“1991 documentary tracing the development of Photomontage, based on the pioneering work of John Heartfield (Helmut Herzfeld), through to the contemporary use of these techniques in advertising and video. The film looks at the work of John Heartfield, particularly that aimed against Hitler and the Nazis, and takes a radical look at Photomontage, with the animation of archive material, contemporary interviews and footage shot in Berlin during the opening of the Berlin Wall. Music is by Click Click.”
Watch them all fall down
Revolution, the only solution
The armed response of an entire nation
Revolution, the only solution
We’ve taken all your shit, now it’s time for restitution…
Sue Taylor, ‘Heartfield’s photo-Grenades…’, Art in America, June-July 2006:
On the night of Apr. 16, 1933, John Heartfield climbed out a window of his apartment on Potsdamer Street and jumped from the first-floor balcony, narrowly escaping the SS men who pursued him. Fleeing Berlin, he crossed the Sudeten Mountains on foot, bound for the temporary safety of Prague. A Communist and a Jew, Heartfield (1891-1968) was anathema to the Nazis; his many political offenses included the notorious photomontage he had published in the AIZ (Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung, or Workers Illustrated News), with the caption “Adolf, the Superman: Swallows Gold and Spouts Junk.” The image X-rays the pernicious orator’s chest to expose a column of coins in place of an esophagus and a swastika instead of a heart. The ingested gold also resembles a spine, suggesting that capitalist wealth formed the literal backbone of Hitler’s National Socialism. With this conceit, Heartfield boldly put the lie to Nazi claims to represent Germany’s working class. When the picture appeared as a poster during the national elections in 1932, fistfights broke out in the streets between outraged Hitler supporters and their Communist opponents.
Long admired for his innovations in photomontage and graphic design, Heartfield appeared to late 20th-century postmodernists as a progenitor who appropriated mechanically reproduced images in a critique of consumerism and the media. As much as the strategies of Barbara Kruger, say, or Richard Prince in the 1980s recall Heartfield’s subversive montage, the comparison neglects a crucial aspect of the latter’s project: the dissemination of his work in mass-circulation communist newspapers, as posters, dust jackets, and in magazines and books. (1) A recent exhibition at the Getty Center, curated by Andres Mario Zervigon, effectively restored Heartfield’s oeuvre to its embattled political context and reminded viewers of the historical conditions in which it was so passionately produced. “Agitated Images: John Heartfield and German Photomontage, 1920-1938” includes examples of Heartfield’s early contributions to Dada periodicals; montages in AIZ and its incarnation in Czechoslovakia, Die Volks Illustrierte (Peoples Illustrated); and designs for his brother Wieland Herzfelde’s publishing company, Malik Verlag.
Side by side with Heartfield’s work were competing images and other materials from mainstream publications such as BIZ (Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, or Berlin Illustrated News), Illustrierter Beobachter (Illustrated Observer) and Das Magazin. In venues like these and in posters plastered throughout the cities, an ideological “struggle of signs” was waged in interwar Germany. (2)
To convey a sense of this struggle, the exhibition opens with a group of photographs documenting campaign posters in situ in 1932, when Hitler and the Communist candidate Ernst Thalmann challenged the incumbent Reichspräsident Paul von Hindenburg. A hammer and sickle at the top of a column displaying Thalmann’s thrice-repeated image advertised his goals for constituents: “Work, Bread, Freedom.” Nazi posters on kiosks rehearsed the same rhetoric, in one case depicting a worker with a sledgehammer over his shoulder proclaiming, “We want work and bread! Vote Hitler!” Also photographed in several urban locations, a huge poster in red and white, designed by the expressionist Mjolnir, hangs high in the gallery. In this apparently ubiquitous image, a barechested man with raised fists and broken manacles wears a swastika on his belt buckle. “Enough already!” he cries, “Vote Hitler!” Identifying no issue other than mere dissatisfaction, the poster vied at the time with a similarly uninformative advertisement for Hindenburg declaring, “Vote for a man, not for a party!” A focus on personality over substance proved effective then as now: Hindenburg won the election, and appointed Hitler chancellor the following year.
