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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

German Dada

One of the favorite projects of my fourth grade art class involves their cutting pictures out of magazines then juxtaposing and collaging them together into funny arrangements which I call collage cartoons. Who amongst us hasn't, at one time or another, cut a head from one figure and installed it on another. Today it's primary school fun. In the 1920s, with the growth of high-quality printed photographs in newspapers and particularly magazines, it was a new delight; it was Avant-garde art, mostly of the German variety; and it was anything but child's play. It was serious, political, controversial, and for one daring artist, almost deadly.   
The Dada movement was a German-French revolt against the social and political forces that had gotten the world into its first global war. (Dada also had an American cousin.)  As an art movement it was paradoxical in that it was anti-art, but then it was anti-nearly-everything-else, too, so perhaps that shouldn't surprise us.  In Paris, it was largely literary in nature.  In Berlin however, it spoke most eloquently and brashly in the form of the photo montage.  Berlin in the 20s was a strange, dark, seductive place, full of wild-eyed fanatics of all stripes, drinking and drugging themselves into oblivion while the rest of the world sought to punish Germany with economic sanctions, hardships and destitution in restitution for the First World War.   
Have No Fear--He's a Vegetarian,
1836, John Heartfiels
Artists such as Raoul Hausmann, Hannah Hoch, and John Heartfield mounted everyday objects and images into social and political statements that managed to outrage just about everyone--as intended.  Perhaps the most outspoken of this group was John Heartfield.  Born Helmut Herzfeld in 1891, he was trained in a crafts school in Munich and later worked for a publisher in Mannheim.  Having been drafted into the war, he faked a nervous breakdown and ended up a civilian letter carrier who was not above dumping his assigned deliveries to incite dissatisfaction and protest the war.  His most explosive work came in the early thirties as he made Hitler's political rise the target of his creative venom.  His photo montage, Have no Fear--He's a Vegetarian, depicts a butcher, his head replaced by Hitler's, sharpening his knives, hungrily eyeing a rooster, the symbol of France.  When eventually Hitler came to power in 1933, he ordered Heartfield's arrest.  The artist made a hair-raising escaped by literally bailing out through his second-story bedroom window. 

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