Leaving Dada

As the Walker's retrospective shows, Hannah Höch's art grew far beyond the movement that birthed her.

          A large photo of Hannah Höch presides over the entrance to her retrospective; lifting a magnifying glass to her eye, she looks to be inspecting all those coming to her show. It's an apt image. The photomontages on display here, row upon row of them, each demand a similar scrutiny--they're quite a departure from the wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am fare typical of (and often tailored for) the cavernous spaces of contemporary institutions, art that aims to seduce with size, sound, or shocking content.

          Like their creator, the photomontages of Hannah Höch are rather modest, most no larger than a sheet from a notebook or a folded newspaper. But the best of them beckon slyly. Making a quick pass through the show on opening night--an occasion when partying, not art viewing, is the imperative--I found myself irresistibly drawn toward several. A curious and terrible-looking monster peers plaintively out of the urban twilight in "Resignation," a deformed hand extended to the viewer as if to ask for help. In "The Sweet One," a portrait of a little temptress posing coyly on white-stockinged legs against a gorgeously fiery watercolor ground, Höch grotesquely conveys both womanly sex appeal and childish innocence through cut-up pieces of African masks and idol figures. Then there's "Marlene," who is nothing more than up-ended legs perched on a pedestal with red red lips floating nearby, though she's clearly everything to the diminutive male supplicants gazing up from one corner.

          Women and their feminine powers were a subject Höch returned to repeatedly; and her photomontages themselves, because of their medium, are full of wiles. For her part, the artist has mostly attracted attention as the sole female in Berlin Dada's bad-boy club--a few brief years that overshadow the rest of her career, which stretched into the 1970s. As Greil Marcus noted in a recent talk at the Walker, Höch wouldn't have become anything if she hadn't done what she did in those years. Yet however sexy that part of her career was, the Walker's retrospective of her photomontages (the first on this side of the Atlantic) rightly celebrates everything Höch became, if you wish, because of Dada.

          In 1922, she broke off a seven-year relationship with fellow Berlin Dadaist Raoul Hausmann, as the Berlin Dada group itself was breaking up. It was not a sell-out or a settling-down or a compromise, it was just the way things were. Marcus recounts in Lipstick Traces how many of the Dada faithful remained haunted by what they'd conjured--something described by one of them, Richard Huelsenbeck, as "a creature which stood head and shoulders above all present." Apparently this creature never stopped looming over them: Huelsenbeck and others, as Marcus writes, were "like pop stars condemned to roll their greatest hit up the hill of the crowd for all eternity, carrying the curse of having been in the right place at the right time...."

          While they were trying to live up to the Dada beast, it could be said that Hoch was more concerned with how to make a living. In the exhibition catalogue, Carolyn Lanchner refers to how "Höch had sharply corrected her ex-Dada colleague [Hans Richter] with respect to his remarks on her role as hostess to the group, asserting with some irony that the appearance of the refreshments she 'conjured up' had had less to do with her skills at conjuring or sandwich-making than with the employment that provided her wages." Pieces like "Dada Panorama" and "Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany," drenched with a snide but joyous energy that's pure Dada, are all the more jarring when one knows that their creator was at the time working three days a week at Germany's largest publishing house, creating lacework designs and writing articles about embroidery for the equivalent of Ladies' Home Journal. Subversion is more effective, it's been argued, when the subversive makes herself invisible to society by fitting in.

          In addition to punching the clock at the Ullstein publishing house for a full 10 years and building Dada bombs on her own time, Höch created a series of delicate, abstract collages with pattern-book scraps from her job. She also made paintings and watercolors, a practice she continued throughout her life. So it's easy to see why she didn't become consumed--or artistically crippled--by Dada: She was too busy doing other things, her own things.

          Though Höch may have been small and quiet, Richter couldn't have been thinking of her work when, reminiscing, he called her "a good girl." That adjective certainly doesn't come to mind looking at "Monument I," in which a woman's bent arm does double duty as a leg and a huge, drooping phallus--or, for that matter, her mockeries of Nazi ideals throughout the 1930s. During the postwar period, when Höch was in her 60s, her work is sensually stunning. "About a Red Mouth," with its red, pink, and cream coloring, its ruffles and sparkly geodes, is crammed with dizzying allusions (strawberry shortcake and peppermint sticks being, for me, only the more innocent ones), while "Degenerate" and "Let the Party Begin" have all the flirty, technicolor glamour of Pop art.

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