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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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.