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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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.