House of Dada
From his early Dada and Surrealist photomontages to his later New York fashion shoots, Erwin Blumenfeld insistently parodied objects of desire
It is not the reified photographic Modernism of the museum, nor the clean commercial glow of the fashion shoot that animates the work of Berlin-born photographer Erwin Blumenfeld (1897–1969). Instead, the polarities which electrified the schizophrenic modernities of the interwar period – connecting Dada and Surrealism to photojournalism and fashion photography – flicker through Blumenfeld’s body of work. His corpus can be divided into two: first, the hundreds of Dadaist photomontages produced between 1916–33, but never exhibited during his lifetime. And second, more than one hundred previously unseen transparencies from fashion shoots – shot on the now obsolete Kodachrome and Ektachrome film stocks – found in Blumenfeld’s New York studio after his death. These two strangely invisible bodies of work offer a counterpoint to the highly visible faces of prewar Dada, such as Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann, and the postwar pages of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Life, Look and Cosmopolitan in which his fashion photographs appeared in the 1940s and ’50s. Whilst Blumenfeld’s photomontages were first exhibited comprehensively at the Berlinische Galerie in 2009, the transparencies provide the focus for an exhibition currently on show at the Museum Folkwang in Essen – and which will travel to the Musée Nicéphore Niépce in France – curated by Ute Eskildsen in collaboration with Blumenfeld’s granddaughter Nadia Blumenfeld Charbit and Francois Cheval.
In this second body of images we find a kind of anti-fashion photography. The dresses, hats or accessories that are supposed to be the focus of the pictures hardly register. Blumenfeld does not care about the objects of his assignments – the clothes, the commodities – but instead about his intervention in the visual field. In many images, such as the series which appeared in American Vogue in March 1945, the murky silhouettes of the models’ bodies blur, as if trapped behind the image. The technological apparatus takes centre stage. Over-painted colours further disrupt the conventional language of the advert. In others, such as the shoots for Vogue in 1944 and 1949, he rearranges and stacks heads diagonally, like fragments of a montage. Michel Métayer has described Blumenfeld’s enthralling autobiography Einbildungsroman or Eye to I (first published in French in 1975) as a novel of dis-education, and this is exactly what Blumenfeld is doing to fashion in his images. He is de-educating, de-schooling the industry. He denies and dethrones the commodity, parodying it as an object of desire.
Erwin Blumenfeld got to the pages of Vogue from the cabaret and anarchy of Dada, the agitational montages of John Heartfield, a handbag shop in Amsterdam, and the horror of the concentration camp.
That Blumenfeld would have had a radically avant-garde approach to fashion photography is not so surprising. After all, he got to the pages of Vogue from the cabaret and anarchy of Dada, the agitational montages of John Heartfield, a handbag shop in Amsterdam, and the horror of the concentration camp. In the first two decades of the 20th century, he was both an apprentice in the clothing trade and an avant-garde poet. He was in Berlin in 1915 at the dawn of Dadaism, in the infamous Galerie Der Sturm – the home of Berlin bohemia, responsible for opening German eyes to Cubism, Italian Futurism, Soviet Constructivism and the vision of László Moholy-Nagy. He was friends with the more politicized Dada figures who orbited Sturm such as the communist militants and monteurs George Grosz and Heartfield, and later the anti-fascist anarcho-syndicalist intellectual Arthur Lehning. Blumenfeld took Dada with him when he left Berlin for Amsterdam in 1918. From there, after bankrupting his Fox Leather Company shop in 1935, he went to Paris to try his hand at photography. He ended up working as a freelance fashion photographer for French Vogue – his doorway to the illustrated press of New York, where he fled to in 1941 after being held in a French internment camp. The vast corpus of montages Blumenfeld produced from 1916–33 (some made above the shop in Amsterdam where he used to cut and paste daily) were assembled from popular ephemera – adverts, postcards, theatre programmes, encyclopaedic plates – combined with his own photographic fragments, texts and drawings. Some use a whole magazine page, ironically critiquing the original context, expanding or inverting its ideological contents. Many are built up from the support of postcards, and retain their mobile and ephemeral character. This is Dada as it was meant to be: not conceived for exhibitions and consequently never ossified into exactly the singular objects the Dadaists wanted to deride. Instead Blumenfeld’s Dadaist interventions were social material to be exchanged, gifted, collaborated on, and in circulation like the poetry he was also writing at the time. They can be thought of as serial short stories; visual aphorisms. Many of Blumenfeld’s photomontages have the chaotic accumulation of Höch or Hausmann. They share the same self-reflexivity and anti-branding as well as critical commentary on the political world of the Weimar Republic, German inflation, and advertising. Dogs are given gas masks, zeppelins are made to hover over Manhattan, and in one of his most iconic montages, Hitler (1933), the dictator’s face becomes a skull, a swastika branded on his forehead. Interestingly, this sharply politicized montage was Blumenfeld’s only Dadaist intervention to reach a mass audience. The Allied Forces used it as the cover of a propaganda leaflet dropped over German cities in 1943.
