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Profession: Woman Artist

"I'd like to blur the fixed boundaries..."
A Pionier of Photomontage: Hannah Höch

Hardly any other expressive technique is more frequently associated with the Dada movement than photomontage. Born out of an aversion to art and artists and hinting at the construed in their own works, the Dadaists implemented them to call the bourgeois notion of the “artist genius” into question. Along with painting and drawing, Hannah Höch (1889–1978) consistently used and continued to develop this technique in her work. She became famous side by side with Raoul Hausmann – and this despite the fact that the Berlin Dada movement was exclusively dominated by men. In the third part of our series “Profession: Woman Artist,” Maria Morais reviews the mood of breakthrough imbuing the art of the nineteen-twenties.

The question as to whether Raoul Hausmann or Hannah Höch was the first to discover the photomontage as an artistic means of expression for the Dada movement has never been entirely resolved. Indeed, the memories of this crucial moment turn out to be rather divergent. In his retrospective work “Am Anfang war Dada” (In the Beginning Was Dada), which he completed in 1970, Hausmann wrote: “On the occasion of a holiday at the Baltic Sea (…) I invented the photomontage (…) It was like a flash: one could make pictures – I immediately saw this – entirely comprised of cut-up photographs.”

Hannah Höch, Bürgerliches Brautpaar, Collage, 1919

On vacation together in the Baltic town of Heidebrink in 1918, they came up with the same idea together. 40 years later – their paths had long since separated – Höch recalled: “This systematic approach towards working with photographic material began after seeing an oil print hanging on the wall of a fisher’s hut. We were amused by it; it depicted five soldiers standing in five different uniforms, worked in between the magnificent emblems of the empire – and with the head of the fisher’s son glued onto each, but photographed only once. This naive kitsch was a memento of the son’s tenure as a soldier, and used to hang in many German parlors. It prompted Hausmann to take the idea of trying something with photographs and elaborate it further.” Even in her old age, Höch’s modesty and lack of envy left the glory of discovery to her former lover. On the other hand, things were quite different for Hausmann: he merely named Hannah Höch in connection with other Dada artist friends such as George Grosz, Johannes Baader, and John Heartfield as co-founders of the term that came to describe the new adhesive technique.

Hannah Höch und Raoul Hausmann auf der Dada-Messe in Berlin, 1920

It was love at first sight. They met for the first time in the spring of 1915. In an emphatic poem entitled “Zwei Tage erinnere ich” (I Remember Two Days) that Hausmann gave Hannah Höch for her 26th birthday, he described his fateful encounter with the young student on April 28 in the teaching facilities of the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Berlin, as well as their romantic excursion to Wannsee the following July: “It was the day I took your bosom into my hands for first time – full of fear and trembling, yet knowingly and willfully. Our entire fate depends on these two days, as different as they are.” Hannah Höch was wildly happy – and without a clue. Reality soon caught up with her: Hausmann had kept it a secret that he’d already been married for some time and was the father of an eight year-old daughter. Although Höch found the situation untenable, and traveled to her parents in Gotha after this fact was revealed, Hausmann wrote her countless letters, finally succeeding in keeping the contact alive. This turbulent relationship, however, accompanied as it was by constant argument and repeated separation, was to lead to the most artistically fertile years in the lives of both artists.

In 1916, the writer Hugo Ball founded the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich as a forum for his invention, Dada. Together with the dancer Emmy Hennings, Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp, Marcel Janco, and Richard Huelsenbeck, Ball put on spectacular Dada evenings. The novelty lie in the totality of the program: with dance, song, readings, cabaret, installations, and costumes, various forms of expression were combined, the familiar incorporated and imbued with a radicalism that rendered it serviceable. The performances were loud, accompanied by atonal music and noise that both enlivened and disturbed the audience.

Hans Arp, Constellation, 1922, Collage auf Karton
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In 1918, Huelsenbeck brought Dada to Berlin, where he founded the “Club Dada” and became the chief author of the Dadaist manifesto. Various groups were formed. One of them consisted of Heartfield, Grosz, Hausmann, and Wieland Herzfelde; it quickly attracted attention. 1918 and 1919 became the most successful Dada years. Hannah Höch dedicated herself intensively to photomontage during this time. The works she produced evince a masterful perfection, and her influence on the art of the Berlin Dada movement goes uncontested today. The men’s inner circle of initiates, however, only seldom granted her guest appearances. She was only actively present at a “spectacle” once: On April 30, 1919, Hannah was the only woman to take part in a Dada performance in the Berlin gallery I.B. Neumann, armed with “Pot Covers and Baby Rattle” and kicking up a racket. Her artistic talent finally became evident at the famous “First International Dada Fair” in June of 1920, in which all Berlin Dadaists took part. Along with those named above, Johannes Baader, the architect Mies van der Rohe, Rudolf Schlichter, and Otto Schmalhausen, who went by the name of OZ, took part.

Here, for the first time, Hanna Höch showed her large work Cut With a Kitchen Knife Through Germany’s Last Weimar Beerbelly Cultural Epoch, which today counts among the incunabula of the medium.

She had already been working since 1916 in the Ullstein Publishing House designing patterns for die cuts and other handwork for various magazines. The work not only provided her with a basic income; Höch acquired the sense of precision and detail here that would come to characterize her photomontage works. Her images reveal a subtle view of the social constitution of the time. In a barely noticeable way, her criticism of prevailing conditions points to the changing image of women in the Weimar Republic. In Cut With a Kitchen Knife Dada…, Höch adds a map of Europe to the bottom right hand corner of a picture, next to the cut-out heads of Greta Garbo and Käthe Kollwitz; in it, the countries are marked which had finally legislated women’s right to vote.

