Wheels!

Posted by on August 11th, 2010 at 9:12 AM

All I know about Dada comes from Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, which presents the movement as a dodge, art as practiced by people who have no talent and don’t want to work at a discipline. But the magazine cover below indicates that the movement did at least have some slick graphic designers.

The work, The Tire Travels Around the World, is by John Heartfield (German despite the name) and is dated 1920. I found it in Postcards: Ephemeral Histories of Modernity, edited by David Prochaska and Jordana Mendelson. That’s also where I got the credit info, of course.

Tire is a dynamic, slambang piece of work about nothing much, which makes it like a lot of modern advertising. I’m told that it’s about the mess Germany was in right after World War I. If so, two of postwar Germany’s big problems must have been runaway auto tires and men exposing their teeth. To me, anyway, the piece comes across as an ad for Dada: Look at this exciting, in-your-face new art movement that breaks all the rules. I suppose what’s exceptional about the piece is that Heartfield was so much better at being snazzy than his mainstream competitors. He was ahead of them by half a century or more.

Stockbroker Emergency Squad. The cartoon is by Rowland Emett and appeared in a 1943 issue of Punch. The caption: “I still reckon we should ‘ave been the 8:35 to the City!” Instead of taking the stockbrokers to work, the train took them to some fiddling village by the sea and now they’re wandering about like a flock of pigeons.

© 1955 by Bradbury, Agnew & Company, Ltd.

The rendition here is a bit smaller than the cartoon needs, but the thing still works. In one respect, the small size even helps the cartoon: it’s easier to hunt down the speakers, the two train men at the center of the drawing. When the cartoon is page size, the fellows get lost and the regretful-looking stockbroker in the left foreground becomes top candidate for speaker, even with the dropped h in the caption. Of course, neither of the train men has his mouth open, which is quite a lapse.

So the cartoon is inept at the delivery of its assigned gag. Yet, as a cartoon, it’s still top-notch: original, funny and zingy. Sorry for that last term, but it’s what I mean.

As an art form directed at page flippers, cartooning developed a tendency toward delivering roller-coaster visual experiences that grabbed the eye. That’s the case here. The drawing is stylized and also dense, a combination that results in a lot of visual movement without much need to slow down and process visual information: for example, the multitudinous little branches that tickle the eye without demanding more than a second’s attention. They’re funny and weird, but they’re also lively.

Another eye tickler: the way the picture’s anchor image, that of the stereotypical black-suited City man, is multiplied and miniaturized. The little replicas pop up all over the place, always recognizable, always tiny. The eye can dart here and there and always land on something familiar but also diverting (because of its size). They’re a big part of the joke, of course, but visually they’ve got zing. Mort Weisinger wasn’t looking for laughs when he deployed the Superman Emergency Squad; they were just neat to look at. The same principle has a role to play here, I suspect.

The wheel rolls. I scanned the picture from William Ouellette’s Fantasy Postcards, which tells us this: “collotype; France; message dated Rouen 4/19/1920” and “Appropriately, this is an advertisement for Bergougnan tires.”

That is one hell of a tire ad, maybe the most elegant ever devised. It also manages to be dynamic to an absurd degree while using the techniques of what I would take to be a straightforward academic realism. The image is built around the double swoop of the road and the curve of the tire, with the pair of trees laying down a bold diagonal that sets off the juxtaposition of the two swoops and circle. Kind of shameless, the way this punched-up jamboree of form presents itself as a demure rendering of foliage, roadway and, of course, an impossibly stopless tire on its way to nowhere. John Heartfield was ahead of the ad pack when it came to devising new techniques, but the other boys still had the right idea and went for it with the tools at hand.

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