This visual chocolate box of an exhibition, displaying neat rows of precisely hung, small works in dark frames, is a vast collation of German collagist Hannah Höch’s life with the knife. The dozens of caramel-toned cut paper and photomontage works on show stand as exquisite evidence of her dedication to delicate and meticulous slicing and re-presenting the world as she saw it, most famously in pre- war,Weimar Germany. The creamy, sepia colour of the works initially suggests Victorian decoupage, but closer inspection reveals a sharper, pointedly feminist attitude that might more readily align with the work of Sarah Lucas; mix this with the oblique atmosphere of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and you get ostensibly polite images that bite back.
Best known for her association with the Dada movement, Höch’s work plays on the absurdity of the quotidian, bourgeois world, getting beneath its surface with figures and narratives plucked from a variety of sources, her vivid juxtapositions largely gleaned from fashion magazines and ethnographic documentary photography. Her images can be seen to explore both the fractured nature of women, presenting a boldly feminist viewpoint, as well as confronting racial stereotyping. Her style is a pick’n’mix of these references and images, all of it used to portray the incongruity of a society hallmarked by prejudice about gender roles and racial hierarchies.
As with any political work, there are some confusions and contradictions (not least, perhaps, the re-use of of idealised images from beauty magazines), just as many women today find feminism’s role fractured and inconsistent (the tip of the iceberg being the ever-circling debate about the The Sun’s Page 3 girls, the motives behind the blog Women Eating on the Tube and the behavioural examples revealed on the website Everyday Sexism). For all that, Höch’s work is never doctrinaire, but, for most part, simply holds up a mirror to contemporary societal mores.
Through the images are often awkward and challenge the ‘constructed’ woman, they remain jarringly beautiful and have a surprising aesthetic quality that is, ironically, derived from the elements of beauty from fashion magazines meeting the quality and playfulness of Höch’s cutting eye. Nor are these works purely the platform for a feminist agenda: they are a more full-bodied critique of society’s multifaceted struggle with the body politic, referencing and highlighting universal inequality and fundamentally irritating the passive veneer of mainstream society. They can make for uncomfortable viewing, presenting seemingly unlikely propositions, scratching at any racial sores the viewer might carry, for example. Today, the collage artist Ellen Gallagher has taken on Höch’s mantle, reminding us of how far we have yet to go before art’s vision of utopian beauty becomes that of society.