George Grosz, Der Agitator, 1920, Tusche auf Bütten
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In contrast, the montages and collages of the Dada circle are marked by an offensive propagandistic tenor which pits itself against the “Spirit of Weimar” from the very beginning: “We want to laugh, laugh and do what our instincts tell us to. We don’t want democracy, liberality, we despise the cothurn of mental consumerism, (…) We live in insecurity, we don’t want the value and meaning that flatter the bourgeoisie – We want unworthiness and nonsense! We’re outraged by the obligations of Potsdam Weimar (…) We want to create everything ourselves – our own new world!” – as Hausmann proclaimed in one of his countless pamphlets.

Kurt Schwitters, Pariser
Frühling, 1936
öl auf Holz
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Max Ernst, Ich bin wie eine Eiche..., 1931
Bleistift, Gouache, Frottage u.
Collage auf Karton
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Perhaps it was her own tendency towards reserved irony and a quieter tone that relegated Höch to the role of the observing chronicler in the beacon of the Berlin Dadaists. In any case, it hardly comes as a surprise that she developed an intense friendship with Kurt Schwitters from Hanover, whose works exerted a deep influence on her art, as did the works of Max Ernst.

Kurt Schwitters’ one-man Dada movement was received skeptically by the Berlin circle. His involvement with Dada seemed too petty bourgeois, too much like that of a lone wolf in comparison to the open political propaganda of the Dada manifesto. As a consequence, Schwitters renamed his artistic production “Merz” after a scrap of found newspaper originally containing the German word “Kommerz ” or “commerce.” For a time, Hannah Höch became involved in the Merzbau “Cathedral of Erotic Misery” which Schwitters began in 1923. Here, certainly, she could also let her own experiences and personal pain of the past seven years enter in: without warning, Hausmann had abandoned her, flinging himself into his new love for the painter Hedwig Mankiewitz. Just how hard the separation must have been for Höch is reflected by Schwitters’ description of the relationship between the two: “Whenever she needs him, she’s there for him.”

Years of intense work followed. The series of photomontages entitled “Ethnographic Museum” arose, followed by numerous group exhibitions at home and abroad that took her to Paris and Holland. Here, in 1926, she met and grew to love the Dutch woman writer Til Brugmann. The relationship, scandalous as it was for the time, sharpened her eye to the allocation of male and female roles. The works of this time examine questions of identity, culture, and subjectivity. In literally dismantling and deconstructing racism, sexism, and politics in her images, she revealed discrepancies between the individual and the prevailing social image of self.

Hannah Höch und Til Brugmann, Berlin 1931


Hannah Höch
Denkmal II: Eitelkeit, Collage, 1926
In 1929, Höch showed her works in a one-person exhibition for the first time. She wrote: “I’d like to blur the fixed boundaries we humans, in our self-assurance, tend to draw around everything within our reach. I paint images in which I attempt to make this palpable, visible. I’d like to show that small can be large and that large is also small, that it’s only the perspective from which we judge things that changes, that every concept loses its validity.” The same year, she returned to Berlin with Til Brugmann. The contact to her former partner was severed, yet as an artist she was in demand as never before.

Hannah Höch, Die Dompteuse, Fotomontage, 1930

The radical break occurred in 1933, when the Hitler regime seized power. Hannah Höch was defamed as a “Cultural Bolshevist” in 1934 and prohibited from exhibiting her work. The time continued to extract its price: in 1935, she separated from Brugmann.

Although she married the considerably younger pianist Dr. Kurt Matthies in 1938, whom she divorced in 1944, Hannah Höch retreated into an “inner emigration.” Entirely withdrawn, isolated, and forgotten, she survived the Nazi regime in her house in Heiligensee, Berlin. While subsiding at the poverty level, she saved the Dada documents she’d collected and the works of her former artist friends, burying them in numerous boxes in her garden.

During the fifties, Dadaism underwent a brief Renaissance. Yet nothing was the same as before. Hannah Höch drew the following comparison: “In spite of it all, we’re trying to find a place in art again – to teach young people, who are really terribly primitive and unknowing, to think freely and independently (…) The situation today is very different than it was following the First World War, when we formulated goals for ourselves, even before the end of the war and then immediately afterwards, goals that had their founding in pacifist ideas. Back then, the freedom we’d won after the end of the war set a huge amount of activity [free] that we’d been holding back with considerable difficulty. After this second war, young people are only now beginning to free themselves from lethargy, dullness, deceit, or at the very most desperation.”

It was to take another twenty years until the time once again became ripe for these pacifist ideas. Hannah Höch must have followed the radical social movements of the late sixties with satisfaction.

Hannah Höch, farbige Komposition (Kopf), 1975
Offsetlithographie auf leichtem Karton
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Although she was accepted as a member of Berlin’s Akademie der Künste in 1965, she was never to attain personal prosperity, despite the rediscovery of her work towards the end of her life.

In 1978, in the most modest of circumstances, Hannah Höch died in Berlin.

Translation: Andrea Scrima

chosen literature:
Karoline Hille, Raoul Hausmann und Hannah Höch - Eine Berliner Dada-Geschichte, Rowolt Verlag, Berlin 2000.
Jula Dech/Ellen Maurer (Hrsg.), Da-da zwischen Reden zu Hannah Höch, Orlanda Frauenverlag, Berlin 1991.

copyrights for pictures:
Abb. 1 and 7-9: Jula Dech/Ellen Maurer (Hrsg.), Da-da zwischen Reden zu Hannah Höch, Berlin 1991.
Abb. 2: Karoline Hille, Raoul Hausmann und Hannah Höch - Eine Berliner Dada-Geschichte, Berlin 2000.
Abb. 3-6 and 10: Archiv der Sammlung Deutsche Bank.

© Berlinische Galerie, Berlin
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn