One of the most interesting assemblages to come out of the infamous 1920 Dada Messe in Berlin was a strange headless figure, whose graceful lines recall Greek bronze statues of young gods and victorious athletes. This black mannequin referenced the Russian artist, Vladimir Tatlin, but was a sculptural echo of a painting by Otto Dix also at the Messe. The painting, War Cripples was a frank representation of the boulevards of Berlin. 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. Fired with anger and pain, Otto Dix, a decorated soldier, contributed War Cripples (45% Fit for Service) one of four paintings the artist executed in 1920, featuring newly mechanized bodies. The 45% reference indicated the extent to which the veterans had retained a certain number of limbs. This painting, known to us only in black and white, subsequently disappeared. This lost painting is but one of several such works swiftly painted by Dix, who captured a new species of humans, soldiers saved from death but reconstructed from prosthetic parts.
George Grosz and John Heartfield also contributed their recreation of the new unnatural beings with an assemblage of manufactured parts to the 1920 exhibition. The name of this sculpture, reconstructed in 1988, is long and arduous: The Middle-Class Philistine Heartfield Gone Wild (Mechanical Tatlin Sculpture). In keeping with the primitive means with which wounded men were reconstructed, the dark humanoid was re-made of a tailor’s dummy with a new kit of found parts: 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. The man-statue is headless but his mind is glowing like a light bulb, while his missing left leg is an old-fashioned peg. A pair of dentures are fixed to the groin, suggestive of the vagina dentata, feminizing the fallen soldier.
Heartfield’s brother, Wieland Herzfelde, who wrote the essay for the Dada Messe catalogue, linked the wounded and broken Greek statue to the tragedy of the War, stating, “The past remains important and authoritative only to the extent that its cult must be combated. The Dadaists are of one mind: they say that the works of antiquity, the classical age, and all the ‘great minds’ must not be evaluated with regard to the age in which they were created, but as if someone made those things today.” In other words, the Greek athlete of yesterday was today a cyborg, a hybrid anti-hero. This half man half-machine, left behind was the tragedy of modern mechanization.
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 all fundamentally engaged with reimagining what it meant to be human in the modern world.”
Dada in Berlin showed the male body under attack, dis-embodied, and, like a photo-montage, put back together. The re-designing began as early as 1919 with Haussman’s wooden head of a blank faced male, once used to hold wigs in a department store. Called Spirit of Our Time: Mechanical Head, the mannequin face is animated by a wooden ruler, typewriter parts, a case for eyeglasses, parts of a watch and a camera, and most revealingly a telescopic beaker used by soldiers on the front. The folding telescope, balanced jauntily on the top like a shiny tin hat on the wooden head, was once used to scout out terrain ahead, now it is inert and inoperable as if unwilling to look for a future. Clearly, the head is a soldier, one of those once-beautiful faces, shining with youth, destroyed and redesigned by surgeons.
That which could not be resurrected was replaced with objects found and fitted on arbitrarily, substituting for ears and skulls. The number 22 is fixed to the forehead, numbering the soldier’s case in the hospital, and seen from the front, one notices that the lips are parted as though the assemblage is about to speak or make a sound of pain. The Head is frequently photographed from the right but a rare image of the left profile reveals that the face has an Attic profile, the very essence of a classical Greek Kouros, which has been sabotaged and rendered as a returning cyborg.
The theme of the mechanical man emerged in photomontage. Working alone, George 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. The “Unhappy Inventor” was based upon the defaced oil portrait of Friedrich Ebert, who was leading the Weimar Republic. The reconstruction/deconstruction of the President referred to the impossibility of holding competing political factions together. After the War, as head of the Social Democrats, Ebert established a coalition government, but the foundations of this fragile unity were unstable. 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, the attempt by Ebert to paste together a nation, was defeated in 1920, a year after Grosz completed the “portrait” that predicted the internal disunion of a collaged and dismembered power center. 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. 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 cyborgs that had come to inhabit Berlin.
In 1920, Raoul Haussmann wrote an ironic and satirical essay for Die Aktion, “Prosthetic Economy: Thoughts of a Kapp Officer,” a reference to the Kapp Putsch, one of the many political disruptions of the Weimar Republic. Speaking as an “officer,” Haussmann recommended that Germany could be rebuilt as “a prosthetic economy, instead of a Soviet dictatorship.” Clearly, having people, men, once formally whole and untouched, suddenly appear as new beings patched together and walking around in the post-war environment was shocking to Germany. The artist asserted bitterly, “Today, a prosthesis is required by the man from the street as hitherto his beer, the Berliner Weisse. The arm of the proletarian becomes noble as soon as a prosthesis is attached. Prosthetic man, therefore, is the better man, made aristocratic, so to speak, by merit of the Great War.”
The prosthetic man is a walking and talking photo-montage. It is probably no coincidence that the most famous photo-montage put together by Haussmann referenced Vladimir Tatlin, the maker of visionary machines. The Russian Constructivist artist was one of the loudest voice in post-Revolutionary Russia, proclaiming the end of all things natural. Tatlin led the charge against traditional aesthetics and historical modes of making art, from painting to sculpture. Artists, in Communist revolutionary Russia, ceased to exist and became engineers.
But in Germany, when artists also called themselves engineers, they were referring to themselves and their fellow soldiers as machines, wounded and maimed in body and mind, dealing with stress and trauma that would haunt them. In solidarity, the artists of Berlin Dada referenced the hybrid, the cyborg, the mechanized artificial men now among them. These cyborg images seem to be clustered around the year 1920. The famous and now lost, Tatlin Lives at Home, by Raoul Haussmann appeared at the 1920 Dada Messe, hung next to Höch’s much larger Cut with the Kitchen Knife. Tatlin was stolen in 1971 and had not been seen since. But the reproduction of the reproduction of Haussmann’s collections of reproduction excised from mass media has even reproduced “Tatlin” represented in abstentia by an anonymous man, he found in an American magazine. The real Tatlin had a much younger much softer face.
This photomontage was filled with machines and mechanized humans: “Tatlin’s” head is filled with an array of frightening mechanical devices, sharp and aggressively crowded into what was once his brain. An anatomical model of the midsection of a dissected body is jammed on top of an old fashioned wooden tripod. To the left there is a map on the wall and a man in the background is pulling out the lining of his empty pockets. The entire random assemblage was placed in a steeply slanting interior inspired by the Italian artist, Giorgio de Chirico.
Raoul Haussmann, called the Dadasoph,” or dada philosopher, depicted himself in a photomontage self-portrait as also having a mechanical head. Nearby this self-portrait is an anatomical model, exposing the insides of the chest, revealing the circulatory brachial tubes of the lungs. Two themes emerged in these photo-montages, the head of hardware and the body cut open and revealed as if on an operating table, or perhaps on the battlefield itself. The photograph of the seated man, the defense minister of the Republic, was appropriated from a 1919 Berlin Illustrated Newspaper, and Haussmann, a Communist sympathizer, dissects the body of a bourgeoisie militarist and inhabits the corpse. There is no head, only mechanical parts, including a pressure gage, indicating that there is nobody home, only an empty suit.