Category: German Expressionism

John Heartfield at the Getty

I wrote the following review in 2006 after seeing the exhibit Agitated Images: John Heartfield and German Photomontage, at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, California.

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That LA artists have not made a bigger deal over the exhibition of works by John Heartfield currently at the Getty Museum is a perfect example of the cool indifference and political disengagement plaguing the artistic community. Few artists from the past have as much resonance in these troubling times, and Heartfield’s brilliant images continue to speak with a clarity of mind possessed when first produced - which was during the rise of fascism in Germany. Agitated Images: John Heartfield and German Photomontage, is one of the most important exhibitions recently mounted in Los Angeles; it not only illuminates the past, it points a way to the future for artists who want to address real world issues through their art.

Photomontage by John Heartfield, 1932

War and Corpses: The Last Hope of the Rich. Photomontage by Heartfield, 1932.

Like many German artists of his time, Heartfield was a militant anti-fascist and a communist, but his artwork was also revolutionary when it came to technique and aesthetics. He was one of the very first to explore photomontage as a new means of artistic expression, and some of his sparing designs, stripped down to only a few iconic images combined with text, made him the predecessor of today’s minimalist and postmodernist artists. Aficionados and students of contemporary art would do well to study the life and works of the great German master. If you are not able to view the Getty exhibit, the next best thing would be to acquire the comprehensive book, John Heartfield: AIZ/VI 1930-38, a magnificent collection of the hundreds of works he created for the leftist magazine, Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (Workers Illustrated News), also known as AIZ.

Photomontage by John Heartfield, 1932

Whoever Reads Bourgeois Newspapers Becomes Blind and Deaf: Away with These Stultifying Bandages! Photomontage by Heartfield, 1930.

Leah Ollman wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times on the Heartfield exhibit that appeared in the paper’s Calendar section on March 6, 2006. Ollman’s generally positive review was titled Blinding sarcasm - but Heartfield’s work was anything but blinding, rather, he gifted the masses a lucid vision. Accompanying Ollman’s review was a reproduction of Heartfield’s trenchant Whoever Reads Bourgeois Newspapers Becomes Blind and Deaf - a word of warning never truer than today. How ironic that the LA Times placed Heartfield’s illustration next to the headline Ghostly Gowns, Dreamy Dresses, a heading about Paris Fashion Week - blind and deaf indeed.

I first discovered Heartfield’s work when I was only 16-years-old, and to say his art had a profound impact upon me would be an understatement. Save for the nihilistic works produced by Germany’s dadaists, I had never before seen anything like Heartfield’s photomontages. If dada was the shell shocked babbling of artists confronting the unmitigated horror of modern warfare and a world gone insane - Heartfield’s art was the counterbalance - a precision surgical tool that would identify and cut at the causes of war and fascism. To my young eyes, some of Heartfield’s images were quite easy to understand, but others held their meaning from me since they dealt with unfamiliar events and individuals. Being inquisitive, I eventually peeled back those layers of history, and marveled at how honestly and directly the artist delivered his message. One can only imagine the deep impact his images had upon the German people.

To understand just how radical a democratic stance the artist took, one must begin with his name. In 1916, to protest against the anti-foreigner and anti-British hysteria promulgated by German nationalists and right-wingers, the artist changed his name from Helmut Herzfeld to John Heartfield - which was an extremely “unpatriotic” thing to do at the time. A comparable gesture today would be for an American artist to adopt an Arab name. Needless to say, Heartfield’s courageous stance made him a high profile target, and his unrelenting lampooning of the madmen who seized control of his homeland caused them to seek his death. He escaped the clutches of the fascists by going into exile, but never ceased creating the artworks that so infuriated them. Heartfield eventually returned to his country in 1950, where he died in 1968.

Agitated Images: John Heartfield and German Photomontage runs from February 21 until June 25, 2006. You can read more about the Heartfield exhibit at the Getty website.

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UPDATE 5/21/2016

I also suggest reading John Heartfield: Laughter is a Devastating Weapon, by author David King and Ernst Volland. Artist, photographer, and historian, King was also an avid collector of Soviet Art and ephemera. His collection of some 250,000 Soviet posters and other historic collectables is now housed in the Tate Museum. King died on May 11, 2016 at the age of 73.

