When collage was revived, under a new name after the Great War, the mood among the artists was decidedly different. The Great War had been, for artists, a time of disillusionment and despair. For some of these artists, especially the German-speaking ones, the conduct of the conflict was considered to be a total rejection of the civilized concepts of aesthetics and taste and of fine art itself. In the wake of the failure of German Kultur, this wartime mood was named “Dada” in Zurich. The non-movement that manifested anti-art sought to not make art and refused to use traditional means of expression. Part of the purpose of Dada was to find new modes of expression without making “art.” Collage was new, unrelated to traditional “fine art.” Its basic mechanics–cut and paste–suited the needs of the Dada artists in Berlin, who inherited the name from the founding wartime group in neutral Switzerland.
The cutting of paper and the pasting down of mass media materials would go on to another life and by 1918 would be renamed “photomontage.” “Photo” referred to the fact that the Berlin artists were using photographs, culled from mass produced magazines and illustrated newspapers. “Montage,” meaning editing, cutting and pasting, was a term taken from film language, in which some parts of a whole were discarded and some sections were retained and the disjointed parts were arbitrarily joined. But it is here that the similarities to either film or collage ends, for the photomontage as produced by the rebellious Dada artists in Berlin were defiantly anti-art and anti-tradition statements.
The political stance of the Berlin Dada was anti-personal and anti-expressionist, eliminating all the romantic emotions that had once stirred young men to march off to the fields of slaughter. Before it is anything else, Dada photomontage in Berlin in the years immediately after the Great War is anti-design, exploding the idea of a center, or a unity among parts, the concept upon which the idea of a united composition was founded. In the wake of a destructive war that had blown people and civilizations apart, it is useful to think of photomontage as a hybrid, even a cyborg art form, of picking up pieces and putting them back together at random order to express the trauma of the Great War.
Taking up the scissors or a razor blade and cutting carefully around a complex printed photograph was a mechanical act, requiring dexterity but denying the individual touch of the artist’s hand and eliminating the aesthetic pleasures of painting with pigment and rebuking the senses that reveled in pleasure derived from traditional “art.” But more than rejection of the past, the German heritage of Expressionism, the unique contribution of northern Europe, the production of a photomontage was a reflection of the desire to be modern and to respond to the technological imperative that had descended upon the twentieth century. Mechanics drove the Berlin Dada artists.
The Dada attack on traditional design include decimating the logical layout used in mass media with the result of eliminating the static grid of newspapers and magazines. The vertical-horizontal arrangement was invaded and dis-arranged. Rather than organization, the Dada artists stirred up disorganization, which became their contrarian design plan. Cutting and pasting from anonymous sources and turning the media against itself suited the purposes of the Dada artists in Berlin and the result was a critique of the status quo of society and the new Weimar government. The photomontage was a deconstruction and a form of destruction, wiping away the last remnants of the dead hand of history in search of a new mode of marking on the walls of the present.
In 1916, disaffected soldiers, Helmut Herzfeld and Geog Groß, met and, united in their disgust for German militarism and flag-waving nationalism. They changed their names to John Heartfield and George Grosz, Grosz with a Z. With their new and deliberately Americanized designations, they waited out the War and established their own publishing house, Malik-Verlag. By the time, they joined Dada in Berlin, Heartfield and Grosz had created a unique and potent weapon to critique the failures of Germany–the photomontage–a combination of collaged images and typography, appropriated photographs and 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.”
Although there has been a dispute over who “invented” photomontage, lovers Raoul Hausmann and Hannah Höch, working together, or the collaborators Heartfield and Grosz, the practice of altering photographs was a tactic by the German propaganda machine to falsify information and to mislead the public during the War. Some of the Dada artists, especially John Heartfield, were taking up a practice of lies and re-using montage to tell unpleasant truths. Others, such as Hannah Höch, eliminated artistic facility and replaced skills honed through talent with simple means of manual production, a knife slicing into cheap mass produced periodicals appropriated as a source for imagery.
The collaborations of John Heartfield and George Grosz produced a series of photomontages as vehicles for a trenchant criticism of a systemic political meltdown. The two years between their collaborative work on their journals at Malik-Verlag and the Dada collage ironically titled “Sunny Land,” shows a significant growth and development of their play with images and text. The early sprawl of montaged elements coalesced into anti-coherence, expressed with a chaotic assemblage. The intensity of frantic motion in the joint work of the artists was absent from the more structured and legible work of Haussmann and the sense of “agitation” is approached only occasionally by Höch. Photo-montages from Heartfield and Grosz, such as, Life and Times in Universal City at 12.05 Noon, 1919 and Dada-merika 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.”
The prevailing characteristic of these early photomontages by the pair is a mood of disparate parts pulling away from one another, or, conversely, near collision. The anti-layout assortment is undecided and hovering as though considering what to do next. In contrast to this indecision, an indication of a society lacking direction, the photo-montages of the other artistic couple, Raoul Haussmann and Hannah Höch, was far more rational and organized. Haussmann asserted his role in developing photomontage, “I was among the first to use photography to create, from often totally disparate spatial and material elements, a new unity, in which was revealed a visually and conceptually new image of the chaos of an age of war and revolution.”