The Art of Hannah Höch: Queering Collage via Jack Halberstam

Daniel Fountain, Loughborough, June 2019

On the 25th April 2019 I delivered a paper at the University of Oxford as part of the third instalment of the Queer Modernism(s) conference.[1] The paper was entitled ‘Hannah Höch and the Queer Art of Collage’ and it formed part of a panel called ‘Deep Cuts: Cut-up, Collage and Craft’. This was chaired by one of the co-organisers, Rio Matchett, and included two other speakers; Desmond Huthwaite (University of Cambridge) and Temmuz Süreyya Gürbüz (National University of Ireland, Galway). Huthwaite explored how Mina Loy’s affinity for intentional misspelling, repurposing and differentiation of textual style in writings such as Feminist Manifesto (1914) could be read as both collage-like and queer. Although not concerned with collage per se, Gürbüz discussed how punk aesthetics, film ‘cutting’ and counter-culture more broadly might impact the formation of radical politics in modernity. My own paper particularly focused on Hannah Höch (1889-1978) who was an influential collage artist and member of the Berlin Dada movement. It sought to (re)examine her photomontage technique as an inherently queer method that can successfully destabilise hierarchies associated with gender and sexuality. The paper also formed a collage of sorts; combining biography, theoretical discussion, visual analyses of Höch’s work, and a reflexive discussion of my own artistic practice that utilises similar techniques. Here, I will present a summary of my research and the discussions that took place in relation to this paper.


Fig 1. Hannah Höch, Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser durch die letzte Weimarer Bierbauchkulturepoche Deutschlands. 1919. Collage. 114 x 90cm. Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin. Artists Rights Society (ARS) and Art Resource

Höch became actively involved with the Berlin Dada group primarily through her relationship with Raoul Hausmann, one of the original pioneers of the group. Because Höch’s links to the group of Dadaists were almost exclusively through Hausmann, she always felt that she held a marginal position in the ‘boys club’.[2] Hans Richter would even come to describe her contribution to the movement purely as providing the ‘sandwiches, beer and coffee’.[3] More women did eventually become part of the collective, but Höch recalls: ‘Most of our male colleagues continued for a long while to look upon us as charming and gifted amateurs, denying us implicitly any real professional status’.[4] Though her work had been critically acclaimed and had appeared in Chicago at a May 1920 exhibition entitled Das Beste der jungen Kunst Deutschlands (The Best of Young German Art), fellow members such as George Grosz and John Heartfield did not want her to take part in Berlin’s First International Dada Fair.[5] Although her 1919 work Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser Dada durch die letzte Weimarer Bierbauchkulturepoche Deutschlands (Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimarer Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany; Fig.1) was eventually accepted into the exhibition, they gave her the condescending pet name ‘Hannchen’ (little Hanna) in the exhibition catalogue.[6] Adding insult to injury they altered the caption label and deliberately misspelled Küchenmesser (kitchen knife), transforming it instead to Kuchenmesser (the less menacing and domestic cake knife).[7] With her characteristic good humour and wit she reportedly cut out the misspelled label and added it directly to her collage.[8] After an incredibly turbulent relationship with Hausmann, Höch then ended their seven-year relationship in 1922. But it was through their relationship that Höch had developed important relationships with others, such as the artist Kurt Schwitters and his wife Helma. At their invitation, Höch went to the Netherlands in 1926 to the home of Lajor and Nell d’Ebneth at Kijkduin.[9] Whilst there, Höch met the Dutch writer and linguist Mathilda ‘Til’ Brugman. The women soon formed a romantic relationship and by the autumn Höch had moved to The Netherlands to live with her, where they stayed until 1929, until finally moving to Berlin. Höch and Brugman’s relationship was to last a further nine years.


Fig. 2 Hannah Höch, Und wenn du denkst der Mond geht unter. 1921. Collage. 21 x 13.4cm. Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Having given a very brief overview of the artist’s life and work, I now wish to discuss her method of art-making in relation to what I term the queer art of collage. I argue that whilst the term ‘queer’ draws its politics and affective force from the history of LGBT+ communities, it is not equivalent to these categories, nor is it necessarily an identity. Rather, when utilised as a transitive verb (to queer, a process of queering) it can, as David Getsy suggests, offer a strategic ‘undercuttingof the stability of identity and of the dispensation of power that shadows the assignment of categories and taxonomies’.[10] In this sense, queer can therefore act as a form of intellectual activism that challenges presumptions and schematic binaries, particularly in relation to gender and sexuality. Collage and appropriation, as Höch’s practice demonstrates, is ripe for this material work; taking fragments of culture and reinterpreting dominant cultural norms to produce queer associations. This ‘queerness’ then is not necessarily based on an artwork’s content (although this is sometimes the case) but the very method of collage making makes use of queer concepts; such as humour and camp, inversion and reversal, excess and extremes.


