PRINT December 2014

Hal Foster

AT A MOMENT when almost everything is collage and montage—with cut-and-paste the most basic operation on computers and image appropriation and object juxtaposition the most common procedures in art—it is a pleasure to reencounter the modernist origins of these devices. This is to be reminded of the subversive force they once had, especially in expert hands such as those of Hannah Höch (1889–1978), who wielded a kitchen knife with an acuity, at once aesthetic and political, like that of no other artist of her time (save perhaps John Heartfield) or since (except maybe Barbara Kruger). A stellar survey of her work was staged by Daniel F. Herrmann and Dawn Ades at the Whitechapel Gallery in London this past winter.

Importantly for Höch, photomontage was rooted in everyday forms such as jokey military postcards and tourist souvenirs (showing, for example, the head of an infantryman set on the uniformed body of an officer, or young friends squeezed into a little airplane at a fair). She also understood that the device depended on the conventional acceptance of the realism of the photograph and the integrity of its image, which her cut-and-paste could then divert and disrupt. Höch deemed two other preconditions to be essential: the novel forms of both film montage, which showed how visual meaning could be constructed dialectically, and “reportage photography,” the photojournalism featured in the illustrated magazines that boomed in the Weimar period and that she ransacked for material. This source also put her art in productive tension with advertising and publicity, which she both delighted in and tore up and turned every which way. Even before Brecht coined the term, then, Höch subjected her selected images to “refunctioning” or, as she put it, “remounting, cutting up, sticking down, activating—that is to say, alienating.” She called her photomontage “a new form of compressed utterance,” which is to suggest that it was, in an elliptical way, always dialogical with her viewers and often agonistic with her sources. This was so because Höch aimed above all to question, in her own terms, the “validity” of current “concepts” and “gestures,” usually through abrupt cuts in scale and perspective. “I would like to blur the firm borders that we human beings, cocksure as we are, are inclined to erect around everything that is accessible to us,” Höch wrote in 1929. “Today I would portray the world from an ant’s-eye view and tomorrow as the moon sees it.”

Her initial montages targeted the validity of modern patriarchy in early Weimar; for example, Höch literally strips down two “heads of state” (Friedrich Ebert and Gustav Noske) in a 1918–20 piece of that title. Then, as the republic reeled on, she turned to the new types highlighted by its illustrated magazines—physical specimens such as the runner and the dancer, as well as chic figures such as the celebrity and the “New Woman” of fashion. These montages are not always affirmative. Often Höch focuses on the eye, which her cut-and-paste disfigures, but only so as to render the gaze more intense, at once attractive and repulsive; it is as though she knew more about the Medusa’s head than Freud did. (He published his little text of that name, on castration anxiety, in 1922.) Höch carried these procedures through the decade into her famous series “Aus einem ethnographischen Museum” (From an Ethnographic Museum), 1924–30, which consists of mash-ups of tribal figures and Weimar beauties; here she turned upside down the reactionary fear that the modern world is but a regression to savagery. In her arty play with social types, Höch emerges as critical complement to the great documentarian of the Weimar period, August Sander; at the same time, her deep interest in expression and gesture keeps faith with Charles Darwin and Aby Warburg. Clearly, Höch still believed in a physiognomic reading of character (the humors are evoked and the faces of humans and animals are superimposed), even as she also mocked this antiquated version of social psychology.

The Whitechapel show had many small surprises, such as the early embroideries and pattern pieces and the late sexy collages and summa self-portrait Lebensbild (Life Portrait), 1972–73, and one major revelation, the scrapbook—now typically called the Album—Höch produced in 1933. As Ralf Burmeister suggests in the catalogue, its status is ambiguous—neither artwork (it was not exhibited in her lifetime) nor image repertoire (unlike other picture atlases, such as that of Gerhard Richter). The Album, which art historian Maud Lavin reclaimed in her 1993 book on Höch, consists of 114 pages with 421 photographic pieces, and it took on the measure of its sources (14 1/8 x 11"), which were Weimar magazines. (Höch drew on two issues of Die Dame in particular.) That it was made in 1933 is key, of course, given that the republic had just collapsed and the Nazis were newly in power. In those early years of National Socialist rule, Höch wrote in an autobiographical fragment from 1958, “the pressure from Hitler became nightmarish.” How she dealt with that strain makes for the drama of the Album.

Many elements persist from the photomontages of the 1920s: her interest in expression and gesture, both human and animal, and her play with scale and perspective, or “the optical unconscious” (as Benjamin termed it at the time) of views from “ant” to “moon.” In this respect, Höch is in direct dialogue with predecessors like Karl Blossfeldt and contemporaries like László Moholy-Nagy, whose studies of the various architectures of plant life and urban construction are cited in the Album. At the same time, she also anticipates the fascination with the pseudomorphism of photographed forms, micro and macro, that the postwar Independent Group exhibited in such shows as “Growth and Form” (1951) and “Parallel of Life and Art” (1953). “The world itself has taken on a ‘photographic face,’” the great Weimar critic Siegfried Kracauer wrote, ambivalently, in 1927. For the most part, Höch seems delighted with this photogenic universe: pace Brecht, why begrudge a schöne Welt? “I should like to help people to experience a richer world,” she commented ambiguously in 1929, “so that they may feel more kindly towards the world we know.” This shift in tone comes with a shift in technique: Here Höch does not cut into her images so much as she composes them; the Album is less about fragmentary pieces than about intact wholes. It is still a work of montage, of refunctioning, but now the détournement acts on the magazine page or spread more than on the single photograph. This approach allows Höch to repeat motifs and develop themes. Stars and sporty types are back, and again there are more women than men, yet often they appear in unusual groupings: not just mother and child but girls together; not just a row of schoolchildren but a “mass ornament,” to use the contemporaneous phrase offered by Kracauer to come to terms with spectacles that subsume individuals into decorative patterns (such as young women in bathing suits centripetally arranged to form a perfect wheel), as though capitalist rationality might be both performed and consumed as entertainment.

At this point, we begin to look for connections between Weimar and Nazi types, as Höch did before us. She juxtaposes pictures of nude bodies in nature cults redolent of Weimar with Alpine vistas suggestive of Leni Riefenstahl. She indulges her own taste for the primitive and the exotic—Höch is fascinated with nonmodern women from Africa, Oceania, and Asia (a young female dancer from Bali appears several times)—and contrasts that taste with the official version of “Aryanism” then on the rise. In the end, the Album is a photo-essay on “the just past,” but without the sense of the repellent given the term by Benjamin. On the contrary, Höch seems to long for Weimar already, but she also examines it, coolly, with her kitchen knife. The Album is at once celebration and requiem, autopsy and archive. “All that was left for me to do,” Höch tells us in that same 1958 fragment, “was to save the remnants of that creative period that were at hand.”

Hal Foster is a 2014–15 Fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library.