Category: Photomontage

Elections 2012: Coke vs. Pepsi

Coca-Cola versus Pepsi-Cola - Josep Renau. Photomontage. 1949.

Coca-Cola versus Pepsi-Cola - Josep Renau. Photomontage. 1949.

I love putting this image out every four years, it tickles me to no end.

The photomontage Coca-Cola versus Pepsi-Cola, appears so modern from an aesthetic standpoint, not to mention up to date in a political sense, that scores of viewers will express disbelief over the artwork having been created in 1949.

That the artist responsible for the image, Josep Renau, was a Spaniard making comment on life in the U.S. while living in exile in Mexico, will also lead to dismay for some Americans. Then again, seeing as how U.S. presidential elections always end up impacting the global community in ways other national elections do not, one may perhaps excuse a “foreigner” for offering a view of the U.S. political process.

Renau wanted to convey the idea, not that the two dominant U.S. political parties were/are identical, but that they both serve the interests of capital.

Conceivably that same point of view has today spread to many of us living in the continental United States, where it has become increasingly difficult to doubt that mega-billions now control the two parties and all of their politicians. The influence of advertising and marketing in the U.S. has left no aspect of life unaffected; that was certainly true when Renau made his observation, but it is even more so today.

At present it could be argued that marketers and monied interests hold sway over the democratic process itself; the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission comes to mind. But in 1949 Renau understood that “culture” could be a primary method of social control, and he anticipated a time when it might also be a leading commodity peddled by corporations that would comprise the “culture industry”.

Renau was no stranger to the importance of art in times of political turmoil. Born in 1907, he left his homeland in 1939 when the Spanish Republic was overthrown by a fascist uprising led by General Francisco Franco and backed by fascist dictators Mussolini and Hitler; the event actually marked the beginning of the Second World War. In the chaotic years before this, the Spanish government appointed Renau the Director of Fine Arts in 1936, entrusting him with safeguarding the nation’s artistic treasures during the country’s bloody civil war. In 1937 Renau commissioned Pablo Picasso to paint the Guernica mural at the Spanish Pavilion at the International Exposition dedicated to Art and Technology in Modern Life held that year in Paris, France.

With the collapse of the Spanish Republic Renau went into exile and in 1939, like many thousands of Spaniards fleeing fascism, he settled in Mexico. Immediately he befriended the muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, who had just received a commission from the Mexican Electricians’ Syndicate to paint a mural in the union’s Mexico City headquarters. Siqueiros brought together his “International Team of Plastic Artists”, including Renau, to assist in painting the mural, Portrait of the Bourgeoisie.  Renau would also earn a modest living designing posters for the Mexican film industry, a facet of his artistic production that I will address in a future essay.

But even as an astute artist steeped in the production of culture himself, Renau could never have imagined the length and breadth to which politics and marketing would become synonymous in the years after his 1982 death. In October of 2008, Advertising Age named Barack Obama the “marketer of the year” for having successfully promoted the hope and change “brand”. Hundreds of advertising agency CEO’s attended the 2008 Association of National Advertisers conference, and voted for Obama’s ad campaign over the effective marketing conducted by major corporations like Coors, Apple, and Nike. Advertising Age deemed the November 4, 2008 election the “biggest day in the history of marketing”.

The conceptual “triumph” of brand Obama was accompanied by a visual style as well, which actually displaced the traditional Democratic Party iconography.  I first noticed that the Democratic Party had dumped its donkey mascot when I watched televised coverage of their 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. The emblematic donkey was nowhere to be seen, instead it had everywhere been replaced by a red, white, and blue circle design that bore more than a close resemblance to President Obama’s “O” logo. The actual party logo was difficult to find in the convention hall.

For no apparent reason, in 2010 the Democratic Party abandoned its traditional symbol of the red, white, and blue donkey for a new pictogram - a light blue “D” inside a darker blue circle. The bleak emblem has all the appeal of generic blue and white product packaging, and with just as much historic significance. While the donkey emblem was initially associated with Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Jackson in 1828, it was the celebrated political cartoonist Thomas Nast that transformed the donkey into the memorable insignia of the Democrats in a cartoon Harper’s Weekly published in 1870; Nast would also be responsible for casting the elephant as the symbol for the Republican Party in a cartoon Harper’s Weekly published in 1874.

My concern here is not the integrity of the Democratic Party, but rather that the abandonment of their long-established logo is yet another sign of the ahistoric postmodern condition that afflicts society.  The Republicans have wisely held on to their traditional party symbol, while the Democrats have ditched theirs in favor of… bad typography. If they continue with this aberrant behavior, I will no longer be able to trot out the Renau graphic every four years.

O Blessed Christmas!

 O du fröhliche, O du selige, gnadenbringende Zeit - John Heartfield. Photomontage. 1935.

"O joyful, o blessed, miracle-bringing time." - John Heartfield. Photomontage. 1935.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing!
Machine Gun Clatter!
Bomb Blast!
Poison Gas!

The anti-militarist Christmas message from John Heartfield shown at left was published on December 26, 1935, in the German magazine, Arbeiter-Illustriete Zeitung (AIZ, or “Worker’s Illustrated Paper”).

The title of the photomontage, O du fröhliche, O du selige, gnadenbringende Zeit (O joyful, o blessed, miracle-bringing time), was taken from one of Germany’s most popular Christmas carols.

Heartfield made a number of photomontage works that touched upon Christmas and how its message of peace was being subverted by the forces of war and fascism.

For instance, in the 1934 Christmas edition of AIZ, the artist published his photomontage, O Tannenbaum im deutschen Raum, wie krumm sind deine Äste! (O Christmas tree in German soil, how bent are thy branches). The artwork depicted a Christmas tree with its branches twisted into the shape of a swastika.

The cover of the 1933 Christmas issue of AIZ featured a photograph of an American battleship with the headline, “And Peace on Earth!” When opening the magazine the reader would see a Heartfield photomontage on the first page - its message read, “Peace on Earth? No peace on earth, as long as the poor become poorer!” Heartfield’s artwork depicted hungry Germans peering into an upscale shop window that was bursting with Christmas merchandise they could not afford.

Josep Renau: Commitment and Culture

The people of Spain have been celebrating the 100th birthday of the Spanish painter, poster designer, and muralist, Josep Renau, through a number of tributes, not the least of which has been a traveling exhibition; Josep Renau (1907-1982): Commitment and Culture. Organized by the Spanish Ministry of Culture and the University of Valencia, Spain, the exhibit is now running at the Universidad de Zaragoza until January 30th, 2009 (View the Spanish language or English translated website). Comprised of over 200 works including photomontage creations, drawings, paintings, and posters, the exhibit spans the artist’s entire influential career.

Art by Josep Renau

[ Celebridades Norte Americanas /North American Celebrities. Josep Renau. Photomontage. 1956-65. ]

In 1992 the Museum of Photographic Arts (MoPA) in San Diego, California, presented the very first exhibition in the U.S. of Renau’s magnum opus photomontage series - Fata Morgana USA: The American Way of Life. I attended that exhibit and found it full of acidly sardonic photomontage works that lived up to the title of the series. Unfortunately the MoPA website does not even list the slightest detail concerning its ‘92 exhibit. Luckily for all however, the museum website does sell the brilliant catalogue book, Fata Morgana USA: The American Way of Life, which is an indispensable resource regarding the life and art of Renau.

When reading about the early radical proponents of photomontage, rarely is the name of Renau mentioned, yet he played a significant role in the development of the art. His montage works should be regarded with the same sense of appreciation given to the creations of John Heartfield, George Grosz, Alexander Rodchenko, Raul Hausmann, or Hannah Hoch.