Fig. 3 Hannah Höch, Dompteuse. 1930. Collage. 35.5 x 26.0 cm. Kunsthaus Zürich.

Höch’s androgynous subjects in her photomontages such as Und wenn du denkst der Mond geht unter (1921)[And when you think the moon is setting] (Fig.2) and her 1930 work Dompteuse [Tamer] (Fig.3) challenge the Weimar concept of the Neue Frau (New Woman) and appear to address issues of gender in a period in which patriarchal and heteronormative society became increasingly anxious as women gained more freedom.[11] It is also worth noting that several individuals including Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Sigmund Freud, and Magnus Hirschfeld were publishing widely-debated work relating to gender and sexuality around this time.[12] Although Höch never spoke openly about her own sexuality or about literature on sexology, such discourses may have had a certain degree of influence on her work. However, scholars of Höch’s work often fall short of acknowledging the queerness of this gender ambiguity by viewing her work purely through a feminist lens. I argue that such a reading –  regardless of how well-supported – is ultimately incomplete. More productive interpretations might therefore arise from turning towards queer theory. For example, Jack Halberstam has persuasively argues that collage ‘precisely references the spaces in between and refuses to respect the boundaries that usually delineate self from other, art object from museum, and the copy from the original. In this respect, as well as in many others, collage (from the French coller, to paste or glue) seems feminist and queer’.[13] He continues by arguing that the likes of Höch have utilized such a method ‘to bind the threat of castration to the menace of feminist violence and both to the promise for transformation, not through a positive production of the image but through a negative destruction of it that nonetheless refuses to relinquish pleasure’.[14] This resonates closely with Höch’s work and her comments surrounding it. For example, in a 1971 exhibition catalogue she describes her fascination with the ‘process of remounting, cutting up, sticking down, activating – that is to say, alienating’ of images.[15] Höch would also exclaim, ‘[t]hese phantasms are not escapist, they are attacks, and no longer about creating moods. They set about a reality with a hitherto unseen rigour and compare it to the ideal. This art is a call and an exhortation in amongst the ruins of a lost world’.[16]


Fig. 4 Hannah Höch, Kleine Sonne. 1969. Collage. 41.4 × 61.5 cm. Whitechapel Gallery, London. Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Interestingly, many of Höch’s later works moved towards abstraction and she begins to move past a conception of androgyny as a mediation of the ‘opposing’ forces of masculine and feminine. Instead, androgyny here becomes a radical means of unsettling this very heteronormative binary opposition, by refusing to be classified within the binary at all. As Halberstam illustrates, ‘if one form of phallic queerness has been defined by the representation of the body as hybrid and assembled, then another takes as its object the disappearance of the body altogether’.[17] The figures (or lack thereof) in works such as Kleine Sonne [Little Sun] (1969) (Fig.4)and Der Schöne Po [The Beautiful Bottom], (1959) (Fig.5) exist across the boundaries between male and female and therefore function as a queer rejection of heteronormative expectations of gender.


Fig.5: Hannah Höch, Der Schöne Po. 1959.  Collage. 49.8 × 40.2 cm. Collection of Dr Peter J. Heindlmeyer, Berlin.

Höch’s work has been a source of inspiration for my own artistic practice, which commonly utilises collage and assemblage to destabilise hierarchies associated with gender and sexuality. As Höch once stated, ‘I want to erase the boundaries that we humans have falsely erected around everything that surrounds us’.[18] In early two-dimensional works, I began to experiment with themes of domesticity, gender and sexuality, utilising the collage technique to indeed ‘erase the boundaries’.[19] Following my undergraduate studies in Fine Art and English Literature, I then moved into much larger assemblages, such as in Eve and Adam (Fig.6). In this work I aimed to challenge and subvert the idea of woman as a subordinate ‘object’, whilst also questioning what contemporary society deems ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’. The use of collage here allowed for such archaic gender binaries to be ripped apart, but the use of stitching attempts to reconstruct and repair them in a new, distinctly queer worldview (Fig.7). Whilst this deconstructive collage process might therefore be seen as one of aggression (to rip, to tear) – I find the act of reconfiguring (to stitch, to glue) both reparative and therapeutic.


