Tag Archives: Whitechapel Gallery

Review of Hannah Höch at the Whitechapel Gallery By Lily Magenis


Hannah Höch was the only female member of the Berlin Dada movement, and a pioneer in photomontage, a medium and method she used to satirize Weimar politics and subversively comment on society, gender, and race. Her first major exhibition in the UK is currently on display at the Whitechapel Gallery from January 15 – March 23, 2014.

The Hannah Höch exhibition brings together a collection over 120 pieces of work, and spans the length of her career, from the 1910s -1970s. Höch’s varying series of photomontage are presented in a chronological time line, beginning with her early work, which was heavily influenced by her career in fashion magazines. Höch critiques the way in which women are represented in the media, by ripping their images out and pulling them away from the objectified environment of a magazine page. She re-applies an image of the ‘new woman’ into a formation and structure that addresses how we perceive beauty.


Höch’s Ethnographic Museum series questions the construction of gender and the notion of beauty, for she pairs Ethnographic masks with images of the female body. Höch’s collage “Aus der Sammlung: Aus einem ethnographischen Museum (From the Collection: from an Ethnographic Museum)” (1929), combines the body of a baby with a traditional mask and gives the figure an eye of a modern woman. Höch wants us to relate to the body in a different way, as this figure does not adhere to the idealized vision of beauty, but questions different standards of beauty. The new woman she creates here does not correlate to that of the typical woman of ‘typical’ beauty, she is a woman with a modern eye.

Höch’s art is personal, and we are greeted with a playful exploration of re-imaging. She cuts and pastes, taking familiar images and reconstructing them. Women in Höch’s collages are beautiful, feminine, and playful, but not as sexualized objects. Instead, women are depicted in a way that challenge preconceived notions of femininity. This is the new woman.

The upstairs gallery showcases a collection of Höch’s scrapbooks while the rest of the exhibition is dedicated to her experiments in abstraction and ‘Fantastic Art’ where we see her transition into color and an adjustment to her portrayal of the new woman.


Given the extent to which the female body is included in her work, it is evident that Höch is conscious of sex and her bisexuality. However, sexuality is a factor that presents itself in her work scarcely. I was struck by the collage of a peachy pink bottom resting on a beach in “Der Schöne Po (The Beautiful Bottom)” (1959). For this was the only overtly sexual image in the exhibition. It’s bright turquoise hues and sparkling semblance stand out in comparison to her earlier collages – it has an exaggerated, girly character which I regard as a shift in the image of the new woman.


By pulling apart and reshaping figures, most commonly female, Höch seems to be challenging the treatment of gender in 20th Century Germany. Traditionally the female figure in the artistic canon exemplifies an object of beauty. Höch contests this notion with, “Um einen roten Mund (Around a Red Mouth)” (1967). Here, a set of red lips rest on a mountain of pink petticoats. The inclusion of petticoats, which were worn by women for centuries, draws reference to a traditional and often required uniform for women. However, Höch tears at the petticoats and layers the pink horizontal frays one on top of the other, creating an abstract image of a vagina. The violence implicit in the medium Höch used here literally reshapes an image of the very core of a woman’s femininity.

Höch’s work is ambiguous, but this allows for a sort of fluid and ‘fantastic’ reading. The medium she uses is surrealistic – the multifaceted layers of cut and pasted images relax the boundaries of interpretation, and therefore we can read them in myriad ways. Her work is both political and poetic. The way she chops and splices images is political, and often comments on gender, but the finished product is beautiful and dream like.

My first impression was that Höch’s work is confused, that she struggled between different images of the new woman, as she too identified with struggles alike, (e.g. confusion with her bisexuality and being the only woman in Dada) “Two Faced” (1928), illustrates such confusion; a collage of a woman with two faces, drawn in different directions. However, this exhibition takes us on a journey of the new woman from the stiff magazine women in pearls to the effervescent pert behind. And this is exactly the point. Höch works with the notion of the fragmented self. The new woman is duplicitous and you can read her in multiple ways. Höch wants us to have our own personal and objective understanding of the ‘new woman’, as there isn’t one way to perceive her.

Höch’s exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery is a humorous critique of gender and beauty. Her work is crude, but not offensive. It is light hearted, but makes a point. It’s sexual but not sexualized. Hannah Höch cuts the perfect balance and creates a new image of the new woman.



Hannah Höch is on view through March 23, 2014.

For more information visit Whitechapel Gallery, London.

