Archive for Kurt Schwitters

Rauschenberg’s Collection (1954): A Whole World of Materials

Posted in Collage & Photomontage, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , on February 13, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Robert Rauschenberg, Collection (Formerly Untitled), 1954
Painting: oil, paper, fabric, wood, metal and mirror on canvas; 80 in. x 96 in. x 3 1/2 inches
(SF MOMA)

These days Hannah Höch is lodged in my brain like a visual “earworm“—images of her photomontages pop into my consciousness repeatedly and unexpectedly. They are not unwelcome; I’m dealing with a new set of challenges in my own montage work, and Höch is always an inspiring companion on the artistic journey.

Hannah Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany, 1919
Photomontage, 44 7/8 x 35 9/16 inches
(Preubischer Kulturbesitz, Nationalgalerie, Berlin)

Perhaps it shouldn’t have been surprising to me that, while revisiting SF MOMA’s 75th Anniversary show recently, I lingered in the Rauschenberg corner, reflecting on his unique contribution to the collage aesthetic. As has oft been recorded, Rauschenberg credits his mother, a seemstress who arranged her patterns so tightly on the fabric that no scrap was wasted, with inspiring his approach to collage.  Surely, Höch, who for many years designed fashion patterns for Ullstein Verlag in Berlin, must have been directing my subconscious that day.

Kurt Schwitters, Mz 26, 41 ocala, 1926
Paper collage on paper laid on board, 6.9 x 5.2 inches
(Christie’s)

Collection is one of Raushenberg’s earliest Combines. On the second floor at SF MOMA it’s paired on the wall with the 1955 Combine Untitled and the infamous Erased de Kooning Drawing. The former demonstrates delightfully well the artist’s particular genius at compositional arrangement. More importantly, in Untitled, the artist has masterfully transformed a plethora of otherwise mundane materials into a strikingly beautiful and refined object. By comparison Collection, though monumental, is to my eyes somewhat less aesthetically elegant.

Like any serial work, the Combines, which technically refer to five distinct stages of work completely roughly between the years of 1954 and 1964, are uneven.  Some are incredibly polished, irrefutable proof that the artist paved a truly revolutionary path for new forms of artistic expression. Others are undeniable messes of visual cacophony. On the occasion of the artist’s 2006 retrospective at The Met, Peter Schjeldahl astutely observed: “Junkiness and elegance, equally intense, don’t always cooperate.”

Despite their imperfections, the essence of  Rauschenberg’s legacy is evident in the Combines.  To fully appreciate that legacy, consider what the artist was rebelling against.

Willem de Kooning, Two Women in the Country, 1954
Oil, enamel and charcoal on canvas; 46 1/8 X 40 3/4 inches
(Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

In the mid-1950s, Abstract Expressionism held sovereign authority over the art world. Inspired by the AbEx’s rebellious spirit, but not their venacular, Rauschenberg daringly challenged the prevailing AbEx philosophies that art was best created subconsciously (borrowed from Surrealism) and that color had symbolic meaning (borrowed from the Expressionists).  Consider De Kooning’s “Woman” series, which was also painted in the mid 50s—despite the relative abstraction of these paintings, they were still rooted in traditional painting materials and visually still grappling with the commanding influence of Picasso.

Kurt Schwitters, Revolving, 1919
Wood, metal, cord, cardboard, wool, wire, leather, and oil on canvas, 48 3/8 x 35 inches.
(MOMA)

Rauschenberg anchored himself in a different tradition, riffing off the collage/montage example provided by the Dada circle (of which Höch was a Berlin member), Duchamp’s Readymades, and the Merzbau of Kurt Schwitters, who was already affixing objects to his canvases in early part of the 20th century. (As it turns out, Rauschenberg wasn’t far from the Picasso legacy either; in the late 1940s, the influential Clement Greenberg credited Picasso with turning collage into bas-relief and then into sculpture.)

The fractured nature of Dada collage mimicked the chaos of modern life; fragments of mass-produced images were used to reconstruct reality. Rauschenberg pushed that notion farther. By incorporating everyday banal objects into the picture space, Rauschenberg Combines didn’t refer to reality, they were their own reality. While the use of discarded materials as appropriate art material is commonplace today, fifty years ago it was a revolutionary proposition for an artist. But it paid off. Robert Hughes notes in The Shock of the New:

During the fifties artists realized “there might be a subject in this landscape of waste, this secret language of junk, because societies reveal themselves in what they throw away.” Street junk. Rauschenberg was one of them. He never worked for long in one style. To him is owed much of the basic cultural assumption that a work of art can exist for any length of time, in any material, anywhere, for any purpose and any destination it chooses from the museum to the trash can.

Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled, 1954
Oil, metallic paint, fabric, newspaper, pencil, printed reproductions, paper, hair, gelatin-silver photographs, glue, nails and glass on canvas, 16 1/8 x 18 inches
(Jasper Johns collection)

Collection stakes out what would become familiar visual territory for the Combines—paint and three dimensional objects co-habitate with fragments of newspaper, fabric, photographs, hair.  Early on, these elements revealed specific autobiographical facets of the artist’s life. Later, they tended to suggest a life.  A number of the objects reside outside the traditional picture plane; is this a playful thumbing of the nose to traditional art that respected pictorial boundaries? Among the myriad of elements in Collection, I was particularly drawn to patch of sheer fabric (organza?) hanging off the canvas’s middle panel for its intriguing suggestion of the tension created by concealing and revealing.

Robert Rauschenberg—Untitled, 1954
Oil, paper, fabric and dried grass on wood box, 15 x 15 x 2 1/8 inches
(Private Collection)

Abandoning the representation of reality, and with it formal perspective, forced Rauschenberg to devise another unifying principal for his compositions. Like his other Combines, that structure in  Collection is a grid—in this case, three separate but joined panels, each subdivided visually into rough thirds. It’s amazing how it well that system links and calms an otherwise confusing mass of visual data.

The Combines would liberate art by introducing a “whole world of materials” into the picture plane. In Rauschenberg’s brazen hands, art was anything its creator said it was. For that achievement, Rauschenberg might just qualify as the most influential artist of the 20th century (aside from Picasso that is).

Wider Connections

Calvin Tomkins—Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg. In true Tomkins fashion, there is never a dull moment in this informative and insightful look at Rauschenberg and the New York art scene 1950s-1970s.

The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research—“Louise Nevelson”

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Hannah Höch: The “Quiet Girl” With a Big Voice (Part II)

Posted in Collage & Photomontage, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager with tags , , , , on January 23, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series on Hannah Höch, in which Venetian Red examines her extraordinary work in photomontage. Part I covers Höch’s early career as the only female member of the Berlin Dada group and work subsequent to her 1922 break with the group. Click here for all entries on Hannah Höch.

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Hannah Höch, Sea Serpent, 1937
Photomontage, 8 3/4 x 10 inches
(Institute für Auslandsbeziehungen, Stuttgart)

Although trained as a painter and equally skillful at graphic and textile design, Höch 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. Although largely uncredited in the past, Höch, the only female member of the Berlin Dadaists (1916-22), played a vital role in legitimizing photomontage as a fine art form.

Like her male colleagues, Höch initially used the medium to comment on the fragmented world of post-WWI Germany. Hers was a less bombastic voice (generally she avoided the addition of type-set slogans) laced with a subtler humor. The whimsical appearance of such characteristic work as Dada Panorama and Cut with the Kitchen Knife. . .  belies a biting sarcasm that decries ridiculous political personages and controversial policies of the Weimar Republic.

Kurt Schwitters, Censored, 1940
Drawing, stamp, string, envelope, and paint on paper, 6 1/2 in. x 4 1/2 in.
(SF MOMA)

Before long, Höch pushed beyond the thematic realm staked out by her male colleagues and began to wrestle with gender politics, specifically the contradictory nature of modern femininity and the stereotypic views of women. Gender identity would preoccupy her in one form or another for the rest of her career.

Max Ernst, Jean Hatchet and Charles the Bold, 1929
Collage, 9 1/2 x 8 inches
(Cleveland Museum of Art)

In 1922 Höch broke from Hausmann and the Berlin Dadaists. The 1920s became a period of intense experimentation for her, both tonally and stylistically. Her association with Hans and Sophie Arp, Kurt Schwitters, Theo and Nelly van Doesburg, and the Constructivists was a mutually-rewarding one, and it channeled her toward a more structured, less-chaotic visual style.

The 1925/26 Ethnographic series, for example, demonstrates a sparer style, divested of the visual frenzy of her Dada-era work.  This series also exemplifies the beginning of a tonal metamorphosis in her work from commentary aimed at specific political personages and events to the invocation of universal concepts and emotions. At the same time Höch’s relationship (1926-36) with Dutchwoman Til Brugman influenced her to think more expansively about gender relations, and many of her montages from this period contain elements of androgyny, female-to-female connections (see On the Way to Seventh Heaven below), and social alienation.

Hannah Höch, Russian Dancer/My Double, 1928
Photomontage, 12 x 8 7/8 inches
Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Brunswick, Germany)

To be sure, Höch had her apparently frivolous moments. Russian Dancer is characteristic of a small number of single female figure studies Höch executed between 1926-36.  All breezily posed, these women would seem to have no cares in the world. Their colossal heads, which mock their puny bodies, beg us not to take them seriously.  Are they simply the flirtatious cousins of the earlier, more serious “New Woman” figures or do they signify a deeper meaning? Perhaps they are a 2D continuation of Höch’s 1916 enchanting Dada dolls. The legs of ballet dancers occur frequently in her montages. They represent the athleticism of the “New Woman,” but are they also emblematic of the artist herself?

By the end of the 1920s, photomontage was generally accepted as fine art medium; it had been adopted even as a style of expression by the advertising and design worlds. Curiously, however, during most of this decade, Höch did not exhibit publicly.

Hannah Höch—On the Way to Seventh Heaven, 1934
Photomontage, 14 1/2 x 10 inches
(Barry Friedman, Ltd., New York)

That would change in 1929, when the artist participated in two important exhibits.  The prestigious “Film and Photo” exhibition, the first big photography show in Europe, included 18 of her photomontages.  Some 10,000 people saw the exhibition on its first tour stop alone, Stuttgart. In that year, the De Bron Gallery in The Hague mounted her first one-woman show, which included her oil paintings, numerous drawings, and watercolors, though not her photomontages.

Hannah Höch’s public career as an artist was launched. Other exhibitions followed—in 1931 at Berlin’s Kunstgewerbemuseum; and in 1932 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels. The Bauhaus mounted a show of 15 of her photomontages later that year.

Regrettably, this new-found public recognition came to an end in 1933, when Adolf Hitler seized political power.

Arthur Kampf, January 30, 1933, 1939
Oil on canvas
(Source: Kunst im Dritten Reich)

Like many avant-garde artists, Höch and her circle were deemed “Cultural Bolshiviks” and “degenerates” by the National Socialist régime.   Almost immediately, they were prohibited from showing their work. As a result, many of Höch’s friends fled Germany, among them Schwitters, Ernst, and Moholy-Nagy. Those, like her, who stayed behind generally worked quietly and out of sight.

Höch refused to overtly support the Nazis. But she also steered clear of political provocation. Despite the oppressive environment, she never lost her sense of humor, as montages like and Sea Serpent (top) and Never Keep Both Feet on the Ground make clear.  During years from 1936-1946, she turned to nature with some arresting results. Sea Serpent is a unrestrained, yet wholly accessible, surrealistic fantasy, evoking all of the unseeable and astonishing life under the sea. In retrospect, one is tempted to read more into this work, though it is not clear that Höch meant to suggest a connection with Nazi authority.

Compositionally, it is a deceptively-sophisticated montage. The echo at the top register of the aquatic life on the lowest register (though use of the piece from which they were cut) not only ties the composition neatly together, but adds visual complexity by playing with the pictorial plane.

Hannah Höch, Never Keep Both Feet on the Ground, 1940
Photomontage, 12 11/16 x 8 3/16 inches
(Institute für Auslandsbeziehungen, Stuttgart)

As the 1930s wore on, Höch’s world became increasingly dangerous. In September, 1939, a few days after Britain and France declared war on Germany (for invading Poland), she moved to relative obscurity of Heiligensee, a suburb of Berlin. She felt lucky to have found a place where “nobody would know me by sight or be aware of my lurid past as a Dadaist” (Eine Lebenscollage, Volume I). She kept a low profile during the war years. As a result, her work was marginalized once again.

Nevertheless, Höch did not stop working. As Never Keep Both Feet on the Ground testifies, Höch was capable of suggesting the vaguely sinister in the apparently banal.  As in the Ethnographic series, she mixes tribal artifacts (in this case a mask) with human forms to suggest alienation. Most definitely in the realm of the fastastic, the picture defies specific explication. And yet, one cannot help but wonder whether the dangling legs (again the ballet dancers) signify Höch’s view of her existence in the world, that is, a woman intent on being above the ground in a cloud, avoiding detection (by flying monster).

Hannah Höch, With Seaweed, 1950
Cut-and-pasted papers, torn papers, and gouache on paper, 13 5/8 x 9 7/8 inches
(MOMA)

Hannah Höch, Glued Drawing II, 1955
Photomontage, 14 x 9 13/16 inches
(Galerie Alvensleben, Munich)

With the end of WWII, Höch began showing again; in fact, she exhibited constantly through the late 1950s. She produced a prodigious amount of work and flowered as a public persona in the process. In a testament to Germany’s cultural embrace of Dada, she organized and participated in a large show, “Photomontage from Dada to Today.” Interestingly,  she staked out an expanded view of photomontage in the catalog’s introduction, in the process coining the phrase “free-form” photomontage.  This view would guide her toward the abstract images of the 50s, which for the first time were devoid of any recognizable real-world reference.

Hannah Höch (left) with Hans Richter, Juliet Man-Ray, Frida Richter, and Man Ray, 1958.

With the widespread introduction of color in magazines throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, a huge amount of source material became available to Höch in virtually every color of the palette. Though not the most visually-arresting (that honor might belong Little Sun), certainly one of the most bewitching of images from this period is Homage to Riza Abazzi, which conjoins an elegant Audrey Hepburn look-alike head to a rubbery belly dancing body.

The piece references a Persian miniaturist, Riza-i Abbasi (known alternatively as Reza or Riza Abassi), the most important painter of the Safavid period for his revolutionary impact on painting at the time. It is not clear what specific significance Abbasi had to Höch. Perhaps the piece was inspired by a particular painting of his.

It is well-known, however, that the particular images that inspired her appeared in a German magazine alongside a blurb that referenced Audrey Hepburn’s dismay at having her head joined artificially to a voluptuous bikini-clad body for Roman Holiday advertising stills. Although the compositional emphasis is different, Homage. . . belongs to the lineage of single female figures.  This figure also prances, not at all dismayed by her mismatched head and body conjoined. In fact, she strikes a defiant and proud pose, despite her relatively zaftig mid-section and wobbly legs. Is Höch intimating that it’s what’s in your head that counts?

Hannah Höch, Homage to Riza Abazzi, 1963
Photomontage, 13 7/8 x 7 3/16 inches
(Institute für Auslandsbeziehungen, Stuttgart)

Riza-i Abbasi,Two Lovers, 1630
Tempera and gilt paint on paper, 7 1/8 x 4 11/16 inches
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The 1970s for Höch were characterized by thematic and stylistic freedom. Drawing upon five decades of experimentation Höch produced images in an amalgamation of styles during the years of her life—surrealist fantasies, colorful abstractions, and one final uncharacteristically large-scale work, Life Portrait, that harked back to her Dada-era style.

Hannah Höch, Color Composition (Head), 1975
Lithograph
(Sammlung Deutsche Bank)

Montage is often considered a minor art form, derided as “mere recycling” and lacking the “heroism” of painting and sculpture and even photography.  On the other hand, painter and art historian Franz Roh once characterized photomontage as: “the precarious synthesis of the two most important tendencies in modern visual culture. . . the pictorial techniques of modernist abstraction and the realism of the photographic fragment” (paraphrased by Christopher Phillips in Montage and Modern Life: 1919-1942). If one has confidence in that idea, it’s hard to see how photomontage couldn’t challenge the monolithic supremacy of painting.

Höch’s photomontages, like all photomontages, disparage the notion of the painter as God, creating a world from nothing (the blank canvas). Rather than create the world anew, Höch chose to reflect our notions about it through the subtle but wicked snipping of her scissors. Cut with the kitchen knife, indeed!

Though she may have been a “quiet girl,” Hannah Höch’s voice was a big one. Over five decades of devotion to the medium, she demonstrated that in skillful hands photomontage could rival painting in illuminating our world.

Hannah Hoch, Life Portrait (detail), 1972-73
Photomontage
(Lisalotte and Armin Orgel-Kühne, Berlin)

Wider Connections
Fantastic Photomontage and its Possible Influences
Max Ernst: A Retrospective (Metropolitan Museum of Art Publications)
Reza Abbasi Museum, Tehran
The Independent“Hanging Hitler’s Painters”

Hannah Höch: The “Quiet Girl” with a Big Voice (Part I)

Posted in Collage & Photomontage, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager with tags , , , , , , , , on January 16, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series on Hannah Höch, in which Venetian Red examines her extraordinary career, as well as her impact on the photomontage medium and impact on subsequent generations of artists. Click here for other Venetian Red entries on Hannah Höch.

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2010.  All Rights Reserved.

Hannah Höch, Dompteuse (Tamer), 1930
Photomontage with collage elements, 14 x 10 1/4 inches
(Kunsthaus Zürich)

Of all the practitioners of the photomontage medium, Hannah Höch (1889-1978) ranks as one of the most consistently innovative and clever. Yet, despite a prodigious career that spanned over half a century, for many years, if she was recognized at all, Höch was categorized simply as a minor Dadaist, an unfortunate legacy of her early association with the über-macho Berlin Dadaist group (e.g., Raoul Hausmann, Georg Grosz, Hans Richter, John Heartfield, born Helmut Herzfeld).

Hanna Höch, ca.1920s

The narrow label belied the profusion of themes explored by Höch over her career.  It failed to consider the range of styles she employed beyond Dada-inspired political commentary— surrealist fantasy, intimate portraiture, outright abstraction.  And it ignored her masterly manipulation of the photomontage medium, which to this eye reached far beyond the skills of the other Dadaists.

Thankfully, since her death, a wider appreciation for her work (photomontage, painting, and textile designs) has emerged through exhibitions and new scholarship. The full impact of her influence on subsequent generations of artists has yet to be charted.

Pablo Picasso, Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912
Oil and oilcloth on canvas, with rope frame, 10 5/8 x 13 3/4 in. (27 x 35 cm.)
(Musee Picasso, Paris)

Collage has a long history—the earliest surviving examples may be 12th century Japanese calligraphic scrolls. With the invention of photography in the mid-19th century, collaging photographic fantasies became a hugely-popular pastime in Victorian and Edwardian parlors. In 1912 Picasso and Braque introduced the fine-art world to “collage” (reputedly they coined the phrase), specifically the addition of actual materials (like chair caning) to their painted canvases.

But it was the Berlin Dadaists who established fotomontage (literally “photo engineering”) as a fully-respected modern art form.

Hannah Höch, The Coquette, 1923-25
Photomontage, approximately 7 1/3 x 8 1/16 inches

Hannah Höch met Raoul Hausmann in 1915, and they became lovers for seven years (although he remained married). It was a difficult relationship, which brought Höch much emotional pain. The Berlin Dadaists begrudgingly admitted her as the only woman into their ranks, but they never accepted her as an equal. Hausmann dismissed her work. Hans Richter referred to her pejoratively in his memoirs as the “quiet girl” with a “tiny voice.” Grosz and Heartfield were set against her participation in the Dada Fair of 1920.

Ironically, it was Höch who experimented early on with photomontage, the medium which the group would later adopt as its own. Her first mature work of photomontage can be reliably dated to a 1918 summer vacation with Hausmann on the Baltic coast. (Although Hausmann also takes credit for having invented the medium on the same trip.)

Imported from Zürich, the Dada movement gelled in Berlin around 1918 as a statement against the unstable political and social situation brought on by the destruction wrought by WW1,  Germany’s stuggle to pay reparations and the formation of the Weimar Republic with its extremist elements. On the other hand, German artists benefited from the “golden” years of the Weimar era (1923-29) which witnessed a rich blossoming of German culture with Berlin as its hothouse center.

Hannah Höch, Design for Darned Filet, 1920
Graphite on paper
(Landesmuseum für Moderne Kunst)

Dada may have launched Höch into her life’s work, but it never completely defined her. When she met Hausmann, she was studying graphic arts and book design at the School of the Royal Museum of Applied Arts, having already attended the Charlottenberg School of Applied Arts.

Hannah Höch, Tailor’s Flower, 1920
Collage, 20 1/4 x 17 1/4 inches
(Collection Louise Rosenfield Noun, Des Moines)

Further, between 1916 and 1926, Höch held down a part-time job in the editorial department of the handiwork division at Ullstein, one of the largest publishing houses in Germany. There she designed fashions, sewing and embroidery patterns, and occasionally penned an article on “domestic arts” topics. She considered this work to be on a par with her fine arts pursuits.

The job allowed her to maintain an artistic foot in the very different worlds of avant-garde and commercial art. The creative synergy that flowed from this dual life benefited her montage work. Tailor’s Flower (above), formed from bits of sewing pattern paper, demonstrates Höch’s regard for woman’s “crafts,” as well as early foray into abstraction.

Hans Richter, Dada Kopf, 1918
Oil on canvas, 14.3 x 11.2 inches

Additionally, the job provided her with an income, which she used to support Hausmann, and at times, various gatherings with the other Dadaists. Höch once pointed out to Hans Richter that the  “the sandwiches, beer and coffee she managed somehow to conjure up despite the shortage of money” (his view of her contribution to Dada) had actually been provided by her income.

Thus, while Höch embraced the political and socially agenda of Dada, ultimately she distanced herself substantively and stylistically from her male colleagues.

Hannah Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany, 1919
Photomontage, 44 7/8 x 35 9/16 inches
(Preubischer Kulturbesitz, Nationalgalerie, Berlin)

The tour de force Cut with the Kitchen Knife. . . demonstrates how different her compositions were from those of her male colleagues.  A  consummate statement about the Weimar era, it is a visual rollcall of virtually every military, political and cultural figure in early Weimar Germany. Höch herself once observed that it was a cross-section of the turbulent times. In true Dada fashion, the piece presents the world according to a”them” vs. “us” diacotomy. Communists consort with Dadaists, while Weimar officials are consigned to the “anti-Dada” corner in the upper right.

Raoul Hausmann, ABCD, 1923-24
Photomontage, 16 x 11.1 inches
(Centre Pompidou, Paris)

But there is an underlying social message in the work as well.  Though male figures appear as the majority, it is the women who occupy the limelight. They are the only figures in motion. In their running, dancing, and jumping the artist celebrates the concept of the “New Woman”—the energetic, professional, somewhat androgynous woman, who emerged in the wake of WW1, ready to take her place as an equal to men. In the right-hand corner a map of Europe identifies the countries in which women already could or soon would be able to vote. (A small portrait near the map links Höch herself to the political empowerment of women.) Even the title, “kitchen knife,”  alludes to the role woman’s work would have in the new world order.  Thus, does this seminal work stake out what would become Höch’s lifelong preoccupation with gender identity and relationship between the sexes.

Hannah Höch, Da Dandy, 1919
Photomontage, 11 13/16 x 9 1/16 inches

This was a topic which male members of the group, for all their rhetoric about emancipation, never tackled. As Höch observed:

None of these men were satisfied with just an ordinary woman. But neither were they included to abandon the (conventional) male/masculine morality toward the woman. Enlightened by Freud, in protest against the older generation. . . they all desired this ‘New Woman’ and her groundbreaking will to freedom. But—they more or less brutally rejected the notion that they, too, had to adopt new attitudes. . . This led to these truly Strinbergian dramas that typified the private lives of these men.

—from scraps of undated notes found among Höch’s posessions.

In Da Dandy (above) women meld into men, as fragments of contemporary female heads in modern fashions of the day recombine to form the profile of a man (facing right and identified by a thin red line). Höch’s work never seems to offer a conclusive answer as to the true identity of the “New Woman”; on the contrary, it often raises the question of whether the economic and social status quo has changed.

Hannah Höch, The Bride, 1933
photomontage with collage elements, 7  7/8 x 7 3/4 inches
(Collection Thomas Walther, New York)

Perhaps it was the training at Ullstein that facilitated Höch’s finely-tuned eye for both snipping and re-assembling, which is so amply on display in Cut with the Kitchen Knife. . . .  Even the simplest of her images are built from a complex array of pictorial fragments, which in the work of the teens and 1920s often reached reckless heights. Höch loved wild disjunctions of scale, and the juxtaposition of unlikely elements, particularly animals and machines with humans.

And yet, for all their mapcap surface energy, her compositions are for the most part highly unified, their elements anchored by good compositional structure. For the most part, this quality is missing in the male Dadaist montages.

Raoul Hausmann, The Art Critic, 1919/20
Photomontage, 12 1/2 x 10 inches
(Tate Collection)

Höch’s focus on the nature of female identity (and its depiction in the media) would reach a crescendo in the 1930s in works like Tamer (above), while also expanding to include racial identity in works similar to The Bride. Most probably Tamer relates to her new life with Dutchwoman Til Brugman (they were together for 10 years); it represents the general move toward increasing gender ambiguity in Höch’s imagery.

By juxtaposing the features of a non-white with the ceremonial accoutrements of a European bride, The Bride asks viewers to consider the tension between “Self” and  “Other,”  as well as the nature of subjugation (by marriage, by one people against another).

Both works point toward the simplification of imagery that be the hallmark of Höch’s style in the 1930s.

Hannah Höch, Abduction (from the Ethnographic Museum series), 1925
Photomontage with collage elements, 8 3/8 x 8 11/16 inches
(Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)

Höch finally broke with Hausmann in 1922 and started to come into her own as an artist. She turned to friends Kurt Schwitters, the Arps, Lazslo Moholy-Nagy and the van Doesburgs, who embraced her readily, supported her work, and furthered her contact with artists beyond the Dadaists.

