But at the beginning of the 20th century things were different. Establishment ideas held sway and there was plenty to be radical about. Epic socio-political changes were afoot. The growth of industrialism, photography, cinema and mass media, as well as the gradual emancipation of women, along with the decimation that was raging throughout Europe resulting in two World Wars, formed a potent mix.
In 1912 Anna Therese Johanne Höch, who had been born in 1889 in Gotha, Germany, left her comfortable upper-middle class home for the cultural melting pot of Berlin. There she attended the craft-orientated School of Applied Arts, an education not uncommon for young women at the time. Here her cultural interests and an astute eye saw her turn traditional craft into something quite new. During the turbulent years of the First World War she met poets and painters, publishers and musicians, including that guru of junk art, Kurt Schwitters, just as Dadaism was hitting town. In August 1920, her radical interests led her to take part in the First International Dada Fair.
Employed as a pattern designer, creating illustrations, shapes and designs for Ullstein Verlag and its magazines, which were distributed to a new mass audience of young women interested not only in fashion but also in modern life styles, she was emphatic that the purpose of art was not to 'decorate' but to document the shifting values of a generation. Her early works show an inclination for composition, colour and form. And she had a penchant for embroidery. But it was embroidery as a feminist crie de coeur: "…you,…modern women, who feel that your spirit is in your work, who are determined to lay claim to your rights (economic and moral)…at least y-o-u should know that your embroidery work is a documentation of your era"
This exhibition at the Whitechapel is the first major show to showcase her work in Britain and brings together over 100 collages, photomontages, watercolours, and woodcuts from the 1920s to 1970s. Her role in the fashion industry influenced the highly original photomontages of her Dadaist period. In Hochfinanz (High Finance) 1923 or Der Vater (The Father) 1920, she creates uncanny images full of disquieting wit and biting satire that deconstruct not only the relationship between high finance and the military but also traditional sexual and gender roles. It's not surprising looking at her work that this is the period that saw the rise of Freud. For many of Hoch's images are like the psyche laid shockingly bare.
During the late 1920s she travelled round Europe and became friends with the likes of Piet Mondrian. She also began a relationship with the avant-garde female poet, Til Brugman, with whom she lived for ten years. Perhaps her unconventional Sapphic leanings allowed her to think outside the conventional box and explore the concept of the 'New Woman' within Weimer Germany, presenting debates not only about gender but also ethnic identity in a series of potent collages. Her photomontages from 1920s and early 30s Aus einem ethnographischen Museum (From an Ethnographic Museum) are unconventional and adventurous but, from a postcolonial standpoint, somewhat problematic. Her juxtapositions of European female bodies melded with appropriated African masks and other ethnographic objects appear, to modern sensibilities, rather ambiguous if not dubious. Her relationship to the 'primitive other' is far from clear. To give her the benefit of the doubt, perhaps she was groping towards some understanding of different cultures but, while original and visually exciting, her images often seem to symbolise something essentialist and chthonic, the exotic seen through middle-class western (and racist?) eyes. Her image Bäuerliches Brautpaar (Peasant Couple) 1931that includes the head of a black man in a homburg placed, without a body, on a pair of long leather boots beside the face of what is, possibly, a monkey in a blonde wig balanced on a child's pair of socks and shoes, is really quite disquieting.
That Höch stayed in Germany (albeit working away in the quiet suburbs of Berlin) under the Third Reich raises complex questions about her relationship to the Nazis. That her work was discredited as degenerate does not necessarily exonerate her. So too were the paintings of that wonderful artist, Nolde. And he was, at one time, an active supporter of the Nazis. There is a temptation to sanitise Höch's work in the light of modern feminism, to read the fractured images through postmodern eyes and talk of irony and fragmentation. But we can't necessarily assume that to be the case. She was certainly an exciting artist but not all artists purport liberal ideals – look at Ezra Pound or Wyndham Lewis, to name but two.
Hannah Höch carried on working prolifically for over thirty years after the Second World War. She continued to make challenging and varied collages which became noticeably more abstract as she returned to the visual patterning of her early career. Whilst she pushed the boundaries of the medium of collage and her work was certainly more than just pleasing abstractions, it is the darkly clever, sometimes funny, often highly disturbing earlier work that packs a punch. She touches on so many taboos: racism, miscegenation, transgender issues.
Höch took the new art of photomontage and created images that were biting, cruel, pertinent and witty. It's as if she lifted the lid on a number of repressed longings and desires. Works like Unvollendt (Antique Frieze) 1930, with their dislocate body parts, echo the dark erotica of Hans Bellmer. Elsewhere woman's bodies transmogrify into skyscrapers and strange dolls. She liked tribal objects and black bodies for their strangeness and difference. To us it may seem politically incorrect but her fascination held a certain honesty. She was interested in what lay below polite surfaces. "The abject," Julia Kristeva wrote in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, "shatters the wall of repression and its judgements. It takes the ego back to its source on the abominable limits from which, in order to be, the ego has broken away…."
Rohrfeder Collage (Reed Pen Collage) 1922. Collage 28.5x22cm. Landesbank Berlin AG
Für ein Fest gemacht (Made for a Party) 1936. Collage. 36x19.8 cm. Collection of IFA, Stuttgart
Ohne Titel (Aus einem ehtnographicschen Museum) (Untitled[From an Ethnographic Museum]) 48.3x32.1cm. Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg. Photo courtesy of Maria Thrun
Staatshäupter (Heads of State). Collage. Photomontage 16.2x22.3cm. Collection of IFA, Stuttgart