Hannah Höch – Another ‘big girl’ on show at the Whitechapel Gallery

Going to the Whitechapel Gallery is always a pleasure. Exhibitions are rather simple but very effective, perfectly matching the beautiful galleries of the building.

Since its opening in 1901, the Whitechapel Gallery has always strived to bring ‘great art to the people of the London east end’. In fact, over the centuries, it has premièred many modern masters and nowadays it still support and present first class emerging or established artists.Last year the exhibition program was closed with a survey of the ‘tomboy’ Sarah Lucas, whose ironic and iconic pieces – from the early the very last production – have been exposed together for the first time in United Kingdom.

As the new show was opened last week, for Britain it was again the very first time to host an important and ‘long-overdue’ retrospective. This time about a powerful and productive, yet often underestimate member of the German Dadaism: Hannah Höch, key figure in the history of collages, who profoundly influenced her time and those to come.

Only lady within a men’s club, her work is presented with a selection of over 100 collages and watercolours, which express her pursuit of beauty and show off her rebellious nature.

Rohrfeder Collage (Reed Pen Collage) 1922 Collage 28.5 x 22 cm Landesbank Berlin AG

Rohrfeder Collage (Reed Pen Collage), 1922, Collage, 28.5 x 22 cm, Landesbank Berlin AG


Hannah Höch trained in the fashion industry, working for a well established magazine: those patterns she used to designed are re-employed in her early works to create sarcastic yet delicate cut-out fashion plates.

Staatshäupter (Heads of State) Collage Photomontage 16.2 x 23.3 cm Collection of IFA, Stuttgart

Staatshäupter (Heads of State), Collage, Photomontage, 16.2 x 23.3 cm, Collection of IFA, Stuttgart

In the 1920s Höch adhered to the Dadaist protest. In this period she met and collaborated with may artists, as Kurt Schwitters – who was a sincere admirer of her – Jean Arp and Raoul Hausmann. Her collages addressed political issues and genders disparity (Höch was also a fervent feminist), main theme of the Ethnographic Series, in which she combined cut outs of ancient statuettes, oriental masks and other museum pieces to create ungraceful beings, that push towards a re-definition of beauty canons and promote the elimination of racial and sexual discriminations.

Ohne Titel, aus der Serie: aus einem ethnographischen Museum (Untitled, from the series: From an Ethnographic Museum) 1929 Photomontage with collage 49 x 32.5 cm Federal Republic of Germany - Collection of Contemporary Art Image: bpk / Kupferstichkabinett, SMB / Jörg P. Anders

Ohne Titel, aus der Serie: aus einem ethnographischen Museum (Untitled, from the series: From an Ethnographic Museum), 1929, Photomontage with collage, 49 x 32.5 cm, Federal Republic of Germany – Collection of Contemporary Art, Image: bpk / Kupferstichkabinett, SMB / Jörg P. Anders

An insistent interest in such topics appear also in other collages on show, which represent dancers, circus performers and other ‘shabby outcasts’ in gloomy caricatures.

During the Third Reich, Hannah Höch lived in a remote cottage in the outskirts of Berlin, keeping a low profile. Although her work has never been openly critical towards the regime, she has always used distortion and juxtaposition, inborn means of collage, to produce clearly ironic pieces.

From the 50s onwards, Höch used more and more the photomontage and focused mainly on the pursuit of a formal and abstract beauty. Such late works, shown in the upper galleries, reveal also a taste for the fantastic and an interest in the modernist self-reflexive question about the place of art in the world.

Um einen roten Mund ( Around a Red Mouth) c. 1967 Collage 20.5 x 16.5 cm Collection of IFA, Stuttgart

Um einen roten Mund ( Around a Red Mouth), c. 1967, Collage, 20.5 x 16.5 cm
Collection of IFA, Stuttgart


Kleine Sonne (Little Sun) 1969 Collage 16.3 × 24.2 cm Landesbank Berlin AG Please note that reproductions must not be cropped, overprinted, tinted, reversed or subject

Kleine Sonne (Little Sun), 1969, Collage, 16.3 × 24.2 cm, Landesbank Berlin AG

A video of the time – translated into English for the first time – shows a hoary Höch at work and report a precious explanation of her method: what she aimed to reach with every piece was a perfect form, not a certain style; she was striving to ‘capture ideas own momentum and shape its inherent concept’.The last bit of this survey is rightly concluded with Höch’s last piece: a large scale collage, portraying the long-lived artist at different ages – always with her signature haircut – surrounded by friends, lovers and places that entered her life and productive career as artist.

To an attentive eye more than to a rushed passerby, every piece shown will appear profound, interesting and ultimately bloody well assembled! If there was a method for collages to appear as perfect as possible in their form, for sure Hannah Höch had found it.

Hannah Höch, Whitechapel Gallery, London through 23 March 2014.

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by Caterina Berardi
in Focus on Europe

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