Hannah Höch( 1889-1978) is best known as one of the originators of the medium of photomontage, and the only female member of the Berlin Dada group, an artistic grouping which protested the unprecedented destruction of World War I by putting into question all prexisting rules, traditions, and conventions. Höch created some of the most memorable and radical images of the period from photographs clipped from mass-media periodicals, a method she used throughout her career. The large and complex Cut with the Kitchen Knife… (1919 20) juxtaposes pictures of the “anti-Dada”, the establishment, with those of intellectuals and artists, and suggests, somewhat naively that the newly enfranchised women of Germany would soon “cut” through the male, patriarchal, beer swilling, wench pinching culture.
She cuts up faces and bodies and fits together parts mismatched in size, color, and style, achieving through paper surgery, a biting critique on the folly of beauty culture. Even the most painstaking and time consuming pieces convey a sense of spontaneity and freshness.
However, the nostalgic vision of artists as heroic, belies the depraved recollections of many Dadaist artists; many were called, but few were chosen amid a cast of talentless visual artists, literary beggars, and leeches who were no less pathetic then, than they would be today. Though the zeitgeist held a certain lack of pretentiousness, there is the irritating bias towards making suffering seem chic. Yet the lie is not only that it’s not, but those who are born from disadvantaged backgrounds, the poor, know it’s not, and only bourgeois elitists who go slumming , would think it is and try to embellish and create an urban legend around it.
Nonetheless,the context of Weimar Germany, and its inherent complications and contradictions nurtured this form of underground art that aesthetically conveyed a nuanced foreboding and vulnerability that only the imminent spectre of war can produce.the photomontage technique was the perfect metaphor for the disconnect and fragmentation, and attempt at attachment that existed when everyday seemed like a twilight year. Weimar Berlin likely resembled Paris at the same time Henry Miller described it in Tropic of Cancer as ”bloated pages of ecstasy slimed with excrement ”.
” The political parties had finally been dissolved, and it remained only to sweep away the democratic debris. The pretense of a coalition government had vanished. Hitler, far from being contained by the conservatives, had made them his prisoners. He still made his moves with a degree of caution until he was ready to strike down or assimilate non-Nazis, but when he was ready he struck with deadly precision.”( The Unmaking of Adolf Hitler, Davidson )
The prevailing view of art in the crumbling Weimar was anchored in varying interpretations of a post metaphysical conception of art that would be consistent or tailored to the accepted ”inner truth” of National Socialism. A fascist conception of fusing modern technology to the hot impulses and flashes of intuitive truth known as ”lived experiences”( erlebnis) The idea of erlebnis was a metaphysical precursor to naturalism embodied in the doctrine of the ”blond beast” which according to Heidegger, represented everything wrong-headed about the usual Nazi interpretation of Nietzsche. Nonetheless, Heidegger and others, plodded on in the ego-driven belief they were at the forefront of a purient new guard in Western Culture.
”An idealist in the tradition of German nationalism, Heidegger’s fate was to be that of the faithless thinker, ultimately disloyal to German fascism because it was not sufficiently metaphysical, yet unable to reconcile himself to western liberalism because it was, in his estimation, the political self-consciousness of technicity. For this reason, Heidegger ended the war digging ditches, having been ousted by German university authorities acting at the behest of state fascism as the University of Freiburg’s “most dispensable Professor.”… For Heidegger, National Socialists were not sufficiently self-conscious metaphysically, too trapped in the particularities of politics, to be capable finally of realizing the ontology of the fascist moment: delivering the metaphysical possibilities of (German) folk-community into concrete historical realization. To the tribal consciousness of fascism, Heidegger remained a metaphysician of dasein. Ironically, his prescience concerning the fading away of second-order (National Socialist) fascism before the coming to be of first-order (virtual) fascism ultimately made of his thought a historical incommensurability: too metaphysically pure for the direct action, “hand to mouth” politics of German fascism; and yet too radically deconstructive of the claims of technological rationality to find its home in liberalism. “Homeless thought.”( Arthur Kroker, Hyper- Heidegger)
The Dadaists, then, revolted against this form of logic and reasoning, in which everything that did not conform to the Nazi view was regarded as mental illness. For Dadaists, the nonsensical and the absurd became tools to startle and provoke their audience out of their bourgeois complacence and conventional thinking which was fashioned on fear, an enduring appetite of militarism, consumerism, and racism; all of which seemed rejuvenated by the emerging technologies and the promise of a leisure oriented society.
