Category: German Expressionism

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.

Gouge: The Modern Woodcut

Gouge: The Modern Woodcut 1870 to Now, is a splendid exhibition of woodcut and linoleum prints now showing until Feb. 8, 2009, at the Armand Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, California. On display are 100 diverse and quite extraordinary prints from the likes of Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Käthe Kollwitz, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Joseph Beuys, and many others too numerous to mention.

Divided into four thematic sections, the first presents the emergence of modern printmaking in the 1870’s, the second shows how artists used the grain of the wood to enhance their compositions, the third is devoted to prints in the arena of social activism, and the final section presents sacred and religious iconography. While I could easily wax poetic on the prints included under each theme, in this article I will focus on the prints categorized under social activism, or as the Hammer defined them - prints that are “The Voice Of The Activist”.

Woodcut print by Iglesias

[ La Seudorepublica y la Revolucion (The Pseudo-republic and The Revolution). Carmelo Gonzalez Iglesias. Woodcut. 1960. 51 x 169 inches. Detail from the upper left of the monumental print. In the foreground sits a worker paralyzed by hunger and despair. Springing up behind him are Cuban sugarcane cutters rising in revolution with machetes in hand. They are led by Lady Liberty bearing a sword and wearing a Phrygian cap - the international icon of revolution and freedom. ]

Without a doubt, the core of the exhibit is comprised of two monumental woodcut prints from Cuba; The Pseudo-Republic and the Revolution by Carmelo Gonzalez Iglesias, and Latin America, Unite! by Luis Peñalever Collazo - who was a student of Iglesias. In contemplating the intricate woodcut prints one is left dumbfounded by the fact that they were designed to be used as street posters!

Woodcut print by Iglesias

[ The Pseudo-republic and The Revolution. Detail from the left panels of the monumental print. A revolutionary worker breaks the chains that bind him, defiantly waving a machete with the word "Independencia" emblazoned upon it. He exhorts his armed compañeros (bottom left) to join the battle against their oppressors, and they can be seen - middle left - fleeing into the arms of an eagle-faced Uncle Sam.]

Iglesias and Collazo are beyond reproach when it comes to superlative draftsmanship, clear narrative, and technical virtuosity. Their prints make today’s vaunted “street-art” seem feeble in comparison. Unfortunately the Hammer would not allow photography in the gallery, and the museum has not made available any decent reproductions of these extraordinary prints. The few image details I present here are woefully inadequate in conveying the beauty and power of these Cuban woodcuts.

Woodcut print by Collazo

[ America Latina, Unete! (Latin America, Unite!) Luis Peñalever Collazo. Woodcut. 1960. 33-7/8 x 87-1/2 inches. Collection UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Hammer Museum. Photo by Brian Forrest. ]

Detail of woodcut print by Collazo

[ Latin America, Unite! Detail from the left panels depicting the insurgent Cuban masses led by a woman who points the way towards revolution. A slain comrade is at the feet of marchers who carry a banner reading - "Venceremos" (We Will Win). ]

Both Pseudo-Republic and Unite! were created in 1960, just a year after the triumph of the revolution against the U.S. backed regime of General Fulgencio Batista. Since the majority of the mural-like prints were wheat-pasted on city walls in Cuba, not many copies survived intact. However, in 1961 Che Guevara gave a set of the prints to a young foreign student in Cuba, Maurice Zeitlin (now a UCLA professor), and the gift to Zeitlin currently hangs in the Hammer exhibit. Printed from seven different woodblocks, Pseudo-Republic measures 51 by 169 inches, and like puzzle pieces, when the separate prints are brought together properly - they become one cohesive narrative. Unite! is somewhat smaller at 33 7/8 by 87 1/2 inches, but no less effective. It too was printed from several carved woodblocks.

