Category: Photomontage

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. 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. Heartfield. 1932.

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. 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 people 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 in the 1930s.

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 ultra-nationalists, the artist changed his name from Helmut Herzfeld to John Heartfield, which was an extremely “unpatriotic” thing to do at the time.

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 their 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.