Her most exciting work during the 1920s must surely be the ambitious “From the Ethnographic Museum” series (Abduction above), 17 montages that constitute an epic foray into the notion of Lebensraum (colonial expansion), “primitive” cultures and “underdeveloped” (i.e. inferior) peoples, and female alienation. The series is remarkable for its thematic coherence, elegant visual impact, and technical virtuosity.

“From the Ethnographic Museum” was visually influenced by the newly-redone tribal art displays in the Ethnological Museum. A predominant number of snippets Höch used came from a single issue of Querschnitt magazine entirely devoted to the displays.  Each delicately reconstituted object in the series is showcased on its own pedestal, thus reflecting the idealization (and trivialization) of “primitive” artifacts by “developed” nations.

Abduction represents the type of complexity at work in the seemingly-simple images of the series. The female face may be a stand in for Höch. In any case, one might read this image any number of ways—the nobility of “primitive” culture, civilization being carried away by tribal culture, the subjugation of the female identity.

The 1920s were a particularly fruitful decade for Höch, as she explored new emotional and thematic territory. Curiously, however, she exhibited virtually not at all publicly during this period. Nontheless, by the end of the 1920s, photomontage had become an accepted medium, and Höch was gaining public recognition for her work.

Hannah Höch, Sea Serpent, 1937
Photomontage, 8 3/4 x 10 inches
(Institute für Auslandsbeziehungen, Stuttgart)

Next: following Hannah Höch through the Nazi era and later life.

Wider Connections

“Dating the Dompteuse: Hannah Höch’s Reconfiguration of the Tamer” by Joe Mills & Peter Boswell (Courtesy of  Stephen Perloff/Photo Review Magazine)
Virtual Tour, “Hannah Höch—All Beginnings Are Dada” exhibition, 2008
Hannah Höch: Album (English and German Edition)
Eva Lake—Tough Cuts
Luc Sante—Dada’s Girl (1997 Museum of Modern Art)
Landesmuseum für Moderne Kunst/Berlinische Galerie
The Photomontages of Hannah Höch—Walker Art Center exhibition catalog
Marsha Meskimmon—We Weren’t Modern Enough: Women Artists and the Limits of German ModernismCut & Paste—A Hisory of Photomontage
Artsvis 54 on collage

Alma Thomas: On the Shoulders of Giants

Posted in Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2009 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: Over the past several weeks our contributors have been on hiatus, in order to participate in SF Open Studios event. With this piece Venetian Red resumes its regular posting schedule.

By LIZ HAGER

Alma Thomas, Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music, 1976,
acrylic on canvas, 72 1/4 x 135 1/2″.
(The Smithsonian American Art Museum)

In 1924, Alma Thomas (1891-1978) became the first woman to graduate from Howard University’s newly-created fine arts department. Quite possibly, she was the first African-American to hold this kind of degree. She went on to become the first women to receive a Masters’ degree (teaching) from Columbia University. For 35 years, Thomas dedicated herself to teaching art to high school students. She retired in 1960, in order to focus on her own work. In her 70s, plagued by arthritis and degenerating eyesight, she threw herself into her work. In 1972, at age 80, she became the first African-American woman to have a solo show mounted by the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Two weeks ago, Alma Thomas made news yet again.

Alma Thomas—Blue Abstraction 1961Alma Thomas, Blue Abstraction, c.1961
oil on canvas, 34 x 40″.
(Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)

Although the list of artworks the Obamas have requisitioned for the White House collection was released months ago, it wasn’t until a recent  New York Times’ article—“White House Art”—that members of the conservative blogosphere found another excuse to blast the Obama administration. Indignant, they locked their rifle scopes on one painting in particular, Alma Thomas’ Watusi (Hard Edge).  Free Republic and Michelle Malkin posted particularly exemplary pieces, decrying the work as an “almost exact replication” of Henri Matisse’s (1869-1954) The Snail. All Thomas had done, they argued, was to rotate Matisse’s canvas clockwise 90° and change some colors. “An embarrassment for the ‘sophisticates’ who failed to spot a copy hiding in plain sight,” one blogger hissed.

Henri Matisse, The Snail, 1953
gouache on paper, cut and pasted on paper mounted on canvas, approximately 113″ square.
(Tate Gallery)

Alma Thomas, Watusi (Hard Edge), 1963
acrylic on canvas, 47 5/8 x 44 1/4″.
(Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

The outcry was predictably bereft of thoughtful analysis. In the aggregate, the derisive comments—”my two year old could have done that” and “the crap that passes for art”— not to mention downright ugly sneers—”The original itself is a hoax. Most modern art is.”—might otherwise be a sobering reminder that a vocal segment of the population appears truly threatened by modern art. Predictably, though, the commentators revealed themselves to be neither knowledgeable nor interested in the subject of modern art. No, it was pretty clear from the particulars (including some nasty, racially-oriented snips) that Thomas and, by extension modern art, was merely the scapegoat here; Watusi was the vehicle through which the conservative fringe could ridicule, yet again, the President’s alleged lack of judgment. One self-appoint -ed cognoscente snickered: “He can’t even pick real art.”