Scenes of Hindenburg’s previous presidency appear in copies of BIZ, where we see him marching in parades, glad-handing voters, meeting disabled veterans. Displayed nearby, a photograph of the president outside his home, facing reporters with their cameras, suggests how strategically managed such apparently candid images were, even in the 1920s. Heartfield’s contempt for the subservience of the mainstream press to manipulations by the ruling class is expressed in a fullpage photograph he published in AIZ in 1930, which also taunts an uncritical readership. He shows the bust of a man in a workshirt–and harness–whose head is entirely wrapped in newspaper. Beneath this suffocating image, a caption admonishes, “Those who read bourgeois newspapers become blind and deaf. Away with these debilitating bandages!” Heartfield staged this particular photograph, to brilliant effect; mostly, however, he relied on familiar, preprinted materials and rendered them disturbingly strange. A grotesque photomontage of a snarling hyena in a battlefield strewn with dead soldiers occupied a two-page spread in AIZ in 1932. Weirdly, the animal wears a top hat and a cross-shaped medal of honor on a ribbon around its neck. The medal parodies the distinguished Prussian decoration “Pour le Merite” by a subtle intervention: Heartfield modified its inscription to read “Pour le Profit.” Below the montage, a caption declares “War and corpses–the last hope of the rich,” comparing the hyena who feasts on carrion to wealthy profiteers who grow fat off war.
Associating objects of hostility or ridicule with animals is a common device in caricature. Heartfield resorted to it in the provocative picture book he produced with leftist journalist and social critic Kurt Tucholsky, Deutschland, Deutschland, uber alles: Ein Bilderbuch (1929). Here a montage of eight elderly, bemedaled, right-wing Prussian patriarchs is cannily and maliciously captioned, “Animals are looking at you,” after a popular tome by nature writer Paul Eipper, Tiere sehen dich an (1928). (Challenged to defend Heartfield’s image, Tucholsky professed to dislike it, explaining, “insulting animals is not my taste.” (3)) For the cover of their book, Heartfield used the colors of the German flag–black, red and gold. On the back, two hands are shown, clutching a sword and a billy club respectively; with its caption, “sticking together fraternally,” the image presents imperialist aggression abroad and police brutality at home as twin expressions of capitalist domination. For the front cover, Heartfield cobbled together from various photographs a bust-length figure, part burgher, part military man, top-hatted, helmeted and mustachioed, sporting the familiar Pour le Merite. From this stout citizen’s mouth emanate the unnerving words of the book’s title in gothic script, “Germany, Germany, Over All.” It’s the same mindless patrioteering parodied by Heartfield’s friend George Grosz in his famous watercolor of flag-waving Republican Automatons (1920), produced just after the First World War.
Meeting Grosz in 1915, Heartfield had been moved to destroy all his own previous, romantic paintings and drawings. The two artists anglicized their names (from Helmut Herzfelde and Georg Gross) in defiance of the anti-English sentiment in wartime Germany. Three years later, they joined the German Communist Party (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, or KPD) and Club Dada in Berlin. Typical of Heartfield’s montages from this period is The Tire Travels Around the World, published on the cover of Der Dada 3 in 1920, a dense, energetic, Futurist-inspired jumble of textual snippets (one in Chinese) as well as photographic images of a tire, toothbrush, bicycles and Dadaist Raoul Hausmann’s shouting face. Tellingly, in one corner Heartfield inserts the phrase “Nein! Nein! Nein!” But one sees him in this exhibition abandon the pure negativity of Dada as, in his words, “the chaotic eruption of resistance, the protest against everything, gave way to a systematic and conscious pursuit of art propaganda in the service of the Workers’ Movement.” (4)
The photomontages now become organized and legible, with fewer elements arranged in an often believable pictorial space. By 1924, in a haunting poster displayed in the window of Malik Verlag on the 10th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War, Heartfield relied on only three photographic components: a parade of little rifle-bearing boys in uniform, a row of huge skeletons looming over them, and a striding figure of the celebrated General Karl Litzmann, bristling with medals, sword, spiked helmet and an aura of military resolve. Titled Ten Years Later: Fathers and Sons, the image warns that another generation, inculcated in the nationalistic values represented by Litzmann, is doomed to suffer the fate of their slaughtered fathers. It was the year that Otto Dix recalled his horrific experiences as a soldier in the print portfolio Der Krieg (The War), and Kathe Kollwitz placed her hope in the figure of a determined pacifist youth in the lithograph Never Again War! Heartfield used photomontage instead to point accusingly at those culpable for the insanity of the prior conflict and for promoting conditions that would lead to the next.
