Propaganda and Art After the Russian Revolution, Part Two

Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956)

The Photomontage Poster

Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956), formally a painter, retired from painting in 1921 and became a designer of posters that became iconic of the brief period of favoritism and freedom. A patriot, loyal to this new Russia he stated, “We had visions of a new world, industry, technology, and science. We simultaneously invented and changed the world around us. We authored new notions of beauty and redefined art itself.” In 1923, he supported, in a series of posters for Lenin’s New Economic Policy. The NEP was a temporary solution to post-war recovery of production, which allowed private enterprise to exist alongside state-owned enterprises. Rodchenko, now one of the Constructivist artists, working for the good of the state, created a series of posters extolling the virtues of government production. These productions, like his film posters, were complex, reflecting the principles of an organization of artists who identified themselves as the Left Front of the Arts, of which Rodchenko was a member, along with Sergei Eisenstein and the group’s leader, poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. The artists, including a stage director and a literary theorist, published a journal LEF from 1923, which became Novyi Lef (New Left) between 1927-28, with all covers designed my Rodchenko. LEF was a response to the government requesting that artists join in with the NEP in which the contributing artists wrote of the links between progressive art and leftist politics. The roster was an impressive list of prominent Russian intellectuals and artists, from the leader, the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, stage director Vsevolod Meyerhold, and the writer Sergei Tret’iakov, who said that the artists wanted “the production of a new human being through art.” All of the artists of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath were convinced that a new way of life required new forms that expressed the sea change. By using new forms, signifiers of new ideologies which had replaced the old ways of thinking, art could send transformative messages which operated through viewer participation. Rodchenko’s posters and mass media designs were laid out with the intention of drawing the reader in and inviting him or her on a visual and ideological if not didactic message.

Rodchenko’s LEF cover

One of the most important theories for that group was that revolutionary art necessitated the participation of the spectator, meaning that the audience learned and was educated in the process of looking at visual images. Eisenstein, for example, used montage, editing, in his film, Battleship Potemkin, as effectively as Rodchenko in his posters. The breaking of the cinematic practice of sustained looking at a series of moving pictures, Eisenstein cut a scene with interacting images, speeded up into intense activity, meant to involve the viewer in his story of a Cossack massacre of innocent civilians in the 1905 uprising. The Odessa Steps sequence is still today one of the longest sustained sequences of edits, bringing a new visual vocabulary of dynamism and frenetic rhythm to a once staid medium. Although the LEF group asserted its politics as leftist avant-garde artists against the more conventional artists working for the Revolution, the work done by Rodchenko was, in its own way, humble. His designs, like the work of Eisenstein, were montages of works and images, arranged in a manner reminiscent of Futurist and Dada compositions, to extol the virtues of Soviet airplanes and Soviet cookies, charmingly named “Red October,” and Soviet caramels, amusingly named “Our Industry,” and beer. These otherwise mundane enterprises were government run and therefore, were worthy of Rodchenko’s attention.

Red October Cookie Design

Aside from the stunning packaging for caramels and the famous poster for the revolutionary cookies, his best-known poster is probably the advertisement for Lengiz state publishing house with the promise that the firm sells “books on all the branches of knowledge.” This 1925 poster for the Leningrad department of state publishing house “Gosizdat” shows a lovely fresh faced Russian worker, a young woman with a headscarf capping her short curly hair. Her hand is up to her open mouth and she is calling out, joyously. Indicating that her hand is a megaphone, a triangle of expanding letters shoots out to the right. In contrast to the usually subdued dull oranges and blacks of most his posters, Rodchenko used strong reds and greens, complementary colors that activated the eye. Toned down with a bit of blue around the front of the face, the black and white photograph of the woman nails the poster to the news of the day, to the revolutionary present. She is calling to her comrades to come and read, and, in the process, become educated by this state media agency. Education was deemed essential to the political conversion of a backward peasantry and illiterate proletariat to the new communist philosophy, meaning that literacy, teaching the population to read, was a primary goal of the Communist government. Posters, part of the broader agitprop campaigns were considered critical to the transformation of the unlettered masses to workers who felt empowered.

