Review by Phoebe Dickerson
Born into a family dominated by business and factory owners, Gerd Arntz (1900 - 1988) was made aware that the workers’ battle for rights was not his to fight. Disregarding such social distinctions, he took a job as a factory worker at his father’s Eisenfabrik Greb & Co. His experiences there were to lead him to embark on an artistic career, unfailingly critiquing the social inequality and exploitation, corruption and political factionalism of Weimar society.
On the first wall as you enter the small white space of Between Bridges hang eight block-colour pictograms, designed for the Viennese Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum (Social and Economic museum) in 1930. Collaborating with Otto Neurath for the Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics (later renamed Isotype), Arntz formulated a block-colour pictorial vocabulary with which to represent statistical shifts. Depicted only in Hirst-like spots of an Yves Klein blue, one plate graphically represents the USA’s quadrupling of machinery export between 1913 and 1929 - a vivid expression of those first vast strides with which the USA overtook their global competitors. Through the elimination of all extraneous elements, statistical coherence is married to a stark purity of aesthetic design.
Where the first pictograms employ colour, the other woodcuts exhibited here are monochromatic. Using an un-modulated black outline, Arntz prints on to card where the fibred surface introduces a textural element to images that are otherwise rigorously flat and dimensionless. Taking an explicitly socio-political angle, these images operate without the more conspicuous diagrammatic aspect of the pictograms, while maintaining their distanced, unindividuated style. Nevertheless, where Arntz’s style is ostensibly dispassionate, it is acutely engaged: abandoning the patterns of light and shade, he emphasises the unsettling detail - a stocking hanging from a bayonet, a swastika on a single black sleeve. In many cases, the black lines are cut - one senses - with anger, as in the case of Erschossen um nichts (Shot for nothing). The word ‘erschossen’ is emblazoned on the background wall, partially obscured behind a scene of an execution. The figures stand and fall, rigid as toy soldiers, and beneath their feet, the small words - ‘um nichts’ - are trampled.
In a small anteroom are displayed 10 woodcuts from the series, 12 Häuser der Zeit (12 Houses of the Time). Following a three-tiered construction, these particularly slick and elegant woodcuts provide cross-sections of various institutions. In their compositional similitude, the plates draw attention to parallel power dynamics that enact themselves in a brothel, factory, theatre and prison. In Theater, stark diagonals of light carve across the composition as an audience, airborne in boxes, watch some predecessors of Julian Opie’s Shanoza dance in varying states of undress in the lower-right corner. In Kaserne (Barracks), again in the lower-right corner, a target-headed figure is about to be shot. In their juxtaposition - in their continuum of elegant monochrome - the sharp edge of Arntz’s social commentary is accented.