A Bloody Carnival

With all the madness swirling around driving everybody insane, you’d think more artists would have something to say about our present situation. While I wait for them to catch up, I’ll be creating my own riotous responses on canvas. In the meantime, here’s a quote to whet your appetites; “The heaviest burden of all is the pressure of the war and the increasing superficialty. It gives me incessantly the impression of a bloody carnival. I feel as though the outcome is in the air and everything is topsy-turvy. Swollen, I stagger to work, but all my work is in vain and the mediocre is tearing everything down in it’s onslaught. I’m now like the whores I used to paint. Washed out, gone next time. All the same, I keep on trying to get some order in my thoughts and to create a picture of the age out of the confusion - which is after all my function.” No, the words are not mine, though they could have been. They were written by German artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner in 1916.

Degenerate Art: Then and Now

"Self Portrait with Death" - Max Pechstein. Oil on canvas. 1920.

"Self Portrait with Death" - Max Pechstein. Oil on canvas. 1920.

The Tate Modern in London currently has on display an exhibit called Degenerate Art, a small showing of German Expressionist paintings that runs until October 30th, 2005. The name of the Tate show comes from the infamous Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibit mounted by the Nazis in 1937. Heralding the Nazi regime’s policy towards the arts, that exhibit was the most detestable campaign to have ever been launched against modern art. Jonathan Jones, writing for the U.K. Guardian, had this to say about the Tate show: “It would be great to see a full-scale exhibition. In fact, it would be worth reconstructing the entire Degenerate Art exhibition. The restaging would, I suspect, profoundly alter our view of modern art.”

In 1991, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) came close to a full restaging of Entartete Kunst, and being an ardent fan of German Expressionism, I was the first in line to view LACMA’s Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany. I was not disappointed by the comprehensive overview offered by the museum, which included a full scale model of the original Nazi exhibition, along with ephemera from the exhibit like tickets, catalogs, advertisements and other bits of memorabilia.

The LACMA show also included rooms devoted to the Nazi view of literature, music and film - but the focus of the exhibit was of course the paintings and sculptures created by those artists the fascists considered “enemies of the German people.” On display were artworks by Max Beckmann, Emil Nolde, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and many other notables who so influenced my own course as an artist. Since the LACMA exhibit is history, and the Tate show is inaccessible to all save those living in London - you might want to visit my Art For A Change web site, where I’ve uploaded images and text concerning the works of Max Pechstein, Otto Dix, August Macke, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Conrad Felixmuller, Max Beckmann and many others.

By 1937 the Nazis had removed more than 20,000 modernist artworks from museums and galleries, bringing them together for Entartete Kunst, a touring exhibit whose sole objective was the scorn and derision of modern art. Artworks were crowded into the Archäologisches Institut in Munich and given hand-scrawled mocking captions. Poorly hung and intentionally displayed with inadequate lighting, the artworks were surrounded by slogans like, Incompetents and Charlatans, An insult to the German heroes of the Great War and Nature as seen by sick minds. The exhibit became one the most successful displays of modern art in history - the first blockbuster art show, with around 3 million people viewing it before its thirteen-city German and Austrian tour was completed in 1941.

"By the Water" - Ernst Liebermann. Oil on canvas. Circa 1938.

"By the Water" - Ernst Liebermann. Oil on canvas. Circa 1938.

The Degenerate Art show was actually held in contrast to the Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung (Great German Art Exhibit), where Nazi-approved realist paintings and sculptures were displayed. Held annually in Munich from 1937 until 1944, historic, idyllic and mythological German subjects were treated in romantic, academic and classical realist styles. Artists like Ernst Liebermann (1869-1960), Sepp Hilz (1906-1967), and Ivo Saliger (1894-1987), presented scenes that extolled traditional family values, motherhood, health and work, athleticism, rustic peasant life, faith in leadership and glorification of the military.

