The Whitechapel Gallery’s current Hannah Höch retrospective is a great excuse to revisit the work of two other fantastic German artists of the early 20th century. These women worked during a turbulent period in the history of German culture and politics. The country as we know it today was only formed in 1871, following Bismark’s victory in the Franco-Prussian war, making it markedly younger than other Europe powers such as England and France. The new state felt a lot of pressure to assert its national identity, until it became apparent that it didn’t actually have one. And so the arts were called upon to teach the German people about their cultural heritage and national traditions and inspire unity under a distinctly German identity.

An academic art know as Heimatkunst (translated roughly as Homeland Art) developed, which wanted desperately to be an art of the people and a glorification of the German peasant volk (spirit). The idealised visual conventions of this blut und boden (blood and soil) style would later appeal to the militant nationalism of Hitler’s Third Reich. Heimatkunst was an art of the academies, which were staunchly supported by Kaiser Wilhelm II. State backing gave the German academies the authority to control every aspect of artistic production, exhibition and patronage. This rigorously monitored and elitist system was the target of rebellious secessionist movements in cities such as Berlin, Munich and Dresden around the turn of the 20th Germany. The secession movements themselves were short lived but they succeeded in liberating art from the conventions and control of the academies by offering alternative exhibition spaces supported by private patronage. The numerous artistic styles and groups that developed out of the secessionist legacy came to be known under the blanket term of German Expressionism.

Two of the most famous German Expressionist groups were Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter. Their art looked to renowned international artists for inspiration and in particulary the work of groups such as the Fauvs and the Futurists and artists such as Van Gogh, Munch and Gauguin. However, the desire for a specifically German art persisted and conflicted with this fervent internationalism. It prompted many artists to revive aspects of what they perceived as Germany’s cultural heritage, notably the Gothic style and the medium of printmaking. This disparate range of influences had in common a celebration of the art of so-called ‘primitive’ people. Jill Lloyd has asserted that the popularity of such ‘primitive’ cultures for the artists of German Expressionism was due to their timelessness, universality and subsequent ability to transcend ‘the historical conflicts and rifts that separated the European nations.’

Though women are occasionally mentioned in writings on groups such as Die Brücke, Der Blaue Reiter, and the later Dada movements they are generally referred to in the diminutive roles of ‘student, muse, lover or wife.’ As such, women artists such as Paula Modersohn Becker and Gabriele Münter are often the subject of revisionist art histories.

Paula Becker joined the German art colony at Worpswede, in 1899, as, unlike the Academies, such communities encouraged women artists.  She originally came to study under Fritz Mackensen, then married Otto Modersohn in 1901. Although Modersohn-Becker painter similar themes to that of her husband and Mackensen (mostly landscapes and scenes of peasant life), her artistic style differed greatly to the more established artists. During the years 1900 to 1906 Modersohn-Becker frequently travelled to Paris where she was fascinated by French Post-Impressionism and the ‘primitivism’ of Cezanne and Gauguin. Reclining Mother and Child Nude, from 1906, is perhaps her most successful work. A sophisticated synthesis of Post-Impressionist styles has been applied to the monumentalised figure of the maternal nude, challenging the autonomy of ‘the male gaze’ in representations of women.

Paula Modersohn-Becker, Reclinging Mother and Child Nude (1906)

Paula Modersohn-Becker, Reclinging Mother and Child Nude (1906)

After a brief, unsatisfying period at the Kunstlerinnenverein, Gabriele Münter attended the Phalanx school, run by Wassily Kandinsky. Despite Kandinsky being legally married, the pair embarked on an artistic and personal relationship, travelling around Europe and Northern Africa together before settling in Murnau, a small town near Munich. Together they formed Der Blaue Reiter in 1911, a venture characterised by a search for the spiritual and a playful approach to colour. Like Modersohn-Becker, Der Blaue Reiter were interested in international modernism and Münter absorbed these influences in her painting. Perhaps the most widely recognised (and my favourite of her paintings) is Boating, from 1910. It could be called a self-portrait, although you can only see Münter’s back as she mans the oars of the little rowing boat. She is accompanied by Kandinsky, Werefkin, and Jawlensky’s young son. Münter casts herself in the role of both producer and subject, perhaps challenging the traditional role of women as muses to male artists and highlighting the subsequent issue of self-representation facing women artists.

Gabriele Münter, Boating (1910)

Gabriele Münter, Boating (1910)

The Whitechapel Gallery’s retrospective contributes to this rethinking of the women artists of this period. It is the first exhibition in Britain to celebrate the work of Hannah Höch, one of the most exciting artists of the Weimar Republic. Höch was a contemporary of Raul Hausmann, George Grosz and Kurt Schwitters and the enduring legacy of her pioneering work in the technique of photomontage is evident in our visual culture today.

Hannah Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Beer-Belly of the Weimar Republic (1919) photomontage

Höch was a member of the Berlin Dada group, which was formed in the early years of the Weimar Republic and celebrated an International Dada Fair in 1920. Dada was arguably the first conceptual art movement, with a shift in the aesthetic function of a work from the physical object to the idea it implied.  This development is evident the writings of the Dada poet Hugo Ball: ‘For us, art is not an end in itself but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in.’ Dadaism can be characterised by the simultaneous embrace and critique of modernity, a phenomenon that either fascinated or alienated artists during this period. Höch referenced the technologies of modernity in her choice of their signifieds as raw materials for her collages: newspapers and magazines clippings, mass-produced products and advertisements.

Hannah Höch, Heads of State (1918-20) photomontage

Hannah Höch is on display at the Whitechapel Gallery, London until March 23 2014).

By Alice Hoad and Kitty Malton