In this essay I will aim to look at the history of photomontage and to also draw concise conclusions from the artwork produced specifically in inter-war Germany. I will debate the ideas of why it became so popular, in a country with political unrest. Also I will look at Photomontages strengths and weaknesses, both artistically and politically. To fully understand how Photomontage came about, we must first look at the Dada movement of the early 20th century. This movement was very much responsible for influencing not only Photomontage, but also Surrealism and Pop Art.
It is therefore a key phase of the modernist movement. Indeed many Dadaists eventually became experts in the field of photomontage, so it seems only right to first analyse briefly this Forerunner. Dada began in the First World War in Switzerland, and quickly spread to most parts of Europe as an anti-art movement. Dada was considered by its creators as an anti-art movement, because Dada aimed to be a complete contradiction of Arts socio-political values. Dada in Berlin leaned towards the angrier and politically motivated approach to the arts.
Unquestionably because of what the war had done to the economy and state of Germany. The political climate in Germany was one of extremes, with the communist and fascist parties fighting for control. Therefore it is perfectly conceivable that Dada would take a similar extreme stance. "Towards the end of the war Berlin was a half-starved nightmare city, and there was increasing social and political chaos, which was to last until 1933"1. This social and political chaos gave the Dadaists the perfect grounds to use their movement as a way of promoting political ideals.
In blaming Capitalism for The Great War they turned to anarchy, nihilism and communism, the complete opposite. Hoping that it would stop a war of such scale from happening again. The ties between artwork and the political beliefs of the Berlin Dadaists was strong, they hated expressionist art because it said nothing of the current social circumstances. Photomontage evolved directly out of Dadaism, allowing artists to comment on social and political problems. "For the Dadaists, photomontages mechanical, impersonal qualities offered a powerful antidote to what they considered expressionist self indulgence"2.
So in a sense Photomontage came about as a weapon of social realism. Dada artists quickly began using photomontage as a political weapon. 1. Dawn Ades Photomontage (London: Thames and Hudson, 1976), p11. 2. Photomontage, David Evans and Sylvia Gohl p13 The most prominent of these was John Heartfield, who worked extensively with the German communist party. Heartfield is a good example of a political artist. He worked throughout his life on montages, most satirising German politics. He even changed his name to Heartfield as a form of protest.
Here is an example of Heartfields early work depicting the First World War through montage. It is titled "After ten years: father and sons" It shows young cadets being led by a German general, with the skeletons of their dead fathers overlooking them. This gives a clear message that does not need explaining. Heartfield is warning of the dangers of another war, if Germany chooses the wrong leader. Germany's current situation was that of political and social unrest, people wanted a military figure to lead the country. In creating this image he has predicted history, as this becomes a reality fifteen years later.
This is also an important image because it shows Heartfield moving away from dada and towards a more composed image. The image has three clear composites, taking up a specific area of the picture. Previous photomontages by Heartfield were much more erratic and Dada like, with lots of objects in a muddle together. This showed the potential for Photomontage in politics. "Dadaism went on to develop artists such as John Heartfield, who daringly took on the German political power in both World Wars. "3 So we have understood that Heartfield, originally a Dadaist moved onto photomontage as a means to express political opinions.
This suggests that photomontage has important values that make it very useful in persuading people. Dada was erratic, and difficult to comprehend. With Photomontage Heartfield was able to speak to the masses with his work. "His works were political propaganda aimed at a wide public, not private works of art"4 Additionally it seems that photorealism plays a key part in the use of photomontage and its power. Even though the photographs are stitched together they still give the message in a clear and more reliable way than cartoons or paintings.
"Although clearly symbolic, their effect is all the more powerful because they are real objects"5 This realism is key to the success of photomontage. It helped firstly to bring modern art and political critique to the masses and secondly it posed real views in photographic form. They were more serious than cartoons. An artist that disobeys this idea is Hannah Hoch. While most of her work is abstract and very different to Heartfield, she still used her artwork for political reasons. Her own political beliefs of feminism come through in her work. An example would be Strong armed men (right).
3. Dada essay, www. artessay. com/levgrav/2359u59/40/dada5849-3584/0u0/ 4. Dawn Ades Photomontage (London: Thames and Hudson, 1976), p13 5. Dawn Ades Photomontage (London: Thames and Hudson, 1976), p14 Although a subtle feminist piece, it shows idea's of Dadaism and also of a theme regular in her pieces, that of men and women becoming one. This is a simple idea yet important. It conjures up ideas of a modern utopian society, something that was in many minds at this time. It also conveys an idea of social equality, something rarely discussed in 1920's Europe.
Photomontage has allowed her to express this idea of equality in a blunt way, the edges of the montage clearly visible. In fact with most montages this bluntness is perhaps a key factor in making the images interesting. The imperfections of the image make it much more interesting than carefully created montages. It makes photomontage look like a composition of thoughts that are pulled from the mind and pieced together on paper. Hochs style is different from Heartfield, but important because it is putting forward an opinion through montage.
It creates this opinion for the mass audience, to view. Additionally Hoch used montage to create aesthetically pleasing images, using colourful pictures cut from magazines. These early users of Photomontage influenced artists such as Barbara Kruger, (right) who use photomontage in modern times to critique politics. In this picture Kruger has used a low quality picture of President Bush. This is reminiscent of the low quality pictures of 1920's magazines and newspapers. The use of red bordered lettering is also taken from early montage work.