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Whitechapel Gallery, London

28 March – 17 June 2012

Gillian Wearing, Signs That Say What You Want Them To Say, And Not Signs That Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say,1992

Born in Birmingham in 1963, Gillian Wearing shot to fame in Britain in the 90’s with the rising profile of the YBA’s. Having attended Goldsmiths with Damien Hirst, throughout the artist’s 20 years of practice to follow, it seems that that the inevitable comparison with our favourite formaldehyde loving celebrity artist has left Wearing increasingly overshadowed by the formers blinding, inescapable, loud, and controversial artistic statements.

Wearing’s practice is on another level altogether: quieter, subdued, and frankly more effective in engaging with the British public, Gillian Wearing is not an artist for collectors or the market (not saying any names), but rather an artist for the people. To my great pleasure, the Whitechapel Gallery brings Wearing’s array of photographs, works on video, and sculpture to light for the artist’s first and much deserved retrospective.

Wearing’s most effective tool is the video camera, and she uses it to peel back the façade of the individual in the public sphere, to reveal truths behind outward appearance. Wearing films children dubbed with the voices of adults, invites people to reveal their darkest secrets on camera whilst wearing a disguise, and tells members of the public to write down what they are really feeling, to present to the world in a photograph. Wearing’s work is essentially the traditional portrait inverted. Members of the public are encouraged to do the opposite of pose, to exude importance. Instead they are stripped, and invited to reveal truth.

Wearing’s work is all about paradox: given the chance to disguise oneself behind a mask, the individual is liberated and their character is in fact de-masked. Her aim: to question what is true, what is performed or real, to ask WHAT ARE ORDINARY MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC ACTUALLY THINKING? She cleverly and often heartrenderingly highlights the discrepancy between what exists in our minds and how we present ourselves in the public sphere, drawing attention to the large gap between the two.

The exhibition begins with Wearing’s 1994 video piece Dancing in Peckham. Wearing invites the viewer to watch her dance for 25 minutes in a shopping mall. Contemporary art cynics: give it a chance and allow me to jump to Wearing’s defence. (Many of my friends would be relentlessly shouting “THIS ISN’T ART!!!” If I had taken them to see it). Perhaps the most puzzling piece in the exhibition (why is she dancing like an idiot to no music outside a curries in Peckham for 25 minutes?), I think the piece sums up Wearing’s aims as an artist perfectly. Unaware of passers by, Wearing dances like nobody is watching acting out self-abandonment within a public space to highlight the gap between accepted social norms and what is really going on inside our heads.

Wearing’s now iconic series of photographs, Signs That Say What You Want Them To Say, And Not Signs That Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say makes this point explicitly. In 1992, the artist invited strangers to write down what they were thinking on paper and hold it to the camera. The effect is humorous, sad, and shocking. A personal favourite is an elderly man holding up a sign saying “what a lovely girl”, showing the discrepancy between our expectations of character judged by external appearance. Seeing the elderly man in public, one would assign to him sexless and paternal characteristics. Given the chance to express all, we discover that the truth is far from the expected: the elderly man reveals his inappropriate sexual and erotic desire.

Similarly, a smiley, handsome, and seemingly happy young man holds up a sign declaring: “I am depressed at the moment”. Wearing captures the truth behind the British public, suggesting that our public “face” is in fact a façade. It is something we can all relate to as members of the British public. Last week on the tube, a well dressed suited business man sat next to me. In his lap lay a letter for probation and a leaflet to alcoholics anonymous. Getting on the tube in the morning, we all appear the same: same “work” clothes, same miserable face, same relentless march to the office, but in our private lives we are different people altogether. Wearing creates her work out of a desire to explore this; to turn it inside out: to turn the private into the public.

My favourite parts of the exhibition are Wearing’s works on video:Confess All OnVideo. Don’t Worry, You Will Be In Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian… (1994), Trauma (2000), and Secrets and Lies (2000). Through the medium of video, Wearing explores the difference between ones public persona and private life with a darker, more macabre tone. The retrospective leads us to modern day confessional booths; an enclosed space within which we, put in the position of confidante, are presented with a screen. On the screen anonymous members of the public, masked with latex faces and wigs, reveal emotional and traumatic secrets involving rape, murder, incest, and violence.

Wearing asks to consider which is really the mask: our public “face” or the latex face that hides the confessor. Which is fake? Paradoxically, by masking the confessors, they become de-masked. Their true identity is revealed. With her works on video, Wearing captures the truth behind our public personas. And the truth is depressing. This is Britain today, says Wearing. Lies, secrets, and fake smiles.

I really hope the man on the tube is ok.

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