Jean Arp, Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance), 1916-1917
torn-and-pasted paper and colored paper on colored paper, 19 1/8 x 13 5/8″.
(Museum of Modern Art; © 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)

Did Alma Thomas copy Matisse? When it comes to intellectual property, despite  legal guidelines, copying is often harder to prove than it would seem.

Alma Thomas, Early Cherry Blossoms, 1973,
acrylic on canvas, 69 x 50″.
(Michael Rosenfeld Gallery)

On the one hand, as any trained artist knows, examining the world through the eyes of others is a necessary step on the road to developing a “mature” personal style. Indeed, all of human progress has been built on the shoulders of previous giants. Matisse’s cutouts could not have existed without the work of the collagists who preceded him—Jean Arp,  Kurt Schwitters, Hannah Höch—who in turn owed debts to earlier Cubists, Picasso and Braque. And on it goes.

Henri Matisse, Snow Flowers,1951,
watercolor and gouache on cut and pasted papers, 75 11/16  x  35 7/8″.
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

On the other hand, illegitimate copying is real. Both Richard Prince (See VR’s “Prince of Pilfer”) and Jeff Koons have  been sued by photographers for incorporating copyrighted work into their own. Koons lost the Rogers v. Koons case, but won a more recent suit under the “fair use” doctrine.  Readers will remember that earlier this year Damien Hirst threatened to sue a 16-year-old over his use of an image of Hirst’s diamond-incrusted skull, in the process demanding royalties.

Alma Thomas at work in her studio, 1970s?

In the imaginary case of Matisse v. Thomas, interpretations of the “substantially similar” clause suggest many ambiguities that would present a challenge to definitively proving copyright infringement. (Imagined cries of “I know copying when I see it!” from Thomas bashers aside.) Thomas always credited Matisse for the inspiration that produced Watusi. It is obvious that the work launched her on a journey of artistic discovery that produced her unique and forward-looking (if not radical) mosaic style.

To assert that Thomas was “simply copying” Matisse would be to deny the rich and varied underpinnings of her work.  Thomas was deeply impressed by the colors and patterns of the natural world around her.  “Light reveals to us the spirit and living soul of the world through colors,” she once said.

Lois Mailou Jones, Les Fetiches, 1938
oil on linen, approximately 21 x 25″.
(The Smithsonian American Art Museum)

At her best, Thomas adeptly fused her own interpretation of the modernist approaches to color with the craft traditions (textile-based in Thomas’ case) of black America to arrive at a style that, while abstract, never quite looses its connection with natural form.  In addition to Matisse, Thomas identified with the work of Cézanne, as well as her teachers Jacob KainenRobert Gates, Joe Summerford, and Lois Mailou Jones.

Alma Thomas, Oriental Garden Concerto, 1976
acrylic on canvas, 68 1/4 X 54 1/4″.
(Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

If there was any real “crime” committed by the Obamas in the selection of their White House collection, it was that only 6 (!) of the 45 pieces were by women. (Louise Nevelson and Susan Rothenberg also included.)  Worse perhaps, no Latinos/as were represented at all.  Not exactly  “Change We Can Believe In.”

Alma Thomas, White Roses Sing and Sing, 1976
acrylic on canvas, 72 1/2 x 52 3/8″.
(Smithsonian American Art Museum)

The Hullaballoo

Michelle Malkin—Do the Watusi: Art, Imitation, and the Obamas

greg.org—“On Wingnuts on Alma Thomas”

Steven Kaplan—“Watusi vs. L’Escargot: Another Desperate Republican Attempt to Smear Obama”

The Mississippifarian—“It’s Called ‘Having a Clue.’ “

Wider Connections

Holland Cotter—“Colors From a World of Black and White”

Self-taught sculptor William Edmondson was the first African-American to have a solo show in a major US museum. See “Doin’ the Lord’s Work.”

John Elderfield—The Cutouts of Henri Matisse

Merry Foresta—Alma Thomas: A Life in Art

News Grist: Audio Symposium—A Search for Comity in the Intellectual Property Wars

US Copyright Office

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