Esoteric Gallery exhibition Cut and Paste
Left: Design for a postcard for the All-Union Olympiad Moscow Spartakiada, Swimmer, 1928 by Gustav Klucis (1895-1944).
PIONEERS: A gathering of artists in 1922, including Raoul Hausmann, El Lissitzky and Hannah Hoch.
CHRISTINE LINDEY casts an eye over an exhibition of trailblazing early 20th century photomontage artwork.
REELING from the carnage of World War I but elated by the Bolshevik revolution, a group of artists created photomontage – a new visual language for the new age.
Gustav Klucis, Aleksander Rodchenko and El Lissitzky in the Soviet Union and John Heartfield and George Grosz in Germany rejected traditional oil paint and canvas, appropriating the popular imagery of film and photography.
Using scalpel, paste and retouching brush, they transformed it into wondrously imaginative new statements which expressed the sophistication, speed and simultaneity of modern life.
Inspired by filmic manipulation of “reality” such as odd angles of vision, close-ups and multiple images, the photomontage pioneers claimed a similar freedom to suggest states of mind and leaps across time and space.
They juxtaposed separate realities, manipulated scale, amazed viewers with trick techniques such as double exposure or bipack printing of two or more negatives and incorporated abstract art’s flat geometric shapes and lines while retaining the no-nonsense contact with the real world provided by documentary photography.
Fired by socialist commitment to social and political change, these artists had found a visual language that was accessible to a mass audience and was uncompromisingly modern. The addition of text enabled photomontage to convey precise messages as succinctly as poetry.
“Photomontage is a medium serving a purpose,” wrote Klucis. “The old forms of visual art are inadequate for the needs of the revolutionary struggle.”
Crucially, their works were not intended to become the unique high art objects beloved of the bourgeois collector; they were prototype images to be widely disseminated using the same modern printing technology as the popular magazines which had inspired them.
This exhibition presents us with a plethora of the now fragile book jackets, magazine illustrations, post cards and posters in which the early photomontages appeared as well as some of the original art work.
We discover the images of little-known artists such as Solomon Telingater, who produced sharp fusions of text, angular pattern and photography which echo the energy and exactitude of the virtuoso sports people portrayed.
Valentina Kulagina’s poster Women Workers! Strengthen The Shock Brigades! Master Technology And Increase The Ranks Of Proletarian Specialists, 1931, juxtaposes large photographs of factory workers with smaller ones of scientists placed within an armature of geometric forms denoting the precision and modernity of industrialisation.
We see classics such as Lissitzky’s Constructor/Self-Portrait With Compass, 1924. Below.
Refuting the medium and image of the individualist artist as long-haired bohemian portrayed in oil paint, Lissitzky presents himself in superimposed photographs on graph paper as a practical engineer engaging hand and brain to build the revolution.
The medium was enthusiastically embraced by the new worker state as a powerful means of mass communication and agitation.
In Germany, it became a weapon of opposition. Berlin Dadaists like Hannah HÃ¶ch, Raoul Hausmann and Grosz created witty, absurd worlds which sought to discredit and destabilise the militarist and opportunist values of the bourgeoisie.
The communist Heartfield committed his talent to political agitation. In left-wing magazines he produced fierce, direct condemnations of militarism and fascism. The Meaning Of The Hitler Salute /A Little Man Asks For Big Gifts, 1932, shows a small Hitler saluting, his hand reaching over his head to that of a gigantic faceless business man behind handing him bundles of cash.
Soviet and German works dominate, but we also discover Czech, Dutch, Polish and Spanish photomontages, including the anonymously designed passionate and disturbing anti-fascist posters of the Spanish Republic.
Designed with care and accompanied by an excellent jargon-free catalogue, this exhibition conveys the dynamism generated by the new medium.
The modest scale of the works suits the intimacy of this gallery. Each image contains so much to see and read, so many ideas to consider, that we are able to give them the attention that they deserve without being overwhelmed.
Go if you can.
Exhibition runs until December 21. Price £3.50, concessions £2.50.