Martha Rosler, House beautiful: Giacometti (1967-72), printed late 1990s Art Gallery of NSW. Gift of Geoff Ainsworth, 2015. Bringing the War Home: House beautiful, a series of photomontages made by Martha Rosler in 1967-72, is still shockingly contemporary. Though made in response to the war in Vietnam, it’s possible to imagine a similarly arresting montage of images from, say, Vogue Living or Domain and the war in Syria and the thousands of migrants. What Rosler did in House beautiful was to bring together types of imagery that are normally kept separate, to suggest there is, in fact, a connection between them.
Vietnam politicised Rosler, who is known as much for her writings as for her installations, photographs and performance works since the 1960s. “My politicised practice,” she wrote, “began when I saw that things were left out of explanations of the world that were crucial to its understanding.” The anti-war movement was pivotal. So was feminism. Her photomontages were intended to make connections between the “home front” and the war.
Like others in the series, House beautiful: Giacometti juxtaposes an image of an aspirational interior culled from House Beautiful magazine with a photograph from the combat zone, as published in Life magazine. It’s a shock to see that through the windows of the art collector’s elegant living room there is a muddy landscape strewn with dead bodies. It’s a crude but effective trick. The home no longer seems so comfortable or so civilised, the art objects in it no longer so disinterested or pure. The scene of carnage is no longer just a documentary image.
The conflict in Vietnam was described as “the living-room war” as it was the first to be broadcast into people’s homes. Images of the war were widely published; they polarised opinion and helped to fuel the anti-war movement. But Rosler was aware of how documentary images serve in part to reassure their viewers of their relative comfort and distance. These images separated “here” from “there”, “them” from “us”, when in fact they were intimately connected. The war, after all, was being fought in the name of those at home.
It seems rather strange to encounter a work like this in an art gallery, not least because of its production qualities: we’re looking at a colour photograph of a photomontage. Rosler’s photomontages were made to be photocopied and distributed at anti-war rallies, or printed in underground magazines. They started to circulate in the art world only in the late 80s, when an art dealer suggested a portfolio of them be created; they were later featured in Art in America during the Gulf War.
Photomontage as type C photograph