In his fashion photographs Blumenfeld repeats the strategies of cutting away and veiling and unveiling that are found in his montages. Layering clearly remains at the heart of Blumenfeld’s process in this later work. Many of the photographs are constructed following a Dadaist accumulation of pasted fragments deconstructing the picture plane. That Blumenfeld saw his prewar photomontages and postwar fashion photographs as operating in the same visual and discursive field is clear from his photobook My One Hundred Best Photographs published posthumously in 1981. Here, he juxtaposed images from his fashion shoots with earlier avant-garde montages. One pair presents a seated model whose head is violently bound in cloth next to a minotaur, constructed from a photograph of a calf’s head and cast as a dictator. But it is not just the Dada of Berlin in these works. There are myriad French Surrealist strategies in Blumenfeld’s fashion prints. In many of Blumenfeld’s images bodies multiply, materialize and foreground the fetishistic gaze just like George Brassaï’s Paris mirror pictures of the 1930s; opening up the fashion photograph’s mise-en-abyme to reveal the labyrinthine social encounters performed within. Elsewhere, in images such as Virage Bleu (1944) solarized faces divide like cells or shifting forms appear, reminiscent of Raoul Ubac’s Surrealist work. In others, the naked forms of models morph into androgynous shapes or landscapes like Man Ray’s Surrealist photographs. But this isn’t the domesticated version of Surrealism incorporated into the language of the brand – Blumenfeld’s radical approach to image making was clearly as embedded in the transgressive politics of Surrealism’s genesis as Brassaï’s. In the late 1930s his photographs of nudes appeared in the pages of the quarterly magazine Verve, produced by the publisher Tériade, who established it in 1937 after leaving Andre Breton’s Minotaure. Tériade was drawn to Blumenfeld’s images of that year, which showed melting bodies distorted under wet silk and placed them on pages next to those of Man Ray, Brassaï and Ubac. If Surrealism can be seen as being drained of its radical politics in the postwar period, and increasingly co-opted by the world of advertising, the complex visual field of the illustrated press in the 1930s reminds us of the fact that figures such as Brassaï produced images that were deployed simultaneously on both the pages of Breton’s Surrealist journal Minotaure and the covers of the popular magazines which festooned the newspaper stands such as Vénus and Paris-Soir. The same dialectic between avant-garde and mass culture (and particularly the fashion industry) was at the heart of German photographic modernity, not only via the Bauhaus’s embrace of the industrial and commercial, but in the work of figures such Ilse Bing, Lotte Jacobi, Marianne Breslauer, Gisèle Freund and Florence Henri – which traversed commercial, studio, photojournalism and fashion’s photographic fields.
From 1958–64 Blumenfeld also made a series of short pilots for commercials for clients including the department store Dayton’s and cosmetic companies Helena Rubenstein, Elizabeth Arden and L’Oreal. In them models in sequinned dresses are made to shift around in a stilted fashion like 1920s heroines in silent cinema. As experimental as his still photography, the films also use the jarring splicing of abstraction and documentary footage employed by Dada filmmaker Hans Richter. In one, a grinning model’s head spins around, like the rotary discs in Duchamp and Man Ray’s Anemic Cinema of 1924–6. Like the latter, Blumenfeld’s films also shuttle between the discursive and visual, and arguably constitute a similar critique of the cinematic image as object of visual sensation. What is striking about some of Blumenfeld’s images is that they don’t just look backward to avant-garde montage, but forward to the fractured Hollywood portraits of John Stezaker. In a post-Duchampian manner they attend to a more general deconstruction of vision itself, de-aestheticizing fashion’s shiny surfaces, and in so doing, demanding an activated and critical spectator-consumer.
The avant-garde’s amorphous photographic imaginary of the early 20th century was as vehemently anti-petit bourgeois and anti-consumerist as it was anchored in the mass cultural world of commodity forms. It was in the photographic field where the internal tensions of the avant-garde’s attempt to reject the bourgeois subject and radically collapse art and life were most explicitly articulated. The heir to this complex photographic modernity was the New York of the 1950s and ’60s: when exiled figures like Blumenfeld occupied the ground of both militant monteur and Manhattan fashion. His Dadaist unravelling of fashion’s fetishistic gaze from within finds a provocative successor in William Klein, whose photographic exile went the other way, from New York to Paris. Yet, Klein also produced fashion photography that had less to do with fashion, and shared more with his biting satirical and politicized photo-essays. Having worked for Vogue for ten years, in 1966 Klein produced the film Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? which engaged the neo-Brechtian strategies of French New Wave cinema to produce a scathing parody revealing the grotesque excesses and vacuity of the fashion world. Like Klein, Blumenfeld could dissect the mechanisms of the culture industry via the agitational strategies of the avant-garde from the inside out. Blumenfeld’s fashion photography of the 1940s and ’50s, and the few short experimental films he made in the late ’50 and early ’60s deploy the tactics of the avant-garde against the grain of the objects of desire they staged. This Janus-faced political mobility, which enabled the hijacking of the mainstream and populist by the marginalized and counter-cultural provides a radical model for today, when the all-consuming, co-opting nature of both the market and the art world can seem suffocatingly totalizing.
Sarah James is a lecturer in Art History at University College London. She is the author of Common Ground: German Photographic Cultures Across the Iron Curtain, published by Yale University Press.
First published in Issue 9