Detail of woodcut print by Collazo

[ Latin America, Unite! Detail from central panels depicting combat between a Cuban patriot and a knife wielding imperialist. ]

The exhibit has a small but weighty collection of graphics produced by the Mexican collective - El Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP - Popular Graphic Arts Workshop). Included in this grouping is a beautiful linoleum cut by African American artist, Elizabeth Catlett, who worked with the TGP when she moved to and settled in Mexico in 1946. The print on display is titled Sharecropper, and only a few black and white proofs were made by Catlett in 1952. In 1968-70 the artist would pull an edition of 60 full color prints - but it is one of the stunning black and white proofs that is on view at the Hammer. Another of the TGP associated artists shown in Gouge is Leopoldo Méndez, who surely was one of Mexico’s most impressive socially conscious printmakers. I was first introduced to his works during the 1970’s, when his fiery prints were enthusiastically circulated in Chicano arts and activist circles in the U.S. In the near future I will be writing extensively about Méndez on this web log, but for now, all that is necessary to say is that his print at the Hammer show, The Heritage of Juarez - is a marvel to behold.

Detail of woodcut print by Collazo

[ Latin America, Unite! Detail from right panels depicting life under capitalism. Workers divided by race bludgeon each other over dwindling resources, women sell themselves into prostitution, and imperialist war planes launch attacks. ]

Gouge also presents three woodcuts by David Alfaro Siqueiros from his 13 Grabados series. In 1930 the artist spent 6 months in a Mexican prison for having participated in a May Day demonstration. While incarcerated he created 13 grabados (engravings), cut from scrap wood, and upon his release he printed a small edition of proofs. It would not be until he came to Los Angeles as a political refugee in 1932 that he would print his woodcuts as a full portfolio in an edition of 100. In tribute to the great Mexican printmaker, José Guadalupe Posada, the prints were made on colored tissue - and three of these made their way into the Gouge exhibit. Stylistically the works are blunt, almost abstract, and not surprisingly they deal with issues of state repression and violence.

In addition, Gouge has on view an impressive collection of prints from the German Expressionists. Woodcuts by Erich Heckel, Emile Nolde, Christian Rohlfs, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Lovis Corinth, and Käthe Kollwitz - all provide consummate examples of the Expressionist school I so unwaveringly admire. But it is two woodcuts created by Conrad Felixmüller in 1921 that I find especially delightful - if for no other reason than the artist is so little known in the U.S. and rarely if at all exhibited. Felixmüller’s Factory Worker (Invalid) and Mine Engineer, are sympathetic portraits of working men, a common theme for the artist. Stylistically the brusque angular portraits explode with dynamic swirls of energy and agitated lines, while revealing considerable empathy for the men he portrayed.

The Gouge exhibition is not without its weaknesses. The contemporary prints, relying heavily on gimmickry, by and large convey little more than the detached hollowness one associates with postmodernism. The limitations of these new works, deficient in both originality and anything significant to say, is made all the more apparent when they are compared to the older works in the exhibit. Another drawback to the show is that it lacks an exhibit catalog. I could write volumes on the tour de force works of the Cuban artists alone. Given the fact that outside of Cuba virtually nothing is known about these particular artworks or the artists that produced them, it is indeed unfortunate that the Hammer has not published even a diminutive catalog. Despite these failings Gouge is a blockbuster show not to be missed.

Gouge: The Modern Woodcut 1870 to Now - at the Hammer Museum from November 9, 2008 through February 8, 2009. On Feb. 4, 2009, exhibit curators will hold a 12:30 lunchtime talk concerning Luis Peñalever Collazo and his woodcut, Latin America, Unite!

The Cologne Progressives

Some years ago, while visiting the German city of Cologne, I discovered the works of the Cologne Progressive Artists Group (Gruppe Progressiver Künstler Köln), a bloc of artists that represented the radical outer fringe of the Expressionist movement of the Weimar Republic (1918-1933). Fortunately for enthusiasts of art from the Weimar years the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany, has mounted an exhibition titled Progressive Cologne: 1920-33, Seiwert - Hoerle - Arntz. Running from March 15 to June 15, 2008, the exhibit is accompanied by a richly illustrated catalog book, Painting as a Weapon - a definitive text on the Progressives that is sure to please both historians and aficionados of German Expressionism.

