Hannah Höch at the Whitechapel Gallery

Filed in Reviews by on March 5, 2014

Hannah Höch

Whitechapel Gallery

15 January to 23 March 2014


The first image that greets visitors upon entry to the Whitechapel’s Hannah Höch retrospective is a black and white photograph of the German Dada artist as a young woman. Her hair is cropped severely and her edgy style seems totally congruent with today’s fashions, especially in the particular vicinity of the Whitechapel. Superficially at least, we live in an age that is entirely comfortable with the abrasive aesthetics of Dada. The movement’s apocalyptic intensity seems to resonate perfectly with our skittish and omnivorous digital culture.

The big players in the world of public art have clearly made the connection too. The Höch exhibit follows Tate Modern’s major Kurt Schwitters retrospective as well as the Barbican’s “Dancing Around Duchamp” extravaganza. There is clearly something in the zeitgeist at the moment, and in an otherwise flawless exhibit, the Whitechapel fails to tap into this undercurrent. Höch’s work is that of an important and independent artist, but this is quite simply all we’re offered. Ultimately an important opportunity is squandered.

However, as an introduction to Höch the exhibition certainly is flawless. As one of the rare female figures in the otherwise male-dominated avant-gardes of the early-twentieth century, Höch should be considered alongside figures like Claude Cahun, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and Leonora Carrington as members of boys’ clubs whose radical talents saw that they were never relegated to the dubious category of the mere muse. As such, the Whitechapel exhibit is careful to draw out the various subtleties of Höch’s idiosyncratic work.

One aspect of Höch’s approach that is immediately striking is the almost painterly sensibility she brought to her collage. Considered next to the visceral anarchy that characterises the work of her Dada peer Raoul Hausmann, Höch’s pieces seem peculiarly introspective. The portraits in particular show her experimenting with scale, detail and incongruity on an elemental level that invite certain psychoanalytic readings of her work. The juxtapositions she draws on always seem to be create an implicit sense of narrative unity as well as rupture.

It’s interesting to consider this duality in Höch’s work in the particular context of Dada too. As a movement reacting to the explosion of a mass media industry, Höch’s narrative sensibility and interest in the metonymic aspect of photography can be read as an interesting critique of the media industry itself. However, while most of the Dada artists chose the modes of satire and shock to launch their attacks on modernity, what distinguishes Höch’s work is that, despite the discursive nature of her chosen form, there is a clear sense of her ability to frame and deconstruct images on an ideological as well as an aesthetic level.

1936’s “Made for a Party” epitomises Höch’s ability to interrogate our sensual and intellectual relationship to media images through the deconstruction of them. In this particular collage we see an eye in the bottom left corner of the image staring back at us, above which is the body of what looks to be a young ballerina leaning forward. The dancer’s head, as they always are in Höch’s work, is totally out of proportion, so much so that all we see of it is the giant face’s Cheshire Cat grin. Taken in the context of the figure’s ambiguous age, troubled even more so by the suggestive smile, the wide-staring eye takes on a menacing quality.

The exhibition also charts Höch’s later work as she abandoned using cuttings of figures and people in favour of fauna and objects. As a result her later works share more common ground with the abstract photography of the Dadist László Moholy-Naga rather than Höch’s fellow collagists. It’s interesting too that this phase leads her straight into the sixties when her experiments with form and colour take on an entirely new contextual configuration in light of the psychedelic idealism of that infamous era.

However, the game of reading an artist’s work through certain era-bound and essentially arbitrary perspectives may indeed be a limiting one. In this sense the Whitechapel exhibit is a success in that it brings to the public an underrated artist in all her glory and complexity, but having said that, there is clearly something lacking in its execution. Ultimately it’s just another retrospective of an artist entirely worthy of one, which is of course a reasonable thing to expect: There’s just something utterly un-Dada about it all and if the rebellious spirit of the movement lives on solely in certain fashionable hairstyles, what does this tell us about our so-called creative industries?

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Cioran McGrath

About the Author ()

Cioran once read a book by John Berger (inadvertently) and now believes this has given him the ability to write about art, although no one has really explained to him that it’s near impossible to make a living this way. It’s unclear whether he will lose interest in the misadventure any time soon. Many hope he will. Along with being a prodigious waster of time (his as well as others’), he also writes infrequently about other things, more of which can be found at www.callenine.com. You can follow him at @CalleNine, but we’re not sure why anyone would want to.

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