Compiled from a collection of nineteenth-century illustrations, this collage depicts a family’s ride atop a circus elephant going badly awry. The mother has fainted, her maid left clinging to the two frightened children. While her husband struggles to stop his unconscious wife from falling from the elephant, a second man attempts in vain to scale the creature. A third man tries to control the agitated elephant from the ground; having the head of a bird he can only blindly wield his whip, missing the animal completely. Around this central group the circus has descended into chaos: the crowd can be seen fleeing, climbing walls and pillars in desperation. In the foreground, an oversized snail slides impassively by, while the severed head of a bat grins menacingly towards the viewer.
Trained as an art historian, Roh began his artistic career as a writer and theorist, and by the early 1930s had become one of the central figures of Germany’s modernist scene along with his friends the artists Max Beckmann, Willi Baumeister, Josef Albers and Max Ernst. However, following their assumption of power in January 1933, the Nazi government began targeting modernist artists, teachers and critics for their ‘degeneracy’. Gradually these figures were forced out of their positions and even out of Germany: Roh himself was briefly imprisoned in Dachau concentration camp during 1933, receiving his professional ban that same year.
This collage was made by Roh in 1937 – the same year that the infamous Nazi-organised exhibition Degenerate Art was staged in Roh’s hometown of Munich – and can therefore be said to evoke the fears and panic instituted by National Socialism. Like the crowd depicted in Total Panic II, artists scrambled to emigrate or go into hiding while collectors and museums rushed to sell or hide offending works. Those remaining conspicuous faced isolation, ridicule, or worse, whilst finding their old supporters impassive, joining in the persecution, or fleeing to save themselves.
Franz Roh, Foto-Auge: 76 Fotos der Zeit / Photo-Eye: 76 Photos of the Period, Tübingen 1929.
Ulrich Bischoff (ed.), Franz Roh: Kritiker, Historiker, Kuenstler, exhibition catalogue, Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst, Munich 1990.
Virginia Heckert, Franz Roh: Photography and Collage from the 1930s, exhibition catalogue, Ubu Gallery, New York 2006.