Painting by Heinrich Hoerle

[ Drei Invaliden (Three Invalids) Heinrich Hoerle. Oil on canvas. 1930. In this painting Hoerle depicted three wounded veterans of World War I, a vision that did not endear him to Germany’s militarists. ]

The exhibition focuses on three core members of the Cologne Progressives, Franz Wilhelm Seiwert, Heinrich Hoerle, and Gerd Arntz, with the exhibit presenting over fifty paintings and ninety prints by the artists. The Progressives were interested in the creation of a formal proletarian aesthetic, an innovative art of and for the working class. While the Cologne Progressives were in part inspired by the Soviet Constructivists, they did not adopt the severe geometric abstractions of their Soviet counterparts. Stirred by the aesthetics of “primitive” tribal art and the iconography of early Christian images, the Progressives never fully abandoned figurative realism. Instead they stripped what they perceived to be superfluous details from their paintings, prints and drawings, de-emphasizing individual features of the people in their artworks, leaving the minimalist figures to convey some instructive narrative. From 1929 to 1933, the group published a theoretical journal titled A bis Z (A to Z), where the writings and artworks of Progressive circle members and their associates were published.

August Sander's photo of artist Heinrich Hoerle

[ The Painter Heinrich Hoerle - August Sander. Gelatin silver print. 1927. ]

The photographer August Sander was attracted to the Progressive circle, aligning himself with the group in the early 1920s. His photos were often published in A bis Z, and his method of photographing his subjects according to their place in society’s hierarchy - revealing social tensions and class relations - was in harmony with the Progressive’s political and aesthetic outlook. Sander ended up photographing most members of the Progressive group, as with this portrait of painter Gottfried Brockmann now in the collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Interestingly enough, at the time of this writing, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles is presenting August Sander: People of the Twentieth Century - a selection of 130 photos taken by Sander during the Weimar years, an exhibit that runs until September 14, 2008.

Linocut print by Franz W. Seiwert

[ Klassenkampf (Class warfare) - Franz W. Seiwert. Linocut. 1922. Published in the radical newspaper, Die Aktion. ]

The Progressives held two major views that set them apart from the larger Expressionist school. They rejected the notion of art in service to politics; only because they viewed the type of art they were creating as political action in and of itself - from their perspective their art was the revolution, or at least a vital component of it. Secondly, they commonly depicted people as generic symbols. By reducing and standardizing the human form, and by dressing their minimalist figures in garments worn either by oligarchs or workers, the Progressives intended to show how class divisions were imposed upon humanity. One of the Progressives who excelled in this type of didactic minimalism was Gerd Arntz, whose works would come to influence international design to this very day.

Gerd Arntz collaborated with the Marxist Viennese social scientist Otto Neurath on creating what they called the International System of Typographic Picture Education, or Isotype. The idea was to provide the working class with a universal visual language of symbols and pictograms that would assist them in understanding complex ideas concerning politics, economics, industry, and society in general. Neurath hired Arntz as a designer for the Isotype project in 1928, and over the years the artist designed some 4000 pictograms. While Isotype was based upon a radical political vision, the very concept for the pictographic road signs and other governmental pictograms we see everywhere today can be traced back directly to the collaborative work of Neurath and Arntz.

Linocut print by Gerd Arntz

[ The Third Reich - Gerd Arntz. Linocut. 1934. In his typical minimalist style Arntz depicted German society constructed like a pyramid, with workers at the very bottom. The elites at the top enjoyed wealth, privilege, and political power. In the art of the Progressives, the rich bore the same de-individualized features as the poor. ]

The Progressive’s drive to develop a new visual language was cut short by the rise of the Nazis, who branded them as “degenerate” and prohibited them from producing or exhibiting their works. Franz W. Seiwert died in Cologne in 1933 of radiation burns he suffered as a child - just before the Nazis undoubtedly would have come for him. Gerd Arntz was forced into exile in 1934 as Nazi repression against the arts increased, fleeing to the Netherlands where he would live and work until he died in 1988. In 1936 Heinrich Hoerle died in Cologne of tuberculosis, which had previously killed his father, sister, and first wife, Angelika. August Sanders never left Germany. In 1936 the Nazis seized and destroyed the printing plates for his photo book, Face of our Time, forbidding him to exhibit or publish. When his Cologne studio was destroyed in a 1944 Allied Forces bombing raid, thousands of his negatives were obliterated. Sander died in Cologne in 1964. Today, 4,500 original prints and some 11,000 original glass negatives are housed in the August Sander Archive in Cologne, Germany, the largest collection of his work in the world.

