Familiar to most Santa Barbara residents as the creator of the recently restored “Chromatic Gate” sculpture across from East Beach, Herbert Bayer is less well known for his pioneering work in photomontage. This relatively small show of 12 Bayer works comes as a companion to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s ambitious international loan exhibition The Paintings of Moholy-Nagy: The Shape of Things to Come, which opens on July 5. In addition to further elaborating the historical connection of Santa Barbara to Bauhaus that the Moholy-Nagy exhibition will celebrate, the dozen Bayer photomontages — plus one painting — open a window on a fascinating phase in the long and varied career of this extraordinary artist and historical figure.
When Bayer left teaching at the Bauhaus Dessau in 1928, he took a position as art director of Vogue in Berlin. Seizing on such recent developments in the art of photographic illustration as airbrushing and masking, Bayer transferred these techniques from the production of images for advertisements and editorial layouts to the creation of highly idiosyncratic surrealistic images reflecting his own existential consciousness as an artist in the early years of Nazi Germany.
Given the extent to which Weimar decadence has become a commercially successful style, it’s easy to assume that every interesting image from the period has already been reproduced to death, but this is not so. As a case in point, take Bayer’s 1932 photomontage “Humanly Impossible (Self Portrait).” The black-and-white image shows a young man looking at himself in the mirror from a perspective that gives us two visions of him — his reflection and a sliver of his profile. In the mirror image, something has gone horribly wrong, and the object Bayer holds in his right hand appears to be a substantial chunk of his left arm, severed in neat cross section and leaving a gap between the figure’s torso and his floating left arm where his shoulder would ordinarily be. The right hand is also visible in the profile, and in that non-reflected image, the position occupied by the arm slice is held by an ordinary sponge.
The key to this disturbing image lies in Bayer’s shocked facial expression, which appears to confirm the surreal vision in the mirror. It’s a complex and sophisticated meditation on the psychological notion of a narcissistic wound, the occasional or even imagined threat to the narcissist’s self-perception of omnipotence that can trigger outbursts of rage. It’s also an irresistibly compelling image of Berlin in 1932 as a state of mind. This image, along with the similarly rigorous “The Lonely Metropolitan,” also from 1932, puts Bayer alongside such acknowledged surrealist masters as Man Ray in his achievements in this medium.
Elsewhere in the show, photomontage offers Bayer the opportunity to experiment with airbrushing and montage to quite different ends, as in “Nature Morte” and “Stable Wall,” both from 1936. Playing with his memories of Austrian barns and farm equipment, Bayer developed a symbolic vocabulary that stayed with him on his voyage from Berlin to New York, Aspen, and eventually to Montecito. Through this intriguing exhibit, it’s possible to recover some of the wonder — and dread — with which Bayer must have regarded the rapidly shifting dynamics of world history.