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Essay about photomontages in rooms IV, V, VI, IX, X

Photomontage

Carmelo Hernando’s output in the field of photomontage spans throughout thirty years, since 1977, shortly after he settled in Barcelona, until today. In July 1992, when a selection of his works was published in “Miedo al arte”, he numbered his photomontages in over 600. The data included in that selection illustrate the ample variety of formats: from 10 x 16 cm  (“Millonarios famosos IV”, 1984) to 57 x 114 cm (“Suso español”, 1992). Therefore it is an extensive output in its total number of pieces, sizes and time span.

The intimate relation between photomontage and Max Ernst’s collages of non-photographic images from 1919-1920 has led some critics to mistakenly assimilate both types of work to the Cubist papiers collés. As first used by Picasso and Braque around 1910, these papiers collés are simple plastic solutions in which cut-out elements imitating a real matter (wood, newspaper sheets) are used as a contrast to the forms that the artist has conceived. Quite on the contrary, Max Ernst\'s collages and the photomontages by Heartfield, Hausmann, or Hernando deal with plastic construction only in a very secondary way. They intend to urge us into an oneiric universe where real-world elements are irritatingly standing out against each other transgressing the usual ways of thought, logic and morality.

Often cited as a precursor to Carmelo Hernando’s output, the photomontages from John Heartfield (born Helmut Herzfeld, 1891-1968) were published between 1930 and 1936by the Communist press of Germany, namely Berlin’s Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung and later Volks Illustrierte. They typically have a strong propagandistic, political character that almost invariably require the presence of long explanatory texts in the photomontage. In contrast, Hernando’s photomontages rarely convey a political message and never include text, other than their title; it is more fitting to associate them to Max Ernst’s collages for their insisting exploration of images from our wonderful subconscious which so deeply influence the human behavior.

 

“Ars combinatoria”

Since the components of a photomontage are intrinsically photographs, their ensemble looks like a true photograph, something real in spite of its dreamlike aspect. This particularity of photomontage, its apparently anonym nature and its implicit aggression to the cult of unique, original items is what attracted Carmelo Hernando’s interested in the beginning.

The human brain has been constantly exposed to numberless images through the ages, since the Palaeolithic initiation caves until the CR tubes in our TV sets. And yet seeing an image involves watching it in its context, as it networks with other images through non-simple relations (in spite of what is normally thought, even by experts in the psychology of perception). If a visual perception is torn from its context, it becomes another object. How are new images derived from the variously originated photographic elements that it is made of?

Images admittedly play three roles. They can work as a representation for real objects, like symbols or signs. These three terms (representation, symbol, sign) do not necessarily refer to three kinds of images: a particular image can be used for all three purposes. If the image is ambiguous enough, it is often fit for more than one function at the same time. For the purposes of commenting on Hernando’s photomontages we will ignore here the sign function (object of signalling codes), focusing instead on the symbol and representation purposes.

In all museums there are paintings and sculptures representing figures, objects and actions normally present in our world, but something in the artist\'s treatment hints that they must not be considered just a representation (re-present is merely making the absent present), but they intend to stand as symbols for certain ideas: a women clad in a robe can represent freedom, justice or the Republic. The spectator is touched by the strange feeling described by Hegel when he refers to the old Eastern symbolism: Wir fühlen das wir unter Aufgaben wandeln (“we feel that we wander among problems to be solved”[1]).

Carmelo Hernando’s photomontages are not representations of any reality. Consequently, the task (Hegel’s Aufgabe) of finding out what they symbolize is up to the beholder. A representation is a statement about the visual appearance of a fragment of reality: this statement can be complete and hence, it may need no interpretation on the spectator’s part. The observers are forced only to make their own decisions about what they see when the image is ambiguous, incomplete or vague. And the ambiguity, incompleteness or vagueness are created by the photomontage’s own combinatory: its tearing objects from their context and placing them in a perverted space where they establish ambiguous interrelations. Then the observers find themselves in a similar situation to that of a Rorschach test subject who is forced to interpret the well-known stains of ink as landscapes, heads, composite animals, fantasy vegetation. The difference: while the stains in the Rorschach test have been randomly produced and selected, Hernando’s photomontages have been purposefully composed.

