Hannah Höch was a German artist primarily known as an innovator of photomontage techniques and associated with the Dada movement. Photomontage was often politically radical and contained messages of social criticism, some of the themes explored by Höch are gender and identity politics, the role of women in a male dominated art world, social injustice, race and colonialism. Reviewing Höch’s first UK retrospective exhibition in 2014, Charlie Fox (2014) wonders what took so long to get to this point. He sees a “rare energy and expansiveness” in Höch’s work which displays “riddling oddness and breathless invention…Her photomontages take carnivalesque pleasure in mixing together the masculine and feminine, the erotic and monstrous, long before it was the done thing for a female artist.”
This collage, which is an example of one of Höch’s early themes – criticism of the Weimar Republic – shows the comical juxtaposition of two portly German politicians (German President Friedrich Ebert and his defence minister Gustav Noste) against a backdrop of fine embroidery which appears to catch them like a net. (Cumming, 2014) The relative simplicity of this piece contrasts with works like ‘Cut with the Kitchen Knife…’ which are more like an assault on the senses.
‘Dada-Ernst’ has the double meaning of both “Dada-Serious” and a reference to artist Max Ernst. Sentimental images of 19th century femininity are juxtaposed with athletic, modern women. The disembodied, bare legs (a recurring Höch motif) are equated with skyscrapers, a symbol of modernity, suggesting that women are now freed from the constraints of the last century. (Dillon, 2014)
‘Cut with the Kitchen Knife…’ was produced for and displayed at the Dada fair held in Berlin in 1920. The collage is a mass of pictures and text – anti-compositional and anti-art in keeping with one of the central theses of Dada. The intent is political and blatantly critical of the post World War I Weimar government – if there was any doubt of this from the imagery then the scathing title makes Höch’s message clear. It is a work that is difficult to encapsulate in words, here are some of the descriptions I have come across in my research:
“Ranged in the top right corner are the forces of “anti-dada”: stern representatives of the late empire, the army and the new Weimar government. Below, in the dada corner, are massed artists, communists and other radicals. Raoul Hausmann is being extruded, shat out really, by a machine to which is affixed the head of Karl Marx. There are less crudely anatomical machines scattered about the metre-wide collage, and female film stars such as Pola Negri battle with moustached emissaries of the old German order. In the bottom right corner, Höch has glued a small map showing the European countries in which women could then vote.” (Dillon, 2014)
“A collage of disparate material, this presents a series of photographic images in a series of different perspectives bound by common themes, However, it cannot be read in literal or narrative terms; nor can it be reduced to the sum of its parts. The word DADA dominates, of course, and the mix of typeface and image increases the impression of fragmentation. Although individual images stand out, they cannot be made to yield their meaning. We cannot, as it were, cut the image. With its fragmented structure and underlying cynicism, it reflects the mood in Europe one year after the end of the First World War.” (Clarke, 1997: 197, 199)
“the full range of technical and strategic ambiguities that form the project of photomontage is apparent. From an ironically rendered narrative to a purely structural deployment of textual material, the possibilities of Höch’s work would become the axis of a dialectic operation within the photomontage itself. In Cut with the Kitchen Knife… the iconic narrative consists of a detailed inventory of key figures from the public world of the Weimar Republic. These move from political figures such as Friedrich Ebert, the Social Democratic President who had been responsible for the murders of the Spartakist Bund, specifically Rosa Luxemburg (1870-1919) and Karl Liebknecht (1871-1919), at the hands of his minister of the Interior, Gustav Noske…to figures of the cultural world such as Albert Einstein, Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945) and the dancer Niddy Impekoven. All of these are disseminated across the field of the work according to nonhierarchical, noncompositional, and aleatory principle of distribution, mingled with a variety of textual fragments that often invoke the nonsensical syllables “da-da”.” (Foster et al, 2012: 176)
Badger (2001: 60) reads the image’s central concern as a comment on the role of women in society – there are references to women’s suffrage and domestic drudgery with pictures of traditional domesticity contrasted with progressive women such as actresses, dancers, athletes and poets – as well as Höch’s own portrait which is included as a ‘signature’. The act of making the montage can also be read as being symbolic with the household implement of scissors being the main tool used to make the work, likely on the domestic setting of the kitchen table making the process itself a household task.
