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Diandra Donecker on Hannah Höch’s new reality between dreams and real life.

Hannah Höch
“Modeschau”. 1925/1935. Collage on coloured primed paper. 27.7 × 22.8 cm. EUR 100,000–150,000
Lot 38, Auction Selected Works, 2 December at 6pm

 

Playing with a panoply of roles: How Hannah Höch showcases modern femininity in her Dadaistic collage

“I want to blur the fixed boundaries which we human beings, so sure of ourselves, are prone to drawing around everything in our reach.” This was the artistic objective that Hannah Höch pronounced in 1929 in the foreword of the catalogue for her first individual exhibition at the De Bron Gallery. To fulfill it, she chose photomontage as the ideal medium. This technique would become an integral element of her oeuvre; to this day, it remains inextricably associated with the creative legacy of this uniquely original artist.

Because it was pioneered by the Dadaists of Berlin, who were deemed particularly political and confrontational as compared to their counterparts in Zurich, Paris, and Cologne, the photomontage genre has often been ascribed an aggressive, even destructive quality. Drawing its source material from the easily reproducible images of the mass media, it was seen to function as a sort of “anti-art.”  

Thanks to her employment as a designer by the Ullstein publishing house from 1916 to 1926, Hannah Höch gained direct exposure to these photographic reproductions from all over the world. As a clear-eyed observer of shifting social trends, she maintained a critical distance to the propagandistic and stridently tendentious effect that these types of media exerted. In many of her photomontages, the uniting, conjunctive elements only reveal themselves against a backdrop of highly contrasting, disjunctive elements. This is certainly the case with her photomontage Modeschau: Three high-necked, tightly corseted dress patterns have been lined up in the middle of the image, as if waiting to walk in the fashion show suggested by the work’s title. Yet instead of the cosmopolitan couture of the 1920s we might expect to see, the artist shows us the same dowdy dress repeated three times: a wide, shoulder-covering embroidered collar, connected to the bell-shaped hooped skirt only by the stringently tapered waist, a stylistic throwback to women’s fashion under the reign of the last Kaiser. Propped up without hands or feet, robbed of the power of agency, the dresses serve as a metaphor for the stifling era from which the progressive Berlin of the 1920s had supposedly moved on. But they are casting long shadows, these dresses. Even the bridge-like structure atop which the figures stand seems anything but stable, with yawning gaps over what may or may not be a steep drop. More a gauntlet than a fashion catwalk.  

The only thing the three mannequin-like figures have cast off are their hats. They are lying on the ground, in front of their marionette-like dresses. The hats had to go because the heads Hannah Höch mounted directly on the figures’ shoulders are characterized by supreme individuality. Assembled from cut-out images, the oversized faces have both Western and Eastern features, light as well as dark skin. They seem rather inchoate at first, but if we look closer, we notice that at least one eye of each figure is trying to meet our gaze. However, the figure on the far left, the left side of whose face we recognize as that of Sandro Botticelli’s Venus and which thus is somewhat familiar to our Western eyes so used to Western iconography, is looking away from us. This makes sense, for although the Early Renaissance of the late 1400s is widely proclaimed as a time idealizing individuality and freedom, it was common practice to portray women with a lowered or averted gaze in keeping with the modesty, chastity, and obedience that was expected of them (Simons, Patricia: Women in Frames: The Gaze, the Eye, the Profile, in: Renaissance Portraiture, in: History Workshop. No. 25 (1988), p. 20-21). 

Contrast this with the eye collaged onto the right side of Venus’s face, which fixes us intently. The art historian Maria Makela interprets this as the gaze of the “New Woman” (Makela, Maria: MODENSCHAU (Fashion Show) 1925–1935, in: The Photomontages of Hannah Höch, Exhibition Catalogue, Minneapolis 1996, Editor: Peter Boswell. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center 1996, p. 110). This epitome of, at least in theory, the political, financial, and sexual emancipation of women in the Weimar Republic sported casual mannish garb, a typical page-boy haircut, and loud makeup. Hannah Höch’s photomontage, trapped in the tight corset of the mores and ideals of the time, collates timeless virtue with a naïve belief in seeming progress, unable to move forward because of the "one-size-fits-all" approach.                                                                                                 

Underneath the picture base of the photomontage Modeschau, the artist indicated that the time of its creation was “uncertain,” though she did add the vague dating “25 – 1935.“ It was roughly during this period that Höch created what is perhaps her most famous series of works, Aus einem Ethnografischen Museum, consisting of some twenty to thirty photomontages. Although Modeschau does not bear the designation of the series, as do some of the works making it up, its visual elements and compositional structure do seem to fit into the same creative context. The juxtaposition of cutouts of photos showing Western motifs with those of non-European cultures achieves a constructive effect in the composition chosen by Höch, whereby the affirmative force of its underlying visual message of social criticism is reinforced by the contrast.

Although Hannah Höch herself never took an explicit public stand in favor of feminism, Modeschau clearly manifests her disapproval of the one-dimensional gender roles that prevailed in her day. Like a scientist taking the measure of the seismic shifts of her times, Hannah Höch cut exactly along the boundaries of socially defined strata, only to re-assemble them in fresh combinations via the photomontage technique. Modeschau stands as a paragon of Hannah Höch’s consummate artistry in this regard. Roughly a century after being made, it has lost none of its cutting-edge relevance. 

Lara Viktoria Rath