Thursday, 20 December 2007

The newspaper in western art

As a Xmas diversion, it's interesting to spend a few moments noting how the representations of newspaper reading in western art significantly reflect the dominant (and competing) ideologies relating to the consumption of media. And given the importance of newspapers in the political culture over the last couple of centuries in the west, it's intriguing to see how their presence in art has been ignored by critics.

Let's focus on just three contrasting images. In 1872 the French Impressionist Pierre-August Renoir painted a portrait of Claude Monet relaxing - reading alone, his face close up to the text. This is the image of the solitary bourgeois male consuming the new professionalized newspaper in isolation but clearly with pleasure. Aesthetic concerns predominate.

Then there's Lyonel Feininger's Newspaper Readers of 1916 which fetched a mere £3.5m at Christie's a few years back. Its vibrant colours and flowing shapes convey brilliantly a real excitement and pleasure in newspaper consumption. But the figures are like you and me - racing about, their heads down, intently reading, far too busy consuming the newspapers (significantly blank) far too superficially. And the readers are separate from each other. Significantly, too, they are all travelling in the same direction (to their right, our left!). Amongst all the bustle and individuality of the consuming public there is still an amazing conformism.

Interestingly, Feininger, an American who became a newspaper cartoonist and illustrator in Germany before concentrating on painting, moved through despair and loneliness to joy and delight during the painting of the piece in 1916. Indeed, beneath the surface jollity (those swirling shapes echoing cubism and futurism) there is a melancholy about the media, of the kind Walter Benjamin evokes in his essay, "The Storyteller", in Illuminations (1970), where he bemoans the decline of storytelling in the face of the media of information.

Finally there's Tina Modotti's 1929 photograph entitled "Campesinos Reading El Machete" which radically confronts the feelings of alienation at the heart of our first two paintings. It shows Mexican peasants with their wonderfully large sombreros, huddled around a copy of the revolutionary newspaper. In an interesting commentary on this work, Jonathan Jones (2003) in the Guardian, focused critically on what he saw as the representation of subservience of the individual to the cause of the working class. "We do not need to see their faces. They are not individuals; they are the proletariat. The future does not belong to the bourgeois self." But what Jones missed was the way in which the newspaper's central position within the composition is so symbolically powerful.

Here is the newspaper shown clearly as the weapon of revolution, educating workers and peasants and inspiring them to revolutionary deeds. And symbolically, too, the reading of the newspaper is a group activity. Politics merges with aesthetics with the photograph, so typical of Modotti's work in general, so beautifully composed: the newspaper, angular and centrally positioned; the hats in the corners contrasting with their beautiful round elegance. And on all of it the sun, hope, shines.

The photograph celebrates the tradition of radical journalism committed to progressive social change which has been marginalised in this country.

If any of this interests you why not dip into the books and article listed at the end? Have a good Xmas and a progressive 2008.

Adorno, T. (1986/1964) The Jargon of Authenticity, translated by Knut Tarnowski and Frederic Will, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
Adorno, T. (1991) The culture industry, London: Routledge
Albers, P (2000) Tina Modotti and the Mexican Renaissance, Paris: Jean-Michel Place editions
Benjamin, W (1970) Illuminations, London: Jonathan Cape
Jones, J. (2003) Portrait of the week: Tina Modotti's Men reading El Machete, the Guardian, 15 February

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