Rodchenko. State Publishing House

From the very early years of the new Soviet government, art was an important weapon to be wielded in the service of the perpetual revolution. The presses that had once produced books or magazines were temporarily idle while the Reds battled the Whites, meaning that mass produced posters had to speak for the Bolsheviks or the Reds. Perhaps because they were supported by the Allied forces, America, Great Britain and Canada, Whites had no comparable agitprop machinery to call upon. The Bolsheviks marshaled public support until, finally in 1921, the civil war ended, with the Red, the color of revolutions everywhere since the French Revolution, being victorious. Unlike the Whites who were fighting for a more familiar status quo, the Reds promised a new world and a new future and they had a strong message to convey. Well into the 1930s, a continuous deluge of posters, which were plastered everywhere, sent the same few messages, repeating the story of revolution and the liberation and rise of the heroic workers. Just like the basic message of the promises of Communism, the posters themselves had to share similar visual themes, all based upon the unifying color and a common art language. During the early years, before doctrinaire formula were established, the former avant-garde artists were allowed by the government authorities to experiment with the new visual vocabulary circulating in Europe—ideas from Germany and Switzerland mingling with Constructivism in Russia—recycled back to and from the Bauhaus and De Stijl. Given the destruction of the Great War, this creative flourishing was an astonishing contrast to the very real economic difficulties and the political struggles in Germany and Russia, but during the 1920s, art and ideas traveled freely across borders. Pre-war Suprematism, with Futurist-inspired floating geometric shapes darting across the canvas, developed by Kazimir Malevich, was translated into a graphic language. The abstract forms became vehicles for images and words. The population–the masses, who were the target audience for the agitprop posters needed simple words or phrases and easily recognizable images.

El Lissitzky. Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1919)

For example, one of the most powerful and impactful designs of the Civil War period, Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge of 1919, was exactly what it said: a red triangle, long and sharp shoots in from the left and, in a thrusting phallic manner, penetrates a passive white circle, carved out of the black field on the right. The artist, El Lissitzky (1890-1941), scattered words completing the design, allowing the contending shapes to imply war with shrapnel shards of red splintered across the fields of white in a barrage of color. However, easy it was for viewer familiar with avant-garde styles to translate this abstract image, an uneducated person would have been puzzled. The solution to the problem of visual translation devised by Rodchenko was to insert photographic images into what were Suprematist shapes transformed into a constructivist ideology. The photomontage traveled from Germany to Russia where it was repurposed and reused in a less radical and more direct fashion. Working as an engineer with impersonal precision at the behest of the client, the revolution, the former artist backgrounded—as it were—avant-garde styles and foregrounded familiar photographs that had the advantage of being documents and carriers of truth.

Varvana Stepanova. Through Red and White Glasses (1924)

Therefore, in contrast to his own New Vision photography, the images Rodchenko used for his posters and journal covers were conventional and easily understood, directed at a mass audience who needed direct communication. Where his posters differed from the precursors, the ROSTA wood block prints, was the rejection of Russian tradition in favor of using the German practice of political critique—the photomontage—and transforming it into a signifier of modern art being mobilized in a modern fashion for a new form of mass media. These carefully designed photomontaged posters, created to catch the eye and to be legible, used powerful combination of words, lettering and colored segments and patterns. Some of these classic propaganda posters, designed by Rodchenko’s wife Varvara Stepanova (1894-1958), were unique contributions to avant-garde poster design. Bauhaus posters tended to not include photography and the Germans used photomontage as a political weapon against the government.

Rodchenko. Poster for the film Cine-Eye (Kino glaz) by Dziga Vertov (1924)

Rodchenko’s faithful service to the Soviet Union did not help him, although he also gave his time and talents of Stalin in the 1930s. However, as the Soviet Union became more normalized, losing its revolutionary edge, the focus of the government became consolidating power under one man, while siphoning power from the “soviets” or the local councils. After the death of Lenin and the demise of the original revolutionaries, Stalin and those around him were unsympathetic to a sophisticated art that could not be easily read by the masses. Despite their contributions to Soviet art in the formative hours of the Republic, Rodchenko and Stepanova lived out the last decades of their lives, during and after the Second World War in relative obscurity. Compared to their colleagues, they were lucky.

