Fertilizer, Photomontage and Visual Rhetoric

What’s in that sack? The question is simple and the graphic response is a classic use of late ’20s-era photomontage.

This is a tabletop, easel-back ad for the Virginia-Carolina Chemical company. It may not look sophisticated today, but the use of montage borrows from John Heartfield and Gustav Klutsis, among the leading montagists of the early 20th century Avant Garde. Of course this is neither political nor social but it comes with some curious pictorial rhetoric.

For instance, who are these people? The older man in the suit and hat (on the right) appears to take a bemused interest in the smell of the product, while the fellow wearing a tie and vest on his knee surveys its acid and ammonia contents. Why are these men in business suits anyway?

Are they government inspectors? Homegrown terrorists? Or just casual bystanders, curious about what emanates from inside the bag? And then there’s the guy atop without a tie, but in dress pants and nice shoes. What is he looking for? Is he setting a fuse, looking for a cuff link or just tired after his strenuous climb?

The green overall is fairly obvious and the hint of the black square behind the bag is positively Suprematist. But the real influence on this piece will never be fully known.

Photomontage was used as a radical, often ideological means of altering reality and manipulating perception. It was also an art of commerce. This enigmatic usage is nonetheless alluringly perplexing and captures attention in an odd and wonderful way.

 

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