Photomontage from John Heartfield to the Iraq war

This 4 May 2012 video from London, England says about itself:

“Iraq: how, where, for whom?” – Kennard-Phillips and Hanaa Malallah

The Mosaic Rooms, 226 Cromwell Road SW5 0SW
19 April – 12 May 2012
Tues – Sat 11-6pm

What does War achieve and what is achieved by re-presenting acts of violence as images?

“Iraq: how, where, for whom?” generates a series of issues not only about the technique of montage but also whether creating images of atrocities committed against people through war achieves anything, socially or politically, or whether images saturated with an artistic aesthetic – the act of arranging, layering and placing (textures, colours, shapes) – risks overwhelming the initial intention of dissent.

Peter Kennard is well known in the UK as a leading exponent of ‘photomontage’ in the Heartfield tradition. His work spans almost half a century producing images for CND and political campaigns against war and social injustice. The iconic image of his “Haywain with Cruise Missiles” critique is as familiar to people as Constable’s painting of an idyllic England. In recent years he teamed up with Cat Phillips to produce a body of collaborative photomontage works which rage against [their] country’s culture of perpetrating aggressive acts of war – particularly against Iraq. In this exhibition they rest alongside Hanaa Malallah’s orchestrated debris gleaned from her country’s experience (Iraq) as a victim to these barbaric and illegal acts. This empathetic combination from both sides has resulted in an exhibition of works which should be seen.

Hannah Malallah is one of Iraq’s leading contemporary artists. Peter Kennard is a senior lecturer at the Royal College of Art.

From daily The Morning Star in Britain:

John Heartfield and Hanna’ Malallah & kennard phillipps

Tate Modern, London SE1, The Mosaic Rooms, London SW5

Friday 04 May 2012

Since the late 19th-century invention of cheap reprographic printing processes, artists have grappled with the dilemma of making their works relevant to a public already inundated with sophisticated, mostly photographic, mass-media imagery.

In the aftermath of WWI, most artists still disdained or competed with photography. But the communist artist John Heartfield embraced it, so pioneering photomontage in Germany. Committing his talent to the political struggle he understood that photographic imagery and cinema were popular with the masses because they expressed the complexities of modernity in a visually accessible way.

Using satire, humour and visual wit he appropriated and then subverted the mass media’s processes and forms in order to expose the reactionary obfuscations and lies of its messages.

Heartfield amazed his public by juxtaposing separate realities, manipulating scales and using trick photographic techniques such as double exposure and X-ray and added text to convey precise meanings as succinctly as poetry.

By bringing together separate realities he created new ones which revealed the truth.

John Heartfield, This is the salvation that they bring

The ironically captioned This Is The Salvation That They Bring from 1938, protesting at nazi aerial bombings in Spain, transmutes the skeletal fingers of an X-rayed hand into tail smoke from war planes, beneath which lie ruined buildings and murdered children.

Some such as The Spirit Of Geneva (1932), in which the dove of peace is sliced dead by a bayonet, have become iconic. First produced in protest at the shooting of demonstrating workers in Geneva, home of the League of Nations, he reused the motif in East Germany under the slogan Never Again in 1960 and with a poem for peace in 1967.

Rejecting the bourgeois notion of art as a unique commodity, Heartfield’s images were widely dispersed in posters, book jackets, pamphlets and magazines, using mass printing technology.

Probably his most famous works are those for the communist magazine AIZ – the Workers Illustrated Paper – for which he produced montages, sometimes weekly, between 1930 and 1938. A number of them were also flyposted as posters.

Art world legend relates that as a political refugee in Britain during WWII, Heartfield offered his work to the Tate Gallery but they rejected it saying it was not art. Although long acknowledged as a giant of 20h-century art by graphic designers, he is still not accorded this status by the dominant art history narrative.

It is a delight that an entire room of his work is currently on loan to Tate Modern from a private collection. Because this is a free “display” rather than a paying exhibition it has not been hyped by the media and it’s really not to be missed.

In the 1960s the discovery of photomontage by Heartfield and the Soviet Constructivists enabled Peter Kennard to find his voice as a politically committed socialist artist. Photomontages such as his poster showing a cruise missile breaking against the CND logo are well known on the left.

Since 2003 he has collaborated with Cat Phillipps and they now work as a collective under the name kennardphillipps. Like Heartfield, they engage directly with capitalist mass media to subvert its pernicious deceptions.

The series The War You Don’t See uses the same hand-crafted photomontage technique as Heartfield. In some the very “crudity” of this approach – one now unfamiliar to younger artists used to slick digital image manipulation – adds visual punch to the message and implies a critical attitude to expensive electronic media.

Yet their video and digitally printed protest banner shows that they do embrace electronic processes. They use them but refute their tyranny. Their large wall pieces marry digital printing processes with the handcrafted to create tactile, fragile surfaces made from glued layers of newspapers, overprinted and painted.

From afar, George Bush A Portrait (2007) shows a photograph of the president. But seen close-to we discover that this image is digitally printed onto a surface made up of faded sheets of the Houston Chronicle with its inane capitalist content.

Parts of this are ripped to reveal the Arabic newspaper beneath, its coloured images exposing the savagery, torture and destruction which the US inflicted on Iraq and its people.

The Iraqi artist Hanaa´ Malallah’s works are born of direct experience of the war.

Hanaa' Malallah, USA Heritage Flag

This work by Hanaa´ Malallah refers to the Iraqi journalist who threw shoes at George W Bush.

Her aesthetically seductive wall hangings and sculptures reveal their message subtly. Small pieces of thin, frayed canvas are scorched, burned and torn, so evoking the destruction, insecurity and fear which war brings.

But they are then patiently stitched, stuffed, interwoven with string and pasted together so asserting the resilience, tenacity and will of her people to survive and rebuild.

Malallah and kennardphillipps’s collaborative exhibition creates a powerful indictment of the greed, hypocrisy and lies with which western politicians, multinationals and corporate media colluded in the occupation and destruction of Iraq. Iraq: How, Where, For Whom? runs until June 8, free. Opening times: (020) 7370-9990. John Heartfield runs at Tate Modern until the end of December 2012, free. Opening times: (020) 7887-8000.

London’s Tate Modern shows photomontages of John Heartfield: here.


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