How this incredible artist who explored queerness, sexuality and gender expression through her craft
BY CHARLOTTE GRIMWADE, IMAGE BY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Picture this. It’s 1920 and Hannah Höch has just made her mark on Berlin’s Dada movement. Her piece, Cut With The Kitchen Knife Dad Through The Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch Of Germany, showing at at the First International Dada Fair. From first glance this strikingly large photomontage wouldn’t necessarily give the impression that Hannah was an artist who contended with themes of gender and sexuality throughout her time involved in Germany’s art world.
Born on 1 November 1889, Hannah played a key role within the Berlin Dada movement as the only woman involved. Her unique collages demonstrate a constant exploration of gender fluidity and sexuality. She was a pioneering artist, who’s engagement with photomontage allowed for a revolutionary contention with modernity, mass media and constructs of femininity. She achieved a vastly successful career despite the marginalisation she experienced within the Dada movement, describing in hindsight how her male contemporaries “continued for a long time to look on us women artists as charming and gifted amateurs, denying us any real professional status.”
Hannah’s art was constantly dealing with themes of queerness, sexuality and gender expression. She left Raoul Hausmann in 1922 and began a relationship with Dutch avant-garde writer Til Brugman in 1926, marking a turning point in her creative output. Though Dadaist art during this period was full of explorations into relationships and sexuality, Hannah’s distinct pieces offered a uniquely female perspective, portraying queer desire and her own bisexuality beautifully and engagingly.
Hannah’s work perceptively highlights the existence of lesbian subcultures in Weimar Berlin, as well as how the emergence of the “New Woman” promoted an increasing engagement with gender fluidity. Given that she worked in a society and art world where misogyny was the norm, seen through the violent and disturbing imagery employed by artists like Otto Dix and George Grosz, Hannah was exceptional in her ability to subvert these obstacles.
Three pieces by Hannah most exemplify the themes of her career: The Beautiful Girl (1919-20), Roma (1925) and Tamer (1930). Fragmented images create distorted and unsettling faces across her work. Each of these three pieces are no exception, with the latter combining a masculine-appearing body with the head of a significantly more feminine mannequin. Hannah bends the traditional cis-normative gender expectations of the 1920s to form some of her most subversive work. She jumps between extreme images of hyper-femininity and androgyny, highlighting the new sexual freedoms of Weimar Germany alongside ongoing restrictions. Hannah’s work is satirical and ironic, yet also poignant. It highlights the challenges and vulnerabilities many queer women experienced during this period, exemplified by the threatening dark cogs and machinery surrounding faceless figures in The Beautiful Girl.
Collage has always been an inherently political and empowering medium. Hannah’s work exists amongst more modern examples, which have recently inspired contemporary forays into the social impact of art. Alice Wroe’s project, Herstory, which began back in 2016, focused on zine culture and its relationship to feminist art. It provided an opportunity for people of all genders to recognise aspects of women’s history through the medium of art, something Hannah’s own work called for back in the 1920s.
As zine culture makes a resurgence once more after a stint on social media platforms like Tumblr, Kudzanai-Violet Hwami explained the importance of collage as “the language of today”. The London-based artist explores themes of spirituality, sexuality and identity throughout her large-scale photomontage and painted pieces depicting intimate portrayals of queer and familial love. It’s undeniable that Hannah’s impact and legacy is still felt nearly a hundred years since the peak of her career, as more and more people engage with the medium she played a key role in defining. For her, collage provided the opportunity for political protest and the expression of her gender identity and sexuality. Hannah’s art is one of the most profound starting points in a long history of feminist, queer media, and definitely should not be forgotten.
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