In 1943 the American military chose a montage by Erwin Blumenfeld, superimposing a skull over Hitler’s face, to drop over German cities in the form of a propaganda leaflet. Blumenfeld was, by that time, the world’s highest paid fashion photographer. The image itself had been made ten years earlier when he was the frustrated proprietor of a failing handbag shop in Amsterdam and just beginning to concentrate seriously on his photography.

Erwin Blumenfeld

An exhibition currently showing at the Berlinische Galerie in Berlin looks at Blumenfeld’s creative output in the years 1916-33. The Hitlerfresse adopted by American propagandists is one of the few, later, images in the show that employ the technique of which he became a master: combining different photographic elements in the darkroom to create slick montages in which the trickery of cleverly framed shots and the overlaying of multiple negatives are at times almost indistinguishable.

Most of the works on display are the simple collages in which Blumenfeld, holed up in a room above his shop, vented his frustrated creativity. Newspaper cuttings, scraps and slogans from advertising and occasionally his own photographs, are pasted down and often scrawled over with darkly naïve drawings. Along with the detailed research contained Helen Adkins’s accompanying catalogue, they reveal much about the struggles that plagued the artist’s early life.

There is often a violence to his rough cutting and pasting of elements: heads rudely severed and replaced, collages crammed with grotesque female nudes, androgynous figures spliced together from photos of men and women, self-portraits in dramatic poses and costume, images of German soldiers with stockinged women’s legs, and a crucified Charlie Chaplin.

Erwin Blumenfeld

Blumenfeld’s youth seems to have been characterised by voracious intellect and a certain arrogance that was nonetheless tinged with insecurity. A man happiest in the company of books, who might in the best of circumstances have felt naturally something of an outsider, was subject to the external pressures that came with being a Jewish member of German society in the first decades of the twentieth century. Adkins’s research uncovers the profound effect that Otto Weininger’s writings on the inferiority of women had on the young Blumenfeld, but also the hugely important and supportive role that his wife, Lena Citroen, played in his life.

The catalogue title, ‘I was nothing but a Berliner’ is a quote from Blumenfeld that refers to the city as his birthplace, his association with Berlin Dada and also his rejection of Nationalism. In fact Blumenfeld left Germany in 1918 when he deserted from the German army and never lived there again, and his connection to Berlin Dada was ambiguous: although he declared himself “the erotic president of the Dada movement” his work was missing from Berlin Dada’s major contemporary shows.

Erwin Blumenfeld

Adkins speculates that Blumenfeld’s exclusion from the Dada-Fair of 1920 may have been down to his stubborn refusal to take part in anything resembling a formalised group. But her work also reveals that Blumenfeld’s political impulses, and in particular his protests against Hitler, seem to be born less out of any definite ideology than very personal reactions to threats made to his own freedom and safety. His representations of the struggle between himself and his heroes against the villains that populate his collages take the form of personal and violent encounters.  Even Blumenfeld’s preoccupation with the boxer Jack Johnson, a black athlete who stood up for racial equality and was victimised by the white establishment in America, shown in victorious poses superimposed over the Manhattan skyline (anticipating his famous 1946 photograph City Lights) relates directly to his own experiences of being marginalised because of his visible racial characteristics.

Although Blumenfeld continued to create collages throughout his life, they were something he did privately. Occasionally they might be included in letters to close friends – the few with whom he shared the development of his ideas – but they were never meant for public exhibition. Although there are obviously parallels between these collages and his later work in terms his use of multiple elements overlaid and juxtaposed in a single frame, on the whole these compositions lack the finesse of either his fashion photography or works by fellow Dada artists such as Kurt Schwitters and Blumenfeld’s close friend (and brother-in-law) Paul Citroen.

Erwin Blumenfeld

In a letter to Citroen, Blumenfeld described handwritten manuscripts as, “the most beautiful portraits I know”. What these raw, handmade works provide today is a document of Blumenfeld’s character and creative impulses that is obscured in his darkroom montages. The slick fashion images for which he is known are seductively beautiful, dramatic, clever and radically experimental. But they are also cold, idealised images of a brittle and exclusive perfection. In the immediacy of these collages we seem to glimpse the ironic, angry and misogynistic impulses that quietly fuelled them beneath the pristine surface.

Ruby Russell