Abstract Critical

Hannah Höch

Written by Dan Coombs

Kleine Sonne (Little Sun), 1969, Collage, 16.3 × 24.2 cm, Landesbank Berlin AG

Kleine Sonne (Little Sun), 1969, Collage, 16.3 × 24.2 cm, Landesbank Berlin AG

I could hardly bear to look at Hannah Höch’s collages, they seemed so delicate. The photographic images are positioned within a flat non-space, and against these flat grounds the cut-out forms of heads or legs or figures appear in slight volumetric relief, like fragile husks. The collages don’t so much draw you in as make you wary about the act of looking – they seem so barely held together yet somehow psychically reconfigure one’s own sense of boundary. I remember once in a strange zoo in Wales looking into a cage no bigger than a rabbit hutch at a dancing monkey. The monkey gibbered and gesticulated in a way that was a diminutive echo of human behaviour. Uncannily, between its legs was a tiny penis as perfectly formed as a human one, and though barely bigger than a grain of rice, it seemed both familiar and wholly strange, a form distilled into a tiny point like sunlight focused through a magnifying glass.

In a hotel by the Baltic Sea in 1916, hung a portrait of some soldiers onto which the hotel proprietor had glued a photograph of the head of his son repeated five times. Discovered by Höch and her lover Raoul Hausmann, the image triggered the invention of photomontage. Hausmann, the future blowhard of Berlin Dada,was excited by the possibilities within this new medium: “Its contrast of structure and dimension, rough against smooth, aerial photograph against close up, perspective against flat surface, the utmost technical flexibility and the most lucid formal dialectics are equally possible… the ability to manage the most striking contrasts, to the achievement of perfect states of equilibrium… ensures the medium a long and richly productive span of life”. (1) The medium’s extraordinary autonomy seemed to promise a new way of configuring the relationship between the imaginary and the real but by 1930 Hausmann had become disillusioned. In 1931 he wrote: “Every film programme – be it (the musical) ‘The Melody of the World’ (the comedy of) Chaplin, Buster Keaton, (the working class drama) ‘Mother Krausen’s Journey to Happiness’ or (the documentary) ‘Africa Speaks’- proves that the business world has largely recognized the value of this propogandist effect. The advertisements for these films are unimaginable without photomontage, as if it were an unwritten rule.” (2)

Aus der Sammlung: Aus einem ethnographischen Museum (From the Collection: From an Ethnographic Museum), 1929, Collage and gouache on paper, 26x17.5cm, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, Bequeathed by Gabrielle Keiller, 1995

Aus der Sammlung: Aus einem ethnographischen Museum (From the Collection: From an Ethnographic Museum), 1929, Collage and gouache on paper, 26×17.5cm, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, Bequeathed by Gabrielle Keiller, 1995

Collage treats images like words or as objects. It is already close to a form of exchange and the individual elements themselves, in their isolation and removal from their original context, echo the fetishisation of the commodity form. Initially photomontage promised a liberation from imposed identities and fixed categories but for idealistic subversives like Hausmann, it proved ultimately disappointing in the way its language was so easily reabsorbed into an expanding world of commercial media. He suspected the form itself ended up merely echoing the disenchantment of a world in which everything becomes reduced to a form of exchange. The photomontage by Richard Hamiton ‘Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing’ (1956) is a later parody of this commodified world, but seems to embody a melancholic secret, an understanding of its own inability to supersede the ideological codification of reality and the failure of its own deconstructive strategies to reach beyond the condition it seeks to satirise. Today, it seems, the development of collage has come full circle. The New York critic Jerry Saltz has written: “Appropriation is the idea that ate the art world. Go to any Chelsea gallery or international biennale and you’ll find it. It’s in there in paintings of photographs, photographs of photographs, photographs of advertising, sculpture with ready-made objects and videos using already existing film.” Collage, rather than remaining subversive, has become the signifier of image saturation, of endless capitalist circulation, advertising and consumerist false consciousness. If, as Louis Althusser has written, art bathes in ideology, how can it ever become clean?

