It never ceases to amaze me when I visit a solo exhibition of a deceased female artist being held in a public gallery or museum to discover it is the first time their work has been shown in such an institution. It happened twice last year with Marie Laurencin at Musée Marmottan Monet and Pauline Boty at Wolverhampton Art Gallery. Hannah Höch died in 1978 and that this first retrospective of her work is taking place thirty six years after her death, demonstrates the disparity which still exists in bringing to the public’s attention such artists who are as equally deserving a their more-famous and more frequently exhibited male peers.
Höch was the Sarah Lucas of her generation – a no-nonsense, uncompromising and deeply committed artist. Politically motived as well as experimental, she is credited as being the driving force in the development of collage in the twentieth century. As an active member of the German Dada movement of the 1920s, her photomontages (as they were referred to then) questioned the nature of beauty, gender relations, race and institutional power.
Of the one hundred works on display at the Whitechapel it is her work between 1925 and 1935 in an extended series entitled “From an Ethnographic Museum” in which she juxtaposed images of women taken from fashion magazines with ethnic masks and objects to comment on gender and racial stereotypes, which really demonstrate the artist at the peak of her conceptual and aesthetic powers.
Höch’s vision, politics and working practice has resonated with a number of subsequent artists, such as Martha Rosler and continues to resonate today in the work of contemporary artists (Wangechi Mutu springs instantly to my mind), which demonstrates the legacy her work has left. Some reviews of this exhibition have referred to it as the first “must see” of the New Year and I completely agree. The number of people crowded into the galleries while I was visiting, appear to agree too.