Mike Nichols’s films . . . Hannah Höch’s cut-outs . . . Wallace Stevens’s jar on a hill
Carnal KnowledgeThe Graduate
Anyway, I think Höch would have liked the trash in the trees, the beauty of their fortuity, and the way in which, together, they make a weird, third thing for which we have no particular name. The Nazis had a name for Höch’s juxtapositions: They called her art “degenerate.” She spent most of World War II quietly working away in her house outside Berlin. I often think of her, sitting in her house cutting pictures out of magazines with scissors, layering found shapes, ripping holes in images, joining unlike things year after year, as the war went on its bloody way. Was she brave, or not? I’m not sure.
I spent one whole winter in Berlin trying to get special permission to see that house of Höch’s, which is only open to the public one day a year, in the fall. I failed, but it seemed fitting, Dada-wise, that that inner door to Höch’s privacy would open according to an accident of the calendar. And what did I hope to see, anyway? Her furniture? Her shapes were her obsession. If one looks at them without paying all one’s attention to the various genders of the figures, what one notices is a continual imbalance of scale. Faces, and facial features like noses, are massive while bodies are tiny; the faces themselves are distorted, one side or feature much bigger than the rest. The shapes work the way memory works, focusing on a few elements without regard for the surrounding world or what may have been going on in History. I remember your eyes. I remember that leader’s hateful smile. I remember the forced happiness crowding out the pile of broken parts in the bottom corner. The shapes are cut out according to the scale of their importance to the one framing them. We experience the scale subliminally, before we note the content. And maybe that’s what Nichols meant: The scale of, say, a close-up gets to us in the split second before we even see the identity of the face. Or maybe that’s what the Nazis meant by “degenerate”: What matters is determined by the artist on a certain day or moment, and its exact meaning is abundantly elusive. The artist’s eye decides what figures or shapes dominate a given landscape, not the dominion of a particular leader or group.
In the Wallace Stevens poem “Anecdote of the Jar,” the speaker puts a jar on a hill in Tennessee whereupon the jar “took dominion everywhere” despite being “gray and bare” and “round,” i.e., just a jar. But once it is placed on the hill, it organizes the landscape around it. “The wilderness rose up to it/ And sprawled around, no longer wild.”
When I think of that poem, the tatters seem almost unbearably brave to me, holding their position in the wind.