Hannah Höch wasn’t afraid to throw shade. Actually, she thrived on it: as a critically-acclaimed pioneer of the photo montage (or collage, if you’d rather) and the sole female member of the post-World War I Berlin Dada group, Höch made a name for herself by creating striking and humorous social critiques. Her work explores the intersections between such realms of society as gender, identity, social class, and politics. She was particularly interested in the concept of the “New Woman” in Weimar, Germany, or the woman considered the equal of men. Höch’s keen commentary on a society at odds with its own rapid change meant she was at once well-received in exhibitions and seen as a threat by her male peers, and later by her own government. Her most famous piece, “Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany,” is a nuanced and striking dig at the German socio-political machine that clearly defines Höch’s artistic style as bold, wry, and fantastically witty.
Höch exhibited “Cut with the Kitchen Knife…” in the First International Dada Fair in 1920. The piece makes use of the societal rubble left over after the end of the First World War to critique the failures of the Weimar German government and emerging postwar gender issues, and it has become known as one of the standout pieces in the show. To start to get a feel for the collage’s message, it’s helpful to divide it into approximate quadrants with the center figure of the dancer Kollwitz as their axle.
Each quadrant features distinct subject matter: the upper right is home to anti-Dada political figures (hence the word “Anti”) like Kaiser Wilhelm; their disorganized interaction represents their respective scrambles for power and attempts to make sense of their postwar society. The bottom right corner notably depicts various Dadaists (Höch’s peers), Karl Marx, and a prominent art critic’s head on top of a baby’s body. The lower left corner shows German communist party leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg; a speech bubble shows Liebknecht saying, “Join Dada.” Finally, the upper left corner features Albert Einstein mocking the Dada movement. The piece can also be divided along an approximate diagonal running from the upper left corner to the lower right corner; this diagonal divides images representing the German political machine from images representing pop culture and the masses. Each section of the piece critiques a specific part of German society, and together they effectively expose many of its collective flaws.
Any description of “Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada is incomplete without answering the question, what the hell does that mouthful of a title mean? Let’s take it in pieces.
First half: “Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada”. The first part of Höch’s title compares the art movement Dada to a knife. Dada pieces regularly delivered hot takes on the societal status quo, and so the Berlin branch of the movement effectively functioned as a knife, severing ties with dated German society and its social constructs. That the Dada knife is a kitchen knife indicates that domesticity and people who occupied domestic roles (read: women) would play a significant role in catalyzing cultural revolution.
Second half: “…through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany”. Read this as “through the last vestiges of the abundant wealth, stability, and gluttony that characterized pre-war Germany”. You know what “last” means. Weimar is a city in Germany. A “Beer-Belly” belongs to one who can afford to indulge. A “cultural epoch” is just a period in a culture’s history marked by particular traits. For instance, pre-war Germany experienced abundance and stability that allowed its citizens to grow fat and happy.
As an artist and a woman in postwar Germany, Hannah Höch was perfectly situated to observe the contradictions and peculiarities of a nation challenged with regaining its footing at the intersection of tradition and progressivism. Her photomontage “Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany” is a witty and insightful exposé of German society, and it reminds us today that society’s tumultuous conflict with itself is the very engine that drives it forward.
Sources and background:
Dillon, Brian. “Hannah Höch: Art’s Original Punk.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 9 Jan. 2014, www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jan/09/hannah-hoch-art-punk-whitechapel.
Dr. Juliana Kreinik, Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, “Hannah Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany,” in Smarthistory, November 25, 2015, accessed April 27, 2020, https://smarthistory.org/hannah-hoch-cut-with-the-kitchen-knife-dada-through-the-last-weimar-beer-belly-cultural-epoch-of-germany/.
“Hannah Höch: Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany (1919).” Artsy, www.artsy.net/artwork/hannah-hoch-cut-with-the-dada-kitchen-knife-through-the-last-weimar-beer-belly-cultural-epoch-in-germany.