Such works could be deceptively benign, as is the case with Libermann’s By the Water (shown above). Many looking at this painting today would merely see an “apolitical” study of three nudes - yet, it’s an outstanding example of the Nazi celebration of beauty, sexuality and physical culture through classical aesthetics. Nudity in art was never censored by the Nazis, providing it helped to communicate fascist ideology. In part that entailed the idealization and objectification of femininity, while extolling masculine strength and physical superiority.

"Bäuerliche Venus" (A Country Venus) - Sepp Hilz. Oil on canvas. 1939.

"A Country Venus" - Sepp Hilz. Oil on canvas. 1939.

Sepp Hilz was an academically trained realist painter who came to be known as, Bauernmaler (the painter of peasants).

His classical style oil paintings of Bavarian farmers, beautiful village girls, and the rustic lives of simple country folk, were observations of rural life seemingly free of political statement.

Hilz was a technically dazzling painter who never created an overtly political artwork, he was a portraitist who concerned himself only with matters of aesthetics when it came to making art. Which begs an interesting question relevant to our own time. If an artist produces nothing but “apolitical” works, is the artist then above politics?

Ironically, as a successful proponent of “realism” in painting… realism did not permeate Hilz’s idealized view of the world.

His charming and inoffensive paintings concealed the malignant cancer destroying his country. No doubt Hilz opposed modernist artists for depicting the screaming insanities that had become everyday life in Germany. It’s a certainty he loathed the tortured, garish and distorted artworks of the Expressionists, and he most likely applauded their censorship and banning as a “renewal” for art.

Sepp Hilz (1906-1967) in his studio with model Annerl Meierhanser while painting his canvas, "A Country Venus". Photographer unknown. 1939. The work was eventually purchased by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Reich Minister of Propaganda.

Sepp Hilz (1906-1967) in his studio with model Annerl Meierhanser while painting his canvas, "A Country Venus". Photographer unknown. 1939.

From 1938 to 1944, Hilz presented no less than twenty-two paintings at the Great German Art Exhibit, with none other than Adolf Hitler purchasing two of them.

Nazi Reich Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, purchased Bäuerliche Venus (”A Country Venus” - shown above and at right), which became a wildly popular iconic painting for the German right-wing.

Hilz was so favored by the Nazis that Hitler financed the construction of a special studio for the artist in 1939, and in 1943 the painter received the title of “Professor” from Reich Minister Goebbels.

Another favored artist included in the Great German Art Exhibit was Ivo Saliger, whose Judgment of Paris (1939), depicted the Greek myth… but with a twist. Contemporary viewers see Saliger’s canvas as nothing more than an academic painting, an exercise in classical figurative realism - yet the work is an ideological diatribe. Saliger portrayed Paris dressed in a Hitler Youth uniform as he decided upon the most beautiful example of Aryan womanhood. Again, a difficult question arises - that of identifying the ideology inherent in images placed before us. If I had not revealed to you the story behind Saliger’s painting, would you have identified the artwork as implicitly fascist?

"Judgment of Paris" - Ivo Saliger. Oil on canvas. Circa 1938-1939.

"Judgment of Paris" - Ivo Saliger. Oil on canvas. Circa 1938-1939.

Today arguments continue to rage over what defines a work of art, with conservatives attacking modern art with the same vigor, and rhetoric, often used against modernists in 1930’s Germany. Witness the Art Renewal Center (ARC) and their thoroughly reactionary Eurocentric stance, which regards the academic school of late 19th Century European painting as not only the pinnacle of all artistic achievement - but the only way forward for artists today. The ARC champions the academic painter, William Bouguereau, who was the president of the painting section of the Paris Salon in 1881 and an unwavering enemy of the Impressionists. Yes, the ARC is so backward-looking they even reject Impressionism for being too modern! It’s no wonder then that I read in their “letters” section, correspondence praising Ivo Saliger for being a painter “of classical subjects.” I wouldn’t be surprised if tomorrow the ARC issued a salvo against Degenerate Art. I have more to say about the modern-day Victorians of the Art Renewal Center - but I’ll leave that rant for another day.

