazines and newspapers.

At least one critic, Mario Naves, has argued that Höch's most impressive work during the 1920s is not the well-known Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife, but a later work, the 1923 collage High Finance. In this, Höch presents the viewer with provocative images including a double-barrel shotgun, aerial views of exhibition halls in the city of Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland), machine parts, a truck riding over a tire, the banner of Germany's reactionaries, the imperial Reich flag in horizontal stripes of red, white, and red, and last, but by no means least, a portrait of the scientist Sir John Herschel. A satirical commentary on both the world of industrialism and the realm of social power, Höch's High Finance has impressed critics from a compositional point of view, with its "dead-on stability and rhythmic counterpoints that would have impressed Mondrian." A work considered "neither novelty nor propaganda," it has been called "an expertly executed work of art and Höch's masterpiece."

By the mid-1920s, Höch had ended her relationship with Raoul Hausmann and the creative energies of Berlin Dada had petered out. She continued to produce works in a variety of mediums and remained open to new ideas, maintaining friendships with many of the most creative personalities of her day, including Kurt Schwitters, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Nelly van Doesburg , and Hans Arp and Sophie Tauber-Arp . In 1926, Höch entered into an intimate relationship with a Dutch woman, author Til Brugman (1888–1956), with whom she lived until 1929 in The Hague, and then until 1935 in Berlin. Höch returned to Germany in 1929 at a time when the relatively stable years of the Weimar Republic were coming to an end with the rise of Adolf Hitler's Nazi movement. Although she had shown little interest in political affairs in recent years, by 1930 Höch was again commenting through her art on the suffering of the German people. In the 1930 collage Trainer (Kunsthaus, Zurich), which is completed by a brown (the color of the shirts worn by Hitler's storm troopers, the SA) leather frame, an aggressive masculine pose is combined with fragments of female bodies. Many themes are suggested here, including that of the struggle between the sexes. In the 1931 collage Strong Men (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen, Stuttgart), the Nazi threat is once again depicted as one of aggressively muscle-bound men intent on destruction.

Höch had good reason to look upon the Nazis as foes not only of culture and civilized values, but of her own ability to work freely as a creative artist. Hitler, a frustrated artist who believed himself qualified to judge the creative efforts of others, defined much of contemporary German art as being entartet (degenerate), "un-German," and infected with the spirit of Kulturbolschewismus (cultural Bolshevism). Even before the Nazis came to power in 1933, Höch was affected by their hatred of all that was innovative and disrespectful of national values and middle-class ideals. In 1932, a planned retrospective of her photomontages scheduled to open at the Dessau Bauhaus was canceled when the local branch of the Nazi Party forced the world-famous art school to close down.

Unlike many other German artists who had been designated "cultural Bolsheviks" by the Nazis, Höch chose to remain in Germany after 1933. Not being Jewish, she did not suffer persecution from the regime's increasingly harsh anti-Semitic racial legislation. Nevertheless, she had to resign herself to marginalization within a new art world dominated by the ideals of National Socialism. Banned from publicly exhibiting her art, she continued work in private, creating collages with materials from inexpensive sources.

Choosing a world of "inner emigration," Höch retreated into private life. Among her few open acts of defiance during this period was her rescue of the papers and art works of the Berlin Dada circle from destruction by the Nazi-controlled Reichskulturkammer (Reich Chamber of Culture). In 1939, she purchased a house in the Berlin suburb of Heiligensee which provided her with both physical rootedness and psychic security. Here, she tended her garden, a lifelong obsession, which provided an aura of calm in an increasingly violent world. The only event of note during these years was Höch's marriage in 1938 to Kurt Matthies, which would end in divorce in 1944.

Condemned by Nazi society, Höch remained highly productive, and her commentaries would prove to be enduring. In a series of works entitled Pictures in Times of Misery, she relied, in Ellen Maurer 's words, on her own "visionary codes to depict epochal events." Persecution is shown in terms of a chicken with wasted limbs. The violence at the heart of Nazism was suggested in the 1933 collage Wild Uprising (Sparkasse Berlin, Berlin), in which a figure springs out of a huge, boorish body, looking resolutely past the work's border. Escape from the suffocating environment of Nazi Germany was hinted at in the 1937 collage Seven Mile Boots (Kunsthalle, Hamburg).

After World War II, Höch stayed in Berlin, working in various genres. She continued to grow as an artist, employing a style defined by Maurer as Stilpluralismus (pluralism of styles), in which some of the most telling influences are Expressionism, constructivism, Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), and the work of several Symbolist painters, including Odilon Redon. Working with such varied traditions, as well as her own experiences as an artist, Höch remained productive until her last years, producing some works as thought provoking as those of her Dada period.

In many ways a philosophical artist, Hannah Höch created works that asked big questions in an offbeat fashion. Soon after her death in Berlin-Heiligensee, on May 31, 1978, the art world began to see the strong, individualistic views that informed her work as she traveled the same path as 20th-century masters: Max Ernst, Paul Klee, and Méret Oppenheim .


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related media:

"The Female Closet" (videocassette) by Barbara Hammer. NY: Women Make Movies, 1998.

"Hannah Höch" (videocassette) Bonn: Inter Nationes, 1989.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia