Thursday, July 12, 2018

Katherine Wirick's Nervenkrank #3

The third issue of Nervenkrant, Katherine Wirick's minicomics serial about Dada artist John Heartfield, is the first that starts to get at the essence of what would become his life's work. The issue continues this historical fiction biography of the artist as he and his brother visit George Grosz, Heartfield's future Dada collaborator. While many associate Dada with cut-up techniques, dissonant live performances and other anti-art techniques, in Grosz and Heartfield they had two caricaturists who directly embodied Dada's spirit as a form of excoriating political and cultural protest. Indeed, Dada was a direct response to the slowly dawning realization that the rabid nationalism that helped lead to the war was utter nonsense that had nothing to do with the average person. Grosz and Heartfield did a lot of pen-and-ink drawings that have more in common with editorial cartooning than anything else, even if they used collage and other found-images as part of their work.

Getting back to the issue and the series in general, Heartfield (then still Helmut Herzfeld) was a sensitive, empathetic artist who wound up in the German army's version of a mental hospital a few times during his stint as a soldier. He had to dodge virulent "patriots" and others, including his landlord. Visiting Grosz was the revelation he needed in his life, because he was exposed to drawings that Grosz considered trash because no one in the art world thought them of any value: his brutal political cartoons. This sparked one of the central themes of Dada and the series itself: wrestling with the very concept of "beauty". In the eyes of Heartfield, beauty was a lie, like God and Country. It was all part of the same package, a bill of goods sold to him. "What good is this? What is it for?", he howled at his brother, saying that when he was being strapped down by the army, art wasn't going to save him. What Grosz was doing, what amazed him, was simply telling the truth about what he saw. Heartfield reasoned that if he was going to die anyway, he might as well record what it was like to live during this time, to leave behind his attempt to document the truth, as horrifying as it was. 

Dada is a paradoxical art form. It is art, using new and traditional techniques, many of them representational. It is anti-art, in that it rejects the institutions that define art and the concept of beauty removed from the everyday world. The world had become (was always?) absurd and meaningless, therefore the only sane response was art that played on this absurdity and meaninglessness, exposing it for what it truly was. Wirick masterfully not only captures and distills this moment in a single, powerful page, she also shows how this realization transforms Heartfield into someone who no longer cares what the world thinks about him, including the landlord who had verbally amused him so many times. It was also not lost on me as a reader that her use of a naturalistic, grey wash lent itself to fitting in with Grosz's images, which were in a sharper pen-and-ink without a wash, yet still fit in nicely with the overall conceit of the book. Wirick is creating a history of one man's wrestling with enormous concepts like art, beauty, nationalism, madness that aren't just abstract ideals--they are factors crashing into his every day life. The look in his eyes when he realizes that trying to combat the insanity of war with simply-defined notions of beauty was a fool's errand is the most striking image in the book; a moment of clarity but also of a mind bursting open, never to be the same ever again. It's an astonishing tipping point, and Wirick clearly gave it a lot of thought as she nailed it. 

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