Warner Marien (2014: 243) links the emergence of the photomontage with the increasing proliferation of mass media which were beginning to form a common visual culture following World War I:
“Even though the individual images on early photomontage were generally easy to read, their combination yielded pictures whose meaning was difficult to decipher. In effect, photomontage itself was the message of change. Nevertheless, some parts of Cut with the Kitchen Knife can be decoded (they are described in the caption.)”
Cumming (2014) describes ‘Cut with the Kitchen Knife…’ as:
“a gleeful jamboree…in which the world is not just turned upside down but birled about in all directions.
Karl Marx, Kaiser Wilhelm, Albert Einstein, the dadaists themselves: this epic montage teems with dozens of faces. The body of the dancer Niddy Impekoven juggles the head of the artist Käthe Kollwitz, female acrobats leap and tumble among the soldiers, guns and plutocrats. The kaiser’s preposterous mustachios metamorphose into the backsides of two wiry boxers.
It’s a juggling act of bristling vitality, and though it is often praised as a great assault on German politics, the sending up of people and objects – quite literally – is what strikes. Höch’s art is so balletic, her snipped images and dismembered figures dance on the page like leaves in the air. Her work is tough and punchy, yet always delicate.”
The reason for including all of these quotes and opinions (and these are just the ones that resonated with me the most) is that it shows the elements and themes that strike each writer as being the most significant in ‘Cut with the Kitchen Knife…” The terms “nonhierarchical” and “noncompositional” (Foster et al, 2012: 176) strike a particular chord with me and show that this is the case – it is incredible that this is still such an innovative approach 100 years after the piece was made.
From an Ethnographic Museum (1924-30):
This is a series of works which combines female bodies with traditional masks and non European sculpture in order to question traditional gender and racial stereotypes as well as colonialism. Cumming (2014) reads the series as a response to Nazi ideals of racial purity and western notions of beauty in general. Dillon (2014) sees little evidence of of a critical or political perspective in the series arguing that at this point Höch’s main interest is in form rather than politics: “experimenting with increasingly grotesque agglomerations of heads and body parts, and setting her inventions against slabs of living colour.” Jansen (2016) sees ‘From an Ethnographic Museum’ as Höch’s “most searingly political and elegantly composed bodies of work…[the] seamless merging of apparently opposed cultures – male and female, European and African, coloniser and colonised , documenter and documented, bourgeois modern and primordial tribal – made for a spiky statement against Nazi Germany and the ideals of western beauty, revealing the proximity of cultures and the farce of a cultural hierarchy.”
Throughout the time of the third reich, Höch was classed as a ‘degenerate’ artist and “cultural Bolshevik” – her politics and lifestyle being at odds with Nazi philosophy. Although she remained in Berlin during World War II she lived in internal exile in a small house on the outskirts of Berlin. The date of this work appears significant and the title could mean either a party in the literal sense or the Nazi party. With knowledge of the politics of Hitler the female figure appears as the aryan ideal – athletic, with blond hair and a welcoming smile – although the eyes are significantly not shown. The eye at the bottom left looking back at the viewer suggests being watched – perhaps the picture is about the necessary image a woman need to portray in order to survive in Nazi Germany. It could even be a self portrait representing how Höch needed to hide her real self from view through fear of being denounced.
During my research I found little about Höch’s later work which is a shame if this striking image is anything to go by. Dillon (2014) comments that it is a common misconception that her later work lacked the radical nature of her early collages. While this image is undoubtedly simpler than others in terms of having fewer elements, the recurring motif of the female body is represented here, as is the use of famous figures (the mouth belongs to Marilyn Monroe.) The use of colour – driven by the fact that this was now widely used in publications that were Höch’s source material – is the most obvious differentiator with earlier work, the palette here is dizzyingly evocative
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Dillon, B. (2014) Hannah Höch: art’s original punk. The Guardian, 9th January 2014. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jan/09/hannah-hoch-art-punk-whitechapel [accessed 8th May 2019]
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