SOME CONTEXTS FOR THE WORK OF SEÁN HILLEN
David Evans 1993
works with photomontage, a deceptively modest medium.
Popular with primary school teachers as a cheap and easy craft activity,
it has also proved itself capable of registering some of the major cultural
and political crises of the twentieth century.
In 1931 Raoul Hausmann
described photomontage as 'static film'.
It's the shortest definition and the most suggestive -both films and
photomontage involve the planned editing of photographs, and both had
a golden age in the twenties.
Indeed the popularity of photomontage at this time was connected with
its proximity to what was viewed as the one truly modem art form, cinema.
Montage is a German
word meaning the fitting of parts by an engineer.
Describing oneself as a photomontage artist, therefore, was a calculated
provocation in which the traditional distinction between aesthetic and
industrial activities was collapsed. Such boundary crossing was not
an isolated phenomenon, but part of a more general identification by
artist with the engineer as modem liberator.
The United States was often presented as the rôle model and photomontage,
with its industrial connotations, was seen as the appropriate medium
for representing American inspired, technological utopias. Significantly,
'Americanism' was strongest in those areas most convulsed by World War
1 -Central and Eastern Europe, and it was precisely here that photomontage
flourished in the twenties.
Photomontage has survived longer than the urban, industrial vision with
which it was originally associated. Today, dystopic images of cities
and technology out of control are more the norm. Seán Hillen
shows cities at war. References to 'new towns' are ironic. And the emancipatory
images of racing cars and aeroplanes, beloved by montage artists of
the twenties, have been replaced by the jeeps and helicopters of the
British Army, key factors in the military subjugation of Northern Ireland.
a second model for photomontage. From this perspective, the montage
artist appears as reveller rather than engineer, using the classic repertoire
of carnival -masking, hybridisation, metamorphosis, hierarchy inversion-
to imaginatively turn the world upside down.
The satirical potential of photomontage was most thoroughly explored
by John Heartfield, particularly in his anti-Nazi magazine images of
the thirties. His recent retrospective at the Irish Museum of Modern
Art, Dublin, offered a rare chance to see the range of his work, and
to distinguish the historically specific and the still useful.
The exhibition showed how Heartfield's satires were firmly anchored
within a pro-Soviet world view. Ultimately, the single theme of his
anti-Nazi work was a contrast between the darkness of Hitler and the
light of Stalin.
One unusual feature
of the show was the inclusion of surviving preparatory artwork. This
revealed, more clearly than the end product on the magazine page, the
elaborate ways in which Heartfield and his assistants painted, sprayed
and retouched the combined photographs. The result was a crafted image
that seemed worlds away from the anti-painting, machine aesthetic that
formed so much of photomontage in the twenties.
has no interest in Heartfield's Communist politics or his updated photographic
pictorialism. He prefers a non-art look, where the joins are visible
and the clash of discordant source material is obvious. Overall, the
aim is to avoid a display of craft skills which might interfere with
any political message. But what Hillen shares with Heartfield is an
appreciation of the corrosive power of laughter.
A third influential
metaphor presents the photomontage artist as scavenger, rummaging through
the ruins of modernity for usable rubbish. This image has a long history,
beginning with Baudelaire's allegory of the modern artist as rag picker.
However it seems to become especially pertinent in the 1980's with the
widespread perception that modem history, including modem art, had reached
a terminus. With everyone at the end station, then the only remaining
work for the artist was as re-cycler. Once again photomontage seemed
emblematic, but for now registering the end rather than beginning of
the modem age.
is a scavenger in the weak sense. He obviously re-cycles found imagery
-press photographs, tourist postcards and Catholic iconography are three
favourites. However, unlike many of his contemporaries, he continues
to believe that such materials can be mobilised to make political comment.
He rejects all versions of 'Endism'.
One influential theory of the end of history stresses the global triumph
of capitalism, with liberal democracy as its most comfortable political
form. The two great challenges, Fascism and Communism, have both failed.
Conflicts between nation states will still continue, but within a framework
of shared values that encourages compromise. Nationalism and religious
fundamentalism will also continue, but only in archaic backwaters that
can be discounted.
Suddenly, care of
Fukayama, there is a novel explanation for war in Northern Ireland -the
combatants just don't realise that history is over. Consequently, traditional
Irish pageantry is confused with real life, and nationalist and religious
costumes are donned for an ideological conflict that has no place in
the supranatural EEC to which governments of both Dublin and London
What connects this view with more familiar arguments, is the reduction
of the role of the British state to that of referee between warring
Irish factions. An outraged rejection of such positions is what animates
the art of Seán Hillen. By bringing the war zone to London, or
taking London to the war zone, he is insisting that Britain, not Ireland,
constitutes the problem.
David Evans' most recent book was: "John Heartfield: AIZ/VI 1930-38"
(New York, 1992)
© David Evans, Seán Hillen, Irish Gallery of Photography
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