Design in the Weimar Republic: Photomontage and Photo Essays

THE CONSTRUCTION OF INFORMATION

The PhotoEssay in the Weimar Republic

In 1919 Austrian artist Raoul Haussmann (1886-1971) found an image in the Berlin Illustrated News (Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung), a seemingly innocuous photographic portrait of the defense minister (Reichswehrminister) of the newly formed Weimar Republic, Gustav Noske. The Noske photograph, a man in a suit seated in an ordinary chair, became the placeholder for Haussmann’s Dada interventions. The head was removed and replaced with an assemblage of machine parts and the torso, the shirt front, was cut away and replaced by an anatomical illustration of the human lungs, covered in brachial tubes circulating air. Noske, himself, was a particularly unsavory character, certainly deserved the dismemberment. On the surface, he was ordinary enough, a man who could vanish into a crowd, anonymous. The jowls of Noske were drooping, his wavy hairline receding, his uninteresting face distinguished by a small short mustache, like the one Hitler grew, and a pair of round spectacles. In other words, his was a face tailor-made for the Dada artist to photomontage into mechanical oblivion.

Gustav Noske (1868-1946)

But Noske was also an excellent target for Haussmann who, like his colleagues was left wing and sympathetic to the causes of socialism and communism. Noske was a member of the Social Democratic Party, the party in power, and he protected the newly formed Republic from an outbreak of rebellions in January of 1919. This month, barely two months after the Armistice was signed was one of unrest, food shortages, deflating currency, lack of food and fuel, and a lively two-day meeting of the Communist Party of Germany ended. But the match that lit the streets on fire was the refusal of the Berlin police chief to resign. His supporters sprang to his defense and the Spartacist Group, rose up to oust the recalcitrant leader of the police. Arising against the government like Spartacus led the slave revolt, battling the Roman Empire, the Spartacist movement, led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, was a workers’ party, dedicated to installing a Russian style revolution in Germany. Starting on January 5th, Bloody Week gravely threatening the future of the Republic and events spiraled out of control. The revolutionaries could not agree as to what to do next, and the government called for volunteer army veterans to defend it. The President of the Republic, Friedrich Ebert, ordered the revolt to be put down and Noske was able to organize a paramilitary right-wing organization called the Freikorps, more soldiers, to quell the unrest in the streets. It is important to note that the Army itself never surrendered, only the German government signed the relevant documents, and, as a result, the military was no friend to the government. In fact, there were mutinies at the sea ports, and sailors and soldiers were a free-ranging danger that also needed to be dealt with. However, the Freikorps was eager and willing to fight for whatever cause or reason that gave it the opportunity to display aggression, and it went about its business with efficient brutality.

Raoul Haussman. Self-Portrait of the Dadasoph (1920)

The leader of the Freikorps was none other than Gustav Noske. Noske installed searchlights and swept the streets of Berlin at night, searching out anyone violating his curfew. Armed with military equipment, field guns, howitzers, machine guns, hand grenades, and trench mortars, the Freikorps retook the buildings seized by the Spartacists and their worker allies, mowed down street demonstrators, ending the Week with the blood that gave the days of rage their definitive name. Noske gave his demobilized “soldiers” equipment for hand-to-hand fighting and positioned his regiments to turn machine guns the protesters on Linden Boulevard. For a left wing inclined artist, such as Haussmann, the defense minister was a particularly unpleasant character–willing to deploy thugs to quash a peoples’ rebellion. By January 13th, the Spartacists and their leaders are in hiding. But the Freikorps tracked down Liebknecht and Luxemburg and dragged them back to the authorities. Somehow they were both murdered. The body of Liebknecht was “delivered” to the morgue with bullet holes in is forehead, and, five months later, the body of Luxemburg surfaced from the Landwehr Canal, where it had been dumped. On the 24th, a public funeral was held for the leaders and the nearly forty other members of the Group. The government moved to Weimar, out of reach of any further uprisings. This horrible ending to a doomed uprising would not be forgotten, either by militant nationalists, like the Freikorps, which would soon be replaced by the Nazis, or the vanquished, the German Communists. The days of Noske were numbered. After another uprising a year later in March of 1920, the Kapp Putsch, the defense minister was removed from power.

George Grosz. In Memory of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht (1919)

In the midst of street protests, the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung or BIZ, as it was known, continued to publish, just as it had since 1892. The publication was the first to inform its readers of current events, not through words, but through pictures, creating the photo-essay. The photo-essay became the standard means of conveying the news to the general public which might want an easier and more legible way to keep up with events, without plowing through rows of gray print, marching up and down tall newspaper pages. The layout was unique for the time, combining photographs and a text which explained the images, foregrounding the picture and its entertainment value over an in-depth study of current events. The editor during the 1920s, Kurt Korff, stated that “Life has become more hectic and the individual has become less prepared to peruse a newspaper in leisurely reflection. Accordingly, it has become necessary to find a keener and more succinct form of pictorial representation that has an effect on readers even if they just skim through the pages. The public has become more and more used to taking in world events through pictures rather than words.”

Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung layout

BIZ remained apolitical, a wise course during the Weimar Republic, but its appearance of normal times in the midst of political and quasi-military demonstrations laid it open to critique. The power of these periodicals–and by the 1920s most of the large German cities had an illustrated news publication during the Weimar Republic–was enormous. The illustrated news outlets were accessible and omnipresent and read by everyone in Germany. This media proved to be a bonanza for German photographers who suddenly had an outlet for work as photojournalists. In the late twenties, Erich Salomon concealed his Ermanox and photographed diplomats conferring and trials deliberating. Felix Man showed a typical day in the life of an up and coming dictator, Benito Mussolini. In his book, The Photography of Crisis: The Photo Essays of Weimar Germany, Daniel H. Magilow noted that the combination of photos and text was not necessarily new in the 1920s but these publications “used photographs in new ways–in novel essayistic forms that did more than just illustrate the text. As sites of political debate changed, so too did the forms in which those struggles unfolded.” The photo essay was, Magilow asserted, characterized by “the sequencing or arrangements of photographs to tell stories, make arguments, communicate ideas, elicit narratives, evoke allegories, and persuade listeners to accept new ways of seeing and thinking had accompanied the medium since its origins in the early nineteenth century.” The photo-essay took a novelistic approach, and, in doing so, assumed a power over the story and over the images, turning the photographs from unique images to “film stills” in the service of the words. Like a mini-novel or short story, the photo essays followed a traditional structure of beginning, middle, and end, or beginning, crisis, and resolution. Life does not wrap itself up in such a neat and convenient fashion and the dramatic format, driven by the need to entertain the reader and to retain her attention could shape the “news” in profound ways.

Raoul Haussmann. Dada Siegt (1920)

This new power for the mass media meant that, for the Dada artists who used photomontage, the illustrated news magazines were ripe targets. The carefully non-political stance during the Weimar Republic maintained by the publications would have been difficult, perhaps shifting the slant, or the kind of stories published, towards the conventional or status quo outcome, while skipping over the unsavory aspects of a Republic under siege by crosswinds. That said, the Dada artists and the illustrated news magazines shared something in common: they both lived in the present, or a mental and cultural phenomenon called “presentism” by Maria Stavrinaki in her book, Dada Presentism: An Essay on Art and History. She quoted Raoul Haussmann saying, “The Dada person recognizes no past which might tie him down. He is held up by the living present, by his existence.” Being published daily, the news magazine, such as BIZ, had to make the most of the present, today. The people of Germany were also forced to live in the present: the past was one one of shame and defeat, the present was unpleasant and uncertain, and the future seemed grim. There was nothing to look back to and little reason to ahead into the future. There was only the present. The Dada artists, reveling in the moment, lacking any interest in making “universal” art or art that would appeal to the ages, pounced upon the pages of BIZ with their scissors and razor blades. Tearing into the neatly arranged layouts, disrupting the flow of the story, removing characters from the novel, excising certain words and phrases, the Dada artists, especially the leading photomontage engineers, Hannah Höch and Raoul Haussmann, dismembered the plot lines as succinctly as a surgeon would carve into a body.

