^ Detail from Hannah Höch, Das schöne Mädchen (The Beautiful Girl), 1919—20, photomontageand collage, 35 x 29 cm (13 3/4 x 11 7/16 in).
By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs.Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto” (1991)
The final work of the German artist Hannah Höch (1889-1978) was also her largest, concluding her career with the 130 x 150 cm collage Lebensbild (Life Portrait) (1973) in her 84th year. An autoethnographic, retrospective construction, Life Portrait samples the playful flavour of Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise constructions, incorporating reproductions of Höch’s earlier work alongside photographs of herself, her social milieu as well as compulsively collected scraps of social, political and cultural life. By comparison to the robust proclamation of this final gesture, in their brittleness her small-scale early Dada works resemble archaeological artefacts – precious, dehydrated epidermin requiring careful conservation and a delicate touch. While both she and her work grew and began to take up more space in the world, from her origins to this last work, Höch’s approach to collage sustains a conceptual coherence. Whether a simple composition of a single composite figure or a densely layered intricate field, Höch’s dynamic visual digests are explosions of historical time expressed with an extraordinarily intelligent sense of rebellion.
At Berlin Dada’s first public appearance in April 1918, Raoul Hausmann discussed the theme of hybridity in modern identity in his text ‘The New Material in Painting’. “In Dada,” he announced, “you will recognize our real situation: miraculous constellations in real material, wire, glass, cardboard, fabric . . . your own utterly brittle fragility, your bagginess.” He described the human being as a “simultaneous, a monster of own and alien,” who encompassed different social-spatial territories and temporalities. Exhibiting at the First International Dada-Messe a few years later in 1920, Höch sat (often uncomfortably) among the ranks of Richard Huelsenbeck, George Grosz, Raoul Hausmann, Johannes Baader and John Heartfield of in pursuit of the anti-art agenda of Club Dada. Between 1919 and 1920 she produced her well-known slicingly acerbic satire Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser Dada durch die Letzte Weimarer Bierbauchkulturepoche Deutschlands (Cut with the Kitchen Knife through Germany’s Final Beer Belly Cultural Epoch). Here the artist’s pioneering, darkly humorous play of dismemberment and recirculation runs amok. The appendages and extremities of identifiable political and cultural figures are confiscated and redistributed to film stars, circus performers, animals, machines and athletes. Icons of the recently deposed Wilhelmian Empire, the military and the new Weimar authorities are atrophied and stigmatised as “anti-dada.”
Developments in photography and printing processes in the 20th century created the period of Bilderflut – the flood of images – during which the embodied experience of metropolitan day to day life in Weimar Berlin quickly became one engulfed in a hurricane of printed matter. Despite the wartime scarcity and shortages of other commodities and essentials – paper was in abundance. Competing for attention, fluttering sheathes of text and image flapped like flaking skin from the bones of urban architecture. During the war Höch took up employment at the colossal Ullstein publishing house where she worked with fabric patterns, embroidery and lace designs, illustrations, lettering, layouts, advertising vignettes, composite photographs, and articles for such ladies periodicals as Die Dame and Die Praktische Berlinerin for the next decade.
Precarity and The New Woman
Scholarship on Höch in recent years has focused on themes of consumption, identity, and representation in terms of gender and sexuality. Less emphasised in these explorations is Höch’s individual relationship to emergent technology and the manner in which her work ambiguously critiques her own role as an alienated worker in the production of mass media for the bourgeois urban classes. Her Dada-era pieces constitute an urban worker’s processing of her subjective experience of patriarchy and capitalism as mediated by the mechanical and mass media technologies of modernity.
As a site of mass rupture, uprising and precarity, Weimar Berlin generated spaces where radically subversive and utopian modes of living were indeed palpable. Wartime conscription diminished the presence of men and as Jeanne Mammen’s paintings of lesbian nightlife, sex workers and butch and femme pageantry document, the widespread enjoyment of queer pleasure and modes of intimacy which deviated from monogamous heterosexuality was relatively widespread. Indeed, Höch left Berlin in 1926 with Dutch writer Til Brugman to pursue a relationship which would last nine years.