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Photographing the Seventies: Breaking the Rules

PHOTOGRAPHY and MANIPULATION

The decades of the 1960s and 1970s are notable for a return of manipulated photography, that is, photography that is not “straight” but changed or manipulated by the artist for expressive reasons. One of the debates surrounding photography when it was invented in 1839 was whether or not it was an “art” or a mere “record.” and many of the early photographers worked hard to manipulate their images to make them look like watercolors or graphic drawings. This softened focus which was equated with art, not a machine, became a movement, called “Pictorialism.” For years darkroom manipulation played a significant role in allowing photography to be accepted as “art,” until “straight photography” of the early twentieth century redefined the “art” qualities of photography.

For over fifty years, straight photography was the prevailing approach and there was a unwritten but powerful rule that the only “serious” photography was “straight” and black and white. Then in what began as an underground gesture in the sixties, photographers began breaking these rules, using colored film and manipulating in the darkroom. There are a variety of ways to manipulate a photograph, from colored filters, used by Carrie Mae Weams, interference with the development process, seen with Lucas Samaras, and photomontage,which dates back to the nineteenth century.

Called “composite photography” by its most famous proponent, Oscar Rejlander, the final work was composed of many photographs combined into one. While Rejlander created complex photographic works of art, such as Two Ways of Life (1857), an homage to Thomas Couture’s painting, Romans During the Decadence (1847), cutting and pasting pieces of photographs was a common practice. During the nineteenth century, the photograph album played a very important role in late Victorian society. The images of family and friends were important components to bourgeois identity and the record of this social life was carefully recorded and the album was faithfully attended, usually by women. Many of these albums have survived and show that collaging family photographs were an important part of what we today would call “Scrapbooking.”

This collaging technique (then unnamed) was so common that the German government routinely adjusted the “news” with altered photographs. This practice caught the attention of the Dada artists and John Heartfield and Hannah Höch turned a way to tell a lie into a way to reveal the truth through what they called “photomontage.” But for several decades, photomontage was linked to a particular movement. Among the earliest late twentieth century artists to collage photographs together in a photomontage was Robert Heinecken and Jerry Uelsmann. Heinecken was a subversive political activist, opening using pornography (soft core) and mass media works which he simply appropriated and collaged (in the darkroom) with radically altered results. Uelsmann, in contrast, was closer to Magritte, using disparate images juxtaposed to create surreal visions.

These pioneers were indicative of new trends that were noted by influential photographic curators in The Persistence of Vision (1967), at the George Eastman House was organized by Nathan Lyons and included Jerry Uelsmann, Ray Metzker and Robert Heinecken, who was also included in Photography into Sculpture (1970) MoMA, organized by Peter Bunnell. Other exhibitions included, Collage and the Photo-Image, at MoMA, organized by Berenice Rose. These shows exhibited the works of Jerry Uelsmann, a silver printmaker (silver, referring to his method of development) of photomontages, combined superimposed images, while Southern photographer, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, produced Southern Gothic subject by the use of masks to dehumanize humans and to mystify ordinary reality with his naïve return to Surrealism.

This sudden departure from straight photography was certainly a response to the limitations of the single untouched image. These artists worked with their version of a cinematic storyboard, telling stories. Impacted by the Viet Nam War, Robert Heinecken waged guerrilla warfare against the purist aesthetic and assaulted the traditional form of photography. Many of his works are anti-war images; others are pornographic, referring to forbidden sources and to forbidden subjects in period when most artists are politically silent. Although he was supposedly a vernacular photographer, Danny Lyon was another outspoken photographer of the 1960s with his series of images of the Civil Rights era and of Southern Blacks, in chain gangs, in a Georgia prison.

