FRF Film on Protest Printmaking
Has Deep Religious Roots
REVIEW BY READTHESPIRIT EDITOR DAVID CRUMM
“Has a work of art ever stopped a bullet?” we are asked in the opening scenes of the fascinating documentary Art is… The Permanent Revolution, newly released on DVD by FRF (First Fun Features). Then, printmaker Sigmund Abeles poses his question another way: “Guernica is an incredible painting but did it stop a single bullet? I’m not sure.” In fact, this thought-provoking film isn’t about the entire range of the fine arts as the title suggests. Manfred Kirchheimer’s documentary focuses specifically on the last 500 years of print making as protest. While that may sound like a very narrow topic, the 82-minute film branches off into religious and spiritual themes at every turn.
REMBRANDT AND REVOLUTION
Were you in the crowds who flocked to see the Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus exhibition that has been touring the U.S. over the past year? The printmakers we meet in The Permanent Revolution open up new perspectives on Rembrandt’s vocation by paying more attention to his prints than to his finished paintings. It’s in the prints, these artists argue, that we see Rembrandt’s most dramatic attempts to turn other-wordly religious figures, such as Jesus and his mother Mary, into real human beings.
ANABAPTISTS AND REVOLUTION
Are you part of the Protestant branch of Christianity? The film points out that the roots of contemporary protest prints extend all the way back to early Anabaptist religious propaganda about the tragic torture of their brothers and sisters by the powerful leaders of Catholic and Protestant churches. (Yes, early Protestants also went after the Anabaptists in a lethal way.) The image above is a typical 16th-century image of an Anabaptist being burned for her “heretical” beliefs as a witch. To this day, these centuries-old images are preserved and shared in Amish and Hutterite communities—among the contemporary descendants of the early Anabaptists.
VIETNAM ANTI-WAR PRINTS
Were you part of the anti-Vietnam War peace movement? One of the central figures in the film is Sigmund Abeles, still working many decades after he created the electrifying prints that were widely seen in anti-war protests in the late 1960s. His “Gifts of America” series of posters, which includes dark American helicopters raining death on Vietnamese villagers is one of the images discussed in the documentary.
ALL LINES SEEM TO LEAD THROUGH THE HOLOCAUST
Are you Jewish? Then you probably are well aware that protesting printmakers were in the thick of the turbulent social movements that culminated in the Nazi conquest in Europe. Among print-making artists, all lines seem to run through the Holocaust. Several examples of this are shown in the documentary. In our own ReadTheSpirit Book, Interfaith Heroes, Volume 1, readers find an inspiring profile of wood engraver Fritz Eichenberg, a Jewish artist who fled Nazi Germany and later became a major figure in Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement in the U.S. In fact, I would argue that even this new documentary was born of the Holocaust. Producer-Director is Manfred Kirchheimer was born in 1931 in Germany and became a transplanted American as a child, when his family fled from the Nazis to safety in the U.S.
If you’re among the millions of Americans who now see the world through digital media—mainly through video these days—this documentary also works on a subversive level. The Permanent Revolution uses our favorite medium of video to turn our attention back to one of the oldest and most powerful forms of communication. Spend a little over an hour with the men and women in The Permanent Revolution, and I guarantee you’ll walk away with a fresh appreciation of black and white prints.
The film also is terrific for sparking small group discussion. But watch out, because this is potent material. The movie is as potent as the prints were when they first were pulled from the presses many decades—and in some cases centuries—ago.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.