Railway Dada (Otto Dix, modern art and the railway)

This is a post about Otto Dix, Dada, collage and trams. Anyone who knows about art and design will know the destination – it’s Schwitters and Merz. All aboard.

This is Otto Dix’s collage of an electric tram. I saw it in a report about a sale at Sotheby’s, where it made over 2million. I love the odd perspective, the letters and numbers and arrow. Best, I love the manic grin of the driver. He’s dangerous!

Otto Dix was a German artist who promoted a form of New Objectivity in painting during the 1920s. In a way, he was painting the obvious hardship and social upheaval in the aftermath of WW1. Somehow, he found a way of making it compelling and beautiful too.

It’s kind of structural too. He makes the misalignments between power, money, prestige and integrity evident. The collage element in this work suggests a nod in the direction of Dada.

The electric tram has a special place in railway history. It’s also significant in relation to art and to the experience of the city. Accordingly, it played a key role in the transformation of collective identity in the modern city. The significance of these effects is hard to judge, especially if you are used to living in the city. However you can track their impact, and over the 20C, by measuring the Flynn effect.

The Flynn Effect describes the phenomenon that metropolitan populations across the industrial world appear to make substantial and sustained gains in IQ scores throughout the 20C. Furthermore, the improvements in intelligence are in quite specific areas. These are associated with spatial awareness and cognitive reasoning.

Living in cities and riding on trains actually makes you cleverer. Amazing (and brilliant)!

Notwithstanding all the usual clap-trap about modern life and hell-in-a-handcart, its pretty obvious that the acceleration of modern life and the patterns of the great machine-ensemble of the city must impact on your cognitive development. Personally, I’m not surprised that it’s positive. That’s the way it feels.

Anyway, back to trams. If you’re a bit unsure about what trams look like and how they feel, check out Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). There a terrific sequence of trams leaving their shed.

The film is the classic day in the life of the city documentary. It claims to be an experiment in cinema and to have abandoned the usual convections of theatre etc. The camera eye, or kino eye, promoted by Vertov was a modernist way of seeing facilitated by optical technology.

The shift in perception made possible by accelerating technology also plays itself out in the fields of art and music.

There’s a new print of the film available as a dvd and with a new soundtrack by Michael Nyman. Another of Nyman’s works is an opera about the time that Kurt Schwitters spend designing tickets and stuff for the Hamburg bus and tram service.

Schwitters is famous for a type of modernist collage art that he made out of the printed paper detritus of everyday life. Sraps of labels, tickets and type are combined to recreate the fragmentary and elusive experience of modern metropolitan life. He called these works, Merz. 

The art practice promoted by Schwitters has had a profound effect on art and design in the 20C. The whole thing became a bit of an industry.

Here’s a picture of Schwitters by El Lissitzky

I got a return ticket. So, we’ll be coming back to tram’s and modern life…

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