Fig. 6 Daniel Fountain, Eve and Adam (Installation View). 2015. Mixed media. Dimensions variable

With a particular influence from Höch’s later collages and Halberstam’s theoretical discussion pertaining to the queer art of collage, my work took a radical turn and I slowly began to move away from the physical representation of sexual bodies, becoming more concerned with the role of the found object and how consider how material alone might be queered, or used queerly – such as in the case of trash objects or marginalised materials like scraps of fabric. Rather than limiting myself to a two-dimensional plane, sculptural assemblages such as Nest (Fig.8) attempt to reference queer identity through the very absence of the physical body. Here, scraps of materials, discarded clothing and ex-boyfriends’ shirts are deconstructed (in the same way any two-dimensional collage practice would) and are re-constructed to form a completely new entity – in this case, a nest-like structure in which visitors can come, sit and take refuge ‘in amongst the ruins of a lost world’.[20]


Fig. 7 Daniel Fountain, Eve and Adam (Detail). 2015. Mixed media. Dimensions variable.

Fig. 8 Daniel Fountain, Nest (Installation View). 2019. Mixed media. Dimensions variable.

Notes

[1] Further details about the conference can be found online at: https://queermodernismconference.wordpress.com.

[2] Paula K. Kamenish, Mamas of Dada (Columbia, South Carolina: The University of South Carolina Press, 2015), p.129.

[3] Hans Richter, Dada: Art and Anti-Art. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1997), p.132

[4] Hannah Höch in Edouard Roditi, ‘Interview with Hannah Höch’, Arts Magazine 34, no. 3 (Dec. 1959), p. 29.

[5] Kamenish, Mamas of Dada, p.129.

[6] Kamenish, Mamas of Dada, p.129.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Kamenish, Mamas of Dada, p.140.

[10] David Getsy, Queer (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2016), p.15.

[11] See for instance;

Marsha Meskimmon, Women Artists and The Limits of German Modernism (London and New York: I.B.Tauris Publishers, 1999)

Marsham Meskimmon and Shearer West, Visions of the ‘Neue Frau’: Women and the Visual Arts in Weimar Germany (London: Scolar Press, 1995)

[12] For example, von Krafft-Ebing’s original publication of Psychopathia Sexualis in 1886, Freud’s Drie Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie in 1905 and Hirschfield’s Die Homosexualität des Mannes und des Weibes in 1914.

[13][13] Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011), p.136, emphasis my own.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Hannah Höch, ‘Zur Collage’, in: Hannah Höch. Collagen aus den Jahren 1916-1971 (exhib. Cat., Berlin, Academy of Arts, 1971), pp.18-19.

[16] Hannah Höch, ‘Fantastische Kunst’, in: Fantasten-Ausstellung (exhib.cat., Berlin, Galerie Rosen, 1946).

[17] Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure, p.140.

[18] Excerpt from catalogue Kunstzaal De Bron exhibition, Den Haag, 1927, later translated from Dutch into German and reprinted in Cara Schweitzer, Schrankenlose Freiheit für Hannah Höch: Das Leben einer Künstlerin, 1889-1978. (Berlin: Osburg Verlag, 2011).

[19] Ibid.

[20] Hannah Höch, ‘Fantastische Kunst’, in: Fantasten-Ausstellung (exhib.cat., Berlin, Galerie Rosen, 1946).


Bibliography

Freud, Sigmund. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Translated byJames Strachey. Eastford: Martino Fine Books, 2011.

Getsy, David. Queer. London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2016.

Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011.

Hirschfield, Magnus. Die Homosexualität des Mannes und des Weibes. Berlin: Louis Marcus Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1914.

Höch, Hannah. ‘Interview with Hannah Höch’. In Arts Magazine 34, no. 3, edited by Edouard Roditi, 1959.

Höch, Hannah. ‘Fantastische Kunst’, in: Fantasten-Ausstellung. exh.cat., Berlin, Galerie Rosen, 1946.

Höch, Hannah. ‘Zur Collage’, in: Hannah Höch. Collagen aus den Jahren 1916-1971. exh. Cat., Berlin, Academy of Arts, 1971.

Kamenish, Paula K. Mamas of Dada. Columbia, South Carolina: The University of South Carolina Press, 2015.

Richter, Hans. Dada: Art and Anti-Art. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.

Schweitzer, Cara. Schrankenlose Freiheit für Hannah Höch: Das Leben einer Künstlerin, 1889-1978. Berlin: Osburg Verlag, 2011.

von Krafft-Ebing, Richard. Psychopathia Sexualis: The Classic Study of Deviant Sex. Translated by Joseph LoPiccolo. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2011.


Author’s Biography

Daniel Fountain is an artist and PhD Candidate at Loughborough University. His research takes a practice-led approach and examines the intersection between craft and queer identity. He has exhibited work in a variety of institutions and has published writing with a range of journals such as Engage and ArtsProfessional. Alongside his studies and academic research Daniel teaches in both Fine Art and Art History at Loughborough University and Nottingham Trent University. Further details and a portfolio of his work can be found at: www.danielfountain.com.