Dr Ralf Burmeister has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Executed in 1919, Er und sein milieu is a rare watercolour dating from the height of Hannah Höch’s involvement with the Berlin Dadaists, in which the artist explored one of the key existential questions of the period – the place of humanity in the modern world of machinery. Drawing inspiration from the myriad of unusual objects, magazine clippings and mementos she preserved in a vast personal collection of ephemera, the otherworldly landscapes Höch produced during this period were intended, as she explained, to showcase ‘a new and sometimes terrifying dream world,’ one in which the fate of humanity seemed to hang precariously in the balance (Höch, in E. Roditi, Dialogues: Conversations with European Artists at Mid-Century, San Francisco, 1990, p. 71). With these otherworldly paintings, Höch believed she could ‘blur the firm borders that we human beings, cocksure as we are, are inclined to erect around everything that is accessible to us. I paint pictures in which I try to make this evident, tangible … I am a human being, but on the strength of my imagination – tied as it is – I can be a bridge. I should like to make what seems impossible appear possible; I should like to help to experience a richer world so that they may feel more kindly towards the world we know’ (Höch, quoted in Hannah Höch, exh. cat., London, 2014, p. 140).
Constructed using a variety of disparate elements and fragments, in a manner that echoes the artist’s work in photomontage, ER und sein milieu is infused with a dreamlike sense of mystery that echoes the enigmatic metaphysical paintings of Giorgio de Chirico. In the foreground a helpless, diminutive humanoid figure dangles upside down by the ankle, tethered to a gas pipe that extends horizontally across the picture plane, supplying a small bulb just visible along the upper edge of the frame. In the distance, a long rectangular glass case bearing the label ‘kunst’ houses a selection of famous architectural monuments – including a pyramid, a Gothic cathedral, a modern high-rise, the tower of Babel, and the Eiffel Tower – structures that embody the achievements and progress of humankind at particular moments in history. To the right, a tower surmounted by a terrarium shelters a variety of plant-life, symbolising the natural world, while below a translucent globe balanced precariously atop a truncated pyramid bears a sign saying ‘Mitmenschen’ (fellow man), yet remains empty, as if waiting to be filled by specimens. Suggesting a haunting vision of the future, in which mankind is completely detached and alienated from the reality we once knew, Höch challenges her viewers to contemplate their destiny in this new and uncertain world.