The adjoining of real images unrelated by any causal link led Hans Holländer to postulate the formula “combinatory art” when he strove to consolidate the principle of collage on a foundation that transcended the purely plastic base. I think that this is a great achievement reminiscent of the Ars Combinatoria by Ramon Llull, the Catalan philosopher from the Middle Age who was so appreciated by Leibniz and has been reappraised by today’s symbolic logic. It would be possible to write a treatise on Ars Combinatoria about how Carmelo Hernando couples uncontextualized objects. Using Llull’s technique, we could allocate letters and shapes to different logical oppositions (exterior-interior, cause-effect, animal-human, etc.) and different affinities, for in these photomontages several “elective affinities” between humans and machines (or elements thereof) or animal heads and human bodies can be recognised (see the strange mutants in pages 96, 98, and 99).

The invention, originality and seduction power of Hernando’s photomontages arise from his careful selection of elements and the order and shapes he has laid out. Generally (but not invariably) made of photographic images, these compositions reveal obsessions which are not solely personal, since the observers feel concerned and connected to them. Does the artist follow his instinct or his ideas? Does he work out of a spontaneous impulse, or from premeditation? Drawing this sort of distinctions does not fit these photomontages, since Hernando avails himself of real-world images to undermine the real world. He dissects everything he touches. This is how he obtains pieces of a greater set and later takes a deeply mischievous, premeditated pleasure to delete from his memory the origin of each element. He reattaches the set pieces forming a new whole resembling the well-known Lautréamont image: “As beautiful as the casual encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine in a dissection table”. This famous image reveals a secret: it is all about joining distinct realities whose fate seems to be set forever in a non-convenient level, one that apparently is not fitting.

Thus, here are the basic letters and shapes of Carmelo Hernando\'s photomontage\'s Ars Combinatoria.

Rescaling and malicious perspectives

The objects around us occupy a place in the three-dimensional space we inhabit. Recreating this 3-D space on a 2-D flat surface has been one of the great problems in the history of art among all civilizations. Each culture has used a different system, each of them equally valid since it is always necessary to accept some compromise in order to suggest a sense of depth where it does not exist, ie the flat surface. The Egyptian’s spatial representation system through octagonal axis is different to the Byzantine, which relied on hierarchical perspectives and successions of historical representations in a unified space that was also used by Romantic painters, which differs too from the isometric perspectives found in old Chinese paintings and Japanese makemonos and engravings. Finally, the discovery of central perspective by fifteenth-century Florentines has shaped the visual habits of the Western world, while photography, cinema and TV have consolidated the vanishing point-based view, symmetrical to the beholder’s sight, in which all parallel lines to the central visual axis converte.

What do photomontages make of the representation of three-dimensional space? Carmelo Hernando has made use of to two fundamental visual resources to submerge us in a strange dream-like space.

The first resource is rescaling in the same unified space (see Mickey & Minnie Mouse in the 1979 images on pages 38-39, the albino gorilla Snowflake from the Barcelona zoo on pages 42-43, or the 1984 piece where two Gargantuan pandas shower a minute, naked human couple on page 92). In every case we feel transported to a dream world through the crafty rescaling. Why else would the folklore from all ages and countries be teeming with giants? Let us remember the Greek Cyclops, the German Fafner, the Spanish Barba Azul, the land of Brobdingnag in Gulliver’s Travels, Alice’s changes of scale in Lewis Carroll’s tales.