Art by Josep Renau

[ El Presidente Habla Sobre La Paz /The President Speaks About Peace. Josep Renau. Photomontage. 1952. ]

The MoPA exhibit of Fata Morgana USA gave us Renau’s view of America as it existed from the Cold War years of the late 1940s to the early ’60s. He depicted a country arrogantly projecting its military power across the globe; a land enthralled by the rise of mass media and hyper-consumerism, embroiled in anticommunist witch-hunts, and terribly divided along racial lines. In fact, some of Renau’s most engaging images had to do with America’s shameful history of racism.

Art by Josep Renau

[ Orgasmo Racial /Racial Orgasm - Josep Renau. Photomontage. 1951.]

At a time when African Americans could neither vote nor use facilities marked “For Whites Only”, Renau’s images called attention to the fact that democracy in the U.S. was a dream left unfulfilled for millions. Perhaps his most volatile artwork on the subject was the photomontage titled Orgasmo Racial (Racial Orgasm - 1951); which presented a close-up portrait of a skull-faced white man from whose mind sprang the most fearsome imaginings, tortured and murdered black men roasting in fires set by flag waving members of the Ku Klux Klan. No less blistering a condemnation of racism was the artist’s Sombras en la Plantación (Plantation Shadows - 1955); a depiction of a Southern Belle gently swaying to and fro in a tree swing on her estate - the tree casting shadows in which you can see the agonized faces of impoverished Blacks.

To say that Renau is not widely known in the United States would be an understatement. But what is the reason for this unfamiliarity? No doubt his ideology had much to do with it, since he joined the Communist Party of Spain in 1931 and remained a lifelong member until his death. He once said, “I’m not a Communist painter, just a Communist that paints”. A continued ignorance regarding his works, especially for artists at this juncture in history, is nothing short of inexcusable.

Born in Valencia, Spain, Renau graduated from art school in 1925, and then succeeded in making a living as a drawing professor - devoting himself to painting and advertising poster design. He created his first photomontage, The Arctic Man, in 1929. He would be hailed internationally in the years to come for his significant work in developing the art form. When the Spanish Civil War commenced in 1936, he designed posters in support of the Spanish Republic against the insurgent army of General Francisco Franco and his fascist allies Hitler and Mussolini. That same year the Republican government appointed Renau General Director of the Arts, giving him the responsibility of safeguarding Spain’s cultural heritage during the war, and he would transfer part of the Prado Museum’s collection in Madrid to save it from fascist bombardment. In 1937 Renau helped design the Spanish Pavilion at the International Exhibition of Arts and Technology in Paris, France, where he commissioned Pablo Picasso to paint a mural for the Pavilion in support of the Spanish Republic. The result would be Picasso’s Guernica.

When the fascists succeeded in crushing the Spanish Republic in 1939, Renau, like millions of Spaniards, went into exile. He first traveled to France and then to Mexico, where a large number of Republican exiles settled. Upon his arrival in Mexico he began a collaboration with the artist David Alfaro Siqueiros, helping to paint Retrato de la Burguesia (Portrait of the Bourgeoisie), a revolutionary mural for the Electrician’s Union headquarters in Mexico City.

In 1940 Renau became a Mexican citizen, and being well versed in advertising art he made a living designing posters for the Mexican film industry. Eventually he turned his critical gaze toward American culture, and imagined the beginnings of his masterwork, Fata Morgana USA. Those familiar with medieval studies will recognize “Fata Morgana” as the Italian name for Morgan LaFée, King Arthur’s fairy half-sister who produced mirages in order to bewilder enemies. But Renau was interested in the name because it defined a “mirage” as an actual phenomenon, and he had it in mind to use his caustic photomontage art to expose American myths as the greatest of all illusions.

To accomplish his task Renau combined his mastery of photomontage with his expertise in the language of mass media and advertising design; not to conjure up a forerunner to pop art, which was accommodationist to corporate power, but to create a visual language that would subvert advertising and the system it sprang from. Renau began compiling thousands of photographs from the pages of American magazines and newspapers, inventing a catalog system for the collection of images to facilitate the construction of his montages. With precision Renau used the simple tools of razor blade and glue to combine photographic elements, putting the last touches on a montage by painting out unwanted areas or filling in details with pencil or brush. When a finalized work was photographed for publication, the constructed image appeared altogether seamless. Years later the artist would comment on the beginnings of his project, saying that it:

“(….) was to a considerable part drafted in Mexico, the only Latin American country which has a joint border with the United States and where, for this reason, the physical, psychological and political pressure of Yankee imperialism is expressed more directly and brutally than anywhere else.

(….) It is noteworthy how much society in USA is most effectively softened up by the powerful eroding action of the big monopolies and how it has become sensitive to the striking feed-back of the mass media (film, radio, television, newspapers, comics, magazines, etc.). This takes place to such a degree that the formula ‘American way of life’ - partially and tendentiously abstracted from social reality itself - is taking on the shape of a real ‘model’; this concerns a considerable part of the US population which has of necessity formed itself in accordance with the commandments of such an abstraction.”

In 1958 Renau moved to the German Democratic Republic where his work on Fata Morgana USA began in earnest. When Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975, Renau visited Spain the next year for the first time since his exile, taking the opportunity to exhibit some of his Fata Morgana USA images in several cities. As part of the Venice Biennial of ‘76, Renau would show his completed Fata Morgana USA series consisting of 69 images. It was not until ‘77 that Renau published 40 select works in book form under the title of Fata Morgana USA. In 1982 Renau died in East Berlin at the age of 75.

Art by Josep Renau

[ Recién Casados /Just Married. Josep Renau. Photomontage. 1957.]

While influenced by dada and surrealism, Renau’s works never offered incoherent rage or dream-like escapism. His was a didactic art that peeled away layers of myth and obfuscation to reveal unpleasant realities. Sometimes his images accomplished this through whimsy, at other times with a frank bluntness, but he always made his point in a highly imaginative way. Take for example his photomontage Recién Casados (Just Married - 1957), depicting a blushing bride, who in actuality is a metaphorical stand-in for the U.S. public. Joined in matrimonial bliss to a robber baron who has an oil drill bit as a head, the bride carries what appears to be a heart shaped floral arrangement, but in reality it is nothing more than another oil drill bit. At the feet of the lovebirds, drooling paparazzi jockey for position, while in the background a gushing oil well symbolizes the couple’s consummated relationship. This rumination on the oligarchy and its relationship to the public was also a prescient comment on gender politics, a topic to which Renau would return time and again.

Art by Josep Renau

[ Miss Bistec de Chicago /Miss Beefsteak of Chicago - Josep Renau. Photomontage. 1960/66.]

A continually running narrative throughout Fata Morgana USA is the subjugation and objectification of women, which Renau not only attributed to the workings of capitalism, but insisted was necessary for the system to work at all. In Dia de la Victoria (Day of Victory - 1953), Renau constructed his photomontage around a full page photo of an alluring lingerie model posing in Life magazine. At first glance the montage seems festive with its marching band, confetti, streamers and fluttering flags, until one notices the barely concealed caption to the original photo; “Victory Lingerie: A top U.S. designer creates models to welcome home service husbands”. A second glance reveals the scantily clad model is surrounded by U.S. veterans of the Korean War - and they are all amputees.

Art by Josep Renau

[ Sociedad de Consumidor /Consumer Society. Josep Renau. Photomontage. 1972.]

Taken as a whole, Fata Morgana USA can be seen as a comprehensive denunciation of capitalist culture, but of the dozens of images in the series that strike at commercialism, perhaps none cut so deeply as the 1972 photomontage, Sociedad de Consumidor (Consumer Society). Here Renau visualized the citizen being reduced to nothing more than a mindless consumer, ingesting without hesitation an endless stream of manufactured goods and desires that includes the ideology of capitalism itself. But while the word “consumption” denotes the act or process of consuming things, it is also an archaic medical term that refers to the wasting away of the body; and the physical presence of Renau’s consumer has withered into an undemanding and simple receptacle. We are left to wonder how the artist would have commented on the “Black Friday” 2008 Christmas season in the U.S., when hundreds of holiday shoppers in a mad rush to buy cheap consumer goods at a New York Wal-Mart trampled an employee to death.

