November 19: Decapitation

#19November 19: Photomontage is the stuff of turbulent times. 

Opening today at 11 am at Art Gallery, Fürst Johann Moritz-Str. 1, 57072 Siegen is Heads will roll, photomontage by Max de Esteban (*1959, Barcelona).

Also today the Drents Museum in The Netherlands and the Kunsthalle Emden, Germany simultaneously open The American Dream: American Realism from 1945 in a double trans-border exhibition continuing to May 27, 2018, with the Assen show covering 1945–1965 and Emden, 1965–2017.

In Assen the show is being promoted with a nine metre tall sculpture of the Statue of Liberty by Groningen by sculptor Natasja Bennink which will grace the head of the canal opposite the gallery, continuing a tradition of sculptural figureheads for their blockbuster shows, including a life-sized Lenin (2012) and a Mayan temple (2016) and during the exhibition Golden Age of China (2011), a 125 metre long glowing Chinese dragon.

Natasja Bennink
Natasja Bennink with her Statue of Liberty in progress.

Bennink’s was chosen from twelve entries as the one making a strong connection between Drents and postwar America and the American dream of freedom and equality for all. Instead of her torch Liberty holds a can of kidney beans in her right hand in passing reference to Andy Warhol‘s Campbell soup cans but more importantly to Drents’ folk hero; Bartje Bartels, a boy, the main character in an early 1900s book series by Anne de Vries, who growing up in a poor family in the countryside, famously refuses to say grace over a plate of beans, which he hates.

Martha Rosler
Martha Rosler (2008) from House Beautiful- Bringing the War Home, New Series, photomontage 76.2 by 101.6 cm

The exhibition includes photomontage not only by Warhol but also by Brooklyn-based Martha Rosler (*1943) who with her video, text, installation and performance, connects domestic life with the conduct of war abroad, for which photomontage played a critical role (she is currently also on show at àngels barcelona, Pintor Fortuny, 27 – 08001 Barcelona, Spain). In 2004 and 2008, to critique the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, she recommenced her series of photomontages Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful, made in response to the war in Vietnam in the late 1960s.

MARTHA ROSLER Point and Shoot From the series House Beautiful- Bringing the War Home, New Series 2008 Photomontage 76.2 by 101.6 cm
Martha Rosler (2008) Point and Shoot from House Beautiful- Bringing the War Home, New Series, photomontage 76.2 by 101.6 cm

The inclusion in Point and Shoot of a stylish and privileged young American woman toting a 1940s large-format press camera as if it were a handbag is an ironic dig at the vanity of that dying breed, the celebrity photojournalist; she turns to make sure we are looking at her rather than at the arbitrary, aggressive exercise of military might against the subjugated population behind her.

Does the inclusion in The American Dream of the likes of Rosler and of Benninks Liberty extend irony to the very staging of this exhibition in Europe at a time when America’s Dream sees the superpower, ever more widely despised and feared, tossing and turning in a sleep of vanity, ignorance and prejudice?

Max de Esteban, in Propositions, begun in 2011, of which Heads Will Roll is the fourth in a cycle also engages with contemporary art and political issues. Proposition One presents obsolete devices (8mm moviola, cassette tape, etc.) as layered transparent radiographs. Proposition Two shows details of a human skull interleaved with shots of halls of learning, while in Proposition Three de Esteban superimposed the inner workings of digital technologies and the body.

John Heartfield (1929) Self-portrait with Police Commissioner Zörgiebel.

The title Heads Will Roll, brings to mind  John Heartfield‘s collages made during the rise of the Nazis, in particular his signature self-portrait symbolically beheading the pro-National Socialist Berlin police commissioner. That reminder, nearly 90 years later, is apt, given the current polarisation and disquieting shift to the right in world politics, particularly in America where de Esteban has lived and worked in Palo Alto and New York, as well as between Madrid and London. He is old enough, at 58, to remember the Franco regime in his home country.

This date November 19 is significant to Heartfield in 1932 for the first instance of the German National Socialists turning his own weapon, photomontage, to their own advantage.

The Illustrierter Beobachter (‘Illustrated Observer’), an illustrated weekly Nazi propaganda magazine published 1926 to 1945 in Munich, produced this cover for November 19 just after elections which saw a drop in National Socialist seats in the Reichstag and a gain in the communist vote.

