“The Photomontages of Hannah Höch”

Though her career stretched into the ’70s, Hannah Höch is best known, at least on this side of the Atlantic, as the sole female member of the bad-boy club that constituted Berlin Dada. While this show featuring more than 100 photomontages—the first retrospective of Höch’s work in the US—gives an attentive nod to her Dada years, it focuses mostly on the work she made after, and in spite of, her association with the group. Monumental pieces such as Dada Rundschau (Dada panorama, 1919) and Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser Dada durch die letzte Weimarer Bierbauchkultur epoche Deutschlands (Cut with the kitchen knife dada through the last Weimar beer-belly cultural epoch of Germany, 1919–20), which are infused with a silliness and savagery that is pure Dada, are all the more jarring when one knows that their creator was at the time employed at the Ullstein Press, Germany’s largest publishing house, designing lacework and writing articles about embroidery for the equivalent of Ladies’ Home Journal.

During this same period Höch was also composing delicate abstract collages with scraps taken from the pattern books she used at work. It was probably the more “feminine” aesthetic of pieces like Schneiderblume (Tailor’s flower, 1920), and Astronomie (Astronomy, 1922) that lowered her status in the eyes of her Dada compatriots, who only grudgingly included her work in their exhibitions. Looking at Da Dandy, 1919, however, in which she fills the silhouette of a man—presumably one of her colleagues—with images of seductive women, one gets the impression that she wasn’t above taking her own subtle revenge.

If Höch wasn’t sufficiently consumed by Dada to become a full-fledged member of the club, perhaps it was because she feared being creatively hobbled by the brief but volatile movement. What Höch did do was take Berlin Dada’s primary innovation—photomontage—and run with it for more than fifty years. It’s one thing to subvert mass-media images to horribly funny or ironic effect—as she did in Hochfinanz (High finance, 1923), or Bürgerliches Brautpaar (Streit) (Bourgeois wedding couple [quarrel], 1919); it’s quite another to use the medium to expressive ends. Höch became a master at this during the late ’20s and the ’30s, in works like Die Kokette I (The coquette I, 1923–25), Dompteuse (The tamer, ca. 1930) and the brilliantly colored Equilibre (Balance, 1925), which critique intimate relationships, gender politics, and Germany’s New Woman ideal. In Die Ewigen Schuhplattler (The eternal folk dancers, 1933) and “Die Braut”(The bride, ca. 1933), she mocked Nazism, a practice she continued till the end of the ’30s. Resignation, ca. 1930, one of several arresting anomalies, depicts a curious and terrifying beast peering plaintively out of the urban twilight, a deformed hand extended to the viewer as if in a plea for help.

During the postwar period, when Höch was in her sixties—and color images filled magazines—her work became stunningly sensual. With its palette of red, pink, and cream, its ruffles and sparkly geodes, Um Einen Roten Mund (About a red mouth, ca. 1967) crams a dizzying array of erotic allusions into 48 square inches; while Entartet (Degenerate, 1969) and Das Fest kann beginnen (On with the party, 1965) capture Pop art’s technicolor glamour, but on the scale of an illuminated manuscript. The whole show, in fact, with its narrow corridors and intimate galleries painted in low-key decorator colors like “Biscuit” or “Iced Delight,” has a seductive, nearly edible quality. Playing up the skills of an artist too long associated only with Berlin Dada’s anarchic, antiart stance, “The Photomontages of Hannah Höch” extracts Höch from the footnotes of art history and relegates Dada to an appropriate place in her own career.

Julie Caniglia