Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Totalitarian Monster in Art

It has been awhile since I wrote. I hope to get back into the swing of things over the next couple of weeks by completing my series on the monster of the twenty-first century. Like a monster itself, this series has grown out of control. I would like to lay it to rest.

A blog without pictures isn't always very interesting. I have written most of this series without posting any images. I hope today's posting will make up for that.

I'll begin with "El sueño de la razon produce monstruos" ("The Sleep of Reason Breeds Monsters") by Francisco Goya, No. 43 in his series Los Caprichos (Caprices or Follies, 1799). We think of the eighteenth century as the second in an Age of Reason, yet the century closed with the French Revolution and the beginnings of Romanticism in art, literature, music, and politics. Significantly, the beginning of the Romantic movement (in as far as any such thing can be said to have a beginning)  is dated to about 1800, or about the same time Goya published Los Caprichos. Romanticism in art, literature, and music is one thing. Romanticism in politics is quite another.

The totalitarian monster as a modern, political creature was born in the eighteenth century and was baptized in the blood of the French Revolution. The American Revolution was practically bloodless by comparison. Beyond that, our Constitution, a work of supreme reason, has outlived all the fevered dreams and Utopian fantasies of the Leftist, Statist, Marxist, Communist, Fascist, Nazi, Socialist, and Nihilist--in short, of the totalitarian.

Our fiction of monsters and of horror, terror, and fantasy dates from the 1700s as well. Gothicism--a kind of Romanticism--came in reaction to the Age of Reason. Curiously, one of the great works of Gothicism, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, was also a work of nascent science fiction. In that book, she gave us a new kind of monster, the man-made monster of science, and an icon for the twentieth century.

If the artist is like a canary in a coal mine, you can expect him to recognize the connection between human monsters and monsters of the imagination. Different artists exercise their power in different ways. Some use imagery of monstrous horror to depict the human monster. Others--particularly cartoonists--reduce the human monster through satire, ridicule, and parody. Few cartoonists were as capable of such things as Will Elder (1921-2008). In "Frank N. Stein," published in Mad #8 (Dec. 1953), the monster turns out to have the face of Hitler--and the brain of a bird.

Not to be outdone, Joseph Stalin, Hitler's one-time ally and then murderous rival, donned his monster suit to pose for this drawing of the creature. It comes from the back cover of Tales of the Uncanny, a parody or sendup of the superhero comics of the early 1960s, published by Image Comics in June 1993.

Our popular image of Frankenstein's monster comes of course from the Universal movies of the 1930s in which Boris Karloff played the creature. The makeup, by Jack Pierce (1889-1968), was green but showed up on black-and-white film as light gray. 

If you were a kid in 1951, you might have spent your pennies on a set of gum cards called "Red Menace," issued by Bowman. There are forty-eight cards in the set. This card, called "War-Maker" and showing the image of Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung, is number forty-seven. (Mao had earned his gum-card moniker by sending Chinese troops into Korea the year before "Red Menace" was released.) Mao looks friendly enough in this picture, but the green tint to his skin would have been a signal to all that he was in fact a monster in the mold of Frankenstein's creation from a generation before . . . 

. . . or like the Phantom of the Opera, whose portrait was painted by Basil Gogos  in the 1960s.

By the end of the Great War, the totalitarian society was becoming a reality and the artist was there to give warning. Here is a poster or cartoon entitled "The Communist Monster Threatens to Undermine the Country," drawn by a German artist, Thomas Theodor Heine (1867-1948). I don't know the date, but I suspect it's from the period of the Weimar Republic, probably about 1918 or so, as Heine fled Germany in the year the Nazis came to power, 1933.

"Die Heimat ist in Gefahr!" ("Your Country Is in Danger!"), from 1918, warning of the advance of the monster of Bolshevism. (Note the word Bolschewismus in the first line under the title.) The artist was Carl Hachez (1880-1958). This is clearly a piece of propaganda . . . or is it? If propaganda begins where truth gives way to sensationalism, then how can any piece of art warning of the horrors of totalitarianism be more sensational than the reality of that system? The totalitarian is in truth a monster, a murderer, a destroyer. A piece of art that you might call propagandistic is actually an understatement when it comes to the horrors perpetrated by the twentieth-century totalitarian.

