Hannah Höch at the Whitechapel Gallery

While we were in London for our short break during early January I read a review in the Guardian of an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in East London featuring the works of Hannah Höch, a member of the Dada movement in Berlin between the two World Wars. An innovative artist who specialist in photomontage and collage. It looked interesting but, sadly, the exhibition was only due to open a few days after we’d left for home.

Hannah Höch

I had never heard of Hannah Höch until I saw the article in the Guardian. I later read the review in the Observer and a couple more on line. They were all very positive and the images illustrating the reviews looked interesting.   I discovered that she was a friend of Kurt Schwitters and was influenced by him to take up collage. I discovered him just over a year ago via the Abbot Hall, who have some works by him. So that was also a factor that fired my interest in seeing this exhibition.  So when I had to travel back down to “the Smoke” to attend a meeting in Holborn I wondered whether I’d have the chance to get along.

My meeting finished at 3 o’clock. Everyone else dashed off to catch their trains home, but I decided to stay a little later. I got the tube over to Algate East which is only a few hundred yards from the Whitechapel gallery.

It was my first visit to the Gallery which was founded in about 1901  with the intention of taking art to the working classes in the East End. It’s in a beautiful art Nouveauish building which has decorated fairly recently by a bronze sculpture by Racheal Whiteread . The galleries themselves seem to have been recently refurbished and are lovely, light, airy spaces.

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Works from the full six decades of Höch’s career were on show. Over 100 examples of collages, photomontages, watercolours and woodcuts drawn from prominent international collections. Alas, no photography allowed.

The exhibition was marvellous, particularly the first half on the ground floor which focused on her early works including her political stuff. I found this quite powerful. You could see how her style developed and her collages, especially the political ones, were must have seemed quite shocking when she created them just after the second world war.

One of the most political images was “Heads of State” photographs of the German president Friedrich Ebert and the Defence minister, two portly men in their bathing trunks, are collaged into an embroidery pattern. Undermining their image as powerful men.

In her series of collages From an Ethnographic Museum combines images of European bodies and African masks and black men and white women. Depending on your point of view, these works satirise and ridicule Nazi ideals of racial purity. In any case, they must have been very shocking at the time. No wonder the Nazis branded her as a “Degenerate Artist”.

The second half upstairs featured  works from after WW2. I found them less powerful as there was no political message and she had moved to a more abstract style. Although I like abstract art, her turn to that seemed to signal a loss of focus. They were good, but having seen the earlier works downstairs I was much less moved by them.

For me the exhibition revealed Höch to be an important member of the Dada Movement in Germany. But like many female artists she was sidelined and has been overlooked and ignored.  This exhibition has undoubtedly restored her reputation with the art establishment and gallery going public in the UK.

I was there for an hour and a half, and would have liked to have had a brew and then taken another look focusing on the works I found most interesting, but, alas, the gallery was due to close.

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