Dada icon Hannah Höch gets a show at the Bröhan Museum illuminating the “millions and millions of views” in her art. Curator Ellen Maurer Zilioli tells us about her life and work.
The new exhibition Hannah Höch: Millions of Views is showing artwork from her early beginnings all the way through her long career. Why was that important?
Hannah Höch is a Dada icon and most exhibitions are limited to Dada and collage which they consider to be the fundamental movements in her work. But for me it is more interesting to look at the whole system of Höch. She had a long working life with many different expressions. From collage, painting and drawing she cultivated an enormous range of different approaches, a stylistic pluralism. In the exhibition we show her collages in correspondence with her painting, drawing in correspondence with collage, showing the full range of her symbolist, abstract and figurative artworks.
What do we learn from looking at the full spectrum of her work?
It shows us the extremely complicated nature of her work. At the same time she was making complex collages like her most famous ‘Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany’ (1919) with its intricate small figures, she was also painting highly abstract works like ‘Rot Gelb’ (1919). A few years later she finishes ‘The Melancholia’ (1925), a collage showing a profile of a single face in a non-defined space. Sweeping between constructive abstraction and the elimination of the space and reducing the elements of abstraction to only a small platform of figurative fragments. These three works show the enormous range and ambition of her work.
Her photomontages can be chaotic and hard to decipher but many think they reflect the nature of a society emerging from the brutality of the First World War and contending with rapid industrialisation. Does that account for her unique perspective?
Absolutely, she was working at a time of tremendous social change. She always saw herself as an observer, looking in at things from different positions. She said once: ‘I want to show the world how the bee is looking at it.’ And also: ‘I want to show how the sun and the moon are looking at the world.’ She had a pantheistic world view and her artwork is a constant interpretation of perception and life, which she understood as a continuous moving flow; she was not prepared to accept a hierarchical, anthropocentric view of the world.
It is not because Höch had an abortion that she decided to paint an abstract painting!
What Höch wanted to say was often confusing at first glance, because she was permanently changing perspectives and transplanting herself into new positions. Take ‘Eule mit Lupe (Owl with Magnifying Glass)’ a collage made in the middle of her working life in 1945. Here she’s the owl on the cloud peering down on the planet earth. After the Second World War she was very interested in what happened in space and the eyes of the owl appear like black holes. These elements recur throughout her work.
A resolutely feminist streak runs through her work. Meanwhile she was deeply scathing about the androgynous ‘New Women’ of the Weimar Republic. What did she find so problematic?
She was working for the Weimar-time fashion magazine Die Dame, and didn’t believe in the liberated New Woman she could observe there. For her, changing one’s appearance, cutting one’s hair short, didn’t mean that the relationship between the genders changed at all. But she lived a very free life, first with a married man, the Dadaist artist Raoul Hausmann, then with a woman, before marrying a man 20 years her junior. She also had two abortions at a time when that wasn’t common. She never said that she was a feminist, but she always lived her life on her own terms, which in many ways would make her a feminist role model.
She is best known for her involvement with the Dadaist movement from 1916 into the mid-1920s, but she struggled within a very male-dominated group. Her relationship with Hausmann was complex too…
Hausmann wrote about the liberation of women and the liberation from patriarchal family structures but in real life all he wanted was for her to conform to his vision. He was not ready to change his male perspective on relationships, none of them were. If you read the letters between Höch and Hausmann it is amazing how he expresses himself and what he is demanding of her. She escaped several times, and sometimes he became violent – he wanted to imprison her. It was a battlefield. But I am fighting against this biographical connection with her work: it is not because Höch had an abortion that she decided to paint an abstract painting!
The Nazis hated her images of androgynous individuals, how did she cope with life during National Socialism?
She didn’t feature in the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition but she was blacklisted by the Nazis. She thought about emigration but she got sick in 1935 and changed her mind. Then she married the young businessman Kurt Matthies whose job gave them the freedom to travel around Europe. This marriage also gave her a new name and she hid in their Berlin Heiligensee home. It suited her, she was a very discreet person. She even cut out pages from her diaries because she did not want intimate details to be revealed.
Was she in danger?
Yes! There were several occasions when the Nazis came to inspect her home, which is why she moved to Heilingensee. She collected and hid a lot of artworks from the Dadaists. If someone had discovered them she would have ended up in a concentration camp. She was lucky.
Do you think exhibitions such as this one can not only broaden our view, but also change the art world’s perception of her work?
The trouble is we usually look for categories and drawers to put her in but she doesn’t fit them! In my opinion categorisation is a disease that contaminates the art world and public opinion in general. Her work and friendships with Dada were important, but in the exhibition you will see a whole melting point of different avant-garde tendencies: De Stijl, Bauhaus and Surrealism. But even then she was so much more.
Hannah Höch, Millions of Views Through May 15 Bröhan Museum
Born in 1889, Hannah Höch studied at Berlin’s School of Applied Arts. After meeting the artist Raoul Hausmann in 1917, Hannah Höch joined the Berlin Dada Group and developed her own form of photomontage. In 1934, Höch was blacklisted by the Nazis and withdrew to a cottage in Heiligensee, Berlin. She continued to produce her photomontages and exhibit them internationally until her death in 1978.