Höch is often discussed in terms of discourse around the contested figure of the Weimar New Woman. While a popular term to describe rising numbers of independent, self-sufficient women, the New Woman was in fact a technologically mediated fiction of femininity and a dehumanised, artificial figure subject to endless improvements, interventions and appropriations. The discursive role of the New Woman is more of a mannequin animated within patriarchal fantasies about ideal femininity rather than revealing much reality about the implications of technological change for feminist political subjectivity. Widely celebrated as emancipatory ideal while elsewhere held as demonic threat to civilisation, the New Woman haunts the Weimar press as a feminine figure possessing masculine desire – hungry for sex, power and commodities. Such is the operation contained within Tamara de Lempicka’s Autoportrait in which the artist replaced her own her own yellow Renault for a shiny green Bugatti to project a polished vision of herself as beautiful, wealthy and independent – her power reflected in her possession of technology.
However as Maud Lavin notes, “behind the New Woman myths of flexibility and women’s economic opportunities, legal rights, and political participation continued to be circumscribed.” While hundreds of thousands of women took up wartime work in engineering, steel, chemical, and mining – the presence of women in the workplace and in parliamentary politics was more a consequence of economic necessity created by the violence of militarism and colonialism rather than the victory of feminist struggle. Women were in the factories because of labour shortages created by the First World War – their place in the home changed little and many women stopped working after marriage. Debates around the New Woman prefigure contemporary perceptions of women’s use of technology to represent self, speak, create and self-sustain – indeed the patriarchal anxieties palpable in the Lustmord visions of Dada artists including Otto Dix and George Grosz prefigure the manner in which women entering the public technological sphere are continually re-feminized and re-inscribed in a traditional discourse about women through the operations of scorn, ridicule and violence. The ambiguous status of the New Woman belies a cautious societal negotiation between the benefits and risks of female representation and agency outside the home which appeared to be eroding the social and moral values of the traditional patriarchal order while simultaneously helping to keep the wheels of capitalism whirring.
Photomontage: Seizing the modes of artistic production
Höch’s collages are abundant with images of the female form. Lips and long legs erupt everywhere while body parts are augmented and hybridised. Conscious of how female reality was actively constructed through the technology of mass media – as well as through emerging technological discourses of eugenics, social hygiene, sexology and ethnography – Höch is sceptical of the New Woman as a social construction mobilised and ideologically appropriated and playfully satirises the trope throughout her oeuvre, while reimagining female agency aligned with new technologies rather than oppressed by it. Interestingly, the first solo exhibition devoted to Höch photomontages was held in Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1934 where sixty years later, Věra Chytilová would take up mantle and borrow heavily from her imagery in her film anarchic (and censored) Daisies (1966) in which two bored young women who decide to disrupt the depraved flow of societal consumerism by wreaking havoc, destruction and mischief
As well as her frequent representational commentary on legible political events, such as the assassination of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the Bolshevik origins of her photo-collage practice and her training as an applied craftswoman – like John Heartfield, Höch clearly recognised the revolutionary imperative to seize the modes of artistic production. Photomontage emerged as a grammar of the 20th century avant-garde in the utopian propaganda of Soviet Constructivism, such as in Alexandr Rodchenko’s visual contribution to Mayakovsky’s love poem Pro Eto or El Lissitzky’s The Lenin Podium (1924), which incorporates a famous newspaper images of Lenin’s 1920 address to the Red Army in advance of its departure for Poland. The historical materialist dimension of her practice is an extremely interesting one demonstrating both her political commitments and self-reflexivity. Her collage works reveal her technicity – that is, her aptitude for manipulation and interpretative mastery over her form of labour – the new and emergent forms of media and technological processes. Works like Cut Like a Kitchen Knife are a triumph of her labour and technical virtuosity as a craftswoman. These collages are non-narrative in the linear sense but rather present an organisation of attention-grabbing human-machine assemblages reflective of the affective and experiential dimensions of media and technology as well as representing its new and evolving forms. This arrangement suggests chaos and conceals the expertise with which the visual elements were precisely extracted from their material context in magazines and newspapers and confidently sutured together a visual plane containing a simultaneous projection of a variety of elements of the world with surgical delicacy to form a fragile interface as seamlessly smooth as a screen.
As technologies of communication and creativity become more deeply enmeshed within the fabric of everyday life, bodies become decorporialised and decontextualized. In the infinite, unremitting digital present of our contemporary moment, our condition, performance and self-representation as techno-human composites, living constructions of information – has become more emphatic and harder to evade. As an aesthetic mode, photomontage presages the highly visual economy of today’s fragmentary public sphere – one overloaded by a relentless flow of images and their infinite reproduction, curation and subjection to cutting and pasting.