While ostensibly indifferent to aesthetics, the Dadaist anti-aestheticism became viewed as a new avant-garde aesthetic. Dadaists defended against their bitterness with a kind of aesthetic irony, but it was a futile visual gesture that did nothing to reverse or stop the tide of contemporary events. But there is a deeper point to the Dadaistic realism of Hannah Höch and others such as John Heartfield. It suggested a way to break the stalemate between abstraction and representation, or,more particularly, figuration. The aesthetic impasse created by their reconciliation was a healthy nonconformist dose of outer-world influence, forcing a recalibration of their relationship in favor of representation, with abstraction going underground, not denied, but somewhat camouflaged. The result was a sense that there was something innately magical about reality, that is, inherently fantastic and strange. What has been called “magical realism,” or “fantastic realism”, a realism that calls attention to the absurdity of even the most mundane and trivial reality, that is, the bizarrity of the banal, an assault on mediocrity.
Weimar Germany was a bizarre world and Hitler was bizarre at its highest reaches, a level that strained credulity. The ideologues as well as the libertines and underworld of Weimar Berlin lived a fantasy, with equally disastrous social results. One of the reasons the German Dadaist realists turned to photography as a model, however much they departed from its apparently clinical realism, is that it alone seemed capable of representing what was too horrifically true to be imaginatively represented. Imagination would obstruct a view of reality that had become unimaginable.
Truth once again showed that it was stranger and weirder than fiction, and the clinical truthfulness of photography was the best way of conveying it. The avant-garde devices such as collage, futurist dynamics and Dadaist incongruity seemed fasle by comparison. They were a futile overlay on the stark truth, imaginatively enlivening it without necessarily penetrating it. Nonetheless, for Hoch and others, clear-eyed social observation , implicitly photographic, however unphotographic in style , fed into a traditional apocalyptic vision of collective human bondage. A vision somewhat morbid and fatalistic, subject to conventional laws of gravity .
After the dissolution of Dada in the early 1920s, Höch spent the remainder of the Weimar period creating work that commented on prevalent social issues with wry humor, a finely tuned sensibility, and careful attention to pictorial issues. In particular, Höch’s work from this period is notable for its focus on gender issues. Weimar Germany was the site of intense debate about the emancipated “New Woman,” whose life was typically romanticized by the new illustrated periodicals of the day. Höch’s art provided an alternative view of the modern woman as a locus of conflicting values whose liberation was largely illusory. Among the works from this period is her series “From an Ethnographic Museum,” which equates contemporary attitudes toward women with those held toward “primitive” cultures.
”It is also true that montage is often considered a minor form, lacking the heroism of painting and sculpture and even photography. After all, what is it but recycling? But the show’s size is one of its greatest assets–it is seldom that an exhibition so thoroughly documents the artist’s changes and leaps over the decades, like a time-lapse film. It is also striking how contemporary to us much of Höch’s work feels, in its sexual politics, its humor, its gleeful appropriation of anything and everything at hand–indeed, in its refusal of grandeur. Photomontage thumbs its nose at the pretension of the artist playing God, the blank canvas his world. It is the art of making do, of fashioning something personal from the incessant bombardment of images to which we are subjected. Höch in her modest way told the spectacle where to get off, and set about reconfiguring it with her scissors.” (Luc Sante, Slate Magazine )