Photomontage and Religion during the 1930s – the J.O.C.

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As part of the general malaise of the 1930s (a decade characterised by uncertainty, political extremism and widespread unemployment) mass political movements sprang up on both the left and right throughout Europe. During periods of social flux there is always an increased tendency for people to affiliate themselves with groups that provide mutual support and direction when confronted by an uncertain environment. But the mass political movements of the 1930s did not emerge in a vacuum; they adopted tried and tested strategies to recruit and bind a diverse range of people to their cause. Indeed, many of the outward rituals, processions and insignia of mass political movements copied the strategies successfully used by the Christian church for thousands of years. This made sense; people would have been familiar and comfortable with such religious symbolism, rituals and concepts due to the high rate of religious observance in Europe during this time. Not to mention the fact that European society is built upon countless references to Christian doctrine that has shaped its evolution. Therefore, it made sense to exploit this familiarity by creating your own versions of the symbols, rituals, processions, martyrs, mass-gatherings, saintly figures and messiahs that people were already comfortable with. All the mass political movements of the 1930s privileged concepts such as discipline, order and the collective good. Individualism was regarded as anathema to their political philosophies. In essence what you saw at this time was the emergence of politics-as-religion. But instead of putting your faith in God in heaven, you were expected to place your trust in the party and the leader who was destined to lead society to a happy future.

Jocistes 1937

But this blurring of the boundaries and the growth of politics-as-religion was also reflected in new structures emerging from within the Catholic church. Early in the twentieth century, a Belgian Catholic priest, Joseph Cardijn, had founded a movement called the Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne, which translates as the Young Christian Workers (or JOC for short with members known as Jocistes). This organisation has a distinctly socialist slant to it, combining trade union and labour activism with ideas of social-justice, alongside Catholic religious teaching. As such, it was remarkably popular and received official Papal blessing in the mid 1920s, before quickly expanding to other countries and is still in existence today. In part, the growth of this organisation can be regarded as the church responding to the changing priorities of those living in a modern, industrial world. Previously, social values based on outward respectability ensured automatic compliance. Deference to authority and outward conformity to religious dogma were the norm in societies heavily influenced by Catholic doctrine. But this was all changing. Social trauma and widespread loss of faith after the horrors of the First World War, industrialisation, urban alienation, mass unemployment and political turmoil all meant that change was in the air. Young people were looking for meaning and purpose. Thus the JOC can be regarded as an attempt to recapture the dissatisfied youth of the 1930s who were slowly drifting out of the orbit of the traditional Catholic church. Here, the anxieties and concerns of the young were framed in a way that was made compatible with Catholic doctrine and an organisational structure created to give meaning and certainty to individuals during a period of uncertainty.

Jocistes 1937

The first publication, Une Date Dans l’Histoire Ouvriere, was published in 1937. This booklet celebrates the tenth anniversary of the founding of the French branch of the JOC, which saw a mass gathering of 85,000 members in Paris on 18 July of that year. Our familiarity with the mass-rallies of the left and right that occurred during that decade does resonate when looking at these photographs. Lines of uniformed Jocistes, banners and flags being carried, torchlit processions, rows of people standing to attention in stadiums immedately evokes how political ovements of the period presented themselves. Discipline and order was in the air. Individualism is bad. And fun is most definitely not part of the equation. The narrative structure of the book is fairly straightforward: photographs show members at work, then travelling to Paris from all over France, congregating for the mass rally and being addressed by their leaders. This is all designed to showcase the great strides the movement has made in just ten years. Design wise, this publication reflects the influence of this period. There are some nice design touches and the photomontage works well to provide some drama to what could otherwise be a rather static visual narrative.

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Entitled Croisade Ouvriere (The Workers Crusade) this second softcover magazine is a very interesting publication produced by the JOC two years later. This time it commemorates a mass gathering/pilgrimage they made to Rome in 1939. Obviously, that was a momentous year for Europe and the storm clouds had been gathering for some time and the date on the back cover of the book is September of that year, the same month that Germany invaded Poland and World War 2 began in Europe. As can be imagined, peace is an recurring theme of the book. As is solidarity and the unity of mankind, another hot topic of the period. Again, like the previous publication, the basic narrative is a simple story about members of the organisation, from all walks of life, coming together to celebrate their beliefs publically by travelling to Rome. Where it differs from the previous publication is the production quality and the graphic design which produces a real sense of energy and drama in a strong package.

