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Women in Art I / The Queen of Dada

History of art presents an unequal proportion of male representatives over female. The avant-garde movements that changed the course of art forever, and probably the way that society looks at art as well, appear to be full of testosterone. Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, Dadaism, how many female artists can we think of? With their powerful Manifestos written by men, the role of women in art was left in second place, the muses, the models. More on the ‘contribution’ side rather than on the revolution making one.

Born in Gotha, Germany in 1889, Hannah Höch became one of the foremost representatives of the Dada movement, as well as one of the most important women in art, showing not only a social compromise in her work but also a very strong feminist component.

Höch attended the College of Arts and Crafts in Berlin from 1912 to 1914. She opted for subjects like glass design and graphic arts, which were more ‘suitable’ for women, while painting and sculpture were traditionally reserved for men. When the war started, she had to interrupt her studies. In 1915 she returned to school, where she studied design at the National Institute of the Museum of Arts and Crafts. It was at that time when she met Austrian artist Raoul Hausmann and became friends. It was him who introduced her to the circle of Berlin Dadaists, a group of artists that included George Grosz, Wieland Herzfelde, and Wieland’s older brother, John Heartfield.

The Dadaists’ spirit was in favour of chaos, nonsense, and irrationality. They intended to push the boundaries of what was accepted as the norm or the status quo, in the ruling society. They promoted radical social reforms. Höch supported this, but also added a feminist perspective to the movement’s philosophy of disgust with the perceived wrong of society and government. She mainly focused on criticising gender issues like birth control, suffrage, and inequality.

Höch’s work was highly political. Her collages and photomontages consisted in a juxtaposition of fragments found in newspapers, fashion magazines, advertisements, and all kind of printed press material. Images and words came together with an extraordinary new meaning. She was a collector. She gathered materials, documents, and records of Dadaism productions in the garden of her Berlin residence, some of which she later (used to make her photomontage compositions. She arranged the materials like in a pin board, based on a system only comprehensible to her. She completed her own personal Album of cut-and-pastes, which contained 421 photographs from all sources.

It is unclear whether it was Hannah Höch or her partner Raoul Hausmann who invented the photomontage technique, but both of them became their strongest exponents. Even in her old age, Höch refused to take credit for this discovery claiming they had come up with the idea together on holiday during 1918 in the Baltic town of Heidebrink.

Höch wanted to create, at least with glue and scissors, the image of the “New Woman” whose social role would be much more than the one of a housewife and mother. In her work, she redefined women identity giving it much more power and a new sense of sexual freedom. She mixed gender roles, assembling men and women’s parts together to create new androgynous creatures. Her work aimed to call attention to very important issues like men’s abuse of authority and gender violence, topics still controversial nowadays.

One of her famous pieces, “The Father” (1920) shows a good example of her feminist vision of the world. A man composed of different women’s part, in a dress and wearing high heel shoes, is the main character of the piece. He is depicted holding a baby. Just next to him, there is a boxer hitting the baby that the man holds. A very advanced thought for the time, a call of attention to the violence in the highly patriarchal families. Meanwhile, women are shown as ballet dancers, graceful and feminine as women should be.

Another of her pieces, “Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Beer-Belly of the Weimar Republic” may be her most famous photomontage and one of the most political pieces of the whole Dada movement. This very large mix-media work (90 x 114 cm) was produced between 1919 and 1920 while the situation in Germany was critical. After losing the First World War, the society got split into two political parties that were struggling to get to power. It is in this particular context of tension and strong censorship where Dada artists decide to use their collages and photomontages to express what they couldn’t express in words.

The composition depicts the social, political and even artistic hypocrisies that existed in this era in an explosion of cut up images that overlap creating a big chaotic scenario. With a satirical tone, machinery (trains, gears, etc.) is used to symbolize progress and the growing situation of the industry sector. The mood is absurd and there is something of ridiculous, with theatrical expressions like in a circus of political figures dancing in women’s bodies and even animals running around. In the centre of all this movement, the image of German expressionist artist Käthe Kollwitz’s head floating over a dancer’s body. Another German artist whose work showed her anti-war spirit, depicting the effects of poverty and hunger that war had brought. Heads of artists transplanted onto babies bodies, sculptures, or deep diving suits. The images of dancers and the mixing of gender conventions add humour to this irrational show. On the bottom right corner, a map of Europe can be seen. And there is yet another feminist message to be discovered. The map features the countries where women were already allowed to vote.

Shown for the first time in the First International Dada Fair in 1920 with pieces from Jean Arp, Johannes Baader, Otto Dix, Max Ernst, George Grosz, Raoul Hausmann, Wieland Herzfelde and many other now famous figures, this big piece can now be visited in the Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen in Berlin.

Höch spent the years of the Third Reich in a remote area on the outskirts of Berlin, hiding in a small garden house. Her work was censored by the Nazis and tagged as ‘degenerate art’, which made it very difficult for her to show and sell. Even though, she continued to produce until her death in 1978.

When the time came to History of Dada to be written, it was more than one author that forgot her and her contemporary Dada female artists (Sophie Täuber, Beatrice Wood, and Baroness Else von Freytag-Loringhoven were also important among the Berlin Dada group). She does not appear at all in Robert Motherwell’s 1951 Dada Painters and Poets. However, her work was shown in the Dada, Surrealism and their Heritage exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1968. And it was probably then when curators had to recognize her talent and her importance as a key Dada artist whose major contribution to art was to have already seen, a hundred years ago, the stereotyped female image spread by mass media, to have fought it and put the issue in the spotlight.

Image: Hannah Höch, Collage
Bridgeman-Giraudon / Art Resource, NY / Höch, Hannah (1889-1978) © ARS, NY
Private Collection, Berlin