I do love a study tour and so, this morning, I braved the long and arduous (eight minute walk) from my flat to the Whitechapel Gallery for the Hannah Höch exhibition.
The weather was glorious so it was actually quite hard to drag ourselves inside but I am very glad I did. Höch (born in Gotha in 1889) was a leading light in the German Dada movement, which began around 1916, and is considered to be a pioneer of photomontage. I had found the promo image for the exhibition to be a little off-putting, as it seemed like rather crude and dated pop art, but this show is actually incredibly subtle, beautiful and intriguing (and big!). There is a lot to absorb and I suspect it requires a second visit to really do it justice.
The work is presented chronologically and begins with embroidery designs, rich colours and repetitive motifs with strong black edging, exploring compositional form. We can see the influence of Cubism and the pleasure the artist takes in abstract shapes and textures. This leads into the early photomontage work, which is surprisingly small and has a distinctly Expressionist feel to it. It is quite mechanical, jerky and industrial. Most images have human figures included, albeit from quite poor quality newsprint. The colours are very muted - browns, greys, washed-out reds. The elements have been swapped around, juxtaposed, deconstructed and recombined - "cobbled-together" as one contemporary reviewer commented. Here is a brilliant study of how photomontage can completely change the power dynamic (see especially the Staatshäupter - Heads of State).
Context can be altered, borders blurred; the perception of large and small can be entirely different according to viewpoint, all on the "strength of imagination". As the body of work progresses, we see more of a focus on the position of women and ethnic minorities in society. The collection entitled From an Ethnographic Museum shows statues and carvings spliced with female body parts on plinths and other presentation devices. We are challenged (confronted?) by this work, whilst sensing the disempowerment and lack of control being conveyed. The resulting creations are monstrous but also beautiful. Some parts of the images are delicate and fragile, others immense, solid, androgynous, alien. We are disarmed and unnerved by these visions of women, with totemic heads and carvings for torsos, emerging from the apocalyptic fires of the war, disfigured and damaged, confined, reconstructed but with dignity still.
In the group discussion, there was a suggestion that the portraits focus on aspects not always revealed in other mediums. Someone made a good comparison with the Marc Quinn Alison Lapper Pregnant statue, featured on the plinth in Trafalgar Square from 2005-7. One of the tutors mooted the idea that it may be possible to say in collage what can be more difficult in paint. We noticed that there is no direct eye contact in these images, the gaze is always looking back or to the side. We also discussed the size of the pictures. There would have been technical restraints on scale but even many of the later works are still no bigger than A4-A3 sized. This makes for a much more intimate viewing. We are drawn in close, to delight in the intricacies of the photomontage.
I did mention, with regard to the piece The Sweet One, that there may have been a fertility motif as the (different-sized) hands were pointing to the womb area bit everyone else pretty much looked at me blankly. There was also a small discussion about why I was wearing eye make-up, which I felt might not end well. Not with my feminist rage and all that… Luckily, the conversation quickly changed tack.
We moved on to study the piece High Finance and discussed the mechanical feel, the human form as part of a machine, robotics, the emasculation of men within a repressive state. One of the tutors, Gerald Deslandes, suggested we should keep Lena Riefenstahl in mind as we assess the work and consider the political context (particularly survival strategies during WW2).
Heading upstairs, we were able to leaf through reproductions of Hoch's scrapbooks. These are hundreds of assembled images, without any annotation or rigid groupings, which provide a great insight into the visual culture at that particular time. This second room represents the artist's work during the war when she was married to a businessman/pianist called Kurt Matthies. There is mention of her effectively hiding out on the outskirts of Berlin where she was not recognised and no one knew of her self-described "lurid past as a Dadaist". This was clearly a dangerous time for artists and some of the imagery in this space shows figures wearing masks and image titles such as Point of View.
The introductory text to the final room stresses how much Höch revisited and reassessed her work after the war. This was an era of new freedoms and she used this time to explore modes of abstraction and to question her own artistic heritage. There was also change in consumer culture, with material items and art and other forms of entertainment being more readily available for the masses.
