Category: Photomontage

Battle for the soul of the nation

[ Left ] The President speaks about unity. [ Right ] The President speaks about peace. The artwork on the right is a photomontage created by artist Josep Renau in 1963.

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. 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. 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… these companies 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 socialist 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, the communist Renau went into exile in 1939. Like many thousands of Spaniards fleeing fascism he settled in Mexico. Immediately he befriended the muralist and fellow Stalinist 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 a leftwing 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 the publication 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.” Indeed.

The traditional donkey dumped for the big “O.”

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 traditional 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.

In Nast’s cartoon A Live Jackass Kicking a Dead Lion, the donkey represents the Copperheads, Americans who opposed the Civil War, blamed it on the Abolitionists, and wanted to negotiate peace with the Confederates. The donkey kicks a lion that represents Edwin Stanton, the anti-slavery lawyer who served President Lincoln as the US Secretary of War during most of the Civil War. The war ended in 1865 and Stanton died of ill health in 1869. 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.