Hannah Höch (1889-1978) was a German artist who was part of the early 20th century European avant-garde art movement known as Dada. Such artists emphasised the absurd and irrational in their art, aiming at protesting a bourgeois and capitalist society in the aftermath of World War one.
Höch was one of a small number of female artists involved in the male dominated movement. Her work clearly reflects the importance of a female perspective, amongst many male voices, as she sought to highlight specific themes in relation to women and society. Höch created her photomontage, Das Schone Madchen/The Beautiful Girl (1919-20), in an era which saw the rise of the ideal of the European ‘New Woman’. This was a time of women’s suffrage, and demands for female rights as citizens in society and within the workforce.
Höch utilised clippings from women’s magazines and other media to comment on the contradictions and complexities of female roles in a rapidly modernizing, yet also compromised post war German society. While a common medium today, the artist was one of the originators of photomontage.
The Beautiful Girl is a deliberately unsettling piece which highlights women not as a rising autonomous subjects but emphasised as objects within a growing industrialised and corporate landscape. The work is created by considered deconstruction and reconstruction of everyday monochrome, sepia and colour pictorial media photographic imagery. The busy, disjointed arrangement of larger and smaller pieces, in turn, produces a composition which is deliberately disorientating for the viewer.
Höch’s work utilises realistic imagery which has been reorganised to be visually and compositionally confronting. Female body parts and advertising imagery are placed in conjunction with symbols of bourgeois commodities and machine components, wheels and crankshafts. By foregrounding the dominating image of the cut out and detached, floating modern ‘feminine’ hairstyle, Höch points towards the gendered themes of the work while creating a top-heavy sense of disorder.
The Beautiful Girl was created during the Weimer Republic, an era in which women’s roles where being explored, not only regarding voting rights and work, but also in terms of female sexuality and identity. However, the reality and struggle of women’s everyday lives was one that often contradicted the ideals and expectations being placed upon them.
Höch wanted the viewer to be disturbed by notions of gender in society as she presented conflicting ideas of femininity (and masculinity). This was in conjunction with her use of repetitive elements, e.g. oval wheel, circular badges and watch, to project a backdrop of chaotic capitalist fever. Höch deconstructs and subverts the intentions of the advertising and glamorous media imagery she utilises. Rather than attractive, the colours are sickly; the decapitated female figure is reconstructed as part commodity, while a model stares blankly out of a disembodied eye. Women are reflected as not only denied autonomy but humanity itself, as the processes of corporate modernism envelop them.
Höch is not simply addressing and protesting the issues of early 20th century European life like her male contemporaries, but enabling a vital female-centric reading of the themes presented. The artist however struggled, as was the case with many women in the arts, to be recognised and valued on an equal basis as the men around her. Höch stated that women artists were dismissed as “gifted amateurs’’ and denied professional status.
The fact that Höch was an innovative pioneer in both her artistic field and in highlighting a female perspective, despite the injustices of a male dominated culture, reflects both her talent and resilience – common traits for so many of her fellow women artists.