Although we think of photomontage primarily as a medium of the combative period of modernism–Dada, Surrealism, Constructivism–its use goes back well into the 19th century, and was routine in turn-of-the-century pop culture in postcards and prints. Hannah Höch said she discovered its possibilities when she saw a kitsch tableau of German military glory; the idealized soldier had her landlord’s face pasted on. Höch and her then lover Raoul Hausmann formed one branch of the Berlin Dada group, which came to appear the more aesthetic one, as distinguished from the more political wing represented by John Heartfield and George Grosz. All of them began to make montages around 1918, and for a few years made works that are at least superficially very similar: explosions of newspaper photographs and lines of type across a white field. They were angry and wanted to break something–the state, the banks, the industries–but had to restrict themselves to the materials of the print media that served and reflected those institutions.
Höch has long been best known for one of her first works, Cut with a Kitchen Knife Dada through the last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany, 1919-20. You can see all the anger and exhilaration of the period in this large piece (nearly 3 feet by 4), full of wheels and crowds and heads whose eyes have been replaced by other things, its yellowed newsprint color jazzed by a patch of blue in the upper left, its improvisatorial speed of execution shown by how the glued surfaces have rippled. Its drift is apparent right away: Dada versus the anti-Dada of all the generals and exploiters. Looking more closely, however, you notice a subtler feminist subtheme. Greta Garbo, Käthe Kollwitz, and other emancipated women are significantly portrayed, and at the lower right is a map of Europe in which the countries that have given women the right to vote appear in white. It is on the edge of this map that Höch has stuck a tiny portrait of herself.
M ost surveys of photomontage reproduce this work and perhaps one or two others by Höch from the early 1920s, but she continued working in the medium into the 1970s (she died in 1978), continually expanding her style and enlarging the terrain of the medium. As Hausmann’s work grew more formal and Heartfield became the most effective agitprop artist in Europe, Höch became more playful. At the same time that she was engaging in her blistering Dada stuff, for example, she was making delicate work based on embroidery patterns that is both unashamedly feminine and the perfect riposte to the masculine machine-fixation of the time, which in fact it resembles in its dynamism. It is also more purely abstract than anything anyone else was doing. What is striking about the ensemble of her works on display (more than 100 pieces) is her freedom. Others from Heartfield to Max Ernst built their montages and collages on a classic stagelike ground, with centralized figures, a place for them to stand, and a backdrop behind them. Höch pointedly or cavalierly toyed with this concept and eventually dispensed with it altogether. While others parodied, she invented. She flung scale, gravity, continuity, and illusionism around at will. Even her most labor-intensive works manage to look spontaneous and somehow carefree.
She cuts up faces and bodies and fits together parts mismatched in size, color, and style, like a Dr. Frankenstein bent on demonstrating through surgery the folly of beauty culture. In her “Ethnographic Museum” series she arranges mergers of African and Asian sculpture and Western body parts, asking: “Who’s the primitive now?” Her politics are always present but always lowercase, even her angriest works apparently suffused with insouciant fun. So you might get the idea that her views on the Nazis were muted–she did remain in an obscure semirural corner of Berlin through the war, after all. But while her work wouldn’t be anybody’s idea of propaganda, it is nevertheless acute. Her Nazi, The Little P (1931), has slick hair and a prowlike nose over the open mouth of an infant–the bawling, spittle-webbed orifice is convincingly that of a party-rally orator. Her German Girl (1930), meanwhile, has bangs instead of brains, and a cute little topknot like a pinhead’s.
I n the darkest years of the war, though, Höch was plunging into a world of pure form and color. As the decades pass it becomes harder and harder to figure out what a given shape or texture in her montages might originally have represented. During the 1940s she shed the last bits of hard-edged Weimar sensibility and enacted a version of Surrealism entirely her own, dense with Ernst-like bugs and birds and creepy Matta-ish plant forms. But the following decade, even this gave way to works of pure nonrepresentational electricity, so bursting and swooping they make you want to use words like “painterly” and “gestural”–oxymoronically, they seem to be a kind of Abstract Expressionism built from little, carefully scissored bits of magazine photographs. They can sometimes appear unfocused in their intensity, like too many sounds turning into white noise. But then she could still turn out beautifully restrained work such as the significantly titled 1955 Glue Drawing, a single 1920s “New Vision” photograph of oil pools, taken apart and reassembled with dramatic spaces. The source is completely present and made greater; the violence done to it is in the service of its original intent: an ode to the ellipse.
Some critics have said that this is a big show for a “minor” artist. It is true that if you were editing the show to make a point you could omit as much as two-thirds of it. 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.