I’ve spent much time on this web log criticizing the follies and excesses of postmodern artists, but my critiques should never be confused with the undemocratic voices who clamor for the past. When letting my poison arrows fly against the talentless swindlers in today’s world of art, I’m always wary of being aligned with those who seek to dismiss, control or suppress artistic expression. Every aesthetic vanguard has historically been confronted by the narrow-minded who exclaim, “that isn’t art” or “I could do that.” I’m well aware of the forces that have mounted major attacks against the arts - assaults that have resulted in censorship and the closing of exhibitions. I’m also well-versed in the sad chronicle of regimes who’ve suppressed all forms of independent vision in favor of an insipid and stilted realism.

Gesundes Volksempfinden, or “healthy folk sentiment,” became the official criteria for judging artworks under the Nazi regime, and when Hitler said that “anybody who paints and sees a sky green and pastures blue ought to be sterilized”… he meant it.

While the world has changed since the Nazis held their Entartete Kunst exhibition, polarizing social dynamics have not. Today a deadly new strain of censorship shadows creativity - and many artists are infected with a self-imposed variant. The only solution is to meet adversity with the same steadfastness displayed by the German Expressionists - whose works after all outlived those of their adversaries.

George Grosz: Behold the Man

When I was a teenager in the late 1960’s, I found an art book in my local library titled, Ecco Homo (”Behold the Man”). As my first real introduction to German Expressionist art, it was an encounter that profoundly altered my life. Ecco Homo was a portfolio of prints created by artist, George Grosz, in 1923. That same year, German authorities confiscated the artist’s prints and fined him for “offending public morals”. The state had already gone after Grosz in 1920 for his print portfolio, Gott mit Uns (”God is with Us”), which mocked and denigrated German soldiers and their officers. The unrepentant artist released another print portfolio in 1928 titled, Hintergrund (”Background”). In addition to insulting the militarists, the prints took aim at ultra-conservative clerics, directly linking the German church with militarism. Grosz was arrested and put on trial for blasphemy - and the court decided that one of the offending prints, Christ With a Gas Mask, would be destroyed. Of course, history vindicated George Grosz, who correctly identified and portrayed the forces that would plunge Germany into the nightmare years of fascism.

As a budding artist I was profoundly influenced by Grosz, and I remain in awe of him to this day. Being in Los Angeles, it’s unlikely I’ll be attending the exhibit of his works at the Heckscher Museum of Art in New York City, but perhaps my writing about the show will inspire people on the east coast to attend. George Grosz: Selections from the Permanent Collection, now on view at the museum until August 14th, 2005, includes Grosz’s, Sonnenfinsternis (”Eclipse of the Sun”). Painted in 1926, the work is a denunciation of the forces of war. Headless bureaucrats sit at a table where a bloated Caesar-like general presides - his bloody sword placed on the table next to a crucifix painted in the German national colors. A rich industrialist with weapons of war tucked under his arm, leans forward to whisper into the commandant’s ear. Under the table we can see a prison cell, where a prisoner peers out at the spectacle. The sun is depicted in silhouette, hanging in the upper left corner of the painting and literally eclipsed by a dollar sign. Here’s what Grosz said about his painting, “Since the politicians seem to have lost their heads, the army and capitalists are dictating what is to be done. The people, symbolized by the blinkered ass… simply eat what is put before them.” I saw this very painting some years ago at the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art (LACMA). I was admiring the work with a group of strangers, when one of them said out loud to no one in particular, “My god… this could have been painted about today’s world!”

What I learned from Grosz could best be summed up in his own words, “For me art is not a matter of aesthetics… no musical scribbling to be responded to or fathomed only be a sensitive educated few. Drawing once more must subordinate itself to a social purpose.” Grosz taught me that great art had to encompass more than just technical prowess - it also had to embrace moral responsibility and political awareness. In 1913 he wrote to a friend, “There can be no doubt that my drawings were some of the strongest public statements against a certain German brutality. Today they are truer than ever - one day, in a more ‘humane’ period, one will exhibit them as one does now with Goya’s pictures.” While we don’t yet live in the ‘humane’ period Grosz worked towards, we can still at least appreciate the artist’s extraordinary vision. The Heckscher Museum of Art is located at 2 Prime Avenue, Huntington NY, 11743-7702. Visit their website, at: www.heckscher.org

