Stand for too long in front of Hannah Höch’s Portrait of Gerhard Hauptmann (1919) and you risk a sense of vertigo. The face of the Nobel-winning dramatist has been split to reveal the fragmented image of a woman’s face – youth supplanting age, a subtle smile ghosting grave composure. A classic Dada provocation in tone, though uniquely Höch in its concerns, this move has naturally lost its bite, but Höch’s formal decisions still unsettle. By placing one side of the face a tick higher than the other, Höch amplifies asymmetries of physiognomy that could be mirrored in the psyche. In proportion to this slight lift, the dark swath cut to represent the subject’s shoulder is placed higher still, intensifying contradictory and uncomfortable impressions of plurality and dissolution. The ego opens out while the body breaks up. Meanwhile, impervious visages mount Hauptmann’s lapel.
This sense of reality come undone is associated with photomontage in general and with Höch’s work in particular, so it’s noteworthy that disjunction does not emerge as the dominant note of the Whitechapel Gallery’s exhibition of more than one hundred of the artist’s works on paper. In putting together the first major exhibition of Höch’s work in the United Kingdom, curators Dawn Ades, Daniel Hermann, and Emily Butler have looked to the full span of the artist’s career, assembling works dating from the 1910s to the 1970s. The result provides a surprising sense of continuity: The artist’s early experiments in abstraction as a student in the applied arts are elaborated upon in looser forms composing the abstractions of her post-war production, and much of this production resonates with tendencies and concerns familiar from her early career. Still, there’s a temptation to imagine a Höch I and Höch II, an interwar Höch of evolving style but ever disparate parts, and a post-war Höch who turns to colorful cohesion. The gallery space enforces this inclination by presenting Höch’s output from 1912 to 1936 on the first floor, while, following a small room with a transitional feel displaying work from 1936-1945, years the artist mostly spent in the suburbs of Berlin, output from 1945 to 1978 is on view on the second.
In works from the early 1920s, as Höch takes off as a not uncontested participant in Berlin Dada, her montages experiment with strategies for portraying androgyny. Send-ups of cultural and political figures along with good manners, these montages also merge humans with animals, sculpture with humans, and babies with adults. Despite their distinct parts, the assertions here remain more of similarity than of difference. As Höch I advances, though, the work can be harder to grasp. Rendered against stark and striking backgrounds, sometimes placed on mesmerizing geometrical bases, the hybrid women of the series From an Ethnographic Museum posit unclear relationships between the tribal and western (often glamorous or high-heeled) imagery of which they’re comprised. In other words, the montages convey the impression of a constructed and Othered womanhood more clearly than they offer a position on questions of race or colonialism. One is left wondering where the tribal imagery benefits from the jolts and juxtapositions of montage and where it remains a polemical prop. In this vein, writing in the exhibition catalogue, Brett M. Van Hoesen’s call for deeper contextualization of Höch’s work within the legacy of Weimar colonialism is a valuable contribution to the critical discussion surrounding the exhibition.
Now that their satire no longer stings, these early works might actually count as the show’s most assuring images for the narrative pleasure entailed by their seeming readiness to be deciphered. Moving from this mode to the indirect propositions of Höch’s postwar work requires some recalibration on the part of the viewer. The momentum this shift in approach demanded was likely felt by the artist, whose titles (Dream Voyage, Space Travel, Journey into the Unknown) and imagery from the late Forties and early Fifties often concern movement and travel. Adjusting to the bright light of this changed terrain, the viewer will find an artist extending a dialogue with Surrealism and abstraction while pursuing a new relationship to knowing and truth, as well as finding softer registers for humour and satire.
Of these images, later works that reprise considerations of gender are some of the show’s most resonant. Spare in central imagery but complex in signification, The Beautiful Bottom (1959) is playful and sardonic, while Degenerate (1969) looks to the Nazi-era in its title and presents a characteristically re/ un-embodied femme fatale in a Sixties world of rhinestones and plastics. In Around a Red Mouth a set of very red lips floats above a flouncing dress that could almost pass for tiered cake. A determinedly saccharine vagina dentata emerges from the graphic spikes near the bottom of the image in combination with cut-outs of what appear to be geodes whose sedimentary pinks, whites and browns assume a genital presence. More rollicking than abrasive, the montage complicates our vision of Höch’s women by tangling the biological with the outrageously artificial.
Natural and human forms may have haunted the scissor-work of even Höch’s most abstract output. Despite her protests to the contrary, many of these works have the atmosphere of landscapes, their cut forms echoing the mountains, waves, and islands preserved in her scrapbook of mass media imagery, The Album. The ‘close looking’ these abstractions occasion, their resistance of resolution, their refusal, often, to give up their sources, and the bright absorption they inspire make them prime material for reassessments of the range of investments of a career often too narrowly identified with the dynamic but brief timeframe of Berlin Dada. They also display, with a stubborn beauty, how a lifetime of work can be found in examining a single set of questions through a kaleidoscope of shifts in form and tone.