A cut out and keep tribute to Dada artist Hannah Höch

Matt Artz/Unsplash

‘Achtung! The girls are going up in smoke — their lovely stockings will be mortally singed, what a tragedy. The culprit is probably that englischer gentleman — stubby cigar held between finger and thumb. He’s standing far too close for comfort and seems rather louche —’ Alas, your witty sketch for a Dada anti-revue, signed ‘HH’ was extinguished at the concept stage. Another casualty of the avant garde, a children’s dressing up box left abandoned mid-afternoon, silky entrails stirred up.

You studied applied arts to please your father. At Ullstein’s, your nimble fingers slip into scissors, finding singular designs in the signs and symbols of paper sewing patterns.

Big is small and small is big.

Searching the multitude of media for the orphan scrap that belongs. In the meantime, the mysteries of the mechanical garden unwind in shades of prussian blue.

You join the big boys of Dada: ‘Quick, Hannah, fetch us some beer and sandwiches!’ Raoul, your first love. Stocky and shouty with thick lips.

Oh, snip his head off! Clip his monocle to make a new moon. I’d take a chunk out of that Johnny Heartfield too, if I were you. Snip.

Uh, Kurt. Schwittering away at his own scraps. His heart leaping from sugar to coffee, his knee pressed up against yours. Anna Blume, his pet name for you, the girl from Gotha with the freakish Frankenstein touch — was Kurt your guru? Or did your creativity emerge from those Dada years fully-formed like Venus? Behind all that reserve, an unusual mechanism is at work, a need to enshrine the everyday as outlandish, fiendish, or simply strange.

Your photomontages are an uncanny betrayal of beauty, innocence, the fatherland. The face of your pretty maiden is a collection of dim light bulbs. An African tribal fetish is transformed into a flapper. A child’s dimpled arm covets a pillar of coins.

The cogs and wheels grind to a mad apotheosis — the heads of the great and the good pranced upon by tiny exotic dancers, limbs flourished in wicked homage to imperious moustaches. Your surgical scissors slice through the belly of the Weimar Republic creating a kaleidoscope of wit and malice. This is your masterpiece, as fragile as a dress pattern, tucked away in a museum’s archive drawer.

The newlyweds, the mother, the father, the wailing child, the exotic pygmy, the walrus. Your scissor snips are unkind to them all. A wicker baby carriage has either come to grief or been blown to pieces in a field of monochrome polka dots. You place Marlene Dietrich’s silk-stockinged legs upside-down on a pedestal.

After 1933, you hide your collages in a box and bury them in the garden of your Hansel and Gretel cottage in case the Big Bad Wolf might come knocking.

Big is small and small is big.

Post war, you are rediscovered. In an era of colour supplements. The man making the television documentary films you in your natural habitat.

‘She has got used to the cameras now,’ he says. You start drawing — needs must. A sketch of two heads, lips pressed together. ‘Adam and Eve’ intones the voiceover.

Decades after your death, you are ripe for reinterpretation.

‘Plants are simply beautiful,’ you once said, ‘but animals and humans are — questionable.’ And sure enough, further down the food chain, illustrators get down to business, shamelessly photo-shopping your technique. They start by cutting out all the eyes and hoarding them in a TIFF file.

Meanwhile, in academia, your private archive is seized upon by chattering historians, all of them women, eager to sew you into their quilt. They coo over your scrapbooks as if they are a lost mood board for a fashion house, while others compare your spliced images to Leni Riefenstahl’s. Locusts all, eager to lock their jaws upon your works.

Girl from Gotha, how I long to wield the scissors on your behalf.

**

Note: Lise Colas is a Fine Art graduate and wrote a dissertation on HH in 1984, when there were next to no monographs on this artist, just a few slim exhibition catalogues, most of them in German. Lise had first heard about HH in Robert Hughes’ ground-breaking TV art documentary ‘The Shock of the New’ (cheers, Bob!)

In order to find out more, she travelled to Berlin with her German-speaking sister. In August 1983, they visited the archives at the Berlinische Galerie and also Hannah’s lovely old cottage at Heiligensee, a picturesque suburb of (West) Berlin, where Lise photographed wizened apples on the window sill with an Olympus OM2 (35mm film) camera she had barely got to grips with.

Unfortunately (or fortunately) the dissertation (typed by her mother) eventually fell out of its binding and was placed in a hard-backed envelope which then became mislaid and subsequently borderline lost. This piece of creative non-fiction is by way of a replacement.

writes poetry and short fiction as well as quirky unreliable memoir and lives on the south coast of England.

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