May Day Greetings from California
Tuesday, 22 September 2020 17:05

May Day Greetings from California

Published in Festivals/ Events

The Steel Bones of Our Cities

by Fred Voss

The COVID-19 virus is spreading across California
and we are at our vertical milling machines
our horizontal boring mill machines
our 12-foot-long engine lathes
like we were
through 1929 stock market crash
total eclipse of the sun
Einstein overthrowing the universe
with his pen
Lindbergh back from flying across the Atlantic smiling through showers
of New York City confetti
our hands on the machine handles
our feet on the concrete floor
our eyes on the tin walls
a thousandth of an inch is still a thousandth of an inch
chips of steel still fall from the edges
of our cutting tools
carving faucet
and wheel
red-hot rivets still hammered into Golden Gate Bridge
waves throwing their arms around rocks
sailors
studying stars cats
still finding their way across cities back home to bowls
of cat food
the COVID-19 virus has the streets of our cities in its grip
we don’t blink an eye
or miss a beat
making pipe to carry water or easel
to hold canvas
a Gershwin melody is still a Gershwin melody
a falling star still a reason
to kiss as we carve
keys and wheelchair wheels and soup spoons and clown horns
out of shiny steel and brass and aluminum
a laugh is still a laugh
a marriage ring is still a marriage ring
I-beams still the steel bones
of our cities
and a steel block gripped between the steel jaws of a vise on our machine table
might still help make
a new world.

Breaking Through the Tin Walls

by Fred Voss

As our machines chew and slice and groan
through steel and aluminum and bronze
I hope
one of my fellow machinists is dreaming of a union strike
that can make an owner walk into a machine shop and really listen to men
with black machine grease on their hands and heads held high like they’ll never take a back seat
to any man
I hope
one of my fellow machinists dreams of the day when these blank tin factory walls
we’ve been hidden behind all our lives
fall
and we begin to become as famous
as pundits and tv clowns
and kings
I hope
one dreams of the day when machinists don’t have to have grip contests
wrestling each other to the concrete floor to prove
they are men
when machinists can bring bouquets of yellow daffodils into the shop
and proudly set them on their sheet metal workbenches
beside oily shop rags and not
be laughed at
or hang
a Van Gogh on a tin wall because they know Van Gogh would love to paint
our green engine lathes and sweaty faces
I dream of Buddha and Mandela and Whitman
sitting in front of machines on stools in front of us
because nirvana and freedom and beauty
have no need to wear
a white shirt
and the fall of a government can start with a machinist
laying down a micrometer
and I write these poems because Neruda’s father worked on the railroad
Jack London and Herman Melville were sailors and loved the sea
Dostoevsky hauled 150-pound loads of rocks in his arms in a Siberian prison camp
and every man who ever carved a train wheel out of steel
also needs to carve out
a dream.

Author's Note:

May Day greetings from California.

We are the ones at the machines, in the mines, at the desks,
behind the wheels, we are the ones
with the jackhammers and spatulas in our hands
we are the ones waiting for the day
we can make
a better world.

Anti-war and anti-fascist German art: Otto Dix and George Grosz
Tuesday, 22 September 2020 17:05

Anti-war and anti-fascist German art: Otto Dix and George Grosz

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell remembers Otto Dix and George Grosz, two German artists whose work was dedicated to the fight against fascism and war

The painters Otto Dix and George Grosz died fifty and sixty years ago respectively this month, almost eighty years after the outbreak of World War II.

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Otto Dix (1891-1969) was an uncompromising fighter against the inhumanity of imperialism. Even before the outbreak of war in 1913, he had painted “Sunrise”. Black death-birds fly over an icy landscape; the rising sun resembles an exploding bomb – with dark clouds of smoke in the background.

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It is a dark, ironic contrast to van Gogh's “Cornfield with Crows”.

Between 1929 and 1931, Dix created his main work “The War”. It was in triptych, an old masterly painting technique and form originating in Christian art. Three painted panels are attached together, usually as an altarpiece depicting the crucifixion in the centre panel, with secondary figures in the wings. Dix’s triptych is an urgent warning of the horrors of annihilation.

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On the left side panel of “The War”, an endless row of soldiers march into battle in the early fog, under a blood-red morning sky. The light of the “sunrise” is reflected in the helmets. Only one face can dimly be made out; the others remain anonymous and thus stand for all. Hundreds come from a great distance towards the observer, turn and move away again into the distance. This V-shape with the reversal point at the viewer is extraordinarily effective in its use of space to convey an infinite number of helmets and weapons. The two men at the centre of the picture carry kitbags, one turns to the other and one eye is recognisable. In addition, a shoe and a water bottle are clearly visible, which helps to individualise these soldiers.

Using the triptych’s inherent reference to Christ’s crucifixion, the left panel alludes to the scene of Jesus carrying the cross. Like him, the soldiers carry their own weapons of death. However, unlike the middle section, the left scene has a certain order, and the soldiers are distinctly human.

This contrasts sharply with the frightening depiction of the central panel. Nothing human is perceptible anymore. The viewer expects Christ on the cross at the centre top of the picture, but instead is an impaled skeleton, with its gaping mouth and pointing finger, as if attempting to warn us. The boot preserved on the skeleton links it to the soldier, and to the boot hanging from the kitbag in the left panel.