WAR/HELL: Otto Dix & Max Beckmann

Dead Sentry in Trench - etching by Otto Dix, 1924

At sixteen I became aware of those artists who lived and worked throughout Germany’s dreadful years of war and fascism. German Expressionist artists like George Grosz, Conrad Felixmüller, Gert Wollheim, and Max Pechstein had enormous influence upon me - not so much for how they painted… but what they painted. They were unafraid to tell the truth about their society, and with paint, pencil and print, they excoriated the forces of greed and militarism that eventually plunged the world into chaos. Few had as much sway over me as Otto Dix, a man I consider one of the last century’s greatest painters.

Falsely remembered simply as a radical expressionist who abandoned all rules of perspective and palette, Dix was actually a classical painter in the guise of a modernist. Some of his great realist canvases hearken back to German old masters like Lucas Cranach, Matthias Grunwald and Albrecht Dürer. I regard myself as fortunate to have viewed some of Dix’s paintings while traveling in Germany, and lucky to have caught a rare exhibit of his antiwar etchings, Der Krieg (The War), while in New York some years ago. I’m delighted to be able to inform readers of this web log that Dix’s astonishing antiwar etchings, and those of fellow Expressionist Max Beckmann, are now on exhibit in New York once again.

WAR/HELL: Master Prints by Otto Dix and Max Beckmann is a mesmerizing collection of etchings and lithographs now showing through September, 2005, at the Neue Galerie Museum for German and Austrian Art in New York City. Dix and Beckman depicted war stripped of its bombastic false patriotism, heroism and glory, and instead presented an accurate, grueling and mind-numbing look at the barbarism of modern warfare. Der Krieg, Dix’s suite of 50 black and white etchings, are first hand recollections of having fought on the frontlines of World War 1 for four years. His uncompromisingly realistic and visceral depictions of war are the stuff of nightmares.

The artist portrayed soldiers eating rations in muddy trenches filled with rotting corpses; moonlit minefields and bomb blasted landscapes; combatants horribly maimed or torn to shreds; army men driven insane and left shivering on the battlefield - splattered by the remains of those blown up next to them. Beckman’s Die Holle (The Hell), is a wartime suite of a dozen lithographs he created in 1919, showing Germany’s downward spiral. Like Dix, Beckman was also a serviceman in World War 1, but served as a medical orderly.

His artworks are filled with shattered veterans without limbs or hope returning home to a country wracked by poverty; ultra-jingoistic reactionaries singing patriotic songs; the super wealthy flaunting the riches they gained through war profiteering; and right-wing thugs preparing to mold Germany into a new society of blood and iron.

If it all sounds terribly familiar, it should. Dix and Beckman not only succeeded in exposing the ugly realities of war in a way that hadn’t been done since Goya’s print series, The Disasters of War - they also effectively created artworks that stepped outside of their timeframe and place of national origin. The prints in WAR/HELL have uncanny resonance in today’s world, and they more accurately reflect what is going on in Iraq than do all of the sanitized and bloodless corporate “news” media reports put together.

This is the first time the entire antiwar print editions from these two dynamic modernist artists have been shown together. The exhibit runs until Sept. 26th, 2005. The Neue Galerie New York is located at 1048 Fifth Avenue. New York, NY 10028 (on the corner of 86th street - adjacent to New York’s Central Park). Phone: 212-628-6200. Visit them on the web, at: http://www.neuegalerie.org

