Dada serious


Brian Dillon on Hannah Höch, ‘art’s original punk.’

Cut With the Kitchen Knife is Höch’s best-known work, though it’s something of an anomaly – not least in its scale – and it does not appear in the Whitechapel Gallery‘s new exhibition. Höch claimed she had hit on the technique of photomontage while on a Baltic holiday with the married Hausmann in 1918; having come across mocked-up photos sent home by German soldiers, in which the young men’s heads were superimposed on pictures of musketeers, they realised the power of cut-and-paste to “alienate” images. This origin tale is slightly misleading, however, because since 1916 Höch had been working for the Berlin publisher Ullstein, producing embroidery and lace designs for such periodicals as Die Dame and Die Praktische Berlinerin. She was probably already familiar with the kinds of collage that an expanding print media practised with photographs. Höch worked on these handicraft magazines for a decade, and even wrote a manifesto of sorts for modern embroidery, in which she enjoined Weimar-era women to “develop a feeling for abstract forms”.

Höch, in other words, was an unlikely addition to the boisterous lineup of Berlin dada, and efforts to edge her out of the frame began almost immediately. Whether because of her conventional training in the applied arts, her involvement in commercial illustration or the mere fact of her being a woman, Grosz and Heartfield took against her work, and tried to exclude it from the fair; she was only reinstated when Hausmann, a key figure in the group, threatened to withdraw. Most of what she exhibited in 1920 has been lost: more photomontages and a few of her trademark “dada dolls”. A photograph of Höch cradling one of these curious figurines shows her sporting an astonishing science-fiction get-up, but she did not relish the exhibitionist element in dada. It is said she was embarrassed by the bohemian antics of her male confederates, though she did appear in a supporting role (armed with a saucepan and a toy gun) in at least one clamorous performance.