Staatshäupter (Heads of State), Collage, Photomontage, 16.2 x 23.3 cm, Collection of IFA, Stuttgart

Staatshäupter (Heads of State), Collage, Photomontage, 16.2 x 23.3 cm, Collection of IFA, Stuttgart

Throughout the late nineteenth century in Paris it became increasingly clear that the further away from the centres of establishment power artists moved and the more autonomous from Salon conventions they became, the greater the quality, the liveliness or the freshness of the work. Avoiding the dead hand of ideology and convention, and the forcing, through autonomy, of a kind of radicalised subjectivity opened an alternative world away from objectified, stultified classicism. Similarly within the seething melting pot of Weimar Germany, autonomy was a claim to the truth beneath the lie, and radicalism was necessary to ensure art’s independence from corrupting (and ultimately disastrous) authoritarianism. Radicalism was inextricably bound up with Modernism’s truth claim, and in the Weimar Republic the best artists were concerned to overthrow bourgeois dogma. They did this either from within painting , or through its rejection. The strategy for painters, in avoiding ideology, seemed to be to try and fly below the radar; they embraced the primitive and the faux-naive, essential conditions of existence, unspeakable and unanswerable. “The artist need not know very much; best of all let him work instinctively and paint as naturally as he breathes or walks” said Emile Nolde. Expressionism, the search for an authentic self, a truly instinctive lived-in space within a painting, continues to this day, but for intellectuals, the problem with “faux-naive” will always be both the “faux” (the suspicion of theatrical posturing) or the “naive” (Nolde ended up a hapless member of the Nazi Party). The dialectical alternative to Expressionism, unravelling throughout the twentieth century in Europe and America, was an art of juxtaposition, of found elements, of the rearrangement of the pre-existing, of the non-self and a re-imagining of the banal. The intention was to eviscerate the essential and externalise the psyche, to project itself through existent realities. Höch herself gave the best definition of collage: “In the visual arts it predominantly refers to a newly created entity, made from alienating components.”

Like Grosz or Hausmann, Höch initially attempts to go for the political jugular. “Staatshäupter” (Heads of State), 1918-20, depicts two paunchy power brokers of the German Republic bathing in a sea of unseen Klee-like pictograms, their childishness emphasised. “Geld” (Money), c.1922, equates a hand reaching for a pile of gold coins with colonial booty, and in many of her most famous works ethnographic masks are juxtaposed with athletic bodies as a way of breaking racial and sexual boundaries that echoes the later work of Nancy Spero. What’s interesting about the show is the way the delicacy of her collages short-circuits political rhetoric – she seems far more interested in internal politics and in sexual politics. The sexual politics of the Dadaists sound as daunting as the wider conflicts within the Weimar Republic. Hans Richter regarded her as little more than a servant, and Hausmann felt she should get a job to support him financially. A lone woman in the Berlin Dada group, after two abortions she left Hausmann and was able to embrace her bisexuality. Her collages show her scepticism toward conventional constructions of femininity and  the expectations of family, and she embraced the Weimar fashion for androgyny, blurring the boundaries between genders in both art and life.

Für ein Fest gemacht (Made for a Party), 1936, Collage, 36x19.8cm, Collection of IFA, Stuttgart

Für ein Fest gemacht (Made for a Party), 1936, Collage, 36×19.8cm, Collection of IFA, Stuttgart

It’s the swerve away from political subversion, (which was done in photomontage most effectively by John Heartfield), that allowed Höch to find her voice as an artist. She seems much more psychological and interested in the uncanny – the strangeness of emotions that, like the collages themselves, don’t add up, and remain incomplete and fragmented. “Auf Goldpapier” (On Gold Paper), c.1920, an isolated female profile gazes at an unidentifiable form, a solid void; in “Liebe” (Love), 1920, the top half of a man’s face in profile seems to slide beneath the fragment of a woman’s head topped with a staring gimlet eye. I imagine Höch transferring her components with tweezers, through the infinitesimally sharp point of the scalpel. It’s the collage’s delicacy, their sensitivity that seems to put them in a space that lies beyond the logic of exchange. If appropriation loses its subversive efficacy by being reabsorbed into the mediated machinations of the ruling order, a new motivation for the production of collage appears – this is a kind of simulacrum of the self, a reflection of the self through what is most external to it, the notion of the collage as a psychic self-portrait, an uncanny mirror. In this there are parallels to be drawn with the contemporary collage work of John Stezaker, who once said: “I was very interested in the idea of the consumer as unconscious, or the forms of unconsciousness within which one consumes images. I thought there was an interesting possible connection between this idea of the aesthetic unconscious and a consumer unconsciousness or passivity, and I was interested in trying to align the two… I felt these represented something unseen as a kind of cultural connection that perhaps we don’t fully understand, the ghostly presence of an archetype… an unconscious that’s out there in a world, in the actual images that are in circulation.” (3)