Screen Shot 2017-11-19 at 3.41.54 pm
Front cover Illustrierter Beobachter November 19, 1932, Und fragt ihr die Stimmen, die ihr zählt, die meine hat den Kampf gewählt! (“And if you ask the votes that count, mine has chosen the fight”)
John Heartfield Political Poster May 13, 1928
John Heartfield (1928) Cover for Die Rote Fahne, May 13, 1928, created as a symbol for the five political candidates that were the greatest political threat to Adolf Hitler and The National Socialist Party.

Simple enough as a montage, it sets the frontal silhouette of a swaggering SA trooper against the giant graphic of a swastika, imitating the bold  starkness of Heartfield’s anti-fascist covers that he had been producing for Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ, ‘Workers’ Illustrated Newspaper’) since 1930, and earlier for Karl Liebknecht’s and Rosa Luxemburg’s Communist party newspaper Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag) – particularly his 5 Finger hat die Hand (“5 fingers has the hand! With these 5 grab the enemy!“).

Heartield reacted to the IB cover in 1933 in his for The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror, published in Paris in August 1933, which promoted an international campaign proposing that the Nazis had conspired to burn the Reichstag as the pretext to establishing their dictatorship.

The campaign around the Brown Book and the trial of Georgi Dimitrov and the other defendants in Leipzig from September to December 1933 was highly successful in alerting the world to Nazi tactics of terror. Its cover (below) shows Heartfield’s ghastly image of Göring, that was shortly to become his the Executioner of the Third Reich for AIZ of September 14, 1933, but the back cover replaces IB’s stormtrooper with a bloodied corpse spreadeagled on the swastika.

John Heartfield, original jacket of The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror. Akademie der Künste, Berlin
John Heartfield (1933) cover sleeve of Braunbuch über Reichstagsbrand und Hitlerterror.

Max de Esteban’s Heads will roll was listed by Lensculture magazine as photo book of the year. The montages are deliberately frightening because they eschew Heartfield’s graphic simplifications or Rosler’s mises-en-scéne, and the easily decoded symbolism of both, for an all-over densely layered and portentous visual collapse.

Max de Esteban (2013) Defined by catastrophe

Recirculated imagery, drawn from all over the Internet, and spanning disparate cultures and past and present, are crunched together in an anarchic recombination. Multiple semi-transparent strata of mostly monochrome imagery – film stills and starlets, marching Chinese military,  propaganda and pornography – are overlapped with tinted geometric forms, leaving no distinct subject. They thus induce paranoid anxiety.

The titles of the series read as if drawn from a random text generator of the kind used to create artist statements automatically (like 500 letters or artybollocks); readable but confounding, like the images they tag. For Hamidah Glasgow of The Center for Fine Art Photography in an interview in July this year, de Esteban, normally reluctant to define their meaning, deigned to interpret two of them;

A mediated distribution of the real and the fictional

About A mediated distribution of the real and the fictional (above) he says; 

We live in a world of increasing abstraction, which means the distance between the world-as-it-is and the world-as-we-live-it. Abstraction is empathy’s enemy. A drone controlled from an air-conditioned office located 5,000 miles away can kill a bunch of people in a market in Africa. Extreme mediation, which is where we are heading to, dissolves love and death into avatars of human emotions.

Max de Esteban (2013) Geographies of permanent emergency

And on Geographies of permanent emergency: 

Fear has always been a key element for society’s control. There is nothing more efficient than perpetual global emergencies too, step by step, dismantling civil rights, redefining citizens’ privacy levels and re-directing emotions against the “malign other.” Through the new tools of social communication we are bombarded with constant remote wars, financial crises, terrorist attacks, job losses, natural disasters,…, you name it. We are fed with a permanent spectacle of uncontrollable risks that promote nationalism and destroys solidarity.


Further interpretation might be discovered in De Esteban’s provocative manifestos which can be found on his website or in this statement on the gallery site. His advance on photomontage image-making is best understood in relation to his pessimism about a world in which our ‘heads will roll’ in a radical, catastrophic apocalypse of socio-economic and political power structures; but also to his faith in digital imaging, the ‘new photography’ that offers the means to encompass and comprehend our own era of ‘alternative facts’, ‘false news’ and hate-speak, just as the monocular vision of early photojournalism was appropriate to its modernist epoch. But the resulting images are left to be examined, and queried as to whether they offer only a critique, which merely adds to the confusion, or an antidote.

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