Hannah Höch has been portrayed for the last eighty or so years as the “good girl” of the Berlin Dada movement. As the only woman to have been included in the exclusive ‘Club Dada’, it matters not whether she was good, bad, or otherwise. This image of Höch, constructed mainly by her male colleagues, directly contrasts with her artwork. She produced charged images that had strong social commentaries, political messages, and sarcastic humor. Höch’s biography is equally distinct, and her love life is an oft cited inspiration for her art. Höch had three major relationships in her life: a seven-year affair with a married man, a nine-year lesbian relationship, and a six-year marriage to a man younger than herself1. Höch’s artwork was inspired by the tumultuous landscape of Weimar Germany, her own life experiences, and a growing feminist sense that dawned with the arrival of the “New Woman”. Taken as a whole, Höch’s body of work uses androgynous figures and a mixture of fine and applied arts to comment on gender roles and femininity in 20th century Germany. These themes were rooted in her initial work with the Berlin Dadaists.
Hannah Höch moved to Berlin at the age of twenty-two with the intention of studying the applied arts. She met Raoul Hausmann shortly thereafter and he brought her into the Berlin avant-garde circle. Höch’s Dada career essentially began and ended with the start and end of her illicit relationship with Hausmann. By 1916, she found work “as a designer of embroidery and lace...at the large Ullstein Publishing Company,” where she worked three days a week until 1926. Her patterns were “integrally related” to her experiments in photomontage, blurring the boundaries between fine art and craft, respectively masculine and feminine modes of expression2. This incorporation of craft can been seen in images like Weiße Form (Cat. 11) and the untitled photomontage from 1921 (Cat. 10).
After collaborating with Hausmann on the synthesis of photomontage as a new artistic medium, Höch went on to create some of the most iconic cut-and-paste images of Berlin Dada. The First International Dada Fair (Ernste International Dada-Messe) was her first foray into the professional avant-garde scene; she had seven works in the show, four of which were collage or photomontage. Höch only participated in two Dada exhibitions, but they were “the only two major exhibitions of Dada visual art in Berlin”2. Her presence in the numerous Dada publications consisted of a single print in the second issue of Der Dada, which was misattributed to M. Höch. “On the copy Höch retained, now in her archives, she has crossed out ‘M. Höch’ and written: ‘H. wieder mal verstümmelt’ (Höch mutilated again)”3. Although she undersigned many of the Dada manifestos and was a member of the November Group (the political group that many fellow Dadaist took part in), Hannah Höch was constantly being reduced by her contemporaries as a “tiny voice... drowned out by the roars of her masculine colleagues”4. And yet, her photomontage Cut With the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany (Figure 1, below) remains one of the most well-known and influential images of Berlin Dada.
The men of ‘Club Dada’ tried to minimize Höch’s presence in the movement in multiple ways. In his Dada: Art and Anti-Art, Hans Richter describes her as a “tiny voice” with “slightly nun-like grace” whose main purpose was to procure sandwiches and coffee. Despite their seven year long relationship, Raoul Hausmann included Höch only minimally in his memoirs. Dada heavyweights George Grosz and John Heartfield were against Höch’s participation in the Dada-Messe, and only consented to exhibit her work under the influence of Hausmann5. Part of the reason for this exclusion could have been the fact that Höch “was not anti-art, but continued to paint throughout her life. Moreover, she saw fine art and applied art as complementary,” while the rest of the Dadaist concerned themselves mainly with publications and presentations like the Dada-Messe6.
Höch was inspired by the idea of the modern woman from the start, incorporating new ideas of femininity into her photomontages through images of the “New Woman.” This exploration of gender roles led Höch to “question the complicated relationship between the sexes in post-World War I Germany”, as seen in images like Bourgeois Wedding Couple (Cat. 9) and Zwei Dada-Puppen (Cat. 14)7. Post-Dada, Höch had a long-term lesbian relationship with Til Brugman, a Dutch poet. However, Höch never identified as a lesbian or bisexual. Even in her private correspondence with Brugman, she “discussed [their relationship] as a deeply private love relationship”8. After splitting with Brugman, Höch went on to marry (and divorce six years later) the businessman Kurt Mattheis. However, distinct shifts in sexual preference are not directly reflected in her body of work; rather, “her androgynous images depict a pleasure in the movement between gender positions and a deliberate deconstruction of rigid masculine and feminine identities”9. This sense of social androgyny can already be seen in her works of the Dada years, in this exhibition in Der Vater (Cat. 13), Bourgeois Wedding Couple (Cat. 9), and Zwei Dada-Puppen (Cat. 14).
The few images selected out of Höch’s vast body of work for this exhibition strive to reinforce Höch as a politically and socially relevant tour de force of art in Berlin in the 1920s. As a collection, they are proof that her Dada photomontages were an important contribution to the movement, sharp social commentaries, and true artistic innovations. They also offer evidence that her later themes of gender androgyny and the New Woman were being developed upon her first entrance into the avant-garde circle.
1 Ruth Hemus, Dada’s Women, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 95.
2 Kristin Makholm, “Strange Beauty: Hannah Höch and the Photomontage,” MoMA, No. 24 (Winter - Spring, 1997), 19, accessed October 21, 2012.
3 Hemus, Dada’s Women, 94.
4 Ibid., 92.
5 Ibid., 92.
6 Robert Silberman, “Hannah Höch. Minneapolis and New York,” The Burlington Magazine , Vol. 139, No. 1128 (1997), 227, accessed October 21, 2012.
7 Hemus, Dada’s Women, 92.
8 Maud Lavin, “Androgyny, Spectatorship, and the Weimar Photomontages of Hannah Höch,”
New German Critique , No. 51, Special Issue on Weimar Mass Culture (Autumn, 1990), 67, accessed October 21, 2012.
9 Lavin, “Androgyny, Spectatorship, and the Weimar Photomontages of Hannah Höch,” 67.