On With the Party: Photomontage After Hannah Höch
Perhaps not surprisingly, since Höch is still relatively unknown outside curatorial circles, I didn’t find a lot of published material on this topic. Admittedly, I’m skating on the thin ice of visual comparisons, so consider this more free form musing than formal documentation.
And I’ve saved a discussion of the distinctions between collage and photomontage for a different post. As a result, both artists who work with fragments of photographic images and whole images intact are included.
Finally, this is not an exhaustive survey, so, if you have additional “finds,” I’d enjoy hearing from you.
By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Hannah Höch, On With the Party, 1965
Photomontage, 10 7/16 x 13 3/4 inches
(Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen, Stuttgart)
Although trained as a painter and equally skillful at graphic and textile design, Hannah Höch (1889-1978) is best-recognized for her thought-provoking photomontages, hundreds of images she patiently created through unparalleled dexterity in snipping and reassembling the photographs she sourced from mass-market magazines.
Höch, the only female member of the Berlin Dadaists (1916-22), played a vital role in legitimizing photomontage as a fine art form. Use of the technique piqued in the early 1930s. By the 1940s it all all but vanished from sight as a fine art medium, although it remained broadly popular as a format for advertising.
With the emergence of commercial (silk) screen processes in the 1950s, fine artists once again adopted the photomontage technique. The new technology allowed artists to print images directly onto the paper or canvas substrate, thus liberating them from the manual look of the old “cut and paste” method. They in turn would fully exploited the slickness of the process.
Despite the popularity of the new medium, “cut and paste” photomontage was never completely supplanted. Höch herself worked passionately in this method well into the 1960s, despite the fact that for long stretches of her career she remained out of the public eye. And others took up the standard and it remains a popular technique today.
Thus, there seem to be two general lines of descent from Hannah Höch: those artists who work more or less in the original tradition she pioneered and those who, through the use of screen and later digital techniques, have pushed the montage effect into new visual territory and greater dimensionality.
Tried and True
Romare Bearden best demonstrates that the traditional form of photomontage is not outmoded as an effective form of communication.
Perhaps taking a cue from the early Dadaists, there is a political strain in their work. Séan Hillen, for example, plays the juxtaposition of elements to delightful (but serious) effect in creating postcard-sized “what-if” commentaries on the conflict in Northern Ireland and other of the world’s problems.
The team of (Peter)Kennard/Phillips pushes the political more overtly, in addition to engaging in interesting experiments with their materials. The work here is a portrait of George Bush printed across 58 copies of the Houston Chronicle, which were then torn through to reveal images of the destruction of the Iraqi people and their landscape.
There is an entire category of photographers who construct construct photomontage through the aggregation of negatives. (Thus the surface of the positive remains smooth like a traditional photograph.) Jerry N. Uelsmann began to assemble photographs this way beginning in the 1950s, influence ultimately by Lazlo Maholy-Nagy’s work. He has said: “When I studied photography at RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology) each darkroom had one enlarger. Then when I started teaching we had a group darkroom. I was still using one enlarger, which was labor intensive for multiple printing. One day while I was waiting for some prints to wash, I looked across at the enlargers and thought to myself that if I had the negatives in different enlargers and simply moved the paper, the speed with which I could explore things or line them up would increase a hundred times. That was the moment that changed the way I worked with multiple images.”
On a different note, Daniel Gordon, following the popular contemporary tradition of ever super-sized photographs, creates huge montaged faces. Though they take direct visual queues from Höch in their constructions, their large physical presence assaults you. They almost repell you, whereas Höch’s intimate page-sized “portraits” draw you in for closer inspection.
And finally it seems that Bernie Stephanus has learned his Höch lesson well, though in general I don’t find his work as visually compelling as Höch’s.
Romare Bearden, Spring Way, 1964
Collage on paperboard sheet, 6 5/8 x 9 3/8 inches
(Smithsonian American Art Museum)
Jerry N. Uelsmann—Undiscovered Self, 1999
Photomontage (assembled from multiple negatives)
Seán Hillen, The Launchpad at O’Connell Street, Dublin (Irelantis series), 2005
Photomontage, 7.9 x 5.9 inches
KennardPhillips collaboration, Iraq Destroyed, 2007
Pigment ink on newspaper, 350 x 300 cm.
Daniel Gordon, Red Headed Woman, 2008
C-print, 40 x 30 inches.
Bernie Stephanus, Ingresque, 1999
New New Things
The other species of artist expanded the boundaries of photomontage through the use of new media, the inclusion of found objects (even real world detritus), and a push into the third dimension. Many of their works achieve the frenetic appearance characteristic Höch’s Dada-era work.
Andy Warhol pushed silkscreen to his slickest height, where the hand of the artist wasn’t visible or even desired. (He was reputed to have said: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”) One might well question whether these are montages at all; but I think a legitimate argument could be made for a “serial image” subset of montage.
In his series of Combines (mid 1950s to early 1960s), Robert Rauschenberg reinvented collage. By combining repetitive silk screened images with paint and articles from his every day life (including trash), he blew apart the idea that art was an illusion of reality. For Rauschenberg the work of art was its own reality.
Joan Schulze is one of the best representatives of the group of fiber artists whose canvases are based on quilt structures. They come to photomontage already sensitized to the fragmentary and repetitive aspects of the picture plane. With origins in traditional “craft” environment these pieces, meant to be hung as paintings, present their own form of repudiation about the boundaries between fine and decorative art.
It Looks Like a Duck. . .
While it’s hard to imagine that Hockney’s photographic collages from the early 1980s could have come into being without the deconstructive example provided by Höch and the Dadaists, I can’t quite see them as a direct descendant (though perhaps a close cousin). In their fracturing of the spatial plane, they owe more to Cubism than to Dada.
Hockney asserts that these works were born as a result of his loss of hearing at the time. He was forced to locate people in space using visual, rather than auditory, cues. This “reprocessing” led to a reconsideration of the notions of visual space. In these photo collages, Hockney creates a different concept of spacial dimension, but does not reconstitute the fragments into a new pictorial reality.