The New Woman: Berlin’s feminist, Dadaist pioneer Hannah Höch

The first major exhibition of Hannah Höch is being held at the Whitechapel Gallery.

The most famous work by German artist Hannah Höch (1889-1978) remains Cut with the Kitchen Knife: Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Culture Epoch (1919), exhibited at the International Dada Fair in 1920. One of Höch’s largest collages, Cut with the Kitchen Knife showcased both the satirical possibilities and political ambiguities of the form, which she pioneered. Using the titular ‘kitchen knife’ to symbolise her cutting through male-dominated society, Höch incorporated newspaper headlines, animals, industrial landscapes, and political or cultural figures, loosely divided into ‘anti-Dada’ and ‘Dada’ sections, leaving open the question of which represented the most positive force in the new Weimar Republic.

Cut with the Kitchen Knife: Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Culture Epoch 

Although the Dadaist ‘anti-art’ that arose in Zürich and Berlin during the First World War had opposed militarism, monarchism and conservatism, the movement’s fundamental negativity complicated its relationship with socialism. Dada painter George Grosz was unwilling to lionise the proletariat as a counterpoint to his Pillars of Society, which its ruling class heads full of excrement, and years later, Richard Hülsenbeck explained that when they sought a target for their resentment, the Dadaists asked themselves “What is the bourgeois?” and “made the sad discovery that we were all bourgeois”, which kept the group from the Communist affiliation of their Surrealist successors.

Although it attacked the bloated, beer-fuelled German military after the war and the crushing of the revolution of November 1918, Cut with the Kitchen Knife was not didactic. Rather, it presented an array of images – the deposed Kaiser and new president Friedrich Ebert in the ‘anti-Dada’ section, Marx and Lenin with Grosz and Höch, fellow montage artist John Heartfield and Dada artist Raoul Hausmann, who was Höch’s lover from 1916 to 1922. Sadly, in the Whitechapel Gallery’s retrospective – the first in Britain – we see only a detail of its Dada section, with the fragile original in Berlin’s Neues Nationalgalerie, with the whole appearing in the catalogue.

There are 120 other works from Höch’s life, however, with the downstairs gallery charting her development until the end of the Republic, with a few collages from the mid-1930s, and two upstairs looking at how she worked in private after the Nazis declared her art Degenerate, and how she resumed her career after 1945. The first section is strongest, showing how Höch’s aesthetic and political interests evolved, from her involvement with Dada and Hausmann to her European travels, friendships with Bauhaus and De Stijl artists and relationship with female Dutch poet Til Brugman in the late 1920s.

Höch was one of several women associated with Dada, besides artist Sophie Täuber and performer/poet Emmy Hennings, but she was not given a nickname or included in all of the Berlin group’s activities. The significance of her position in Dada, and in Germany, is highlighted: having worked in the industry, Höch often used images from fashion magazines, pasting male heads on to female bodies or vice versa. Her critique of traditional gender roles and how they upheld a conservative society is often subtle, especially when compared to post-war feminist art, but is most effective when making explicit the role of violence in maintaining them: The Father (1920) is particularly jarring, placing a composite of male authority heads onto a woman’s body in a white dress, her feet in stilettos, with a boxer punching the baby in her arms.

Höch’s engagement with the mid-1920s idea of the ‘New Woman’ also emerges strongly. The ‘New Woman’ had bobbed hair, worked, and had sex – a product of getting the vote, and Article 119 of the Weimar constitution stating that marriage was ‘based on equality of the sexes’. However, many remained in low-status work with unequal pay, and married women were not allowed jobs if able-bodied veterans could take them. Within her circles, Höch was the New Woman, sharing both her style and her frustrations, and her background made her acutely aware of how this figure was a media creation and an advertising target. Portrait of Hannah Höch (1926) and another from 1929 show her looking like the New Woman, with her short hair and androgynous dress, but far from satisfied, let alone liberated.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Höch stayed near Berlin between 1933 and 1945. Unable to exhibit, she began collating the Album – a change in her method, putting existing images together in a way that, shown here in a book, allows viewers to find meanings in their juxtaposition, rather than cutting fragments together to generate new works. Her interests in the New Woman and ethnography remain constant, but overt visual messages are resisted – unsurprisingly, given the conditions.

The collection of post-war works in Gallery 8 shows how Höch first borrowed elements of Dalí or Magritte’s Surrealism, and then turned towards a more abstract style, in her ‘Fantastic Art’ which explored the ‘tension … between the world of ideas and the real world’. These were often more colourful than her Dadaist montages, but become repetitive, being most successful when Höch revisits her inter-war social concerns. Homage to Riza Abazi (1963) presents a jumble of Orientalist signifiers of female beauty to Western audiences, with Höch’s techniques retaining the power to defamiliarise. Her huge Life Portrait (1972-73) shows Höch from childhood to old age, often with the Dada artists she’d outlived, closes the exhibition, letting her have the final word on a history that has often excluded her, commenting on her times with all the scale and force of Cut with the Kitchen Knife.

 

Hannah Höch is at the Whitechapel Gallery until 23 March 2014

Hannah Höch, Kleine Sonne (Little Sun), 1969, collage, 16.3 x 24.2 cm, Landesbank Berlin AG.

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era