INNOVATIONS OF DADA: PHOTOMONTAGE
DADA IN BERLIN
“The Dadaist should be a man who can fully understand that one is entitled to have ideas only if one can transform them into life—the completely active type, who lives only through action because it holds the possibility of his achieving knowledge.” Richard Huelsenbeck
Germany, after the Great War, was a humiliated and defeated nation that could not believe that it had been defeated. Humiliated, yes, defeated, how? No enemy invaded Berlin, even Germany, and it was difficult for the citizens to understand that the war was lost on the fields of France and Belgium. Dada in Berlin was a short-lived movement but the absurdity of Dada precepts fitted well with the mood of shock and disbelief. Richard Huelsenbeck, one of the founders of Dada in Zurich returned to Berlin in 1917. Huelsenbeck found new companions, working in the Dada state of mind. The Herzfeld Brothers had founded Neue Jugend and Franz Jung, Raoul Haussmann, and Johannes Baader had founded Die Freie Strasse. In the waning year of the war Huelsenbeck was able to publish “The New Man” in Neue Jugend and moved into a leadership role of Berlin Dada.
The spring before the surrender in November of 1918, Huelsenbeck formed the Club DADA and published his own Dada Manifesto. Denouncing Futurism, he wrote,
“I was already analyzing quite clearly that the only possibility offered to Dadaism in Germany: a relativist, anti-bourgeois, anti-capitalist and activist Conception of life, of political and diplomatic intelligence, a manifesto of inquietude and energy in which art occupied only a minuscule place, which would even direct itself against art so long as art remained a profit-seeking product of a compact bourgeois class.”
By this time, Dada was an international movement, from New York to Paris to Barcelona, and Huelsenbeck wanted to demonstrate solidarity with an art form more suited to the present times. For him, Cubism and Expressionism were conservative forms of a now discredited avant-garde. Despite its ultimate importance to the visual arts, “fine art” even in Dada terms always played a minor role in what was mostly a literary movement.
Dada had always been a political movement, rejecting the prevailing mindset of patriotism and sacrifice. Dada questioned the very notion of meaning and how we, as humans, understand our world. Words and images can be manipulated and innocent people can be persuaded to take on the most outrageous enterprises, such as a Total War. Propaganda became a significant element in maintaining the war spirit and shielded the population from the truth. In the beginning of the twentieth century, few people understood the ways in which public information could be manipulated, but the German government routinely altered photographs to slant a news story more favorably. This “artful” practice did not go unnoticed by German artists who responded with the photomontage.
The most significant contribution of Berlin Dada to the visual arts was photomontage, akin to a common practice that dated as far back as the photo scrapbook. Ordinary people cut and pasted at will, long before collage, changing photographs for their own purposes, and the German army followed suit, realigning new faces onto old bodies for the purposes of publications. If “meaning” could be manipulated and changed, then “meaning” is arbitrary and it was the task of an activist and political artist (the very definition of Dada) to undermine the faith in meaning, especially the “truth” conveyed through photography. The person who claimed that he and his companion, Hannah Hoch, “invented” photomontage was Raoul Haussmann, who had met Dada artists, Huelsenbeck and Arp, through his friend, Franz Jung. In fact, what Haussmann and Hoch saw were photomontages in the window of a photographer’s shop and we should assume the claim of “invention” should mean the invention of the use of the photomontage technique as a subversion of the myth of the photograph as truth.
Both artists, Haussmann and Hoch, took up the photomontage and applied the collage practice to anti-art Dada statements. Haussmann’s Tatlin Lives at Home (1920) is a celebration of this new way of making art—putting pieces together, assembling, like an engineer, a monteur. The new role of the artist was to encounter elements at random and reassemble these parts piece by piece. Certainly the anti-art philosophy of the Russian Avant-Garde and the ideas of Vladimir Tatlin had reached Germany. For the Russian constructivists, “art,” in its bourgeois condition, was dead and the new art must approach the condition of the machine.
Combining photographs and drawings, Haussmann’s photomontage shows Tatlin as a machine. Francis Picabia and Macel Duchamp were also interested in the machine and with the idea of reducing a human to mechanics, organism to automatism. In contrast, post-War German artists rejected Expressionism, blaming its self-indulgent emotionalism for the longing for military heroism. The replacement of the fallible, easily misled human mind with a well-oiled machine is part of Haussmann’s objections to outmoded Expressionism
But it is Hannah Hoch who went beyond illustrating Dada principles—Haussmann’s practices—to acting them out in the dazzling photomontage, Cut with a Kitchen Knife Through Germany’s Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch (1919). Sometimes translated as “incision,” the “cut” could certainly refer to the act of (not)creating a photomontage, Dada Style. Unlike Haussmann’s ode to Tatlin, Hoch’s ode to the struggling Republic is complex and confusing. Devoid of perspective or ground line or unity or central focus or composition or meaning, this photomontage also undercuts the idea that a photograph is a seamless record of the reality seen through the camera’s lens. The deliberate jumble of unrelated images pulled apparently at random from the popular culture of a Germany in turmoil are not fitted together but are pasted down without consideration to making a new singular images from a collection of borrowed parts.
Hoch veers sharply away from the collages of Braque and Picasso and from the photomontages of Haussmann and the collages of Max Ernst. These artists organized their materials around a central unity or a coherent meaning. Hoch, by allowing the ground of the support to show through, reveals the inherent artificiality of art and the need of the human mind to impose meaning. The correlation between the photograph and reality is disrupted by these interjections of the ground, cutting through the jumble of photographs like a river running through the montage. Unlike Braque and Picasso’s collages, Hoch’s photomontage does not re-make language by creating a new semiotics. She deliberately disavows any semblance of meaning and any possibility of a coherent reading.
The Herzfeld Brothers, Helmut and Weiland, were deeply involved with the Berlin Dada group as left-wing writers and publishers. Helmut Herzfeld changed his name to its American version, John Heartfield, in 1915 to protest the German role in the fruitless War. Heartfield ceased the publication of Neue Jungen in 1917 but not before he became a monteur, an engineer whose photomontages mocked the bourgeois pretensions of “fine art.” Like Haussmann, Heartfield used photomontage as a tool to generate political messages that were clear and unmistakable. Heartfield was a close friend of George Gross, another dissident Dada artist who also changed his name to “Grosz” in protest against German aggression.
Of all the Dada artists, Grosz was, throughout his career in Berlin, the most confrontational towards the Weimar Republic. A Communist like Grosz, Heartfield was best known for his groundbreaking designs for the Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung and for his fearless and confrontational clash with the Nazis and Hitler in the 1930s. Thanks to his brutally sardonic photomontages of Hitler, Heartfield was forced to flee to England in 1933. It is important to make a distinction between the pointed political direction of Berlin Dada, which gives a direct role to art as a weapon against the status quo and the anti-art stance of Paris Dada. The Paris anti-art position was one of indifference, while Berlin Dada was invested in an outcome.
Although the Berlin photomontages were assembled, like engines, the (non)relationships among the disparate elements were more rhetorical than real. One can question the extent to whether or not the photomontages were the result of accident, whether certain images were discovered at random, whether some pictures were encountered by chance, because, with some of the artists, especially Heartfield, chance seems to have been replaced by choice. It is important to understand that, in general, the Dada artists “found” their “objects,” the photographic objets trouvés, and even thought of these words and images as objects per se, that is, emptying them of meaning in order to push them together in unexpected juxtaposition. Today we are so used to photomontage that we tend to see it as a given and need to remember that, in its time, the photomontages would have seemed to be a complete rejection of all pictorial conventions, mirroring the meaningless chaos of the era.
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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.