Hannah Höch. Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany (1920)

Dada collages or photomontages are usually assumed to be meaningless or random, but, if as Stavrinaki stated, they are evidence of “presentism” then each melange has a meaning or multiple meanings. True, unlike its arch enemy, the photo-essay, the photomontage has no center or unity or organization, but its copious surplus does not indicate that absence of meaning. Those scholars, who have painstakingly investigated the images used and the words cut out, have uncovered meanings, plural. Hannah Höch, in a neat twist, actually worked for the Ullstein Press, a publishing empire that owned BIZ, and collected photographs from her employer, using them for her photomontages. In The Visual Arts in Germany 1890-1937: Utopia and Despair, Shearer West wrote that Cut with the Kitchen Knife is replete with references to both Wilhelmine Society and Weimar culture, and it includes hundreds of photographs carefully juxtaposed for ironic or satirical effect. To make her satire most effective, Höch included mechanical illustrations, architecture, words cut out from newspapers, animals and photographs of over 50 individuals, many of them recognizable. The odd title of the work outlines its agenda. Höch chose the image of a “kitchen knife” as a way of giving herself, as a woman, the power to expose the male-dominated society of Weimar Germany. She metaphorically used a domestic implement to cut open the ‘beer belly culture’ of Weimar. Beer, both a German drink and an integral part of male society, was chosen as a way of emphasizing the bloated and heavy quality of German militarism; the word ‘culture’ (Kultur) is used in its fullest sense to indicate the society’s whole artistic, political, and educational profile.” West gave a partial list of what was a cast of thousands, divided into “Dada” and “anti-Dada” sections that included Ebert, Hindenberg, Noske, Wilhelm II, Crown Prince William of Prussia, and Haussmann, Grosz, Baader Herzfelde, and herself, also bringing in Marx and Lenin.

Vast, on its own terms, this impressive photomontage dwarfed those of her male counterparts, but its debut in 1920 at the Dada Messe in Berlin was its last appearance for decades. Höch, in her own time, was not considered significant to the movement (she was a woman) and had so little importance in the mind of Richard Huelsenbeck (1892-1974) that he failed to include her in his book on Dada. He declared Dada in Berlin to be “dead” in 1920, and Höch drifted away from the non-movement. Cut with the Kitchen Knife, over-sized and fragile, was kept in her studio, while she showed more up to date photo-collages, in other words, their content was timely and contemporary to the exhibition in question. For her, Cut with the Kitchen Knife was not of the “present.” In Objects as History in Twentieth-century German Art: Beckmann to Beuys, Peter Chametzky wrote of all the exhibitions in which she participated. She sent the photomontage, Cut with the Kitchen Knife, to none of them. As Chametzky said, Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada’s close association with Berlin Dada may have made Höch see it as dated.” By 1961, Chametzky reported, after the photomontage was purchased by the Berlin National Gallery, “she feared people would not spend enough time looking at it or know enough about Berlin in 1919-20 and Berlin Dada’s mission to appreciate its complex references and technique.” It seems clear that the Dada montages were making deliberate political statements about the now, and that their destructive techniques–cutting, disrupting, destroying continuity and flow–were deliberate counter-measures, designed to undercut their sources, the illustrated mass media. As revolutionaries, the Berlin Dada attacked the present, tearing its smug stories into pieces and re-presenting the carefully chosen images and selected words in chaotic anti-compositions without centers. If we accept Richard Huelsenbeck’s claim in his 1920 book, The History of Dadaism, that the movement ended with his book, then Dada in Berlin was part of one of the worst years in the history of Weimar Republic. The photomontages were, in their own way, a form of “news,” always new, always pertinent, but never laid out in easy linear narratives. Parasitic upon the enemy host, illustrated news, the Berlin photomontages robbed photo essays of their claims to truth and exposed the existing turmoil of the real world by a strategy of invade and disarrange.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]

German Artists in the Aftermath of the Great War, Part One

AFTER THE GREAT WAR

Artists in Germany:

George Grosz and John Heartfield in Dada

Georg Groß was so horrified at the idea of doing his patriotic duty for the Kaiser and country that he went quite mad. The idea of descending into the hellish landscape of what would be called “The Great War” was unsupportable and he proved to be a man who could not be turned into a soldier. Faced with the choice of shooting him or releasing him, the German Army eventually released the artist. In his biography, written in the 1950s, the artist, who renamed himself as “George Grosz” to shake off his German identity, recalled his militaristic Prussian upbringing in Pomerania. His school years were laced with beatings, or what Grosz called ‘the approved principles of education,” and, predictably he was expelled from his school. Along the way, he gathered up a catch-as-catch-can education as an artist in Dresden, Berlin, and Paris. These adventures of a young man were interrupted by the War. “..my fate had made an artist of me, not a soldier. The effect the war had on me was totally negative.” Instead of being flooded with the so-called enthusiasm or steeled by a sense of duty, Grosz was filled with disgust. He wrote, “Belief? Ha! In what? In German heavy industry, the great profiteers? In our illustrious generals? Our beloved Fatherland?” He continued, “What I saw filled me with disgust and contempt for people.” These sentiments of distaste for humanity would guide the attitudes and art of George Grosz for the rest of his life.