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny

The opera, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, is a razor-edged critique of capitalism, and considered by many to be the greatest collaboration between music composer Kurt Weill and playwright Bertolt Brecht. On March 4th, 2007, well over 3,000 people packed the Los Angeles Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to see the seventh and final performance of the L.A. Opera’s English-language production of, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Augsteig und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny). It may come as a big surprise to some people that I’m a fervent opera enthusiast, but I was one of those in attendance, and that very performance was filmed for broadcast by PBS.

Now, millions of Americans will finally be able to see the remarkable opera when PBS Great Performances broadcasts it nationally. Its televised premiere begins on Monday, Dec. 17, 2007, when it’s shown on New York’s WNET-TV, at 9:00 p.m., and again on Friday, December 21, at 12:30 a.m. Angelenos can see Mahagonny when L.A.’s KCET-TV broadcasts the opera on Saturday, Dec. 22, at 10 p.m. Check your local PBS listings for the broadcast time in your area. The L.A. Opera production is also now available as a high-definition DVD release.

Portrait of Bertolt Brecht by Rudolf Schlichter

[ Portrait of Bertolt Brecht - Rudolf Schlichter. Oil on canvas, 1926/27. Schlichter painted his friend Brecht during the time the playwright was working on Mahagonny with Weill. In 1937 the Nazis declared Schlichter’s paintings "degenerate", and the public exhibition of his work was banned. ]

Mahagonny is far from being a traditional opera. It tells the story of Mahagonny (pronounced “Mah-ha-GO-knee”), an imaginary American city founded by three criminals on the run, where everything has been commodified, the only real crime is to be poor, and a lifestyle of over-consumption and never-ending vice is unhindered by ethics or morality. Sound familiar? Two of the city’s denizens, a prostitute named Jenny Smith, and a lumberjack named Jim Macintyre, fall in love; but when Jim runs out of cash and can’t pay his bar bill, the boss and co-founder of the corrupt city, Leocadia Begbick, has him arrested. Tried in a kangaroo court organized by the shady and the crooked, Jim is found guilty of having no money - and then summarily executed.

Interestingly enough, Mahagonny has received nothing but praise and enthusiastic acclaim from the corporate press, but with stellar performances by a talented cast how could it be otherwise. Leocadia Begbick is played by Tony Award winner Patti LuPone, Jenny Smith the prostitute is played by Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, and lumberjack Jim is played by tenor Anthony Dean Griffey. The L.A. Opera company’s Music Director, James Conlon, conducted the company’s superb orchestra, delivering Weill’s opus with precision and enthusiasm. John Doyle’s direction and inventive stage production not only updated the parable, making it perfectly believable as a contemporary moralistic tale, he also managed to retain Brecht’s radical ideas concerning theater as a vehicle for social change.

It was in 1927 that Weill and Brecht decided to work on an opera together. Brecht had been writing satirical poems in the early 20’s about a mythical city he called Mahagonny, a debauched metropolis obsessed with money and sordid pleasures. Mockingly compiled as a pseudo-devotional book of prayers and hymns titled Domestic Breviary, Brecht’s poems served as the basis for Weill’s Mahagonny-Songspiel, ten poems set to music that would later be integrated into the full opera for which Brecht wrote the libretto. When the opera was still in its rehearsal stage, Weill commented; “The work we intend to produce is not going to make use of contemporary material that will be out of date in a year’s time but sets out to present our age in a definitive form. Its influence will thus extend far beyond the moment in which it is written.” That Mahagonny continues to ring true to a contemporary audience - nearly 80 years after its premiere, is a tribute to the artistic vision and political clarity possessed by Weill and Brecht.

