Film Review: Art Is...The Permanent Revolution

The entire history of politically inspired printmaking unfolds in Manfred Kirchheimer’s admirably serious, hands-on documentary.

The politically charged images in print by the likes of Durer, Goya, Daumier, Picasso and Grosz are among the most riveting works in all visual art. Manfred Kirchheimer’s absorbing Art Is…The Permanent Revolution explores this form of expression in a comprehensive way, not only focusing on the medium’s history, with some 400 individual examples, but also on four contemporary artists. Etcher Sigmund Abeles, lithographer Ann Chernow, woodcutter Paul Marcus and master printer James Reed are interviewed, and are often eloquent, describing their work and its deep political connections.

Abeles, who jokes that he is 100% Jewish but “related to a goy and that’s Goya,” works on a war-inspired etching while being filmed, and notes that his most famous work is an anti-Vietnam lithograph owned by the Whitney Museum. When asked what he thinks about while working on a piece, he says it can be something as banal as groceries. Watching him and the others at work provides the film’s most quietly compelling footage and, in the course of it, we learn about various print techniques like soft-ground etching, stop-out varnish, and gum Arabic. (Even MetroCards can be utilized in printmaking.) In this facile age of computer-generated everything, it is salutary indeed to see such laborious handiwork, like the way Chernow and Reed manipulate a piece of marble through various washes and coatings, or how Abeles carefully acid-bathes his copper plate before inking it.

Chernow describes the personal process which led her from work more inspired by old movie images of glamour. While working on a cemetery image, she decries the Bush administration for “trading oil for blood,” and intriguingly mentions the particular stone used for etchings, which comes from a single mountain that is slowly being decimated for printmakers’ needs through the ages. Once a print is finished, the stone is then recycled for other artists, but these pictures, like the gripping war images of such as Frans Masereel, Otto Dix, Kathe Kollwitz and so many others, remain forever.