Eric Blumrich

by Yule Heibel on April 3, 2003

In 1819 Theodore Gericault showed the Paris public a painting called “Scene of Shipwreck,” which eventually became known as “The Raft of the Medusa.” Gericault had been inspired to paint it by a recent (1816) scandal that implicated the French government in corruption and gross incompetence. (This link takes you to a page that gives an excellent & pithy synopsis of the historical background, and also provides an image: )

What’s really exciting for people who respond to visual stuff & design as well as politics is Gericault’s ability to take a dynamic formal language — in this case neo-classicism — and marry it to an issue that occupied people’s minds: official corruption and the extremities of human behaviour under duress. Neo-classicism in Gericault’s time wasn’t some dead, boring way to torture young people with dead, boring pictures. It was “Big,” as far as style went: as the “official” style, it had the support of the academy (i.e., the establishment); it was linked to revolutionary values (Napoleon’s iconographer had been Jacques-Louis David, who in the 1780s had the heads-up on going back theme- and stylewise to the ancient Romans, eventually making neo-classicism the style of the French Revolution); and it had recourse not just to “old” subjects (Roman generals, Greek gods, etc. etc.), but also to the audacious notion of clothing modern themes in ancient garb, which made the modern as heroic as the ancient. Gericault’s motley survivors — practitioners, as everyone by now knew, of cannibalism — look, therefore, not “realistic,” but rather heroic, not to be pitied, but to be thought about seriously.

It’s a formal language, and Gericault really knew how to wield it. He did so to make a statement, which may or may not have had something to do with his personal beliefs. But a statement he made, and while we don’t think of his painting as propaganda anymore, it certainly was seen that way in its time.

Eric Blumrich is a modern-day Gericault whose works are both propaganda and art, and given the state of our politics, we’ll see more like it. We need to be able to think about what makes this kind of art work, and what doesn’t.

I happen to think Blumrich is making important works. He is taking modern political scandal as his subject, and wielding the most dynamic formal language currently on offer in design media, to create animations that stun and agitate simultaneously. It’s the language of advertising, pushing and punching its way to your retina, hence it’s nearly academic (just as neo-classicism was in Gericault’s time), for advertising and branding is our academy. In its allusions to advertising it’s linked to a “hip,” cool-revolutionary style (vs. a hot one that says, I’m really going to chuck a bomb as opposed to just miming the action), which makes it visually engaging for the MTV crowd.
It’s also historically linked to collage, which was one of the early-20th century’s most politically charged styles, but which was co-opted by advertising as another way to get your attention and sell you a product. Not content to stop at collaging, he uses painted depictions of key American policy figures, alienating the received image we have of them through the official media, and showing them to us in grainy but clotted shades of gray instead. (“War Crimes”) These faces are juxtaposed to color photographs of the victims, selectively enhanced and cropped, giving the latter a more vibrant look. In “Anti-War,” photographs of Bush are selected for their suggestion of motion, of someone out of control, robbing Bush’s image of the “cool” effect so necessary both to statesmanship and effective televising.

Blumrich effectively couples “new” advertising with old modernist art tricks-of-the-trade, somewhat as the neo-classicists did when they “rediscovered” ancient aesthetic principles. With video & sound, he weaves together images and “samples” — not just music, but other sound recordings (Hitler raving, for example) — to create a rich textured meaning. Blumrich snatches collage’s original dissonance from the slick, univocalizing jaws of advertising, and gives it back its power to disturb. He subverts a language we babble thoughtlessly to say instead, very clearly, “look at this, this is what I think; what do you think?”

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