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The Most Important Art in Photomontage
Composed of clippings from mass media, this large photomontage combines images of industrial machines, leading contemporary figures, and text, in disruptive but ironic juxtapositions. Implicitly commenting upon Weimar society, the work assembles images of establishment figures around the phrase "anti-dada" while various anti-establishment radicals and artists cluster around the word "DADA". The asymmetrical composition reflects both the chaos of World War I, and the anarchic opposition born of its aftermath. At the same time, the image wryly challenges gender inequities, as a small map in the lower right shows the only countries that allowed women the vote. As art critic Laura Cumming wrote, "female acrobats leap and tumble among the soldiers, guns and plutocrats [resulting in] a juggling act of bristling vitality". For her part, Höch described herself as a "photomonteur" (photo-mechanic): "our whole purpose was to integrate objects from the world of machines and industry in the world of art" she said.
This work, emblematic of the Berlin Dada movement, was hailed at the First International Dada Fair in 1920 (though initially Grosz and Heartfield rejected Höch's inclusion and only softened there position on the advocacy of Höch's lover and artistic collaborator, Raoul Haussman). Like other women artists of her era, Höch was largely overlooked. She was "rediscovered" following the Museum of Modern Art's 1968 exhibition, Dada, Surrealism and their Heritage. Critic Brian Dillon added that Höch's "innovative presence has survived in the work of later monteurs: in the laconic and unsettling incisions practised by John Stezaker, in the pointed assault on images of women and commodities in the work of Linder Sterling, and more recently in the playful grotesques of the late Polish artist Jan Dziaczkowski".
This photomontage, which combines elements of collage, drawing, and the photogram, depicts El Lissitzky, looking fixidly forward, while his right eye seems to look through the center of his open palm. The same hand balances a compass over one of his graphic works, partially depicted, on the left side of the frame. The work conveys the unity of artistic vision and execution and suggests the artist is both the constructor of his work and is constructed by it.
A leading figure in Constructivism, El Lissitzky's work incorporates the movement's emphasis upon mathematical form and geometric grids. It is also considered a pioneering example of New Vision photography. As the Museum of Modern Art described it, "The essence of New Vision photography is pointedly expressed in this picture [...] which puts the act of seeing at center stage [...] insight, it expresses, is passed through the eye and transmitted to the hand, and through it to the tools of production".
Lissitzky created a number of photomontages in the early 1920s; each noted for its elegant multilayering. Photographic archivist Klaus Pollmeier, who conducted an in-depth study on behalf of the Museum of Modern Art, wrote, "despite the relative paucity of his means, what remains remarkable to the close observer of Lissitzky's photographic images is that the artist does not at all appear to have felt constrained. He seems to have visualized many aspects of the final image before the exposure of the negative in the camera, compensating for the shortcomings of his limited technology with a sharp and almost boundless imagination".
This photomontage portrays various figures, alone or in groups, as if placed within three shapes, resembling test tubes. At lower left, a group of African men huddle in a linked ring, while atop the test-tube a woman aims a rifle at an anatomical diagram of a man (we know this as he is wearing a trilby hat) in the adjacent test-tube. Above the man, another man aims a billiard cue at a huddled group of women, while in the upper test tube, a German officer stands as if surveying a military parade. The juxtapositions are disconcerting and arbitrary, though connected by a sense of potential violence and arbitrary social forces, informed by gender and race.
Making this image while he was teaching at the Bauhaus (between 1923 and 1928), Moholy-Nagy called his photomontages "photoplastics" and defined them as "a compressed interpenetration of visual and verbal wit". Also called In the Name of the Law, this work was prompted by events in Vienna in 1927 when police killed 89 protestors in a crowd that stormed parliament. Influenced by the Dadaists (he made his first photomontages while sharing a studio with Kurt Schwitters in the early 1920s) Moholy-Nagy has placed his figures, cut from magazines, within a Constructivist schema. As art critic Andy Grundberg noted, his "use of photomontage remains distinctive not because he originated the form but because of what he did with it. Just as his theoretical program was distinct from those of the Dadaists and the Constructivists, so, too, was his imagery. The Dadaists were satirists and the Constructivists were social idealists; Moholy, a romantic who managed to be both a utopian and a pragmatist, was able to span both positions, and more".