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Artists retell history at National Gallery’s Shock of the News
“Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray / South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio.”
If the National Gallery of Art’s latest exhibition, The Shock of the News, were to be captured in a song, it would be Billy Joel’s battle cry “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” as this astonishing exhibit wraps up a century’s worth of cultural history in its collection of 65 works featuring artists who have drawn on the newspaper as both a medium and subject matter.
The Shock of the News, which opened in the National Gallery’s East Wing on Sept. 23 and runs until Jan. 27, 2013, chronicles artists’ response to the newspaper from the turn of the 20th century, when Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Pablo Picasso began incorporating the newspaper into their work. While Marinetti relied on the newspaper to publish his futurist manifesto and Picasso used a page of newspaper in his collage “Guitar, Sheet Music and Glass” (1912), their works initiated a new movement of artists who would draw upon this medium in innovative ways.
As the press release for Shock of the News explains, artists following Picasso and Marinetti began “to think about the newspaper more broadly—as a means of political critique, a collection of ready-made news to appropriate and manipulate, a source of language and images, a typographical grab bag, and more.”
Organized in systematic chronology, The Shock of the News impresses not only for the caliber and diversity of artists featured, including Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol, but also for the well executed story it tells, which highlights the arc of the newspaper in modern and contemporary art amidst the most influential events of the 20th century.
With a short but comprehensive description next to each work in the three-room show, each piece is a window into the life of an artist, the significance of an art movement, and a moement in history. From Emory Douglas’s documentation of the Black Panthers to Laurie Anderson’s examination of Sino-American relations as they evolved after the Vietnam War to Hans Richter’s large-scale collage documenting the Third Reich’s plans to remap Europe, Shock of the News proves a fascinating lesson in history from a cultural lens. In this way, this collection is as hard-hitting as it is informative.
The diversity of works on display proves another merit of the exhibition, bringing together collages, paintings, drawings, sculptures, artists’ newspapers, prints, and photographs in an unusual but striking way. One particularly entertaining piece is Dieter Roth’s “Literaturewurst,” a sculpture resembling a sausage but actually composed of newspaper, gelatin, and spices in a sausage casing filled with the pages and images from authors he particularly disliked.
Amidst classics such as Dalí’s personal newspaper and Picasso’s collages pointing to the use of the newspaper as a form of high art as well as outliers like the “Literaturewurst,” Robert Gober’s more recent work is another standout. In a stack of newspapers that risks going unnoticed in one corner of the exhibit sits what looks a bride’s photo cropped from the New York Times’ Sunday Styles section. However, upon closer examination, it is actually Gober’s face beneath the hair and veil, juxtaposed with the only story remaining on the page titled, “Vatican Condones Discrimination Against Homosexuals.” A description of this work reveals that Gober altered the original headline, leaving the article’s body to make a point about the Church’s treatment of homosexuals. While his message is controversial, his co-optation of the Times resonates as one of the exhibit’s most memorable pieces.
The final work of the exhibit, “Modern History: April 21, 1978,” proves an excellent finale, as the work examines the differences in international coverage of the former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro’s kidnapping. By removing the text and only preserving each paper’s master head and photos on the 45 prints showcased, this piece allows viewers to step back and absorb the diversity of international political commentary arranged on a massive exhibit wall.
While an anonymous quote painted on the exhibit’s wall affirms that newspapers may be “just chimney soot on chopped up trees,” The Shock of the News artfully illustrates how newspapers can also be inspiration to an entire era of artists—or turned into sausage.