A Toronto gallery’s show of rare Dadaist photos and collages, in a popular tourist destination, may, I hope, be a sign of a resurgence of interest in this relevant and instructive period. Erwin Blumenfeld: From Dada to Vogue, at the Corkin Gallery, is a small collection of pieces from one of the minor Dadaists, a German who fled that country during the First World War to the Netherlands and thence on to the United States, where he turned his avant-gardist techniques to commercial fashion photography. The pieces, obtained from his family, range from goofy humorous collages to elegant and quirky nudes. The show reminds us of a period when art was both politically dangerous and formally inventive, a combination that seems impossible now. It also illuminates how modernist avant-gardism bled into the commercial world and shaped the popular aesthetic of the 20th century.
European art from the 1920s and 30s is worth looking at again in the current political context. Since the success of Donald Trump in the United States, the rise of populism in Europe and the resulting political polarization worldwide, artists and their critics have been questioning their political role and value. The art world is seen primarily as an investment market dominated by the rich, art analysis as a foreign language only spoken by academics. There have been many recent calls, in the United States in particular, for an engaged or political art, an art that has some influence on the world. In response to this, there has been a spate of dull propagandistic art that speaks only to allies and doesn’t influence anything. There is no sense that art is actually a part of political decision-making anywhere.
In the capitalist democracies, art will no longer get you arrested. But in the 1920s, even purely formal experimentation with no obvious political associations would garner you the unwelcome attention of brown-shirted bully boys. Blumenfeld, born in Berlin in 1897, discovered the half-serious antics of the Dadaists around 1918 – people who were chanting nonsense sounds as poetry and displaying toilets as art. They called it anti-art, and it rarely had any explicit political content – or indeed any content at all. But still the Nazis were quick to recognize its subversive quicksand and declare it “degenerate” in the 1930s.
Here is an interesting paradox in Dada: a movement that sought to distance itself from any kind of ideological statement, to avoid meaning of any kind, was in itself ideological. The simple mocking of seriousness was enough to constitute an attack on bourgeois order. Its nihilism was inherently anti-authoritarian.
Blumenfeld’s early work, while revelling in the randomness that informs Dada, has an explicitly critical edge. His collages from the 1920s slap words from magazines, programs, cigarette wrappers, photos and sketches together carelessly. As with trance-like “automatic” writing, the point was to find an effect accidentally generated by the action rather than to set out with a statement in mind. But one 1926 collage on display in this show is called The Tapeworm: it shows Adolf Hitler in a kilt with an absurdly large head, the word “patriotic” stuck across his middle. The ridicule is hardy accidental. In 1933, Blumenfeld went as far as to create a collage showing Hitler as a skull emblazoned with a swastika, and the Allies used it as a propaganda image later in the war.
The collages included in this show are not as exciting to us as they would have been in the twenties, as every child is taught to make these more or less random assemblages now, but we must give credit to Blumenfeld’s generation for setting them down that path. What is more compelling are his beautiful photographic portraits and nudes, often done with Man Ray’s “solarization” technique, an effect that uses overexposure to turn dark areas white. The result is an otherworldly glow or halo. The most beautiful on display here is the portrait Tara Twain, from Hollywood, My first American girl (1935), a blonde whose lips look gold. Here we have the beginning of the powerful surrealist association of the female form and the uncanny, the erotic and the dream. Another nude on display here is a photo of a classical sculpture, a plaster female torso, with a grid of lines overlaid on it, rendering it technological or futuristic.
The surrealist erotic would nowadays be called sexist, as it objectifies the female form. It also tends to fetishize individual body parts, removing them from faces and names. (Blumenfeld, it appears, had a particular thing for bums.)
A dreamlike aesthetic was to become central to advertising and fashion magazines in the latter half of the century. Blumenfeld’s career trajectory exemplifies this infiltration of the avant-gardist into the commercial: He was interned in a camp for displaced people during the Second World War, and from there allowed to emigrate to the United States. When he arrived there in 1941, he started working as a freelance fashion photographer and shifted into a world of glamour and luxury. He had his pictures in Harper’s Bazaar, Life and Vogue. A couple of those are on display here, including a pair of elegantly disembodied legs in fishnet stockings and a faceless businesswoman holding an impossible burden of clothing and hat boxes, as if she has been on a nightmarish shopping spree. There is critique of materialism even in this celebration of it.
It is strange that the angry imagery and subversive intent of Dada and Surrealism was to become an informing aesthetic for generations of magazine and pop music album covers in the rapaciously capitalist postwar west. In an age when Freud entered the popular imagination and psychoanalysis became the hobby of the well heeled, Surrealism became the chosen style of luxury itself.
This show has travelled the world and has excited interest as much because of the unexpected trajectory in the artist’s biography – from internment camp to haute couture – as for its content. But the artistic elements it pulls together are not all that disparate. The 1920s combined a political outrage with a sensuality that is now frowned on, as if such sensuality should have no part in progress. There is something charming about a generation of artists that so ingenuously felt they could at once be a part of everything in the world – war, chaos, sex, fashion, commerce – simply by making images they felt were amusing. Their total freedom is still inspiring.