Like many young men, Grosz had enlisted, but he quickly turned against the War, which, after a promising beginning quickly devolved into a stalemate. Like many of these young men, he had interrupted his new career as an artist, cobbled together from studies in Dresden at the Art Academy, a school that was part of the Museum of Applied Arts in Berlin, and a stay in Paris. From these solid beginnings in art schools, Grosz honed his abilities as an observer, carrying a sketchbook with him, jotting down all that caught his quick eye. As one might expect of a young man, who had been expelled from school, the military life did not agree with him. The tumultuous years in uniform were paused when Grosz was sent on a leave or a furlough in 1916. It is at this time that he met his lifelong friend and artistic collaborator, Helmut Herzfeld who would change his name that year to “John Heartfield” to protest the war machine. Heartfield and his brother Wieland Herzfelde (who later added the letter “e” on the end) were admirers of the left-wing pacifists, Karl Liebknecht, leader of the Spartacus League, and Rosa Luxemburg, political figures, who were later murdered during the uneasy post-war Weimar Republic. As a follower of these leaders, Heartfield also became a pacifist, and he and Grosz were united in their hatred of German nationalism, which was being pushed forward to justify the war and to bolster the “spirit of ’14.” After Georg became “George” and Groß became “Grosz,” both Heartfield and Grosz found new identities as political artists and as social critics. But being against the war did not prevent Grosz being recalled to the Army, and his reactions to confinement within the military structure became more intense. The Army put him in a military mental asylum, but Grosz was rescued from a firing squad by Count Harry Kessler, an important supporter of avant-garde art. The artist was finally discharged in 1917, declared to be “permanently unfit.”

Having seen too much of the War and its grotesque horrors, Grosz was filled with rage. This intense anger permeated his early paintings, which look like circles of Hell as imagined by Dante. The paintings glow as if populated with fiery coals glowing in a swirling darkness of fear. Structures collapse into a reddened center, a glowing vortex that sucks everything into its baleful center. Explosion was typical of the paintings Grosz made during the War depicting cities in chaos, desperate people, running for their lives, as though he fantasized the consequences of the conflict that Germany began being visited upon the people who supported the Kaiser and his aggressive invasion of Belgium and France. Ironically, Germany would never be invaded during the Great War; its capital would remain untouched, and yet the war was lost. The self-imposed task of Grosz was to shake off the remnants of Expressionism and take up a more precise style, devoid of emotion, better suited to the shock of defeat and humiliation and the consequences of ill-starred War.

George Grosz. Explosion (1917)

After the War ended, Grosz who was primarily a drawer, more comfortable with pen and ink than with brush and paint, joined a like-minded group of artists as angry as he, inspired by the Dada phenomenon in Zurich. Berlin Dada, like all of the Dada movements, was short-lived but provided an important post-war outlet that allowed German artists to react to the difficulties of adjusting to being defeated after a long and grinding war. The city had been abandoned by the government, which fled the turmoil of competing factions, from unemployed soldiers, dangerous Freikorps, and Communists seeking their chance to seize control of the vacuum left by the abdication of the Kaiser. The government moved out of range of the street violence and settled into the small town of Weimar, hoping to stabilize a nation stunned and starving. As was pointed out in earlier posts, the Kaiser’s regime had systematically lied to the people, who were convinced, despite the fact that they were beings starved by the blockade of their coast by the Royal Navy, they were winning. Once the truth of the failure of the last-ditch Ludendorff Offensive, thought to be a success, came to light, and the army collapsed and the navy mutinied, the German people were shocked. By the time Berlin Dada came together, the German people were living under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, a punitive document which would cripple the recovery of the nation. The Weimar government could not cope with the needs of the desperate citizens, and it seemed that the only people who had come out of the war unscathed were the war profiteers.

