Leaving Dada

          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.

          Money, however, was a continual concern for Höch, and not just in her younger years. Finding herself especially strapped at the end of the World War II, she wasn't above bringing in some cash with rather tame landscapes and flower paintings--at the same time as she was pushing photomontage into the realm of pure abstraction with works like "Silk Tail." Meanwhile, her avid gardening provided her with a steady source of food, not just a bourgeois hobby.

          Perhaps things would have been different with a husband, but Höch's brief marriage ended when her spouse took off with one of her friends; aside from two other long-term affairs, she seems to have spent many of her 88 years in relative isolation, especially during the war. Although branded a "degenerate artist," she managed to live out the Nazi regime in a Berlin suburb. She didn't worry much about freedom of expression--there was none. So she went into exile in her own head, a journey that resulted in yet another series of startlingly fantastic photomontages.

          All this is not to say that Höch lacked for sophistication. She attended the Dada balls and the intellectual salons; she traveled extensively around Europe and had deep, enduring friendships with dozens of other artists, most notably Hans Arp and Kurt Schwitters; she was involved in numerous artists' organizations and co-ops. It's just that, all in all, she was an uncharacteristically unsexy artist, at least in the way we've come to understand (or construct) the lives of historically significant artists. In other words, with a life that was not so much a splashy or extravagant drama as a quiet epic, Höch was more akin to the legions of artists who never achieve fame or fortune--creative people who are life-sized, not larger-than-life.

          Maybe that plays into one friend's lack of enthusiasm for Höch's photomontages. "Anyone can do this," he says. Of course: The democracy of the medium is part of its beauty. But while it's one thing to rip images from their mass-media context and cut them up into horribly funny, savage, or ironic works--see "High Finance" or "Bourgeois Wedding Couple (Quarrel)"--it's another to be truly expressive with photomontage. Höch became a master at this in the later '20s and 1930s, once she began using the medium for her own ends, not Dada's.

          "A little Dada goes a long way," Greil Marcus observed during his talk, and The Photomontages of Hannah Höch proves how this is so. She had her dance with the beast, then walked away into a life she composed, snip by snip, by herself. By the time her full achievements were acknowledged by several European retrospectives, those early years of her career seemed more an annoyance than anything else. "I'm sick and tired of Dada.... Everything else that has developed goes unnoticed," she complained in 1976. By then, though, she must have known she got the last laugh.

          The Photomontages of Hannah Höch is on view at Walker Art Center through February 2.

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