Cut with the Blade dada through the Last Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Photoland

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Hannah Höch and Rould Hausmann, the story goes, discovered the potential of photomontage by chance — while being on vacation. “[V]isiting the town of Heidebrink on the island of Usedom […],” Maria Makela writes, “the couple encountered in homes and businesses of the residents a popular type of engraving in which photographic portraits of heads of local men away at war had been collaged atop generic, uniformed torsos. Höch and Hausmann returned to Berlin and immediately began to experiment with the medium by clipping photographic reproductions from a wide variety of illustrated sources and then mixing and matching them to create startling, often unsettling new imagery.” (Maria Makela: By Design: The Early Work of Hannah Höch in Context, in: The Photomontages of Hannah Höch, ed. Janet Jenkins, Walker Art Center, 1996, p.59)

It was Höch, the sole female member of Berlin’s dada art scene and, I’d argue, the only of those artists whose thinking wasn’t mostly one dimensional ended up having the largest impact in the long run. At the time, her contributions were mostly overlooked and/or belittled by her dada collaborators (incl. Hausmann, who treated her very poorly). The large photomontage entitled Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser dada durch die letzte Weimarer Bierbauchkulturepoche Deutschlands (1919-20) is frequently taken as the first photomontage in what by now is a tradition of 100 years.

It is a possibly slightly earlier and much more modestly sized work entitled Staatshäupter (1918-20), though, that sets the tone for many of Höch’s later works. In it, German Reich President Friedrich Ebert and Defense Minister Gustav Noske find themselves on top of an iron-on embroidery pattern. At the time, Höch was employed by publisher Ullstein Verlag, producing a variety of textile designs and patterns for embroidery and other handicraft. As Makela outlines, Höch didn’t mind the work and considered craft as being on the same level as art. Ullstein produced a large variety of magazines and periodicals, including the well-known Illustrirte Zeitung that in August 1919 had featured Ebert and Noske on its cover, standing up to their knees in water at some Baltic sea resort.

Germany had just emerged from an autocracy under the Kaiser as a democracy. Seeing the country’s first democratically elected president displayed in bathing trunks caused quite the ruckus. Deftly, Höch amplified the magazine’s message with her montage, cutting the two politicians down to size. Where the massive Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser piece attempted to compete with the bombast produced by her male peers, Staatshäupter brought Höch’s genius to the fore: collage works best when its wit is not undercut by bombast, when artistic skill does not have to compete with showboating.

(Unfortunately, when it comes to photomontage/collage, puns around cutting are hard, if not impossible to prevent. The image itself is not particularly subtle; but then, there are many things in life that aren’t subtle — or rather: that cannot be properly critiqued with subtlety, given that subtlety itself often is a sign of its user’s privilege.)

“I’m coming for you with a blade,” Justine Kurland proclaims on the cover of SCUMB Manifesto. SCUMB stands for Society for Cutting Up Men’s Books. This references the late Valerie SolanasSCUM Manifesto, a feminist piece of writing that starts out with “‘Life’ in this ‘society’ being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of ‘society’ being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex.” Solanas famously shot Andy Warhol, which unfortunately for most people might be the sole thing they know about her.

As I noted in the introduction to my conversation with 10×10 Photobooks, the world of the photobook is overwhelmingly male. Efforts are made to rectify this situation — whether in the form of cataloguing books by women that previously have been ignored, bodies of work being published long after they were made, or whatever else. That’s all good and very much worthwhile. Yet a full reckoning will have to include talking about the books that have been celebrated so far, simply because there is no reason that each and every book that is part of the canon should retain its position or, at the very least, should continue to be treated uncritically.

Kurland’s solution is simple and radical. The artist literally cut up a large number of books from her collection and created collages from their material many of which she then attached to the books’ cases.

Strictly speaking, the world of the photobook isn’t an institution. Despite its amorphous shape and form, though, it acts like one. This fact might be a lot clearer to all those trying to get a seat at the table than those already sitting. Seen this way, you could view SCUMB Manifesto as a form of visual institutional critique.

As a writer I’m glad that I don’t have to write articles about many of the books Kurland cut up and reconfigured. What exactly can one write about, say, the book that contains Lee Friedlander’s nudes? The photography is so bad in so many ways that I’d find myself struggling to arrive at anything other than exasperation. Wielding her blade, Kurland does not have this problem. A few deft cuts and montages, and — voila! — there it is, the fantasy of what many men mistaken for a healthy heterosexual desire.

Most of the collages in SCUMB Manifesto follow the model of Höch’s Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser. They’re visually compelling and visceral, betraying their maker’s considerable artistic wit and intelligence. With plenty of nudity in the source material, Kurland’s combination of blade and glue serves to amplify the underlying lecherousness of so many of the books that were reconfigured. There is a list of the books’ titles at the end, in case as a viewer you’re curious about the source material.

While after a century of photomontage, the practice appeared to have mostly fallen by the wayside, SCUMB Manifesto demonstrates that in the right hands it has not lost its original revolutionary potential.

I personally don’t believe in an afterlife. But were it to exist, I’d imagine Hannah Höch being mightily pleased, seeing that the knife is still being put to good use: to cut down men to size.

SCUMB Manifesto; collages by Justine Kurland; essays by Marina Chao, Renee Gladman, Catherine Lord, Ariana Reines; 282 pages; MACK; 2022