As Dada artist, Richard Huelsenbeck, pointed out, “There is a difference between sitting quietly in Switzerland and bedding down on a volcano, as we did in Berlin.” John Heartfield and George Grosz had created a unique and potent weapon to critique the failures of Germany–the photomontage–a combination of collaged images and typography, appropriated lettering. Later Grosz said that the pair had “..invented photomontage in my South End studio at five o’clock on a May morning in 1916, neither of us had any inkling of its great possibilities, nor of the thorny yet successful road it was to take. As so often happens in life, we had stumbled across a vein of gold without knowing it.”

Grosz and Heartfield. Page Four from Neue Jugen (New Youth) (June 1917)

There has been a dispute over who “invented” photomontage, Raoul Hausmann and Hannah Höch or Heartfield and Grosz, but the practice of altering photographs had been practiced by the German propaganda machine to falsify information and to mislead the public. The Dada artists were merely taking up a practice of lies and using it to tell unpleasant truths. The mood was anti-personal and anti-expressionist. Cutting and pasting from anonymous sources and turning the media against itself suited the purposes of the Dada artists in Berlin. Heartfield, for example, considered himself to be an engineer and called himself “monteur.” In his 2012 book, John Heartfield and the Agitated Image: Photography, Persuasion, and the Rise of Avant-Garde Photomontage, Andrés Mario Zervigón referred to what he termed the “agitated image” produced by Heartfield in which the photomontages, composed of borrowed photographs, which were assumed to be tellers of the truth, but, under the Kaiser’s government, were forced to tell lies. The collaborations of Heartfield and Grosz produced photomontages as vehicles for a trenchant criticism of a social system in a meltdown. The two years between their collaborative work at their journal and the Dada collage ironically titled “Sunny Land,” shows a significant growth and development of their play with images and text. The early sprawl has coalesced into coherence, which is expressed with a chaotic assemblage.

Grosz and Heartfield. Sonniges Land (1919)

There is an intensity of frantic motion in the joint work of the collaborating artists that was absent from the more structured and legible work of Haussmann and the sense of “agitation” is approached only occasionally by Höch. Life and Times in Universal City at 12.05 Noon, 1919 on the left and Dada-merika on the right are dense and thick with layered dis-ease, symptomatic of a struggling Republic. As Heartfield warned, as a Dada artist, he was prepared to go to war with “..scissors and cut out all that we require from paintings and photographic representations.”

Even though Grosz and Heartfield both worked with photomontage in the early years of the Weimar Republic, their paths would diverge. Heartfield would remain with his collage critiques, becoming the consummate gadfly on the government, and Grosz would torment the authorities with cruel caricatures of a German people at their worst. Violence is always lurking beneath the surface of the works by the Dada artists in the 1920s, and as the installation of the First Dada Messe in Berlin in 1920 suggested, the rage had become an internalized attitude deliberately created by the military which taught its soldiers to kill and maim. No matter how much Grosz and his Dada colleagues mocked the Prussian mentality, the artists who returned from the battlefield had absorbed the lessons provided in the trenches. It is possible that today these suffering souls would be diagnosed as with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, whether or not they had seen active service. The entire nation was reeling from a severe blow and was uncertain of its future, and even the past had suddenly become unknowable. The grounds for truth had been dissolved and with it a possible historical discourse that would allow the country to come to terms with its fate. In light of the condition of Germany in 1920, the use of the word “Fair” to describe the assaulting exhibition in a Berlin gallery owned by Dr. Otto Burchard (an unlikely host, given that he was an expert in Song Chinese ceramics) was entirely mocking. A less joyous environment could hardly be imagined. Despite the obvious rebellious aspects to the exhibition, the show had a very respectable catalog with a cover by John Heartfield and the text written by Heartfield and his brother, Hertzfelde. The introduction named George Grosz as the “Marshal,” Haussmann the “Dadasopher” and Heartfelt the “Monteurdada.”

The invitation to the Messe was hardly welcoming, stating that “The Dadaistic person is the radical opponent of exploitation; the logic of exploitation creates nothing but fools, and the Dadaistic person hates stupidity and loves nonsense! Thus, the Dadaistic person shows himself to be truly real, as opposed to the stinking hypocrisy of the patriarch and to the capitalist perishing in his armchair.”

All of the major artists of Berlin Dada were present at the opening of the provocative Messe. The earlier presentation of Dada works in Cologne, Dada Vorfrühling, which had forced the attendees to step over a urinal placed at the entrance, set the nihilistic tone. The exhibition was a deliberate parody of a decorous academic art salon with the crowded and disorderly dis-arrayed works of art covering walls peppered with phrases about Dada–“Nieder die Kunst,” “Dilettanten, erhebt euch gegen die Kunst.” However, as Weiland Herzfelde explained in his “Introduction to the First International Art Fair,” the show of “Dada products” was also an attack on the art market, with the intent of jolting the public’s idea of “taste” as the reliable guide to purchase, even though all of the “products” (Erzeugnisse)were for sale.