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The book begins with a cloudy seascape which is then followed by a close-up of an apartment block, a black-framed view through a window of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City, followed by a montage of male and female industrial workers over a series of train tracks, before finishing with a view of a railway station, with a waiting train belching steam, all viewed through the prison-like bars of a railing. The accompanying text is spread over the five opening pages. Translated (my own – so this is open to correction) from French it reads: “In this troubled world – through our obscured horizons – clarity – people from all industries march to Rome.” This initial image-text combination sets the tone for the rest of the book and clearly sets out the main ideological message promoted by the JOC; that in the midst of turmoil people should can rely on the spiritual guidance offered by the Catholic church.

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A page then offers us a strange cartoon of St Francis of Assisi superimposed upon a photograph of a town (presumably Assisi?). The relevance of this figure here presumably has more to do with his renunciation of his inherited nobility and his concern for the poor and downtrodden rather than animal welfare issues. On the facing page is an image designed to resemble a Roman tablet with an inscription stating that twenty thousand people young people left their factories, workshops, offices and cities to participate in this gathering. Both of these images are designed to reassure viewers that this relatively new mass movement was firmly located at the heart of the traditional, and familiar, structures of the Catholic church. This is reaffirmed by the images on the following pages which depict St Peter’s Basilica and images of a beaming Pope Pius XI engaging with an appropriately deferential and scruffy looking Parisian train engineer, complete with Charlie Chaplin moustache.

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After that we get into some of the strongest visual images in the book which serve as a link between Christian iconography and the workplace. Entitled Who Knows how the Workers Live, this section shows the factories and mills of the young workers who, thanks to adherence to the values espoused by the JOC, are helping to create a better society for all. Bordered by chains, we have a montage of male and female workers in factory settings, linking this work to the slavery of the past. These images are accompanied by quotes from various popes, showing their understanding and concern for those who work in the mechanised world, asserting that they are working to liberate the oppressed from the conditions they toil under. This is followed by a montage of an infant bordered by newspaper cuttings that catalogue the breakdown of social values (as defined by the Catholic church naturally) including such items as divorce, infidelity, suicide, infanticide. The shrill newspaper headlines contrast with the peaceful image of the baby in order to produce the message that the JOC will assist in creating a better society for our children and our children’s children (a standard claim of every social organisation that ever came into being).aJOC07

Reinforcing the message of peace, an image of birds in flight (presumably doves) is juxtaposed against dark images of aeroplanes in an ominous prediction of the death and destruction that would soon be visited from the air. In a family of man moment, a photomontage shows the different people of the world all united by the church while the opposite page shows a seated Pius XII presiding over a religious institution that has, according to the caption, provided 20 centuries of stability. Other images show beaming workers looking to the future superimposed over images of fields, technology and blueprints, demonstrating that the movement had fully embraced the innovations of the modern world in building a better future. The final page, the past and present are linked through pairing a Roman triumphal arch with a modern factory worker. Much of the rest of the book is devoted towards the architectural glories of Rome, including an acetate map showing the highlights. These images serve to bridge the gap between the old and new. The JOC were offering a new version of the church that the young could buy-in to while at the same time reassuring them that their message was firmly rooted in the traditions of the past. This emphasis on continuity was probably also designed to satisfy rivals within the Catholic hierarchy who in the internecine office politics played out within this organisation were undoubtedly heavily resistant to anything that even looked like change. Parallels with the present are evident. A two thousand year old institution carries a lot of baggage.

Jocistes 1939

The JOC movement of the 1930s can be regarded as an attempt by an old religious institution to come to terms with the pace of social change. Older forms of automatic deference were breaking down during a period of social and political turmoil so they needed to change the way they did business in order to maintain their relevance. The days of simply being able to awe the peasantry with the power and majesty of gold encrusted buildings whilst simultaneously preaching the benefits of passively accepting a life of squalor were over. A key part of getting their message across was the use of modernist graphic-design and photomontage techniques to engage with a younger, media savvy audience who had little time for the stuffy old ways of the past. The JOC needed to tread a fine line between emphasising their coolness and relevance whilst also ensuring that links to the past were maintained. In many ways, this movement can be regarded as a forerunner to the social activism and the ideals of Liberation Theology that emerged amongst the Catholic clergy in Latin America after the second world war. In both cases, the traditional structures and institutions of the church were regarded as remote and irrelevant to the real concerns and injustices experienced in everyday life. A new purpose had to be found that would get people to buy-in to the ideals of the Catholic church. This constant need to reinvent itself in order to remain relevant to its membership at a time of rapid change is something that the Catholic church, and other religious groups, still struggle with to this day.

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