What’s paradoxical about Höch’s career is that being forced to take up a low profile during the years of Third Reich, and then after the war, never matching the acclaim she had earlier received, in some ways liberated her art. Her more famous works of the early 1920s have a formal clarity and uncanny bite as though the figures themselves, mixing Western and African identities, embody some repressed  truth about race and gender. Höch seems not so much engaging in an act of deconstruction , but employing a cruel kind of jouissance, a nightmarish form of play. Yet a different kind of visual sensuality comes to the fore in works made after the war, where she starts to exploit the technicolour of advertising in magazines such as “Life”. Höch always had an exquisitely controlled colour, but the new colours of post-war advertising give her a greater range of saturated effects. As the compositions open out away from the figurative and towards the abstract, she is able to create elusive, fleetingly beautiful image-fields. Some of the forms become compellingly ambiguous: in “Mondfische (Moonfish)”, 1956, a humanoid figure, between squid and human, hovers near the seashore like a Picasso Dinard-period bather; in “Um einen roten Mund (Around a Red Mouth)”, c.1967, is a raspberry ripple landscape of crinolated pink fabrics, in front of which floats some slightly curling red lips; in “Mädchen am Meer (Girl at the Sea) 1965″, a Picassoid model walks by the technicolour sea shore, like Bardot in Godard’s “Le Mepris”, strangely liberated from the ordinary. No longer feeling that her work should be aimed at particular targets, she was able to turn towards the sublime, and the overlapping all-over patterns seem to reference American Abstract Expressionism. Though the size of these pieces remains that of a magazine, their scale is vast, and the open  compositions seem to point towards new fantastical realities.

Um einen roten Mund ( Around a Red Mouth), c. 1967, Collage, 20.5 x 16.5 cm, Collection of IFA, Stuttgart

Um einen roten Mund ( Around a Red Mouth), c. 1967, Collage, 20.5 x 16.5 cm, Collection of IFA, Stuttgart

Höch was a pioneer of form that has become a ubiquitous part of contemporary art, and “post medium” installation, the neo-neo conceptualism of artists such as Mark Leckey or Helen Marten is really a continuation of the playful freedom she pioneered. Marten’s assemblages, for example, seem like Höch’s work, to hover in the space between the expressive and the alien, between the made and the found, between the self and the non-self. In reference to her elaborate installations, Marten recently stated: “You can reach a point of total saturation, where the density of information in a work, all the implications, the emotion, violence, brutality, or obviousness, pile up into a state where all the individual parts negate one another. So the result might be something like a vacuum, a weirdly vibrating emptiness that is also precisely not empty, and instead somehow permanently or dangerously en route.” (4)


(1) Raoul Hausmann “Definition of Photomontage”, quoted in Hans Richter, Dada Art and Anti-Art, (Thames and Hudson: London, 1965), p.116

(2) Raoul Hausmann, “Photomontage”, 1931, in David Evans (editor), Appropriation: Documents of Contemporary Art, Whitechapel and MIT press

(3) John Stezaker, Interview with John Roberts, 1997, Appropriation: Documents of Contemporary Art

(4) Helen Marten “Problem Cookies: Helen Marten, Jordon Wolfson and Uri Aran” in Parkett, Issue  92, 2013

  1. Alan Gouk said…

    Polke at the Tate— Oh nooooooo! please no!

  2. Robin Greenwood said…

    Such is the strength of your prose/poetry, Dan, that I’m not sure I will ever be able to eradicate the image of that monkey’s diminutive penis “barely bigger than a grain of rice” from my consciousness, hard though I am going to try.

    I know what you mean about these collages, though. I can hardly be bothered to look either… oh, sorry. As for comparing them with Helen Marten, why would I go there? They are not abstract; they are corny old surrealist anti-form. Polkecks.

  3. Sam said…

    If you want to follow up Dan’s comparison Helen Marten exhibition has just opened at Sadie Coles. I haven’t seen it yet or the Hoch, but I wonder how both will look against the Polke retro on at the Tate this Autumn…