January 20, 2014 5:41 pm

Hannah Höch, Whitechapel Gallery, London – review

The German artist’s photomontages combine a radical critique of society with formal rigour
'Heads of the State' (1930)

'Heads of the State' (1930)

Although the critic Robert Hughes once described the German artist Hannah Höch as the “most aesthetically gifted” of her generation, she always had to fight for recognition.

In 1920, her fellow artists in the Berlin Dada movement, George Grosz and John Heartfield, objected to her inclusion in the First International Dada Fair. In the 1950s, she told an interviewer that most of the male Dadaists viewed their female peers as “charming and gifted amateurs”. By then she was living in obscurity on the outskirts of West Berlin, “quite content”, she insisted, that “very few of the younger Berlin painters seem to know that I’m still alive”.

More

IN Visual Arts

It was their loss. As this authoritative show at the Whitechapel Gallery demonstrates – the first devoted to Höch in the UK, although the past decade has seen major exhibitions elsewhere – hers was a staggering talent.

It is easy to write off Höch’s erasure as a classic case of neglect-by-gender. Certainly, her sex would have counted against her in an art world where women were regarded as mothers, muses or models. (The laconic chill of “The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even” by Dada’s forefather Marcel Duchamp sums up the dismissive zeitgeist.)

Yet it was Höch’s art as much as her gender that set her apart from the gang. Written in 1918, the Berlin Dada manifesto called for a “simultaneous muddle of noises, colours and spiritual rhythms”. But there was nothing muddled about Höch. Her formal gifts, as Hughes observed, enforced a strict discipline on her rebellious soul.

And her desire for revolution went deeper than that of her peers. Compared with the extravagant yet essentially mute pelts of scrap paper assembled by Kurt Schwitters, a close friend of Höch’s and a pilot of Dadaism, Höch’s images are narrative pageants: angry, painful, acerbic diatribes that shatter orthodox wisdoms on society, family, race and gender. (Those disturbed by, say, Maurizio Cattelan’s faux-transgressive frolics should check out Höch’s image of a baby taking a punch from a prize fighter.)

Born in 1889 in Thuringia, Höch had the chains of a conventional family to break. Her father was an insurance executive who believed, she said, that “a girl should get married and forget about studying art”. Almost 22 when she fled the nest for Berlin, Höch was too nervous to apply to the fine art academy and enrolled instead at the school of applied arts, where textile crafts were considered suitable for a woman, and then found work at the publishers Ullstein, where she churned out patterns for dresses and embroidery. Out of hours, she haunted the city’s avant-garde art scene, soaking up the expressionism and abstraction she found at progressive galleries such as Der Sturm.

Early works from this period – “White Cloud” (1916) and “Papillons”, “Broken Stars”, “Double Form” (all 1917) – show abstract patterns, whose taut, rhythmic, ornamental syncopations feed off her textiles expertise but also flirt with the free-fall energies of Kandinsky and Robert Delaunay.

Höch was not alone in devising such bold combinations. A new democratic rapport between art and craft had been hailed as early as fin-de-siècle Vienna. What was radical was her adoption of photomontage. She developed the technique in 1917 in collaboration with her lover, Dadaist Raoul Hausmann. Assembling images from photographs cut out from popular magazines, it was the perfect medium for Berlin Dada, a movement – always more political than its ludic Zurich counterpart – that aimed to capture the “reckless everyday psyche” of the Weimar Republic.

Little wonder Hausmann and Höch plumped for an art of fragmentation. Traumatised by the privations of defeat, assailed by workers’ uprisings, army mutinies and the ruthless suppression of these insurrections, post-war Weimar was, as Höch put it, poisoned by “a feeling of alienation”.

Höch dissects this crisis with forensic acuity. She satirises politicians: made between 1918 and 1922, “Heads of State” pastes images of Weimar’s President Friedrich Ebert and its minister of defence Gustav Noske – captured in their bathing trunks as foolish, paunchy figures of fun – against one of her iron-on embroidery patterns. She takes aim at capitalism: in “Gold” (1922), a tribal mask gazes impassively as a vast hand scoops piles of coins towards an invisible figure.

But her real target is the warp and weft of society itself. In “The Father” (1920), the head of a white, middle-aged man perches on a flimsily clad female body, the baby in his arms under attack from an athletic male boxer. Around this androgynous horror, young women dancers – with bodies that are notably whole – strike immaculate poses against a backdrop of fractured advertisements.

The beauty of witnessing Höch’s work in such breadth is that its innate ambivalence shines through. What are we to make of a 1929 photomontage that sets a tribal mask askew on a white torso with lopped-off limbs and a stone claw foot? Or “The Big Step” (1931), where a chimpanzee’s head nestles in the torsoless crotch of an athlete whose hips sprout wings, while a deformed cherub – with a glamour-girl face and stumps for limbs – hovers above him?

In Höch’s world, eyes come from one image and lips from another; human heads top animal bodies; cabaret dancers sprout classical faces. At times, her desire to uproot stereotypes is stymied by her own limitations as a woman of her place and time. One of the most troubling images in this show must be “The Peasant Couple” (1931), which shows a chimpanzee with Aryan blonde plaits paired with a black man’s face wedged between a colonial-style trilby and leather boots.

Höch’s own life broke barriers too. After a tempestuous relationship with Hausmann, whom she never married, she embarked on a nine-year affair with the Dutch female writer Til Brugman before marrying and then divorcing Heinz Kurt Matthies, a German businessman.

Her commitment to female equality is sometimes queried; she once told an interviewer that marriage and children were “good brakes”, suggesting that her own lifestyle left her vertiginous at times. Certainly, her impeccable formalism – the exactitude of her shapes, the crisp, clean spaces of her backgrounds – acted to anchor her lawless imagery. (Among her most powerful influences are those champions of geometry, Theo Van Doesburg, El Lissitzky and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.)

Nevertheless, her unbridled cornucopia resists monotone readings. Most telling is her own statement that she longed to “blur the borders that we human beings, cocksure as we are, are inclined to erect . . . I would like to show the world today as an ant sees it and tomorrow as the moon sees it.”

One can only imagine the trauma such a subversive psyche suffered once Germany was in thrall to a Nazi fantasy of purity. By 1937, a “great loneliness” consumed Höch. As the arts “vegetated like a macabre wasteland”, her avant-garde comrades left the country. Others, including her close friend the abstract artist Otto Freundlich, were deported to the camps.

Although branded a “cultural Bolshevik”, Höch survived. The Whitechapel devotes an entire floor to her postwar oeuvre in the hope that it may catch a little of the limelight that, recently at least, has been accorded to her electric Weimar years.

It may be disappointed. Like so many artists, Höch embraced abstraction after 1945. But her oneiric, detached visions wilt in comparison with the electric charge of their figurative pre-war counterparts. Just occasionally, as in “Industrial Landscape” (1965), a feat of paper-cutting that weaves myriad fragments into a mystical, Calvino-complex metropolis, a flash of the old bittersweet bite breaks through.

Yet the curators are to be applauded for charting Höch’s journey with such attention. As well as a spotlight on a great talent, this exhibition is a rare window on the struggle of a German artist to find a new language in a world where idealism had been blown away.

Until March 23, whitechapelgallery.org

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

Life & Arts on Twitter

More FT Twitter accounts