Coca-Cola versus Pepsi-Cola

Photomontage by Josep Renau

[ Coca-Cola versus Pepsi-Cola - Josep Renau. Photomontage. 1949. ]

In 1949, as a statement on the limitations of American style elections, the contentious Spanish artist Josep Renau created the photomontage Coca-Cola versus Pepsi-Cola. In the artwork the Democratic Donkey and the Republican Elephant have mutated into a double-headed behemoth; the only difference between the cojoined grotesque twins being a predilection for one soft drink over another - the very “choice” the monstrous corporate candidate offers the people. Renau depicted his imaginary creature as a servant to militarism and entrenched political power - represented by the Pentagon and the U.S. Capital.

Though widely recognized and hailed in Spain, the works of Josep Renau (1907-1982) are little known outside of his homeland. Before long I will write about Renau on this web log, detailing his life, controversial works, and contributions to art - complete with examples of his controversial graphic inventions.

Petition Helps Free Michael Dickinson

In a major trial that challenged an artist’s right to free expression, the British artist Michael Dickinson, who lives in Turkey, was prosecuted by the Turkish government in 2006 for creating a photo-collage seen as “insulting the dignity of the prime minister”. Dickinson faced years in prison for his artwork, but on September 25, 2008, the judge in the case dropped all criminal charges against him.

In part Dickinson’s release was secured by global protests initiated by artists. A member of the Stuckist International - the “art movement for contemporary figurative painting with ideas”, Dickinson received immediate backing from Stuckism’s London headquarters. Charles Thomson, co-founder of the Stuckists, wrote a widely publicized letter to the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in which Thomson stated: “It is intolerable that a country applying for European Union membership should censor freedom of political comment in this way. I trust you will communicate your strongest condemnation and ask for this case to be abandoned immediately.” Thomson also sent a similar letter to the current British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

But Michael Dickinson’s predicament was also noted by others. I followed Dickinson’s trial closely, and when Mark Givens, the editor-in-chief of MungBeing arts journal in Pomona, California, started a worldwide petition to call for the release of Dickinson - I became a signatory. In part, the petition stated:

“We, the undersigned, support an artist’s right of free expression. We stand firmly with Amnesty International in their calls on the Turkish authorities to terminate without delay all prosecutions against individuals under the notorious Article 301, and to abolish all other articles in the Turkish Penal Code that stifle and punish freedom of speech and expression. We call for the prosecution of Michael Dickinson over his political collages to be dropped.”

In Southern California’s Inland Empire Weekly, Kevin Ausmus’ article, Pomona editor helps keep British artist out of jail, summarizes the successful campaign waged by Givens to free Michael Dickinson. An except from that story reads:

“After hearing of Dickinson’s plight, Mark Givens of Pomona, editor-in-chief of MungBeing, decided it was necessary to start an online petition on the artist’s behalf. Now, Givens’ ‘tremendous support’ in publicizing the case is being credited for galvanizing the necessary publicity to tip the verdict in Dickinson’s favor (….) Though the petition gathered less than 600 signatures overall, those who did sign proved to be of high quality in the international art community, including Steve Bell, a British political cartoonist for the Guardian known for his controversial caricatures; Mark Vallen, a Los Angeles-based painter and activist; Noam Chomsky and several artists associated with the Turkish Freedom Movement.”

When facing the seemingly insurmountable problems of today’s world, it is not difficult to see why some surrender to hopelessness and indifference. However, it should not go without saying that our actions, or lack thereof - do make a difference; which has been amply demonstrated by the successful defense of Mr. Dickinson.

Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful

Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution, opens March 4th, 2007 at the Geffen Contemporary of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, and runs until July 16th, 2007. Organized by MOCA curator Connie Butler, the show features artworks created from 1965 to 1980, by 100 women focused on the status and liberation of women. In one attempt to capture the militant spirit of late 60’s feminist groups, Butler named her show, Wack!, which is not itself an acronym, but alludes to the popularity of acronyms used by radical groups of the period, my favorite example being the tongue in cheek, W.I.T.C.H., or - Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell.

Wack! is being promoted as “the first comprehensive, historical exhibition of feminist art”, and you could add “international” to the billing as around half of the artists are from outside the U.S. - including artists from England, Poland, Scandinavia, Germany, Algeria, India, Canada, Italy, Chile, and Brazil. Many talents - well known and unknown - are in the show, and an illustrated catalog published by MOCA covers all the bases, however, in this article I’d like to focus on just one participating artist - Martha Rosler.

During the early 1970’s I discovered Rosler’s photomontage series, Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful, a brilliant, multi-faceted, intrinsically feminist critique of American involvement in Vietnam. The title of Rosler’s collection was a melding of a popular 60’s antiwar slogan in the U.S. (”Bring the War Home!”), to the vapid women’s magazine of the period that promoted homemaking as the proper area of interest for women. Rosler’s compelling and influential photomontage works seem more powerful than ever - especially since we are mired in a new Vietnam. I was delighted to learn that Rosler’s works were recently included in Media Burn, an exhibition at London’s Tate Modern, and even more excited to discover that she’s rekindled the Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful series - this latest edition being focused on Iraq.

Photomontage by Martha Rosler

[ Red Stripe Kitchen - Martha Rosler. Photomontage. 24 x 20 inches. From the series, Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful. 1962–72.]

Red Stripe Kitchen was a photomontage from the original 1962 - 72 series. In it, Rosler combined two photos to startling effect. The first, a circa 1970 interior shot of an affluent household’s modern home kitchen, decorated in the fashionable modernist style; gleaming white from floor to ceiling, with a breakfast bar seating arrangement surrounding the stove. Adjacent doors lead to a pantry. The dazzling white is interrupted by red highlights found in dishes, appliances - and a decorative stripe painted mid-level on the pantry wall. The second photo spliced into this tranquil scene explodes the myth of domestic bliss. Two combat ready Marines are snooping around in the pantry, engaged in the same type of search performed by U.S. soldiers a million times over in Vietnamese villages suspected of aiding Viet Cong guerillas. Aside from exposing the kitchen as a battlefield, Rosler’s photomontage directly linked women’s oppression to militarism and overseas imperial adventures - but it also posed a thousand questions. Who is the enemy? Who is innocent? Who shall be absolved of guilt and responsibility in times of war?

Photomontage by Martha Rosler

[ Gladiators - Martha Rosler. Photomontage. 2004. From the new series, Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful. For a larger view of this image, click here. ]

In Gladiators, one of Rosler’s current works from the Iraq series, the bourgeois home has not only turned out to be invaded, its interior has become inseparable from the mayhem outside its walls. In the living room of the spacious home depicted, a framed artwork hangs; a photo of bloodied Iraqi civilians heaped in a pile, a crystal-clear indication that we are living with the war in our daily lives without really seeing it. The quiet of the affluent residence has been shattered by a police officer, who is apparently arresting a member of the household while heavily armed U.S. soldiers conduct a search and destroy mission through the dwelling. That one of the soldiers is raising his automatic weapon towards the viewer is a disquieting reminder that the war has indeed - come home.

Viewers of Gladiators may be confused by the chaotic panorama glimpsed through the abode’s huge bay windows. In part it is obviously a distressing Iraqi street scene where smoke from a detonated car bomb wafts by palm trees, but who are the odd looking men rushing the house as they brandish clubs? The photograph depicting them is not a readily identifiable image, even though it’s an Associated Press photo that was widely circulated on the internet. The image documents U.S. Marines of the 1st Division in Iraq, dressed as gladiators and - like a scene from Charlton Heston’s, Ben Hur - holding chariot races with filched Iraqi horses. The bizarre incident occurred at a Marine military base outside of the doomed city of Fallujah on November 6th, 2004, the very eve of the Marine attack that would destroy the “insurgent stronghold” of 300,000 civilians. If you find this all too hard to believe, you can read the Agence France-Presse’s account of the Marine’s evangelical pre-Fallujah pep rally.

