The general chaos was captured in the driving art movement in Germany in the years between the World Wars by German Expressionism. But once Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party began their ascent into power, culminating in 1933 with the beginning of the Third Reich, it was the Berlin branch of the Dada art movement that captured the zeitgeist of fear and resistance in late-Weimar Germany and in particular its central characteristic of nihilism and simultaneous destruction of cultural heritage. The dadaists assaulted bourgeois culture, but were artistic constructivists and eclectic experimenters, that in the beginning embraced the idea of the illogic serving as an aesthetic. The nazis regarded national Socialism as an all encompassing National aesthetic, under state control, patriotic, linear and decorative.
With Dada’s founding members all affected in one form or another by World War I, they banded together through their suspicion of language and logic, the so-called trustworthy foundations of society that had lead to the utter destruction of the Great War. The Dada in Berlin continued to follow the anti-war stance of Zurich, with John Heartfield and the other Dadaist creating ironic and often darkly humorous collages criticizing Hitler and the Nazi regime. Both the technological developments in printing and the prevalence of Nazi imagery and propaganda made collage a natural and highly effective medium for the Berlin Dadaists to work in.Heartfield used the technology of his age to similarly co-opt and re-contextualize the Nazis to ironic ends, both political and as orginal works of art.The associations between money and war, capitalism and militarism were persistent themes with George Grosz and Heartfield in particular.
”…the idea of photomontage was as revolutionary as its content, its form as subversive as the application of the photograph and printed texts which, together, are transformed into a static film. Having invented the static…poem, the Dadaists applied the same principles to pictorial representation. They were the first to use photography as material to create, with the aid of structures that were very different, often anomalous and with antagonistic significance, a new entity which tore from the chaos of war and revolution an entirely new image; and they were aware that their method possessed a propaganda power…” ( Raoul Hausmann, 1931 )
Some of Heartfield’s photomontages deploy the device of divided or fragmented surfaces such as the book illustration “The Land of Record Profits” (1927) which uses the direct juxtaposition of separate fragments and contrasts pictures of beauty queens with a lynching , scattered American coins and a cheque, and newspaper headlines and advertising slogans such as “I’d rather be safe with my hard-earned money that’s why I take it to the Citizen’s Savings Bank” and “money opens all doors”.Rather than represent reality by a single, unfragmented image. Heartfield, by breaking up and juxtaposing images was able to make visible the class nature of social relations and lay bare the contradictions of capitalism and foreground the menace of war and fascism. See for example, The Finest Products of Capitalism (1932) in which an unemployed man (in 1932 six million Germans were unemployed) with a placard reading “Any Work Accepted” stands on the train,with the image of an expensive wedding dress of an evidently bourgeois bride. In 1917 the French artist Marcel Duchamp created one of the most famous of Dadaist statements in New York. He turned a man’s urinal on its back and signed it R Mutt. This, known as a ‘ready made’ or ‘found object’, and was an attack on the traditional preconceptions of what art is, also by signing it he questions the value attributed to a signature. The art may have been adsurd, but was not insane as was the Reich’s book burning, which was a collective submission to an epidemic of mental illness among the ruling classes:
”In this distemper the book burning students were joined by some of the most distinguished memebers of the academic community. One of them was a founder of existentialism, the philosopher and metaphysician Martin Heidegger, a student of the German-Jewish founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, and one of the most abstruse and influential among contemporary philosophers. …he made an address… that strongly implied approval of the book burning.” ( The Unmasking of Adolf Hitler, Eugene Davidson )
With the illogical and absurd, with irony, cynicism and anarchy, playing a major part in their works, the Dadaists, satirically drew sharp contrasts between the lives of those who promote the war, the ruling class, and those who fight it, the working Class. One such drawing by Grosz entitled ‘Fit for Active Service’ (1918) depicts a rotten, skeletal corpse being declared fit to fight on the front line by a corpulent doctor. Grosz himself had twice been called up and twice discharged for being unfit. On the second occasion he was saved from a firing squad by the intervention of an influential patron.In these paintings Grosz uses his skills as a caricaturist to produce vivid, grotesque, nightmarish, portrayals of those who control society. Businessmen, Clergy, Generals, are all portrayed not as the polished, fine, refined gentlemen of Academy art, but as vicious, selfish, and uncaring individuals with superficial identities.
Almost from the start Grosz and the others found themselves in trouble with the people they were satirising. During the First international Dada fair held in Berlin, Grosz and Heartfield were charged with defaming the military for among other things sticking a pig’s head on top of a dummy dressed in a military uniform. On this occasion he was fined 300 Marks.On many other occasions he was charged with obscenity and blasphemy for his frank depiction of issues like poverty, prostitution, greed and the relation these things have to wealth, the Church and the State. One painting depicts a prostitute forced to sell herself to an uncaring, unfeeling businessman. Entitled ‘Daum Marries her Pedantic Automation’ (1920), it depicts the businessman being fed a series of numbers through the top of his head which then feeds through a machine which has replaced his internal organs, his “wife” in a state of partial undress looks on at the numbers being fed in. How could the cream of academia rationalize the dementia around them:
”…. and thus the eminent, esoteric philosopher (Heidegger ) came to much the same view as did an untutored crackpot Gauleiter such as Julius Streicher. The revolution spared nothing and no one…. As Heine had written a century before: ‘There where books are burned, in the end people too are burned’ ” ( Davidson )
By the mid 1920s the Dada movement had begun to split, Andre Breton a Frenchman founded the Surrealist movement. This linked the original concept of Dada with the new theories of Sigmund Freud, but in a much more organised and doctrinaire way. Individuals like Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and Man Ray, were some of the principal artists in this new and revolutionary movement. In Germany, however, a movement called, Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) linked the Dadaists’ satire to the realist eliminates of the German Expressionists.Whilst the individuals involved like Otto Dix, Grosz and Heartfield had differing styles they were all linked by common themes Horror of war, social hypocrisy, and moral decadence, the plight of the poor and the rise of Nazism which cohesively united this group.
” Hitler celebrated not science, but art as the source for saving Western culture. Adolf Hitler, himself a frustrated artist, conceived of his mission as saving the west from spiritual degeneration” ( Michael Zimmerman ) Chief curator and appropriator of good taste. If he had only been accepted at art school. But then his work was so outstandingly banal and boring…..the antithesis of art.
”Hitler’s political-artistic ambitions went far beyond public buildings and landscapes to encompass the entire German landscape. Hans Jurgen Syberberg has argued that Hitler viewed the Third Reich as a total work of art,analagous on a national scale to the total works of art attempted by Wagner at Bayreuth. … we ordinarily think of Hitler’ interest in film perjoratively, but have failed to consider the astonishing possibility that World War II was directed like a big budget war film to be viewed from Hitler’s bunker. The gruesome image of Germany in flames in 1945 may be regarded as the final scene in a historical spectacle generated by suicidal impulse. The drive to create an amoral state defined by art and violence could only end in self destruction.”( Heidegger’s Confrontation With Modernity, Michael Zimmerman )