Monday, February 23, 2009

Erwin Blumenfeld: I Was Nothing But a Berliner, Dada Montages 1916 - 1933

The claim to the "invention" of montage has been made by many. Perhaps like the birth of photography, there were a few innovators unknowingly moving in the same direction from different points. The Dadaist Raoul Hausmann explained his "claim" about inventing photomontage in 1918 in his 1958 memoir. "In nearly every house there was to be found hanging on the wall a color lithograph depicting an infantryman in front of military barracks. In order to render this memento...more personal, a portrait photograph of the owner...had been glued in place of the head in the lithograph. It was like a thunderbolt: one could - I saw it instantaneously - make pictures entirely from cut up photographs."

Hannah Hoch had a very similar moment of recognition upon seeing the same kind of technique where in an "amusing oleograph" in a fisherman's home, "...five soldiers in five different uniforms...upon whom the head of the fisherman's son had five times been glued. This naively kitschy oleograph hung in many German rooms as a memento of the son's service as a soldier." I guess the Dadaists were correct when in their manifesto they claimed that "anyone can Dada," making a fisherman ultimately responsible for inspiring the likes of Hausmann, Hoch, Heartfield, Grosz, Herzfeld, Baader, Dix, and Citroen.

Erwin Blumenfeld who was one of the most sought after fashion photographers of the 40s and 50s kept his early "Dada montages" that he produced between 1916 and 1933 mostly a secret. Never intending them to be for public viewing, he gave them as personal gifts or enclosed in love letters to his fiance. A new book by Hatje Cantz titled Erwin Blumenfeld: I Was Nothing But a Berliner, Dada Montages 1916 - 1933 explores this secret passion that predates the cited "inventors" of the medium.

His beginnings as a failed art dealer in Berlin shifted him towards the garment trade. His friendships with the likes of Walter Mehring, Paul Citroen and later George Grosz, fueled his own interests in painting, writing, and theater. His garment career was eventually bankrupted by the National Socialist seizure of power, forcing him back into the arts - an act that he later expressed gratitude towards Hitler for.

His early experiments were not strictly with photomontage but with brush and scissors. Using his talents as a painter, he combined images - photographs, paintings and drawings - often onto broadsheet posters allowing fragments of the underlying text to show through. These texts introduce the early thought towards the "ready-mades" that would disrupt the perception of art some years later.

Even though he was surrounded by the early Dadaists, and perhaps one by default himself and of some accomplishment, he is not once mentioned in the 500 page MoMA Dada book. In 1920, Paul Citroen mentioned Blumenfeld in regard to being a Dadaist in Richard Huelsenbeck's Dada Almanach, but Blumenfeld's aversion to being a part of groups may be the reason he was never officially associated with them. His aversion lay with the Dada movement's aspirations to globalization appeared to Blumenfeld as a negative German characteristic. Still, it is hard to not read the subtitle, I Was Nothing But a Berliner with dual meaning, perhaps referring more towards his de facto similarities in method with the Berlin dada group than a proud claim of nationality.

His tendency to inject cynicism and outrage into his montages during the second World War leads into direct comparison to Heartfield's work in the same vein. Images of Hitler with a skull for a face or with blood streaming from his eyes and mouth or a flight of fantasy to single handedly stop the dictator in Bloomfield vs. Hitler that depicts a plane flying over Hitler's head with a bomb strapped to the undercarriage that has Blumenfeld's name scrawled onto the side. (On the bomb is written Bloomfeld, but one of his stage names was Bloomfeld).

As a photographer Blumenfeld continued montage inspired techniques into the world of fashion and some of his creations that appeared in French Vogue reflect this. Some were repeated motifs that derive from his earlier montage. One series depicts women's fashion juxtaposed against cold industrial structures and arial cityscapes.

Erwin Blumenfeld: I Was Nothing But a Berliner is a well produced book in keeping with many of Hatje Cantz's publications. It is very text heavy but is interspersed with illustrations throughout. This isn't always my favorite approach as the work is constantly in competition with the layout but this approach may minimize a certain jumbled and disparate feel that the work has on the whole. He tried many things and, as I mentioned before, he didn't intend for much of this work to be viewed publicly so his freedom of expression and experimentation is what is to be enjoyed here. The texts by Helen Adkins give complete detail to his life and a fine look into this artist whose experiments placed him on parallel track to the more "well known" makers of montage of his time. "Who did what first" is not necessarily the question to be answered, "who accomplished what" is more interesting and Blumenfeld has finally found, through the efforts of this book, a deserving place in montage history as an innovator and a contender.