There is no question that the most famous of the Berlin photo-montages today, made by Hannah Höch (1889-1978), is Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany. A photomontage, which is unusually large for a collage and covered with a dizzying gathering of post-war references and social critique. Certain heads attached to alien bodies can be identified, such as the scientist, Albert Einstein, the Russian revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin, the head of the Weimar Republic, Friedrich Eberg, slain communist leader, Karl Liebknecht, Kaiser Wilhelm and his General Hindenberg, and artists, Kathe Kollwitz, George Grosz and Wielande Herzfelde, and, of course, Karl Marx. Nevertheless, the meaning of the collage is uncertain.
On one hand, it seems clear that Höch is using a decentered un-design as a critique of the Weimar Republic. Each ungovernable political element upending the government floats across the surface, but there is a deliberate lack of centering that defies cohesion. In other words, although some art historians have found an organization, and although it is even possible to identify many of the players on the field, in contrast to Cubist collage, there is no coalescence of unified meaning. The large photomontage is restless and teaming, as though the design were inspired by a school of worried fish, eluding a gap-mouthed whale. On the other hand,Berlin Dada was a disruptive force, and Höch may have attacked the Weimar Republic on the surface, but a deeper interpretation of her work suggests that Cut with the Kitchen Knife had the effect of refusing the organization of language itself. We are logocentric, relying upon words and their organization within a linguistic system, but the photomontage uses anti-design to refuse and refute the possibility of meaning. The system by which the German people once communicated was betrayed by lies, rendering language and its structure moot and silent and incapable of telling the truth.
Assemblage or photomontage–these new artistic techniques mirroring the experiments of the medical profession, cutting people up and then pasting them back together again, this is mechanical design. In this new world, a Germany without a modern identity, men without their original bodies, lacking a wholeness and offered only an incomplete hybridity, the bits and pieces of photos, and the montages of words and blizzards of letters were the legible entities of the Weimar Republic. The disturbed works of the Dada artists proved to be harbingers of dark days ahead. In the early 1920s, the paths of the artists diverged. Haussmann and Höch went their separate ways, Dix continued to point an accusing finger at an uncaring society but he used portraiture as his new weapon. John Heartfield and George Grosz devoted the next decade to mocking the German people who filled him with disgust. Heartfelt remained with his collage critiques, becoming the consummate gadfly on the government, using his designs to resist the Weimar Republic and then the regime of Adolf Hitler. Both of these artists would have to run for their lives in the Thirties. The near future would fulfill the prophecy of Hannah Höch’s dark Cut with the Kitchen Knife, but other photomontages by other Dada artists pointed to a current tragedy, the new hybrid human.
Hannah Höch had a remarkable career in the 1920s, remarkable because she was a rare women working in the ranks of the avant-garde. Other women who were artists during this decade had to find arenas that were not dominated by males: the successful post-war career of Sonia Terk-Delaunay being a case in point. Living and working in Berlin, Höch could see “modern women” all around her and yet the male ranks of the supposedly open-minded revolutionary avant-garde were not welcoming to women. In the arts, women were rare, with exceptions such as Georgia O’Keeffe, proving the rule. The avant-garde was a conservative a force that existed in post-war Europe, shutting out women as a matter of course. And yet Höch not only survived but also made a lasting mark, even if her reputation was historical rather than in her own time. Martine Antle wrote of the difficulties faced by Höch in her article, “New Geographies of Cultural Diversity,” “The exclusion and marginalization of women from the public sphere became even more evident in artistic circles among avant-garde revolutionary circles (the Surrealists in particular), who perpetuated the image of woman as muse, model or adulteress throughout the interwar period..Hannah Höch is one of the pioneers of photomontage, a genre that manipulates photography’s function as a means of documentation. A Communist sympathizer, engaged in amorous relationship with the poetess Until Brugman from 1926 to 1935, Hannah Höch was, without a doubt, sensitive to the mechanisms of exclusions in place throughout Germany during the inter-war period. This former Dadaist remained subversive throughout her career. She openly attacked the sources of Nazi rhetoric during the rise of Fascism in Germany, all while claiming a place for herself as a female artist deeply committed to avant-garde movements.”