Carmelo Hernando employs another method to take us to wonderland: malicious perspectives. I have opted to name this way the interesting visual phenomenon taking place when distinctly different central perspectives are skillfully mixed. As we know, photographic images mechanically recreate the central perspective from the Renaissance because they are monocular images, fixed and instantaneous. The convention suggesting depth in every photograph relies on this threefold characteristic shared with each painting that is based on the Renaissance rules of central perspective. But the single vanishing point and the convergence of parallel lines cannot be maintained in a combination of photographic images taken in widely varied visual conditions. With all these first-grade images, Hernando creates a second-grade space—a “disoriented” universe that throws us back to the world of nightmares: see the tangle of highways in "Conflicto de Madrid" (1979) on page 40; usual objects in an impossible interior space illustrating a text by Jaime Gonzalo (1981) on page 52; or the bewildering study of “Pintor” (1991) on page 104, with a barely visible out-of-scale, giant moon.

Tearing objects apart from their context and coupling them in new, weird ways, Ars Combinatoria creates this atmosphere where we feel out of our depth, where rescaling and malicious perspectives contribute to the unreal quality of the space where those objects are located.

Two overlapping semiotic systems

 

The title of each photomontage is not an explanatory hint as to what the piece “represents”. We have already established that these photomontages intend to play a symbolic role, not a representative one. Consequently, the answer to the question Is there a relation between title and content? is affirmative, albeit the relation is not a representative but a poetic one. The verbal language and the images belong to two distinct semiotic systems that conform to different laws.  In other words, a photomontage\'s title does not function as the verbal equivalent to the visual message, but a distortion of meaning takes place in them at the linguistic level that parallels the transformation experienced by the images.

Every photomontage becomes therefore a dual poem in which image is interpreted according to the nature of the objects it contains, to their interrelation, and to the space where they are located, whereas the title suggests other images overlapping or merging in our minds with the visual image: see “ “Religiosos en crisis” (1979-84), with a strange parade among Thule’s Atlantis denizens, whose size has increased fivefold under the moons that have decreased thousands of times in size; or “La máquina viva” (1986) on page 61, where it is unclear if the image depicts a cybernetic element or female genitalia).

For all these reasons it could be said that this art has the purpose of questioning, awakening conscience, producing subversive effects. The use of subconscious is not limited to the production of poetic images, as in the classic Surrealists, but —as Marcel Duchamp suggested— poses an extra-artistic controversy: it aims towards conscience, so its disturbance is necessary.

The deep meaning of these photomontages resides in the practical, general application of “delusion” as described by Arthur Rimbaud: “I got used to simple hallucination; I saw a Mosque instead of a factory, a living room at the bottom of a lake; monsters, mysteries; a vaudeville title arose ghosts before me”. To be sure, the same process applies to the language of titles.

 

“Fear to Art”

As mentioned above, , Carmelo Hernando published under the title “Miedo al arte” (Fear to Art) in October 1992 90 photomontages selected from the 600 he had produced in fifteen years. The photomontages had been reduced to the shape, size and tactile quality of Tarot. Golden borders and back cover. They were recreated in a 188 x 104 mm cardboard cartridge which opened sideways, identical to a VHS tape sleeve.

The material qualities of the edition and their pretending to be something else to what they really were fit exactly the confrontation of both codes, verbal and visual, which advocate different readings of the same image. Maybe that explains the author’s reply to a journalist’s question: “its function is to gamble on one’s life, to guess the present, to prevent the past, to deal cards and play solitaire”. The humour in this answer does not hide the disturbing effect of the volume’s title and makes us suspect that the world conception we are used to is not final. This impeachment of the established truths present in the 90-photomontage selection is an invitation to reanalyse our own beliefs, to develop a new conception of the world. There are definitely reasons to be scared.

FRANCESC VIÇENS I GIRALT
© Francesc Viçens i Giralt
© Fundación Caja Rioja
Logroño, 1998
I.S.B.N. 84-89740-13-5
D.L. LR-247-198
 
©Francesc Viçens i Giralt
©Caja Astur
O.S.Y.C@cajastur.es
I.S.B.N. 84-89740-13-5
D.L. AS-2259-2000

 

[1] In a very personal and free translation of Aufgabe as “problems to be solved”.