The gallery displays a quotation on the wall about twelve years of misery under a barbaric regime and a newfound calmness of the soul. The work reflects this wonderfully - softer and lighter imagery, much less industrial and oppressive. The creations are more abstract and there are fewer discernible human figures. The storytelling is dreamy and figurative - we see striped socks, musical notes, lily pads looking like spaceships, fireworks and dandelions, waves, breezes. The collage elements feel much more part of the natural landscape and the organic world - 'a continuity of life' as Gerald observed.
There are some motifs from her earlier work but as Höch herself says, "every imagination has recurring obsessions". The colours are more vibrant and playful with lots of serene blues and greens alongside dramatic, almost Fauvist, accents. Titles include Moonfish, Spindle's Dream, Poetry Around A Chimney. There is still ambiguity, but more depth, more light, more curves. The work is sensuous - one image actually looks like raspberry ripple ice cream - and seductive. The optimism is inescapable.
There was an interesting discussion amongst the group about the framing and how it raises the status of a work. We wondered how it might have been presented at the time and how this may have differed from contemporary male artists (such as Max Ernst). One of the tutors commented that if you look at Höch’s final Life Portrait, we can see that she doesn't really acknowledge her own borders. The work creeps out of its own space and is overlaid with images within a new context. We also contemplated the high technical quality of the work, compared with modern results from Photoshop. Some of the images are so painterly and abstract, so perfectly rendered, that it is actually hard to identify them as collages.
- Everyone agreed that these images are very filmic. There is a strong sense of the 'before and after'. We look at some of the human cut-outs and can imagine stock film animation. These are fragments of ongoing moments.
- The Höch scrapbooks reminded me of the value of obsessive image collection, which can be so inspirational, especially during those darker times. I have made a note to use my Pinterest boards more effectively to explore textures, colours, subject matter, lighting, specific themes etc and also to use those collections to feed back into my work more.
- There seem to be some similarities in the process of creating collage with film editing - the cutting up, moving and sticking down. New contexts and viewpoints. The alienation of the elements but leading to a new reality. I feel I really should try collage to explore this more. I must garner good glue suggestions! I asked in the gallery what Höch would have used and the consensus was: horse.
- It was interesting to think about the films Höch may have been exposed to - particularly around the late 50s. There seems to be some clear influence from the sci-fi genre, which included War of the Worlds (1953). Höch’s Angel of Peace was also possibly partly inspired by Metropolis (dir Fritz Lang, 1927). Very Berlin! I have not really given much thought in the past to how the new sci-fi books and films would have been so powerful at the time. Scary but seductive. Definitely something to look into in more depth.
- Other artists to check out in more detail: Kurt Schwitters; Christian Marclay; Elizabeth Price; Louise Bourgeois; Richard Hamilton.
- Look at John Stezaker's work again.
Other thoughts from the day
The Simon Willats room smelt weird - possibly due to the old records and plastic presentation materials. Not sure it was a deliberate attempt to capture Eau de Tower Hamlets but it seemed to fit with the subject matter. I wondered if his has happened before/often where scent is added to a visual exhibit to enhance the senses. Obviously smells are very difficult to capture or simulate - I would be interested to know when new technologies will crack this.
I wasn't really moved by Kader Attia's work. It was themed around the Continuum of Repair: The Light of Jacob's Ladder. I like his provocation: "The biggest illusion of the Human Mind is probably the one which Man has built himself: the idea that he invents something, when all he does is repair." And I did enjoy climbing up the little wooden stairs to look into the infinity mirror (things like that always remind me of Yoko Ono's art installation which sunk the hook for Lennon). But I found the presentation of the books to be a bit annoying. We can't touch them but neither can we see all of the covers or inside any of them. And the cabinet of curiosities just didn't seem to say anything new or interesting. So, um, yeah, guess what? Apparently, books and objects have historical significance and carry memory and culture with them as our knowledge develops through science, anthropology, politics and physics…
I did see a set of Wim Wenders postcards in the shop with a great title: "Places, strange and quiet". It almost makes me want to do the Landscape course for OCA Level Two...