Original 1930s program guide for Mahagonny

[ Original 1930s program guide for Augsteig und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny. ]

At the opera’s Leipzig premiere in March 1930, Nazi hoodlums initiated protests and threatened violence against the production. The singer Lotte Lenya, who was Weill’s wife and would later play the part of Jenny in the 1931 Berlin production of Mahagonny, attended the Leipzig opening and had this to say about the Nazi assault: “The performance was well underway before I was startled out of my absorption by the electric tension around us, something strange and ugly; by the last scene the riot had spread to the stage. Only after the arrival of the police could the theater finally be emptied.” The police ended up canceling the second performance. Fascist intimidation continued during the opera’s 1931 run in Berlin, and it would increase until the opera was finally banned outright by the Nazis in 1933 - the year Weill and Brecht fled Germany.

Lotte Lenya - Photo by Lotte Jacobi, 1928

[ Portrait of Lotte Lenya - Lotte Jacobi. Black and white photograph. 1928. The famous singer witnessed fascist attempts to disrupt the premiere performance of Mahagonny. Lenya would later play the role of Jenny in the 1931 Berlin production of the Opera. ]

Brecht understood theatre not just as a form of entertainment, but as a vehicle that could help workers understand and analyze their political situation, he felt theatrical performances should appeal to reason and not simply give way to sentimentality. In the 1957 book, Brecht on Theater, the playwright described his theory of “alienation effect” theatre as being that “which prevents the audience from losing itself passively and completely in the character created by the actor - and which consequently leads the audience to be a consciously critical observer.” The original Brecht production of Mahagonny, as with his other plays, utilized various contrivances to prevent viewers from being lulled into a theatrical fantasy. Stage settings were deliberately sparse and flooded with harsh lights, with no attempt to hide stage lighting equipment. Slogans and explanatory text were projected upon stage walls, and actors carried placards onstage bearing political messages. With outbursts of songs whose lyrics drove home his political points, Brecht would use music itself to interrupt stage action.

Photo courtesy of L.A. Opera.

[ The founder of Mahagonny, Leocadia Begbick (played by Patti LuPone), looms large in the capitalist media spectacle at the trial of lumberjack Jim. Photo courtesy of L.A. Opera. ]

By the closing scenes of the L.A. Opera production, if you haven’t already recognized that we are all living in Mahagonny, the opera offers a reflection of our commodity spectacle society that is so searing you’re likely never to forget it. It’s here that the brilliance of John Doyle’s direction becomes apparent. As the lumberjack Jim MacIntyre is put on trial for the crime of having no legal tender, the stage is transformed into something evocative of a set for a television game show. Paparazzi and court reporters roam the stage with hand-held video cameras, projecting the court proceedings onto a giant flat screen monitor suspended from the ceiling. As Jim is sentenced to die and we see his face larger than life on that huge flat screen, it’s as if the ghost of Brecht has come back to scold us for being so easily distracted by the frivolous media spectacle that daily blinds and misleads us.

Photo courtesy of L.A. Opera.

[ The final scene. Audra McDonald as the prostitute Jenny, holding a folded tri-cornered American flag like the ones used at military funerals. Photo courtesy of L.A. Opera. ]

The updated finale of the L.A. production preserves Brecht’s intention of theatre provoking an audience to thought and action. Jimmy MacIntyre has been executed, and as the people abandon the deteriorating and collapsing city of Mahagonny in droves, an oversized electronic ticker-tape machine suspended over the stage flashes its digital red letter message - For the Freedom of the Rich - For Property - For Theft. Forsaking the sinful city, a long line of black-suited men carrying briefcases shuffles grimly by, and out of their midst comes the prostitute Jenny. She’s carrying all that she has left of her lost love Jim, an American flag that has been presented to her, smartly tucked and folded into a tri-cornered shape, the type of flag presented at US military funerals. The obvious reference to America’s war dead in Iraq is chilling. Jenny holds the folded flag up towards the audience - and the stage goes dark.