The Poetry at our Fingertips: Part II

Emily Owens
April 26, 2024
April 26, 2024

“A reporter of the poetry of the streets,” is how 20th century poet and art critic Appolonaire was described by Dada & Surrealism author Matthew Gale for Appolonaire’s composition of a poem using only the overheard conversations of nearby pedestrians. In many ways this idea of a “reporter of the poetry of the streets,” can also explain the use of commercial material in the work of Picasso and the European Avant-Garde.  The Industrial Revolution had dramatically altered the streets of Paris. Eugene Atget’s photograph Saint Séverin, rue St. Jacques of 1899 beautifully captures the commercialization of the Parisian boulevards, littered with advertisements; not only on the bollards but lining the walls and streets of avenues. You, dear reader, may now imagine yourself walking down the very same street and consider how thirteen years after this photograph was taken, a young Pablo Picasso might source his images from the urban landscape which had transformed before him—perhaps choosing in his wanderings to pull an advertisement from a bollard to weave into his synthetic cubist works. For a moment we might feel elation, a moment of new possibilities in the urban sphere and the cacophony of images we might source from our ambulatory explorations of it. Picasso’s 1912 Guitar, Sheet Music and Wine Glass assembles a guitar-shape from various paper ephemera, including, on the bottom right, the headline of Le Journal, a French newspaper, ripped precisely to read “the day.”

Saint Séverin, rue St. Jacques, 1899
Eugene Atget
Guitar, Sheet Music, and Wine Glass, Fall 1912
Pablo Picasso

George Braques’ Bouteille et verre standard (Standard Bottle and Guitar) of 1913, follows a similar concept. One can see how Braque builds the guitar from various news articles, and draws in the bottle, employing both “plastic material” and his own hand to create the work. Picasso does similarly with the sketch on the bottom right of his Guitar, Sheet Music, and Wine Glass.

Bouteille et verre standard, 1913
George Braques

The seemingly innocuous collages of Picasso and Braque served as a poeticism of the material culture that surrounded them, and the possibilities therein for art production. Hans Arp, of the German Dada, articulates the playfulness of the early stages of the medium, using “the laws of chance,” to dictate his work, such as in his Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged according to the Law of Chance) 1916-1917. 

Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged according to the Law of Chance), 1917
Hans Arp

Arp’s To Make a Dadaist Poem, of 1920, writes:

Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cutting out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are—an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by a vulgar herd.

According to Gale, “The euphoria of the revolution in the arts between 1900 and 1914 disguised the seriousness of the European political crisis precipitated by the increasing industrial power and ambition of Germany.”

The artistic use of images from mass produced media would shift rather quickly (and in various nations) to one of a deeply traumatized people coming to grasps with the propagandistic nature of print media and the failures of war on the human spirit. Playful experiments like those of Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp, and many other players of the European Avant-Garde would suddenly become grave and political in nature.

A collage of a person with a newspaper over his headDescription automatically generated
Left to Right: The cross was not yet heavy enough (1934), Readers of bourgeois newspapers become blind and deaf; let's take off the stultifying bandages! (1930), Macdonald - Socialism (1930)

Works such as the German born Dada artist John Heartfield, (originally named Helmut Herzfeld) illuminate the ways in which print media would and could be used as a political weapon. John Heartfield, the inventor of ‘photomontage” sourced many of his works from photographic materials. The central image depicts a WWI officer with his face literally engulfed in Germany’s Social Democratic newspapers. The 1930 Whoever Reads Bourgeois Newspapers Becomes Blind and Deaf: Away with These Stultifying Bandages! from the magazine AIZ, No.6, criticizes the propaganda of the German Socialist Party, manipulating their media to shift the  narrative to one ridiculing the party and their own use of propagandistic imagery. The image to the left, The cross was not heavy enough, depicts Jesus Christ, whose cross is being altered into a swastika by a Nazi SS officer. These satirical works are both playful and critically incisive of the German war effort.

A contemporary of Heartfield, Hannah Höch’s Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany of 1919 takes a more playful approach. Here we can see the cogs and machinery which run both the industrial landscape as well as the war effort. Comically dis-proprortionate heads and bodies riddle the composition. Political leaders and ballet dancers, DADA artists and fascist leaders are juxtaposed amongst one another in a story which can be read from left to right, and front to the bottom to explain the efforts of the artistic movement to which Höch belonged, while simultaneously critiquing the Weimar German government.

Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, 1919
Hannah Höch

Surrealism, a movement borne from Dada, used collage-aesthetics and disparate visual information to create radically new possibilities, sourced from our subconscious. While many of these works use a single medium, like painting or frottage, the juxtaposition of absurd elements were borne from the collage and photo-montages of their artistic predecessors.

Une semaine de bonté, 1934
Max Ernst

Max Ernst’s Une Semaine de bonté (A week of kindness) from 1934 recalls Victorian collage practices, with the use of mass-produced illustrations and bird-headed men. Meret Oppenheimers surrealist objects used absurd pairings such as this pair of women’s shoes, tied with twine and resembling a raw chicken on a silver platter. The heels are replaced by frilly paper piping. These juxtapositions are no doubt a nod to the techniques built from early experiments with cultural material, such as Picasso’s.

My Nurse, 1936
Meret Oppenheimer
Untitled (The Family), 1969
Romare Bearden

In the United States, artist Romare Bearden described the American Jazz scene and  New York’s Harlem Renaissance with colorful mixed media collages. Untitled (The Family) from 1930 offers a quiet portrait of Black American life. His denser works such as Watching the Good Trains Go By of 1969 and The Dove from 1964 show their roots in works like Höchs.

Post-WWII movements such as the French-led Situationists would also adapt collage, this time criticizing the emergent post-war consumerism boom of post-war prosperity in Europe. The Situationist term, “détournement” meaning “rerouting” or “hijacking,” included the reuse of mainstream media to subvert its original narrative. The Situationists often altered the speech within a cartoon frame. The concept of détournement was further popularized with the Punk movement of the 1970’s in the U.K, and perhaps most famously, in the subversive works of Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer whose text-based works are often cutting critiques of global consumerism. The cover of The Sex Pistols God Save the Queen, featured an image of Queen Elizabeth with ripped text of the album title obscuring her eyes and lips. Another version of the image includes the late Queen with swastikas in her pupils and a disproportionately large safety piercing her lips.

The Feeding of the Five Thousand, 1978
Gee Vaugher for Crass
Orgasm Addict Album Cover, 1977
Linda Sterling

Crass band member and collage artist Gee Vaucher’s cover for the 1978 The Feeding of the Five Thousand, echoes the political works of Dada artists Heartfield and Höch, with a dense composition critiquing the overwhelming poverty of many English citizens. 

The Buzzcocks Orgasm Addict of 1977 album cover, by Linder Sterling makes a scatching critique of traditional domestic roles for women with a nude female body. Her head has been replaced by an ironing machine and her nipples, by a pair of teeth-baring smiles. This work in many ways echoes works by Höch, such as Ohne Titel of 1930. A female actress's face is obscured by pastiched facial features, with her arms clasped as though waiting for her lover to return. Her arms and head are disproportionately large to the small torso with an exaggerated hourglass figure. Her skirt and legs recall Sumerian or early Roman statuary as she stands alone on a blank, dichromatic horizon. 

Ohne Titel, 1930
Hannah Höch

The use of this cultural ephemera within artworks, cut and spliced together created new narratives while simultaneously pushing back on political, economic and gender norms. This dialogue, as you can see, is one which constantly recalls its predecessors, paying homage while widening the possibilities of the medium within an ideological discourse from the early 1900’s to the late 1970’s.