The Geffen Contemporary of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, is located in downtown Los Angeles near Little Tokyo, at 152 North Central Avenue. LA, CA. 90013. Visit them on the web, at: MOCA has also constructed a special website for the exhibition, a “collaborative environment for consciousness-raising and discussion.” At MOCA’s WACK! site, “the general public, artists, and authors can participate in the discourse by posting responses to artworks.”

3 Years in Jail for making a Collage?

UK artist Michael Dickinson faces a three year prison sentence in Turkey for creating and displaying a collage that portrays that country’s Prime Minister as a prize winning show dog. The collage, titled Best of Show, depicts an anthropomorphosized Tayyip Erdogan receiving a red, white and blue award ribbon from U.S President George W. Bush. The graphic violates Turkey’s constitution, which criminalizes insults against Turkey’s state institutions and armed forces. Dickinson will be charged with “insulting the dignity of the Prime Minister of Turkey”, but as of yet a court appearance date has not been announced.

Michael Dickinson’s collage

[ Michael Dickinson’s collage, Best of Show, could get him 3 years in a Turkish prison. ]

A year ago Prime Minister Erdogan visited the White House, where President Bush lauded his close ally by saying, “Turkey’s democracy is an important example for the people in the broader Middle East, and I want to thank you for your leadership.” I assume that Mr. Bush’s definition of human rights and democracy does not include the imprisonment of artists for expressing themselves - but in these days of mass wire taps and government sanctioned torture I’m not so sure. It appears the exigencies of the “long war” supercede such trifling things as freedom of expression.

Dickinson, an English teacher who lives and works in Istanbul, Turkey, is also the founder of the Turkish chapter of the Stuckist International. Charles Thomson of the London Stuckists has written a letter to UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, asking Mr. Blair to intervene on behalf of Dickinson; “It is intolerable that a country applying for European Union membership should censor freedom of political comment in this way. I trust you will communicate your strongest condemnation and ask for this case to be abandoned immediately. I ask for your assurance that you will oppose Turkish EU membership in the strongest terms, until Turkey adopts the attitudes of the civilized world towards human rights.”

You can read Michael Dickinson’s own words regarding the collage controversy at CounterPunch Magazine.

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.

The Collage of Theodore Harris

Bout With Patriotism -by Theodore Harris

The Hurford Humanities Center has an online exhibition of photo-montage works entitled The Truthoscopic Collage Art of Theodore Harris. The contemporary African American artist works in the tradition of John Heartfield, the German artist who in the 1930’s fused collage art with social criticism. In Harris’ 1995 collage, Bout With Patriotism, we see three unrelated images of violence intertwined in such a way as to make them inseparable. A photo of an automatic rifle is juxtaposed with an image of a Marine carrying a flag draped coffin, and a picture of Muhammad Ali throwing a punch against a backdrop of fire.

The pictures recombine to become metaphors bursting with new meaning. They also conjure up historical memories of Vietnam. In 1967 Muhammad Ali refused induction into the Armed Services on religious grounds, saying “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong.” Ali was stripped of his championship title and his boxing license, his passport was revoked, and he was threatened with a 5-year prison term. The brutality of war is certainly evoked in Harris’ collage through the image of the automatic rifle, but since it is clearly aimed at Ali it also represents war’s accomplice and co-conspirator… political repression.

Harris’ images are replete with startling depictions of African Americans trapped in a horrific modern wasteland. Even the torn edges of the collaged photos hint at the violence done to Black folks. But Harris’ art is also about defiant Blackness and the will to carry on.