Hausmann and Höch, who is sitting down, chatting with Dr. Burchard, while Baader, Herzfelde, Margarete Herzfelde, Schmallhausen face the opposite direction on the right and George Grosz sits with his with hat and cane near Heartfield

One of the most unexpected “products” was a “sculpture” titled Prussian Archangel, with a placard reading, “I come from Heaven, from Heaven on high.” The “on high” referred not to heaven but to the ceiling and, to the audience, the words would have been familiar, coming from a well-known German Christmas carol. The sign dangling from the Angel’s uniform was a solider’s complaint: “In order to understand this work of art completely, one should drill daily for twelve hours with a heavily packed knapsack in full marching order in the Tempelhof Field,” and the pig’s snout on the face of the officer was an act of contempt by former soldiers. The “sculptors,” John Heartfield and Rudolf Schlichter had succeeded in indicting the Prussian mindset as being responsible for the deliberate slaughter on the battlefields. A recreation of the floating sculpture can only approximate the effect upon the public which had been taught to revere the military. The reverence allowed the leaders themselves to elide the blame for the loss of the Great War and point a finger at those who had stabbed the army in the back–the Jews.

The Weimar authorities, as might be expected, were not amused by the artistic antics, and the artists were charged with defaming one of the few intact institutions left after the War, the German military. The artists were eventually acquitted but they were hardly the only ones to criticize the military and its post-war conduct. After the War, the soldiers, who had fought for their Kaiser and their nation, were abandoned by the people. Disabled veterans, human soldiers who had been changed to cyborgs, could be seen everywhere on the streets, begging. Otto Dix, a decorated soldier, was on hand with a painting that subsequently disappeared, War Cripples (45% Fit for Service) one of four paintings the artist executed featuring newly mechanized bodies in 1920. George Grosz and John Heartfield also contributed their recreation of the new unnatural beings with an assemblage of manufactured parts. The name of this sculpture, reconstructed in 1988 as part of a larger reconstruction of the original Messe is long and arduous: Der wildgewordene Spiesser Heartfield. Elektro-mecanische Tatlin-Plastik (Le Petit Bourgeois Heartfield devenu fou. Sculpture Tatline électro-mécanique). Like the painting by Dix, this object was completed in 1920 and in English means, The Middle-Class Philistine Heartfield Gone Wild (Mechanical Tatlin Sculpture.) In keeping with the primitive means with which wounded men were reconstructed, the humanoid was re-made of a tailor’s dummy, a revolver, a doorbell, a knife, a fork, the letter “C” and the number “27” sign, plaster dentures, an embroidered insignia of the Black Eagle Order on a horse blanket, an Osram light bulb, the Iron Cross, stand or a base for the mannequin, and what is described as “other objects.”

Working alone, Grosz produced a photomontage with a similar theme, a man turned into a mechanical apparatus in the frantic efforts to put the scattered pieces of shattered people together again.

George Grosz. Remember Uncle August, the Unhappy Inventor. Ein Opfer der Gesellschaft (1919)

The “Unhappy Inventor” referred to the defaced oil portrait of Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the Weimar Republic. The reconstruction/deconstruction of the President referred to the impossibility of holding competing factions together. As the head of the Social Democrats under the Kaiser, Ebert attempted to support the government but his party did not have enough power to force Germany to negotiate a peace and avoid a terrible defeat. During the War, the competing parties, including Ebert’s own and the Catholic Center Party and the Democratic (or Progressive) Party joined to form the Black-Red-Gold coalition in reference to the colors of the flag flown during the failed liberal revolutionary uprising of 1848. After the War Ebert established a coalition government of which he was the president, but the foundations of this fragile unity were unstable. The Communists had peeled off years earlier, and Prussia refused to join the new Germany, while the Freikorps organized to defeat the Communists. The Weimar Republic, then, was put together as precariously as a photomontage, without a strong center to hold the factions together. The Black-Red-Gold union was defeated in 1920, a year after Grosz completed the “portrait” that predicted the internal disunion of a collaged and dismembered government. The government, the society and the culture of Germany that gave violent birth to Berlin Dada was chopped up, amputated, and pieced together with tenuous joints.

