It is the first major exhibition of the German artist Hannah Höch in the UK and it is one of the London’s must see shows of the year. It is also impeccable in its presentation, and yet too well organized. It is not, however, innovative, experimental or erratic, thou, the latest Whitechapel Gallery’s show is not tedious or unreadable.
This is a man’s world! Or at least it was in the early 20th century when the art scene was dominated by male artists. However, in the sea of all the great isms a number of female artists began to emerge. Being gutsy, headstrong and bisexual, Hannah Höch felt comfortable among all the male artists, especially the representatives of the Dada movement. She is one of the women artists who have managed to become a substantial part of the art crème de la crème of her time and have left a tangible trail in the world’s art history. She is well known not only in Germany, but also in the US, Spain, and France. This is why Höch’s been long-neglected in the UK comes as a surprise.
The Whitechapel Gallery’s exhibition is well structured and easy to follow. Revealing Höch as an illustrious master of the collage, the extensive show covers the four main periods of her career: 1912-26; 1926-36; The Album (1936-45); 1945-78. Being one of the collage’s pioneers to its accomplished practitioners, Höch is often underestimated as a painter and drawer. Not many people know that in her early years she studied in a traditional crafts school and that among the collages she works with other media as well. Having that in mind, the first few artworks in the show are definitely not the finest ones, but they are intriguing as they disclose Höch’s classical skills and traditional approach. Nude drawings in pencil as well as some artistic paintings in gouache and linocut tell us that Höch was an excellent painter.
The series From the Ethnographic museum is the next part of the exhibition worth focusing on. Exquisite and monstrous, these pieces rebelliously oppose the uniformity by emphasizing bizarre fragmentations of the body and in that sense advocating the right to be different and unique. In the section across is a series particularly intriguing are the collages Young Woman, 1926 and Old Woman, 1920. With their divisionism’s aftertaste, they reveal Höch’s different face: a little more neo-impressionistic and a little less Dada. And just before you go upstairs, stop in front of Made for a Party, 1936 and Marlene, 1930, that hastily brings you back to the Dadaism.
The last part of the show is the most evocative one. It starts with a series of ‘flying’ images: beautiful metaphors of Höch’s post war hope and yearning for freedom. Abstraction and the fantastic series, covering almost the whole second floor, reveal Höch’s post war stylistic shift. Pieces like Poetry around a Chimney, 1956 and Composition in Grey, 1965 investigate the abstraction by presenting ambiguous forms and meanings in a new, explorative way. The last bit of Höch’s survey is also her very last piece: reminiscent large scale collage that tracks Höch’s path as an artist, friend, daughter and lover.
A whole life is reported in just three rooms and the few inches of paper of the life portrait. Although Höch has been undervalued in the UK, it seems like she has always been present on this island. Höch’s influence on British contemporary artist such as Linder Sterling and John Walker is irrefutable and salient, which reaffirms Höch’s place among the greatest world artist of all times.