Hannah Höch – Whitechapel Gallery

3rd March 2014

The second visit on Saturday 1st March, after the Ray-Jones- Parr exhibition at the Science Museum.

Why this exhibition, why not David Bailey’s ‘Stardust’ at the National Portrait Gallery? Bailey’s exhibition runs until 1st June whereas Höch closes 23rd March and I also have to admit to a certain masochism here, Höch is a central figure in the part of the Gesture & Meaning course I’m currently studying and I felt it incumbent upon me to try to see this large exhibition of her work whilst it was still available in an attempt to help me understand what I’ve been struggling through with Fine Art, Dadaism et al, photomontage, collage and the feminist movement; all extremely painful to me and something I don’t really appreciate, why?  I’ve no idea.  Probably because it doesn’t strike me as anything to do with photography and I really can’t find any meaning in it.  So I went there, and dragged two others with me, to make my penance and try to get some inspiration.

I really don’t know that I got any inspiration from the visit, I’m certainly no nearer to understanding Dadaism and the other ‘ism’s it spawned, but I was rather taken aback by some of the work Höch produced, in a pleasant way that is.

Luckily her work is laid out in more or less chronological order and it helps as you can form impressions of her character, temper and influences as you wander through from the early 20th century to her death in the late 1970’s.  I think you can also define the periods of her sexual orientation, and her frustration with the Berlin Dadaists, from the way the nature of her work changes, the realisation that she wasn’t invulnerable as a Jewish artist in Nazi Germany, and finally her acceptance that art doesn’t have to be all hard and angry all the time.

Her early work, whilst she was a designer for the Ullstein Press, is dainty, colourful, produced during one of her heterosexual periods with Raoul Hausmann and her attempt at the conformity she still conformed to, the late Victorian attitude that ladies should be prim and proper.  The nature of her work made a clear and sudden change at about the time she became involved with the Berlin Dadaists and quickly appears to me to become hard and angry, mono or bi-coloured.  Gone were the bright reds, blues and yellows of her earlier work, in came the mushy-pea green, browns and blacks.  I also wonder if during this period her change of sexuality to lesbianism had an effect on the nature of her work and made her more aware of the feminist movement.  Her art certainly depicted the ‘New Woman’ a great deal and this was considered rather outré at that time as women weren’t really meant to be independent and self-sufficient, never mind successful and applauded as an artist.

The writing was on the wall for many people like Höch in the run up to WWII, when the Nazi’s considered anyone with alternative sex lives and doubtful artistic leanings to be anathema to the Reich and so sent many to the concentration camps and their eventual deaths.  Höch saw this coming I think and left it until the very last-minute of 1938 before she attempted to protect herself by marrying and then burying herself in anonymity, which was probably wise even though she had earlier in the decade shown that she believed in the national disease of ethnicity and race when she made at least two pieces of work demeaning those of African heritage.  She depicted an African male and a gorilla in the same piece of work and clearly drew parallels between them; it was also noted that she espoused these beliefs in general discussions and letters.  It therefore was probably difficult for her to accept that she herself was really a member of the sub-races and could be eliminated after having supported the National Socialists.  Her work during the war years is muted and much more rare than her other periods, no doubt as a consequence of her hiding.  At the end of the war she rather hypocritically denounced the Nazis and the regime as being a blight on the world for the past 8 years.

Her work changed very markedly after the war, she wasn’t quite as much sought after as she was prior and I think this made her a much more relaxed person.  Her work appears to me to become much more open and understandable, conforming more to my way of thinking what art should be for my taste.  The bright colours made a reappearance and her figures, faces and graphics became clearer to see and empathise without having the entire surface cluttered, there became a sense of space and individuality for the subject to be seen.

I can appreciate that at the time Höch made her appearance into the art world she was breaking a mould and proving to the chagrin of her male contemporaries that a woman could be as great, if not greater, at the Dadaism they so loudly espoused.  Because of this I think she was able to cling to her fame which was enhanced by her Bohemian lifestyle and alternative sexuality.  I’ve no doubt she would have made her mark regardless of this, but would she have been hailed as the tremendous influence she is claimed to have?  Because I admit to not understanding this type of art, this period of art and the other ‘ism’s, I don’t think it’s fair for me to make a committed judgement, but I would like to continue to try to understand what I currently don’t, and this undoubtedly means Hannah Höch.

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