Hannah Höch

ARTIST HANNAH H�–CH began clipping and assembling pictures when she was a child, and the practice of placing different, even clashing, images next to one another persisted into her adult work—giving Dada one of its most enduring techniques. There’s a fascinating glimpse into her process in 1934’s Album, a scrapbook of media images that Höch used as source material for her photomontages, much of which is reproduced in this new monograph published to coincide with an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery. On one black-and-white spread, we see a jarring variety of found photographs: an aerial view of New York City, women performing a synchronized exercise routine, and close-ups of botanical forms. The montage churns with abstract patterns and is animated by abrupt shifts of perspective and scale. In a number of translated texts throughout this volume, Höch describes the intent of her photo-based works: “I want to show that small can be large, and large small, it is just the standpoint from which we judge that changes. . . . I would portray the world from an ant’s-eye view and tomorrow, as the moon sees it. . . . I should like to help people experience a richer world.”

Hannah Höch, Untitled, 1929, photomontage and collage, 19 1/4 x 12 3/4".

Höch’s work, in other words, conveys what it felt like to be young and really paying attention during the early days of mass media: fast cameras, close-ups and faraway shots, coded gestures and costumes, and, most strikingly, the mélange of the exotic and the banal scrambled together on magazine pages. It is enlightening to see the Album, but the centerpiece of the book is the section on her famous color photomontages, produced between the world wars (one of which is shown above). Seeking what she called the “beauties of fortuity,” Höch saw found imagery as the key to unlocking the codes of gender and race, revealing the hypocrisies of politicians and the nuances of cultural difference. Complex and delicate, surprising and inventive, her creations mix and match manly arms with femme-fatale eyes, black heads with white bodies, totemic masks atop the spindly legs of a flapper. Multiplicity, Höch suggests, is our cultural condition.

At the end of her life, Höch continued to make works that are now less well known, and these are included here. One in particular stands out, since it is literally a testament to her passage on the planet: Life Portrait, 1972-73, a large collage of her artwork, family snapshots, and found photos. For this artist, photomontage was a language, infinitely flexible, that could document history, speak poetry, and trace the evolution of a life in modern times.