Heinecken and Lyon were very engaged as artists, not with people, like the street photographers of the previous decades, but with events. Rare for artists of their era, these photographers responded to the intense and divisive politics of the Civil Rights Movement and of the Viet Nam War. Lyon shifted subtly from journalism to commentary when he became the photographer for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee as what we today would call an “embed.” A (Jewish) photographer from New York, Lyon devoted his career to outlaws (motorcycle gangs) and prisoners and the discarded peoples of America and became famous for his moving and jolting images of the struggles for equality. His partisan and partial stance broke the rules of “objectivity” laid down by the documentary photographers of the thirties and forties.

Heinecken’s most famous works was an intervention: he took a horrific photograph of an American soldier carrying the severed head of a soldier from North Viet Nam. This war crime, which was a metaphor for the questionable legality of the war itself, was hidden under the constant barrage of propaganda of “progress” coming from the American military at the time. Heinecken, in his turn, beheaded the American soldier and gave him a new head, the smiling face of a fashion model. This composite photograph was then superimposed onto the pages of selected fashion magazines, which were then replaced on the shelves of the store. We know nothing of the reception of the fashionistas who, in search of the latest trends, would have come across this bizarre image.

These photographers led the way into the future and the result of their manipulations and their commentary on contemporary life can be seen in digital photography in the twenty-first century. Duane MIchals, like Robert Heinecken, was an isolated loner, breaking the rules. He was one of the first photographer to “stage” photography, operating in what was later called “the directorial mode.” Michals worked with actors, whom he directed in small and enigmatic mini-dramas, often narrated over several images in sequence augmented with accompanying texts. In addition, Michals manipulated many of his images, allowing him to recreate psychological and spiritual states in his reanimating of Surrealism.

Photography in the seventies was transitional, going away from one long held set of positions and moving toward another approach: that of examining the nature of photography and its supposed relation to “truth.” The result of the rule breaking and rejection of photography-as-truth in this decade was a schism between past and future. A line in the sand had been crossed and that line was the distance between Modernism and Postmodernism. Just as it was impossible to paint with conviction, it became impossible to believe that photography was anything but a subjective art form. In this post, the rule-breakers were discussed, in the next post, conceptual photography in the postmodern mode will be examined.

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Comparison of Dada and Surrealism

DADA AND SURREALISM

1916-1920

1924-1939

Although Surrealism supposedly grew out of or outgrew Dada in Paris, the two movements come from very different time periods and cultural contexts. Dada was a wartime movement, founded in the midst of an international slaughter of young men, led by a deluded and incompetent class of elites. Although the Dada artists advertised themselves as being “anti-art,” the exiles in Zurich were against traditional art and its vaunted ideals. Far from being opposed to the basic idea of art, the Dada artists strove to find new ways to make new art in a new ways.

Being deliberately anti-authoritarian, Dada could not, by definition, have leaders. The movement had spokespersons but no one took a position of guidance. Aside from philosophy, Dada artists scattered across Europe after the Great War ended. None of the many centers of Dada had a leader and Dada, perhaps as a result, dissolved in a few years into other movements. Surrealism had a leader, indeed, a “Pope,” André Breton. It was possible for Surrealism to be led simply because the group was self-contained in Paris. Breton was somewhat iron-fisted for a leader of an avant-garde movement, expelling members who displeased him, but he held the group together for twenty years, an astonishing longevity.

The lack of deference to commanders of any kind on the part of Dada came directly out of a world un-made by the Great War. As Robert L. Herbert pointed out in “The Arrival of the Machine: Modernist Art in Europe,” the Great War brought about a belated acceptance of modern technology. After this war, the artists reacted to machines as benign and beneficent. Le Corbusier called the home “a machine for living.” But Dada’s swerve to impersonal means of making art could be linked to the way in which impersonal machines were killing young people at random. Chance and randomness decided the fate of civilians and soldiers alike—all were at the mercy of a cultural clash between Old World notions of heroism and New World technology. There is a defiance and anger to Dada practices that links the artists and their attitudes to the War.

