Anonymous, Madrid, c.1936, Poster: lithograph, 67 x 49.3 cm, Merrill C. Berman Collection.
Walter Ruttmann / Otto Umbehr, From Berlin – Symphony of a City, 1927, Gelatin silver print, 24 x 30 cm, Theaterwissenschaftliche Sammlung, University of Cologne.
Bruno Munari and Riccardo Ricas, Wings of Italy / Exhibition / Milan, 1934, Design for catalogue cover: photomontage, gouache, 28.5 x 21.5 cm, Private collection, Rome.
Ladislav Sutnar, We Live / Worker, 1931, Magazine cover: letterpress, 25.1 x 18.4 cm, Merrill C. Berman Collection.
of Modern Italian Art
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Cut & Paste:
December 21, 2008
Over the last decade, photomontage has enjoyed something of a revival as contemporary artists experiment with new technology. Advances in digital photography and computer-generated special effects have resulted in new kinds of composite photographic works, the majority of which have been disseminated via the Internet and popular magazines. Important, at times monumental, works of digital montage have come to the attention of a new public, as well as collectors and dealers.
This, then, is an opportune moment to explore the work of the great predecessors and innovators who created photomontages by physical means with scissors, scalpel and retouching brush. The exhibition Cut & Paste: European Photomontage 1920-1945 concerns the rediscovery of the sources of modern image-making, bringing together key works by famous and lesser-known masters of the genre.
The manipulation of photographic imagery is as old as photography itself, but the modernist conception of photomontage was a radical extension of techniques and creative attitudes that first emerged in Cubist, Futurist and Dadaist collage in which cut-out photographs and fragments of newsprint from illustrated papers were pasted into drawings and paintings. This method of combining and manipulating photographic elements was first developed towards the end of the First World War by Dadaists in Berlin such as John Heartfield, George Grosz, Johannes Bader and Hannah Höch. Simultaneously, in Moscow young Constructivist artists such as Gustav Klucis, Varvara Stepanova and El Lissitzky started incorporating photographic images into their art work. The choice of the term ‘photomontage’, full of modernist connotations and derived from engineering and film editing, set the technique apart from traditional artistic practices.
Artists and public alike realised that photomontages were charged with a new kind of conceptual clarity, poetic energy and visual power. Flexible, fast witted and sharp edged, they were exceptionally effective in the context of the modern media of mass-communication. New printing systems like photogravure and lithography aided the production and distribution of such imagery in magazines and in advertising. A public much taken by the popularity of the cinema welcomed the dramatic time shifts and spatial illusions photomontage added to the printed page. Like cinema, photomontage spoke to the masses.
Photomontage developed at a time of war and political crisis, in an urban milieu marked by a sense of existential fragmentation and alienation. It was able to express the essence of city life, its glamour and its underlying social tensions. No wonder then that photomontages of ever increasing sophistication were used for political propaganda, the depiction of utopian ideals as well as the dream-world of the Surrealists. Its direct language had the capacity to cross social and linguistic barriers. As the Soviet artist El Lissitzky stated: ‘No kind of representation is as completely comprehensible to all people as photography’. It is therefore not surprising that it was in Berlin and Moscow that the reorientation of photomontage away from a purely artistic application occurred, given the political urgency of the times.
John Heartfield (1891-1968) remains one of the best known figures associated with photomontage, particularly in terms of its political application, devoting much of his work to anti-Nazi imagery. However, his early photomontages were collaborative works with George Grosz (1893-1959), in the context of Berlin Dada. Hannah Höch (1889-1978) and Raoul Hausmann (1886-1971), also represented in the exhibition, were among the other early practitioners of the technique working in the same artistic milieu. Artists across Europe shared a perception of photomontage as offering a means of escaping the limitations of abstraction without returning to figuration.
For many years photomontage was considered a typically German and Russian art form before being taken up in other European countries and the USA. Of those Italian artists who experimented with this genre, Bruno Munari perhaps remains the best known today. Strongly influenced by the work of Mieczyslaw Berman and Lászlò Moholy-Nagy, Munari was associated with F.T. Marinetti’s Futurist movement from the 1920s and began working as a graphic illustrator during the 1930s, creating works infused with irony and playfulness, such as The Smell of an Aeroplane.
The exhibition contains a number of works by Erwin Blumenfeld (1897-1969), who was born in Berlin and whose work was also initially influenced by Dada. After the Second World War, he went on to become one of the most sought-after photographers in New York, working for magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. However, during the 1930s he made a powerful series of photomontages emphasising the murderous brutality of the Nazi regime.
Photomontage was and still is a strikingly modern, popular and truly international medium. The exhibition Cut & Paste: European Photomontage 1920-1945 shows a wide selection of works by artists/monteurs from Germany, Russia, Italy, Czechoslovakia and the Netherlands, such as Blumenfeld, Cesar Domela, Grosz, Hausmann, Heartfield, Höch, Marinus Kjeldgaard, Gustav Klucis, Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy, Munari, Vinicio Paladini and Aleksandr Rodchenko.
This comprehensive exhibition has been made possible by the generosity of many lenders, comprising 170 works drawn from collections in the United Kingdom, Germany and United States, including that of Merrill C. Berman. Curated by the filmmaker and curator Lutz Becker, it will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue and represents a rare opportunity to explore iconic works by pioneering figures of this fascinating genre.