Putting the pieces together

A new exhibition of Hannah Höch's work enchants Nerys Mathias

Nerys Mathias, 16 February 2014

Image-1.jpgThe first major UK exhibition of Hannah Höch's work brings to light a talented artist who is also a rather intriguing woman. Höch was born in 1889 in Germany. After studying crafts and graphic design at the School of Applied Arts in Berlin, she became a part-time pattern designer at a major publisher of women's magazines. Her early work brings together the world of craft with fine art: modern yet strangely sensitive.

Together with her married lover from art school, Raoul Hausmann, she became integral to the Dadaist movement as a pioneer of collage. Dada was anti-war, anti-bourgeois and anti- traditional art, yet, despite its leftist politics, Höch was the only woman in the Berlin group. She was only allowed to show in the First International Dada Fair due to being Hausmann's girlfriend. It was difficult; she was later quoted as saying that the men saw women artists as "charming and gifted amateurs".

Her collages are her greatest legacy. They are playful and tender. Whether poking fun at men in power or showing us the human condition, these collages are relevant today. 'Heads of State' is a particularly witty piece, showing the president and the minister of defence as overweight, mature men in swimming trunks. Behind them are simple and childish printed patterns; the sea in the foreground has cut-out waves that looks strangely like breasts or perhaps testicles. In my head I inserted a bare-chested Putin.

I left wanting to discover more of her work: this is just the tip of the iceberg

After finishing her relationship with the Hausmann, Höch had a nine-year relationship with Til Brugman, a Dutch poet linked to the Dutch avant-garde from 1926 to 1936. It was a fruitful relationship; they travelled together and collaborated on book projects. The influence of this relationship can be seen within Höch's work. She explores gender roles, race, androgyny and lesbianism and reveals the hypocrisy of being a 'New Woman' in the Weimar Republic.

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World War Two and fascist Germany resulted in her spending 12 years in seclusion "where nobody would know me by sight or be at all aware of my lurid past as a Dadaist." Once the war was over she continued to exhibit, though was largely forgotten. Although it is her earlier work that is much admired, I thought the later work in the upstairs gallery appealed in a different way. Her more abstract pieces had fantastic colour composition and an engaging depth to them. 'Around a Red Mouth' from 1967 is pure pleasure - a red movie star mouth seemingly reclining with a skirt of red frills, surrounded by pink vaginal agates with large spikes at the bottom of the image, offering overtones of violence.

The final collage shows an overview of her life including photographs of her. This piece made me think about what it is to be a woman. How would I see my life as an overview? It seemed to sum up the theme of her work: what is it to be a woman? At the end of the show there is a tantalising glimpse of her on film. She is 75, still drawing and creating collages. This film reveals that the Whitechapel show has left out her oil paintings and drawings. I left wanting to discover more of her work: this is just the tip of the iceberg.

How fantastic to have such passion and conviction!

There are quotations from the artist throughout the exhibition. They give us a glimpse of her aspirations for her art, for women and for society. The first is for an embroidery magazine in 1918: "But you, craftswomen, modern women who feel that your spirit is in your work, who are determined to lay claim to your rights (economic and moral)... at least you should know that your embroidery work is a documentation of your own era."

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This call to women immediately put me on her side. How fantastic to have such passion and conviction! If art history had not overlooked Höch and the many other great women artists of the twentieth century perhaps our world would be more equal. Certainly my art education would have been enriched to have included Hannah Höch. I wholeheartedly recommend this show.

The exhibition will be showing until 23 March at Whitechapel Gallery.

Photo 1:
Für ein Fest gemacht (Made for a Party)
1936
Collage
36 x 19.8 cm
Collection of IFA, Stuttgart

Photo 2:
Staatshäupter (Heads of State)
Collage
Photomontage
16.2 x 23.3 cm
Collection of IFA, Stuttgart

Photo 3:
Ohne Titel (Aus einem ethnographischen Museum)
(Untitled [From an Ethnographic Museum])
1930
Collage
48.3 x 32.1 cm
Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg
Photo: courtesy of Maria Thrun

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Nerys Mathias

Nerys Mathias is an artist, manager of a digital fabric printing bureau and a part time doctorate student of fine art

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