In the world of television, there is a theory which is commonly referred to as the 'Seinfeld Is Unfunny' trope; put simply, it refers to the retroactive viewing of a thing which, though innovative in its day, seems expected in the modern world. Paradoxically, things fall prey to the Seinfeld Is Unfunny phenomenon precisely because they themselves were the first to carve out the particular style which now renders them passé or wholly predictable in the eyes of the viewer. (The pop-culture theorem is a popular one in several modes of the arts – a Google search throws up Salinger's Catcher In The Rye, Hemingway's work in toto, and the novels of Isaac Assimov, Romero's seminal Night/Day/Dawn Dead – but less so in art proper, perhaps because of a mistrust of anything so lowbrow as a television sitcom. Matters commercial are only introduced with irony.) To begin a discussion of the work of Hannah Höch with a reference to this nineties 'teepee masterwork' (and, for the record, I do believe Seinfeld to be enduringly funny) may appear to be a bold and misguided gesture, but here is the reason for it: Höch's oeuvre – as one of the Dada artists more typically left to languish in the archives, in favour of the big-hitters like her former lover, Raoul Hausmann – is one which the viewer is proficient in by proxy, by virtue of its style. This is not to say that Höch is not a valuable or a talented artist, or that her works are not striking – they are, undoubtedly so, and of absolutely equal caliber to better-known works by male contemporaries like Hausmann, Schwitters, or Grosz – it is simply to acknowledge that this semi-forgotten female Dadaist may appear to the uninitiated more like a copyist than a trailblazer.
Hannah Hoch, Für ein Fest gemacht (Made for a Party), 1936, Collage, 36 x 19.8 cm; Collection of IFA, Stuttgart.
Two years ago, the Whitechapel mounted a show of the work of the artist John Stezaker, whose photomontages draw on the golden age of cinema, and on the faded green of the forties collagists' colour palette—the jumpy slash-up features and the unheimlich near-fits of the Dada face. The effectiveness of Stezaker's work relies on history and familiarity: a visual shorthand alluding to forebears with radical intentions. Numbed, thus, to the cut-up style, we are left with a similar trope: a Dada Is Uninteresting; a Dada Is Accessible; a Dada Is Handsome To Look At, But Ultimately Familiar. Turn, instead, this unwanted and wasteful image of the familiar Dada collagist on its head. See these images for their modernity, and admire them for it; though the photomontage may be fashionable, these works, after all, were a half-century ahead of the zeitgeist. Be amazed by the way that, looking at Höch's scrapbooked 'Album,' it is possible to see the cut-and-paste layouts of a thousand risographed graphic design books from the last four years, or that – prescient and boldly female and fluidly sexual – a pair of isolated pearlescent-pink female lips or a cut-out bottom appear to preempt the work of an artist like, say, Linder Sterling.
Hannah Hoch, Ohne Titel (Aus einem ethnographischen Museum) (Untitled [From an Ethnographic Museum]), 1930, Collage, 48.3 x 32.1 cm; Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg / Photo: courtesy of Maria Thrun.
Context is all. Observe, for instance, the year marked beneath the montage Die Süsse (“The Sweet One”), 1926, which seems a remarkably early period for Höch's experiments with race. I employ 'experiments' here in lieu of 'commentaries,' incidentally, rather deliberately. Her inclusion of racially charged components often appears to be largely observational rather than overtly moral-political; nevertheless, her Ethnographic Museum series featured a 'black' aesthetic and viably 'ethnic' figures – albeit wildly exoticised – at a time when representation in Germany favoured the Aryan, blue-eyed Deutschlander. It must be noted, the playful side of her work is more evident in this retrospective than the outwardly political: the Cabaret girls and the funny figures occasionally a bigger draw than the works which criticize that 'mad, inhuman, [and] bestial clique' who had dubbed Höch's output 'degenerate art,' and who had subjected her and her countrymen to 'twelve years of misery.'* Postwar, too, there is a slide into abstraction, as if the artist is keen to rewrite, subsume, or forget some part of her history herself.
*From Hannah Höch's diaries, quoted in the wall text.
[Image on top: Hannah Hoch, Staatshäupter (Heads of State), Collage Photomontage , 16.2 x 23.3 cm; © Collection of IFA, Stuttgart.]