Another poster with the same slogan, obviously in the same series and presumably from about the same period. The artist was Victor Arnaud (1890-?). The date looks like 1919.

"Bolschewismus Bringt Krieg, Arbeitslosigkeit und Hungersnot" ("Bolshevism Brings War, Unemployment and Famine"), a poster from 1918 by Julius Ussy Engelhard (1883-1964). Again, the Bolshevist is depicted as a monster, a sort of apeman armed with a knife and a bomb. (Note the similar image, an ape with the sword, in the background of the Mao Tse-tung trading card above.) Is it propaganda or is it truth? Now, nearly one hundred years later, we know that Communism does indeed bring war and ruin, yet there are those who still cling to the fantasy that everyone can be made equal--and are willing to deprive people of their rights and even their lives to make it happen.

German artists of 1918 and after weren't the only ones to recognize the monstrousness of totalitarianism. Here is a poster created by a White Russian artist and against Trotsky, Lenin's left-hand man and head of the Red Army. The title is ironic: "Peace and Liberty in Sovdepiya" (presumably an early alternate name for the Soviet Union). Trotsky is depicted here as the devil, but there is also a strong suggestion of his Jewishness. Too often, those who oppose Communism have also been anti-Semitic, as with the Nazis. This image also appears on an atrocious anti-Semitic website.

I have not been able to find an image of Lenin depicted as a monster of any kind, but you don't have to use much of your imagination to see the demonic quality in his visage. 

"Communisme Ennemi de la France" ("Communism: Enemy of France"). A lot happened between 1918, when the German posters above were printed, and 1942, the date of this poster by Michel Jacquot (dates unknown). The German people, instead of choosing freedom in their struggles against Communism, threw in their lot with the rabid anti-Communist (and anti-Jewish) Nazi Party. Certain elements in France did the same thing, forming the Parti Populaire Français (French Popular Party) in 1936. Except for his insignia, the man in this picture could be a Nazi. It's worth noting that he is throttling what appears to be a werewolf: near the end of the war, the Nazis came up with their project Werwolf, a scheme to carry on the fight after the war. It's also worth noting that the Parti Populaire Français was founded in part by former Communists. As Eric Hoffer noted in his indispensable book, The True Believer (1951), the easiest convert for the true believer (such as a Nazi) is simply another true believer (such as a Communist). Likewise, the true believer reserves his bitterest enmity not for the liberal (in the classical sense of the word, not in the contemporary American sense) but for other true believers.

When it comes to recognizing the monstrousness of totalitarianism, the Soviets were no less perceptive than the Nazis, as this poster, "Kill the Fascist Monster!" by Viktor Nikolaevich Deni (1893-1946), shows. (That translation may not be entirely accurate. I invite a reader of Russian to comment. The date by the way appears to be 1942.)

If the translation of the Russian title above is accurate, this American poster is equally unequivocal--and the enemy is even more obviously monstrous. The monster in this poster by Bert Yates (dates unknown) is two-headed: I suspect that it was executed after Mussolini. The image is propagandistic to be sure, but the caption--"this monster that stops at nothing"--is true of the totalitarian himself and of the totalitarian impulse.

The Allied victory in World War II (or the Great Patriotic War, as the Russians call it) stopped the Nazis, the Fascists, and the Japanese warlords after all, but Communism survived and began to wage a new war, a Cold War, the outcome of which must have been in doubt for many years. The film I Married a Communist (1949, retitled The Woman on Pier 13) appears to have been drawn from the pulps: the genre, film noir, is from the hard-boiled fiction of the 1930s, while the confessional title comes straight from Bernarr Macfadden's True line of magazines. And, if you like drawing full circles, Rousseau, a progenitor of ideas that totalitarians have used against us, authored a book called Confessions

The confessional title showed up again in I Married a Monster from Outer Space, from 1958. There were other movies with titles in the same vein, including I Was Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, both from 1957. There is significance in those titles and the ideas behind them, namely that a Communist or a monster from outer space might easily pass among us, look like us, fool us, moreover, that he or she might threaten to undermine us and our society (as in the early German illustration above), worse yet, that he or she might recruit us or make us one of his or her own. There was another film from that period with just that theme. It's one of the most important science fiction movies not just of the decade but of all time. It came from the postwar development of the science-fictional monster, and it leads pretty directly to what I think must be the monster of the twenty-first century. The film is called Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).

Text and captions copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

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