Otto Dix. War Cripples (45% Fit for Service) (1920)

In examining the complete context of the early years of the Weimar Republic, during which the pieced together soldier now the detritus of a lost War, was all too present, it becomes obvious that there is a connection between the emergence of photomontages and the cyborg that had come to inhabit Berlin. As Matthew Brio pointed out in The Dada Cyborg. Visions of the New Human in Weimar Berlin, the word “cyborg” did not exist in 1920 but the concept of “..the cyborg as a figure of modern hybrid identity, was central to the practices of the Berlin Dada artists.” He continued, “Thus, when the Berlin Dadaists presented the cyborg as representing a new form of hybrid modern “identity,” they were influenced by a wide variety of conceptual systems already in place in their culture that modeled subjectivity as cyborgian, that is, as systematic, constructed, and mutable. Although the theoretical systems that various cultural practitioners cited in their works were different (as were their degrees of access to the same cultural systems), they were all fundamentally engaged with reimagining what it meant to be human in the modern world.” In this new world, a Germany without a modern identity, men without their original bodies, lacking a wholeness and offered only an incomplete hybridity, the bits and pieces of photos, and the montages of words and blizzards of letters were the legible entities of the Weimar Republic.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]

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.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]thistoryunstuffed.com

 

Dada and the Great War

DADA: 1916 – 1922

History of Dada

“In Zurich in 1915, losing interest in the slaughterhouse of the world war, we turned to the Fine Arts. While the thunder of the batteries rumbled in the distance, we pasted, we recited, we versified, we sang with all out soul, we searched for an elementary art that would, we thought, save mankind from the furious folly of these times.”

Hans (Jean) Arp, from Alsace-Lorraine

Founded the midst of the Great War, Dada was an anti-movement movement dedicated to anti-art. Dada as one of its founders, Tristan Tzara explained, “is nothing, nothing, nothing. Everything is Dada.” He elaborated: “The beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of art but the beginnings of disgust.” Dada cannot be understood without understanding the context of a war that was destroying the fabric of a social and political system that had existed for hundreds of years. The last of the Empires were disintegrating and an entire generation of young men lay dead on the battlefields of Belgium and France. With the dead lay the end of hope and faith. The disillusioned young generation felt that it had been lied to. They had been promised that war would be a grand and glorious adventure, over in a few months but with ample opportunities for heroism.

But the Great War was a psychological catastrophe. With cultural myths and norms undermined, a certain segment of the population simply refused to participate in what seemed to be a monstrous waste of human beings, all at the the whims of would-be despots. It wasn’t just the entire nation of Russia that dropped out of this War; it was also the intelligentsia. True, some artists and writers served bravely, such as Georges Braque, some even died, like Wilfred Owen, but others went into exile. Dada was composed of artists in exile, in nations that were either safe, like America, or neutral, like Switzerland and Spain. German artists, who were horrified at the slaughter on the Western Front founded Dada in Europe. One by one came to Zurich to express their disgust with the twentieth century and came together by 1916.

The first to arrive in 1915 were the husband and wife theatrical team, Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings. Ball, a German, had worked in the theater in Berlin where he had met Richard Huelsenbeck. In February of 1916, the pianist founded Cabaret Voltaire at No. 1 Spieglgasse, an entertainment district of the city. Although the Russian exile, Vladimir Lenin lived across the street in Number 12, the Swiss authorities were more suspicious of the growing group of anarchic artists, including visual artists, Hans (Jean) Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, writers Richard Huelsenbeck, Hans Richter, Tristan Tzara, and Marcel Janco, than they were of an exiled Russian rabble-rouser.

In the beginning this group was a literary organization without organization or a leader. Borrowing strategies from the Futurists, the Dadaists provoked and assaulted their bourgeois audience, even copying the idea of Luigi Russolo’s famous noise-organ—make noise, not music. The artists treated their public to a form of bruitism—cow bells, bells, drums, etc. and granted them simultaneous readings of poems “composed” for the noise of multiple voices used as instruments. The writers also borrowed the Futurist concept that language had to be rewritten and literature had to be interrogated to reveal its inherent meaningless. Ball, who had been impacted by the ideas of Kandinsky in Munich, wanted to use his performances to create a total work of art, gesamtkunstwerk, connecting music, literature, and art and, of course, life itself into an overall theatrical experience.