The bony finger points to a crater-like landscape and lifeless ruins. People, town and vegetation are all destroyed. The finger of the skeleton also points to the dead man, whose perforated legs protrude and clearly allude to the crucified Christ. He is turned upside down, thus ironically reinforcing the image's indictment. Most of the central panel depicts intestines and dismembered people. Neither sandbags nor a gas mask were able to prevent death. This central scene of horror inexorably reveals the nature of an imperialist war.

On the right panel, a soldier whose face bears the features of the painter, drags a wounded man from the murder zone, another survivor also crawls out of the inferno. They no longer wear helmets or uniforms; they do not notice the corpse over which they move. A charred tree trunk crosses this panel, echoing the taking down of Christ from the cross. Again, Christ is identified with the soldiers.

The burial of Christ is often depicted in the predella, the lower part of the triptych. In the interpretation of this picture by Dix, opinions differ as to whether the soldiers depicted are asleep or dead. In my opinion, bearing in mind the clear allusion to the depictions of Jesus on winged altars, these soldiers are dead. The one in the foreground with his blond moustache resembles the barely visible soldier's face in the left panel. It seems he is sleeping, his head resting on the kitbag, but his uniform has two bullet holes in the chest. So, despite his calm appearance we must assume he is dead.

The eyes of those lying next to him are bandaged, which de-individualises them. The last soldier has no shoes - dead soldiers often had their shoes removed by the living soldiers for further use. This had already been hinted at in the left panel with the single shoe hanging from the kitbag as well as the shoe on the skeleton in the middle picture. Additionally there are already rats at the feet of the dead. A blood-red shroud is attached to a very low ceiling, evoking a claustrophobic, sarcophagus-like box containing the dead. The straw in the front right corner of the predella is a final reference to the barn where Jesus was born. Here now lie the victims of “The War”.

The art of Dix' contemporary George Grosz (1893-1959) was also of great importance in the 1920s. The Soviet revolutionary and writer Ilya Ehrenburg wrote about George Grosz:

Germany at that time found its portraitist in George Grosz. He depicted the racketeers with sausage like fingers. He showed the heroes of a past and a coming war, haters of humans draped with iron crosses ... Yes, he dared to show privy councillors naked at their desks, dolled up fat little dames, gutting corpses, murderers carefully washing their bloody hands in a basin ... In 1922 it appeared like fantasy, in 1942 it became routine.

George Grosz's milieu was the city of Berlin in the 1920s. Here, he observed the world of parasites, war profiteers and racketeers, whores and drunks. He painted the amorality of an obsolete society, as well as the victims of the ruling class.

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One example is his painting “The Agitator” (1928), in which Grosz warns against the rising Nazis. The heart of the agitator is emblazoned in the colours of the empire – black, white, and red. He is decorated with medals and the Iron Cross. The swastika on the tie knot looms ominously right in the centre of the picture. While the applauding bourgeois men with their well-fed faces and hands are still relatively realistic on the lower left side of the picture, they become increasingly grotesquely distorted and gaudy on the right side. Central to the painting is the ridiculous agitator himself, with a truncheon over his arm, a distorted face, his right hand raised as if taking an oath, and surrounded by the tools of his “trade”: the megaphone, a sports rattle in his left hand, the marching drum and the gramophone all provide background noise.

Even bigger is the sabre, which hangs from under his little coat. Above his head is a black, white and red dunce’s hat with German oak leaves. Beside his spurred foot is a poster bucket. Above the agitator floats the male Promised Land of roasted chickens, wine and faceless naked women. On the upper left, the oversized laurel crowned soldier's boot and a dark fortress form a contrast to this paradise. The former soldier, decorated with the Iron Cross, seamlessly transforms into a Nazi to the applause of the bourgeoisie. Grosz recognized this early on and communicated it.

Grosz's art is fed from many sources, one of which was futurism. The kaleidoscopic simultaneousness of objects in the visual world of George Grosz uses futuristic pictorial techniques for satirical social criticism. Grosz composes his works in such a way that the space develops vertically, from the bottom to the top. His metropolitan milieu pictures are not abstract but make drastically visible the rot of an obsolete social order.

Grosz made disorder visible, as the essence of bourgeois society. Together with John Heartfield, George Grosz developed political photomontage, a new art genre, which was later perfected by Heartfield. Like Heartfield, Grosz anglicized his name from Georg Groß, in protest against German chauvinism.

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In 1933, when the fascists succeeded in seizing power, George Grosz emigrated to New York. There was no doubt that his life was under great threat. Although the climax of his social satirical art was in Germany, his theme remained the indictment of fascism, as for example in his 1936 visionary work “Apocalyptic Rider”, in which the horrors of war are anticipated.

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In 1949, he painted a series of surreal stick men drawings, eerily scrawny creatures in a destroyed world – an appeal to the consciences of people not to allow new wars. In the landscape of this picture, a figure carries a burnt painting in his hand. It has been destroyed, and yet it is the only thing that remains for them and therefore somehow worth preserving. George Grosz returned to Berlin in 1958 and died there on 6 July 1959.