Surrealism, on the other hand, emerged in a decade of peace and prosperity. The wounds left behind by the War were either ignored—as in the neglect of the surviving veterans—or celebrated—as in the erections of many memorials. Surrealism is essentially a cerebral retreat of survivors who do not want to look back. The Surrealist poets, writers, and visual artists stage an psychological retreat from reality, either past or present, and seek what the late poet, Guillaume Apollinaire, called “sur-reality,” or a realism outside and beyond perceived reality. The regressive nature of Surrealism could be understood as healing and reconstructive, replacing an aggressive and public voice with a private exploration into the recesses of the unconscious. Dada was inherently reality-based and overtly political. Surrealism, on the other hand, shifted away from an oppositional stance towards a more theoretical position.

The extent to which the Surrealist artists understood the theories of Sigmund Freud is debatable but their interest in Freud should be distinguished from Dada’s anti-rational stance. Although Surrealism supposedly celebrated the irrational, their ideas were based upon Freud’s very rational model of the human mind, bisected into the conscious and the unconscious mind and mapped into the id, the ego, and the superego. Surrealism also rejected the Dada disgust with self-indulgent expressionism but returning to individual vision, but the site of this vision was the untapped unconscious mind. In contrast to the deliberately disruptive and antagonistic tactics of the Dada artists, the Surrealists sought what they called “the Marvelous,” or that magically unexpected encounter when the ordinary suddenly became extraordinary.

Dada and Surrealism were both movements of writers and poets, with visual artists as being part of the larger intellectual group, but in Surrealism the artists were somewhat less innovative than those in the Dada movement. Paul Delvaux and Salvador Dali and René Magritte all painted in a very traditional manner, using old-fashioned techniques and subverting realism by painting dreams as if they were real. That said, both movements work with Chance. Dada’s use of chance was radical, a complete giving over of the artist to the oxymoronic “laws” of happenstance. Whether it is throwing pieces of paper to (not)create a collage by chance or assembling random word and reconvening them as poetry, Dada artists were anarchic when it came to giving up the creative thought process for process itself. In contrast, Surrealist artists deployed a variety of games, from automatic writing or the exquisite corpse, to approach chance from another position.

The Surrealist poets and artists sought a new way of writing “automatically,” without conscious control and a new way of finding unexpected images or ideas that would occur with collective group contributions. One could use the term “objective chance” to characterize and distinguish Surrealism because these artists use the already there, the already seen and then de-familiarizes the familiar through juxtaposition and metamorphosis. Note that the Dada photomontage may have used the technique of putting one randomly found image next to another, but the intent was to undermine meaning. Surrealism seeks new meaning, another meaning, an unexpected meaning, a sur-real meaning, but always, Surrealism wants live to mean something. And here it the crucial difference between Dada and Surrealism. For Dada, life has no meaning, no reason, no purpose, and no logic. For Surrealism, life has meaning; one has to find its logic by unlocking visual and verbal codes secreted in the chambers of the unconscious mind where one finds Freud’s “uncanny.”

The Found Object, or the oject trouvé, was the special domain of Marcel Duchamp who was preceded the Dada artists in his rejection of traditional art. Duchamp’s appropriation of anonymous factory made items was narrow and programmatic to his specific intentions, but the Surrealists were more open to the found object. Like Duchamp, the Surrealists bent the concept of a supposedly ordinary item to their own purposes, which was the search for the “Marvelous.” For Duchamp, the found object was “encountered” randomly and viewed with detachment and indifference, but for the Surrealists, the found object was the object of passion. Indeed, the object was poetic; implying a metaphor, indicating the item in question meant more or something else—-“the Marvelous.”

Duchamp’s rigorous intellectualism was hermetic but because of the theory of the “talking cure” based on hearing clues and reading codes, Surrealism expected audience participation. Duchamp himself had no aesthetic intentions, even when he “assisted” or “rectified” his Readymades, but the Surrealists returned to the aestheticism of art, making desirous and desiring works to be looked at and into. Although inherently conservative, Surrealism dominated the Parisian art scene until the next war broke out, scattering the already dated movement to distant shores where, like Dada, Surrealism would find a different and new destiny. As André Breton said, “Surrealism existed before me, and I firmly believe it will survive me.”

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Dada and Photomontage

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.

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