A pioneer, a rebel, a woman: Hannah Höch

Today is the International Women’s day and March also comes with the celebration of the Women History Month in East London and its plethora of events. One of them is of such significance and celebrating such a woman that it should not be missed. It is the first major UK exhibition of the influential German artist Hannah Höch (1889-1978) at the Whitechapel Gallery. The artist has been fairly overlooked by traditional art history despite having been recognized by her celebrated contemporaries from Kurt Schwitters to George Grosz and Theo van Doesburg. Over 100 works from international collections have been gathered making it a comprehensive survey of her work on paper.

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Born in Gotha (Germany) in 1889, Höch moved to Berlin in 1912 and enrolled in the Berlin School of Applied Arts and in 1915 studied at the Museum of Applied Arts in Berlin. She became one of the most significant collage artists of the 20th century and a pioneer who created what became later known as photomontage. In an art world largely dominated by men she earned her place as one of the significant members of the Berlin Dada movement and exhibited at the First International Dada Fair in Berlin in 1920.

As such affiliation suggests, Höch was a rebellious character that rejected outright the establishment and truly believed that art was meant to change society. As one can discover throughout the exhibition, she was not troubled by the acerbic nature of her social and political comments. Key works from the Dada era such as Head of States or High Finance are part of the exhibition, the latter commenting for instance on the collusion between the industry and the military.

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By splicing together images taken from popular magazines, illustrated journals and fashion publications, she created a moving commentary on society during a time of tremendous social change. Her progressive political and social stances were well served by her sharp and perceptive artworks yet remaining humorous.

The series From an Ethnographic Museum has been celebrated in the past and some of the works constituting it are exhibited. The collages merge female bodies with traditional masks and objects, triggering a discussion about gender, identity and race. More broadly, she uses these various fragments to redefine the standards of beauty rejecting racial clichés and homogeneity at a time when the purity of the race was being professed.

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Höch’s work was referenced in relation to the artists included in the infamous exhibition Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) in 1937, a propagandistic display of works considered ‘degenerate’ by Hitler and the National Socialists. Höch nevertheless remained in Germany during World War II and retreated to a house just outside Berlin where she continued to make work. During and after the war, her work explores lyric abstraction through collages and photomontages as well as themes that have always been dear to her.

She stayed in Berlin until 1978 in time to see her stature recognized in exhibitions at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and the Berlin Nationalgalerie in 1976.

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Until March 23rd, Hannah Höch, The Whitechapel Gallery, London

Categories: Design

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