Painted in 1939, the enigmatic Der Berg (The Mountain) emerged during a period of deep turmoil and angst in Hannah Höch’s life. For much of the decade, the artist had been unable to show her work publicly in Germany due to the restrictive cultural policies of the National Socialist party, and in 1937 she was among the group of avant-garde artists vilified as ‘cultural bolshevists’ in Wolfgang Willrich’s publication Säuberung des Kunsttempels (The Cleansing of the Temple of Art), which would provide the framework for the notorious Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition later that year. To avoid persecution during the Third Reich, Höch moved from central Berlin to the quiet rural suburb of Heiligensee, where her past artistic affiliations remained unknown to her neighbours. Here, Höch entered a period of artistic and social isolation, keeping her rich archive of DADA ephemera and artworks hidden in her house, all the while continuing to paint and create photomontages under the radar of the authorities. ‘I often wonder how I managed to survive that dreadful reign of terror,’ she later said. ‘When I now look back, I’m surprised by my own courage or irresponsibility in preserving in my home all the “subversive” Dada art and literature… But it never occurred to me, until it was all over, that I could still be considered a dangerous revolutionary…’ (E. Roditi, Dialogues: Conversations with European Artists at Mid-Century, San Francisco, 1990, p. 74).
While the Pittura Metafisica of Giorgio de Chirico had been an important inspiration for Höch since the early 1920s onwards, it was during this period of tension, uncertainty and fear that she fully embraced the Surrealist idiom in her painting, discovering in it a path to artistic freedom amid the ‘nightmarish’ atmosphere of the ‘illusory world of National Socialism’ (quoted in The Photomontages of Hannah Höch, exh. cat., Minneapolis, 1996, p. 17). In Der Berg, Höch examines the universal and timeless theme of the cycle of life through the metaphor of a mountain hike – several figures are seen at different stages of climbing the steep, stark mountain, their slender, simple forms appearing almost doll-like in their anonymity. While some take the clearly delineated path, traversing the mountainside along an established, predetermined route, others look for more direct shortcuts to the top, such as the figure clinging to the cliff-face. At the summit, a lone figure stands tall, their body basking in the bright sunlight of the distant star that hangs in the sky, while to the right, a stream of figures are seen descending from the peak, heading towards a dark cave in the mountainside, where they will disappear.
Höch signifies the different ages of her humanoid characters through a nuanced treatment of body language and pose – while the figures on the left of the composition seem filled with youthful vigour and energy, boldly racing through the initial stages of the climb, the characters descending the shadowy slope and entering the cave are hunched over, their movements slow and careful as they navigate the treacherous path. This progression of time and life is echoed in the foreground of the painting, where three botanical elements are clustered together, their forms illustrating different stages of their lifecycle, from the lush beauty of the bright red flower in full bloom, to the pale blue leaves of a plant on the brink of withering, and the bare, lifeless tree at the centre, completely uprooted from the soil and ready to be discarded. While the doll-like figures and rock formations of the mountain, reminiscent of wrinkled leather, also appear in Höch’s cover designs for Victor Witte’s 1938 adventure novel Der Berg Lichtes, in Der Berg the artist explores profound questions about humanity and the journey of life, at a time when the chaos and turmoil of German politics and the impending war placed such certainties in peril.