In “Art Is … the Permanent Revolution,” etcher Sigmund Abeles, lithographer Ann Chernow, woodcut artist Paul Marcus and master printer James Reed expound on the link between print art and political protest. But if their abstract talking heads rarely enlighten, their busy hands, engaged in various complex stages of fabricating artwork, utterly fascinate. For documaker Manfred Kirchheimer, intercutting among the artists and showcasing some 400 striking examples of politically engaged images from Durer to Picasso, a picture is indeed worth a thousand words. Opening at Gotham’s Quad, “Revolution” may prove best suited to smallscreen play.
Some of the 60 artists whose illustrations parade across the screen might be described as the usual suspects; Daumier, Goya and Grosz, all known for their acerbic, passionate or grotesque depictions of social injustice, are particularly well represented. Lesser-known figures, like Frans Masereel, Otto Dix or Kathe Kollwitz, here carve their own niches, particularly in their depictions of the horrors of war.
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The film proceeds along two parallel lines: On the one hand, Kirchheimer presents an unending visual stream of woodcuts, etchings, lithographs, drawings and engravings, loosely grouped by subject or artist and underscored by tragic, militant or triumphal music. On the other hand, the helmer includes in-depth interviews with four contemporary artists who are busy plying their craft and whose discussions sporadically inform the ongoing montage of surveyed art pieces. The interpolated prints, in their sheer number, ferocity and brilliance, create a curious counterpoint to the interview subjects’ slow, methodical processes; not until the artists reveal their finished products does their political content become crystal-clear and the two strands of the film click into a true relationship.
Oddly, since the medium’s accessibility and ease of reproduction makes print art a naturally populist and propagandistic medium, the artists interviewed are far from young firebrands using state-of-the-art modes of reproduction. Instead, they come off as thoughtful, somewhat elderly individuals engaged in heavily artisanal, low-tech processes, often involving expensive, rare, quasi-extinct materials.
Kirschheimer never really explains this anomaly. But admittedly, there is something tremendously satisfying in watching these laborious, hands-on processes. Abeles works with different tools on different surfaces and dips his copper plate in acid baths several times before inking and rolling the finished print. Similarly, Chernow and Reed subject a marble slab to multiple washes and coatings as they pass it back and forth in the manufacture of a lithograph.