Defining Dada

In its attempt to merge life and art and to dissolve the boundaries that kept art separate, Dada could best be described as a state of mind. The first two years in Zurich were marked by experimentation and play, but the group was altered by the arrival in 1918 of Francis Picabia from New York City. Picabia, who was associated with New York Dada, was far more radical in his complete rejection of the idea of “art” and his dismissal of the Western heritage. Hugo Ball had left Zurich in 1917 and moved on to Bern for a more traditional occupation, editing a newspaper. In response to the absence of the founder and by Picabia’s extreme reductivism, Tristan Tzara (Sami Rosenstock) stepped into the “leadership” position and issued a Manifesto in 1918.

The Dada Manifesto was deliberately nonsensical. Sentences would begin logically enough but would trail off into illogic.

“A work of art should not be beauty in itself, for beauty is dead; it should be neither gay nor sad, neither light nor dark to rejoice or torture the individual by serving him the cakes of sacred aureoles or the sweets of a vaulted race through the atmospheres,” Tzara wrote.

As well as writing the Manifesto, Tzara also edited the group’s periodical, Dada, but Dada had no specific program, no goals, and no aims. Essentially nihilist in intent, Dada writings always begin with what Dada is not, rejecting all that has gone before it. Nothing could rescue the world from bankrupt ideas and nothing was left except for a celebration of buffoonery, blague, and bleeding verse Tzara commented bitterly.

In an age of no sense, Dada presented nonsense and in doing so challenged and subverted the ways in which art and the artist are defined and the way in which art is made. After the War was over in November 1918, the Dada artists scattered and spread the seed of dissent to Berlin and Paris and Hanover. Tzara remained true to Dada and presented a more complete description or definition of Dada (if such a thing is possible) in 1922:

“I destroy the drawers of the brain and of social organization: spread demoralization wherever I go and cast my hand from heaven to hell, my eyes from hell to heaven, restore the fecund wheel of a universal circus to objective forces and the imagination of every individual.”

The Manifesto ends with these sentences,

“The beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of an art, but of a disgust…as Dada marches it continuously destroys…Dada is a state of mind. That is why it transforms itself according to races and events. Dada applies itself to everything, and yet it is nothing…Like everything in life, Dada is useless.”

Dada strategies included mockery and parody and sarcasm. The artists mocked and rejected the naïve ideas of the old men who led the young men off to a certain death. For the Dada artist, “art” is a metaphor for all that Western civilization has built, so proudly. But a civilization that planted Flanders Fields and that ordered Gallipoli must be rejected. “Art” was a part of the natural order that had to be destroyed and replaced with actual nature which acts for itself, is senseless, indifferent to the plans of humans, and is direct and relentless, a genuine force.

In some ways, the performances of Dada, fleeting and ephemeral, presaged the breaking of the Fourth Wall seen in the Epic Theater of Bertold Brecht a decade later. Like the Dadaists, Brecht the dramatist sought to alienate the audience and used techniques, which distanced the viewer from the play in order to prevent the immersion of identification. The goals of both the Dadaists and of Brecht were similar—to wake up the complacent theater-goers who sought entertainment but who found a political message hurled their direction.

Most important to the Dada artists was the need to start over, to get back to a ground zero or a tabular rasa. If they could re-set society, then perhaps the next world would be better. Laced throughout the anger and pain that characterize Dada was a latent idealism that a regression into infantile behavior would lead to a new adulthood. “Dada wished to destroy the hoaxes of reason and to discover an unreasoned order,” Arp explained.

After the Great War ended in the fall of 1918, the Dada artists scattered and formed Dada colonies at different locations: Hanover, Cologne, New York, Berlin and Paris. Each sub group had its own distinctive group of artists and its own goals and ultimate destiny. Like some of the Dada artists in Paris, Tzara and Arp shifted into Surrealism, which incorporated many Dada principles, particularly chance. Dada was gradually absorbed into New Objectivity in Berlin and was carried on in New York City by the underground artist, Marcel Duchamp. Although the impact upon the visual arts took decades to understand and incorporate, in its refusal to believe that life had a meaning and a purpose, Dada paved the way to Postmodernism in art.

Read more posts on Dada:

“Innovations of Dada: Chance”

“Innovations of Dada: Photomontage.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]