… against a daily backdrop of shop-window play, with the notion of the mind-arresting isolation, transformation, and dramatization of similarly banal items.
… Catalogues, brochures, and illustrated magazines were godsends to the Dada avant-garde. Ephemeral, dispensable, and dismemberable, they rendered questions of draftsmanship moot, and allowed artists so inclined to put the emphasis where many of that generation felt it should be: solely on the ideas in the art. … In the context of their politically minded critique of bourgeois society, the avoidance of “touch” and personality in art was as imperative as the disruption of pictorial logic and of scale consistency.
[line break added to make this easier to read online] The availability of a steady supply of pre-formed photographic images, from ads themselves or from the ad-supported press and illustrated journals, provided them with the ingredients they needed — generic types of wealth, poverty, glamor, misery, and stupidity, portraits of friends and enemies, and ancillary items such as disconnected machines large and small, corsets, cows, grimacing dogs, over-stuffed ottomans and speeding motorcycles, and so on ad infinitum.
The Dada artists well understood that this stream of imagery was being aimed at their consciousness by the engine of capitalist commerce, and this lent extra appeal to the exercise of redirecting it toward the unsettling of that system.
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… Marketing of mass-produced products often used [a] manner of bland, generic idealization, and artists of a certain temperament responded to that non-style as perfectly suited for satiric critique of the inertia of bourgeois mindlessness, or even as a metaphor for the hollowness of the larger human condition. (The most obvious instance of this, though it does not involve a form new in itself, is the shop-window mannequin. After de Chirico used mannequins and lay figures in his paintings around World War I, they became widely favored human surrogates.
[line break added] The shop dummy allowed for a human presence that was explicitly dehumanized, and for the appearance of the figure without the bother of anatomy or modeling that usually went with it, and it also had a profitably unstable combination of smooth ideality and impotent passivity that seemed appropriate for diverse kinds of imagery of machine-age humanity, serving pessimists, cynics, idealists, and pranksters alike.
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… An obvious intent of a piece like the 1914 Still Life was to confuse the codes of illusion and reality — to put an actually projecting table surface under obviously fake food and attach a fully projecting blade to an ungraspable knife handle, against a wall with real but conventionally trompe l’oeil molding. And for someone with that mischievous intent, the elements of modern décor — wallpaper, ball fringe, fake wood, fake marble, and fake cane weaving or wood-carving — offered not just useful shortcuts to representation but elements of an enriching ambiguity.
[line break added] The dilemma of the thing itself and its overlap and interpenetration by the thing made “just for show” was the occasion for a new form of originality, and the teasing gambit in a whole new game of code and convention in art.
The idea of “creating a new thought” for functional objects was, however, also very much on the minds of those who sold such commodities, and whose livelihood depended on the way they displayed them. In the period immediately after World War I, trade journals frequently featured new thinking about store-window display, dealing with what H. Glévéo called the “power of suggestion by the object.” Glévéo, an accomplished shop stylist and writer on techniques of window arrangements, described the “provincial” style of presentation, which he still found in older quarters of Paris, as a more or less permanent, crowded array of a mixed lot of the things available in the store.
[line break added] And he contrasted this to the modern “Parisian” way, which consisted of isolating an object or type of object for a dramatized, regularly changing window arrangement. The object thus isolated and featured would take on “a little magnetism, and convincing force; it is somehow suggestive, silently but surely, to the brain of the public drawn to the window.”
Pre-World War I documentation is slim, but it seems safe to assume that, in the numberless passing strategies window designers devised to give “a new thought” to commercial objects, from pots and pans and tennis rackets to clothes, the kind of tableau Picasso constructed in his studio, where objects took on a new life as props in an implied story, was a staple of show-window technique.
[line break added] And certainly the seductive and disturbing objects given contradictory life by the Surrealists following Duchamp’s lead — Man Ray’s Gift and Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup are among the classic instances — were made against a daily backdrop of shop-window play, with the notion of the mind-arresting isolation, transformation, and dramatization of similarly banal items.
My most recent previous post from this book is here.