German Expressionist Posters at LACMA

For those in Southern California, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is currently showing 70 German Expressionist posters dating from the 1920’s and 1930’s. The exhibit, titled War, Revolution, Protest, presents a range of poster works extolling political action as well as promoting theaters, cabarets, and the newly-founded film industry. The exhibition comes from LACMA’s Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies, which possesses one of the greatest German Expressionist collections in the world. Obviously this is a must see show for any fan of the bold and confrontational art from that period, but students of history and design will also get a lot out of this important exhibit. If you can attend you may also want to view the concurrently running, Rauschenberg: Posters, a collection of over 100 mass printed works from American artist, Robert Rauschenberg. The prints on display date from the 1960’s to the present, and some are surprisingly political in nature. His silk-screen, Signs, is a montage of iconographic images from the late 60’s. Images of the slain John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy; Martin Luther King Jr. resting in his coffin; anti-Vietnam war protestors; scenes of the riots that burned US cities; rock singer Janis Joplin (who would die of a drug overdose), all mixing to become a potent sign of the times. Upon its release, Rauschenberg said the work was “conceived to remind us of the love, terror, violence of the last ten years. Danger lies in forgetting.” While a great many seem to have indeed forgotten… War, Revolution, Protest and Rauschenberg: Posters gives us all an opportunity to remember. Now running, both exhibits close June 12, 2005. For more information: www.lacma.org

The Shark Has Teeth Like Razors

Bourgeois art circles are buzzing with the news that the pickled shark by artist Damien Hirst has been sold to an unnamed American collector for around 12 million dollars. Suspended in a vat of formaldehyde and titled, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, the marinated 14-foot shark launched Hirst’s lucrative art career in 1992. Now one of the richest and most famous of the postmodernist charlatans (artiste), Hirst laughs all the way to the bank.

I’m reminded of The ThreePenny Opera, the musical theater production by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. That tale featured the anti-hero, Macheath, an efficient and cold blooded thug who fancied himself a businessman. In the play’s most famous song, The Ballad of Mack the Knife, the notorious crimes of Macheath are evoked:

“See the shark has teeth like razors, all can read his open face. And Macheath has got a knife, but not in such an obvious place. See the shark, how red his fins are, as he slashes at his prey. Mac the Knife wears white kid gloves which give the minimum away.”

Yes, Brecht’s play moralized on the havoc of a world controlled by money, a yarn still applicable… even when applied to the depredations of the art world.

Max Pechstein’s Creative Credo

German Expressionist artists like Käthe Kollwitz, Otto Dix, John Heartfield, George Grosz, and Max Pechstein had a profound influence on me over the years. In 1918 Pechstein wrote, “Art will no longer be considered, as it has been in the past, an interesting and genteel occupation for the sons of wealthy loafers. On the contrary, the sons of common people must be given the opportunity, through the crafts, to become artists. Art is no game, but a duty to the people! It is a matter of public concern.” Such eloquence still resonates in the present, especially for those of us concerned with making art a part of everyone’s daily experience. In 1920, Pechstein wrote his Creative Credo, communicating the ecstasy and frenzy of artistic creation:

“Work! Ecstasy! Smash your brains! Chew, stuff yourself, gulp it down, mix it around! The bliss of giving birth! The crack of the brush, best of all as it stabs the canvas. Tubes of color squeezed dry. And the body? It doesn’t matter. Health? Make yourself healthy! Sickness doesn’t exist! Only work and I’ll say that again - only blessed work! Paint! Dive into colors, roll around in tones… in the slush of chaos! Chew the broken off mouthpiece of your pipe, press your naked feet into the earth. Crayon and pen pierce sharply into the brain, they stab into every corner, furiously they press into the whiteness. Black laughs like the devil on paper, grins in bizarre lines, comforts in velvety planes, excites and caresses. The storm roars - sand blows about - the sun shatters to pieces - and nevertheless, the gentle curve of the horizon quietly embraces everything.

Beaten down, exhausted, just a worm, collapse into your bed. A deep sleep will make you forget your defeat. A new day! A new struggle! Ecstasy again! One day after the other, a sparkling, constantly changing chain of days. One experience after the other. That damned brain! What is it that churns and twitches and jumps in there? Hah! Tear your head off. Then we’ll scrape it out and scratch it out. Get rid of every little bit. Sand! Water! Scrub it clean. There now!! Almost as good as new… an unused skull. Night! Night! No stars, pitch black. Without desire! Tomorrow is another day.”

In 1937 the Nazis would prohibit Pechstein from creating or exhibiting. They removed his artworks from museums and instead included them in their infamous Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition. Pechstein survived the reign of fascism and continued to work as an artist in West Berlin until his death in 1955. Read more about Max Pechstein and the German Expressionists.