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Hannah Höch: cut with the kitchen knife through the patriarchy

Exploring the German artist's contributions to Dada.

Art by Bonnie Huang

Life hasn’t been what you were promised. The people are angry, the government can’t get a grip, and fascism is on the rise. Sound familiar? It’s Germany in the 1910s. You are not a reader of Honi Soit; you are German Dada artist Hannah Höch, and you’ve got one meaty bone to pick with the Weimar Republic of Germany.

One crisp autumn morning during my senior years of high school in 2019, my art teacher (bless them, they had no idea what they were getting me into) introduced me to the fantastical, wild world of Hannah Höch. I was hooked. Höch’s work wasn’t at all what I was used to — no striking portraits of wealthy toffs with exquisite flowing silks and gleaming jewellery, no striking landscapes of jagged cliffs or raging storms, each stroke painstakingly placed. Instead, there were chaotic arrangements, an abundance of clipped images stuffed into frames, impossible figures hastily constructed with mismatched parts, as if Höch was playing Frankenstein.

I distinctly remember seeing Höch’s 1919 photomontage ‘Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Beer Belly of the Weimar Republic’. The photomontage is an explosive array of symbols, and one of her most famous works today; a bold critique on the failings of the Weimar Republic following the First World War, and of the male dominion of Germany’s politics and art. Höch was one of the pioneers of the photomontage technique, using it to explore her ideas on gender, the ‘New Woman’, androgyny and politics, the disorderly stylisation expressing her feelings of discontent and frustration.

Höch’s contributions to the Dada movement in its founding years should not be understated. She worked alongside Hausmann, Richter and other key figures of Berlin Dada. She collaborated, protested through art, brought forth new ideas to Weimar’s public, and developed the photomontage form. Though, being one of the few women within the elite group, Höch was heavily scrutinised. For a movement that aimed to reject tradition in all senses of the word, Dada was a fundamentally sexist movement.

Höch recalled in an interview that “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.” Not only was it rare for a woman to be so heavily involved within creating avant-garde art, but Höch’s bold feminist themes also made her fellow artists hesitant to accept Höch and her practice.

I admire Höch for her perseverance in the art world, even when those in her inner circle would not respect her. We can learn a lot from Höch’s art, and herself; her unapologetic exploration is something to be admired. Höch’s artistic themes still resonate today, particularly in a political climate where hateful ideologies constantly make headlines. Her exploration of gender fluidity and sexuality were before her time, and are topics that are only recently becoming (somewhat) accepted in Western culture. Höch is certainly not the only female artist within Dada who has been overlooked by the history books. We know the names Duchamp, Ray, and Ernst; but Clara Tice, Beatrice Wood and Sophie Taeuber-Arp are mostly erased from the Dada chapter.

This is, of course, an issue not limited to the Dada movement. Throughout the entirety of Art History, women artists have been diminished and even completely erased, but perhaps these artists’ calls for equality can finally be heard on a larger scale. Artists such as the Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, who was once relatively unknown, have been rediscovered. There is a lot that these forgotten female artists have to offer, and I think we can all learn from their fierce, unyielding calls for equality.