He channeled his outrage, working creatively for class consciousness and political change, exhibiting his designs internationally in art contexts while participating in the collective agitprop efforts of the KPD. His best-known poster–reproduced a dozen times for “Agitated Images” and wrapped around a column in the gallery as it would have been plastered on kiosks in 1928–depicts a single worker’s hand, fingers spread, grasping for power: “5 fingers has the hand,” states the caption, “with 5 you seize the enemy/vote list 5 Communist Party.” Heartfield conceived the indelibly memorable image for that year’s Reichstag election, in which the KPD appeared fifth on the ballot. First test-marketed as a handbill, the poster entailed a collaborative effort, with the artist soliciting the cooperation of factory workers whose hands he had photographed and then lobbying vigorously within the party for approval of his strikingly simple design and its distribution during the last days of the campaign. (5)
Comparisons with contemporary Soviet design are offered in the exhibition via some photomontages by Heartfield’s comrade Gustav Klutsis celebrating worker solidarity and revolutionary achievements. Heartfield traveled in the USSR in 1931 and 1932, exhibited and lectured there and contributed to Soviet publications. One problem for worker propagandists was how visually to advertise the idea of proletarian power in collective action and as a common goal. Both Klutsis and Heartfield found a solution in an image subsuming, by means of montage, many small hands into a single monumental one. In Heartfield’s cover design for a special AIZ issue on anti-fascist demonstrations in 1934, a crowd of demonstrators delivering a simultaneous power salute assumes the contours of a single clenched fist through photographic superimposition. More obviously formulaic is the strategy, common in many later examples of Socialist Realism, of juxtaposing a proletarian mass with an outsize portrait of a visionary leader who symbolizes a unifying spirit. Heartfield resorted to the technique in Lenin’s Vision Became Reality (1934) for AIZ, where Lenin’s giant, disembodied head floats above a mass of people admiring a modern, Soviet-produced tractor. The great revolutionary had been dead for 10 years, but economic and technological progress was evidence, in Heartfield’s montage, of his legacy.
Heartfield was at his best, and to his enemies most dangerous, when raging against injustice and hypocrisy with ferocious satire. From Prague, he continued his visual attacks on Hitler and National Socialism, countering, for instance, the promotion of Aryan physical perfection and prowess in the 1936 Olympics with his riotous yet deeply disturbing montage Programm der Olympiade Berlin.
In Heartfield’s version, events include ax-swinging, with robed judges brandishing axes and pistols; rope-pulling, where Nazis drag along the ground a bound man with the sign “Jude” on his chest; check-riding, in which businessmen mount colossal bank notes instead of horses; and the finale, where the Luftwaffe provides “grandiose fireworks” by bombing a village. Incensed by his insults, the Nazis in 1938 demanded Heartfield’s extradition from Czechoslovakia, causing him to flee to England. He was the thorn in Hitler’s side that Honore Daumier had been to Louis-Philippe in the 1830s. “Agitated Images” makes this analogy with examples from La Caricature, the anti-monarchist weekly that published Daumier’s most barbed political satires. Along with the illustrated daily Charivari, the newspaper provided Daumier his broad-based audience. His medium was lithography, just a few decades old at the time. As his early 20th-century successor in political protest, Heartfield exploited another modern technology and its mass distribution, wielding humor like a grenade. We might look today for avatars of their unflagging resistance not in the art world but among media-savvy and hilarious comic-critics–like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Michael Moore.
“Agitated Images: John Heartfield and German Photomontage, 1920-1938” is on view at the Research Institute Gallery at the Getty Center, Los Angeles [Feb. 27-June 25, 2006].
(1.) Maud Lavin challenged a too-facile comparison of Heartfield with contemporary artists, arguing for a consideration of his modes of distribution, in “Heartfield in Context,” Art in America, February 1985, p. 85.
(2.) Sherwin Simmons coined this phrase in his discussion of political emblems used respectively by Nazi, Communist and Social Democratic parties during the 1920s, in “‘Hand to the Friend, Fist to the Foe’: The Struggle of Signs in the Weimar Republic,” Journal of Design History, vol. 13, no. 4, 2000, pp. 319-39.
(3.) Kurt Tucholsky, quoted in Douglas Kahn, John Heartfield: Art and Mass Media, New York, Tanam Press, 1985, p. 56.
(4.) John Heartfield, quoted in Nancy Roth, “Heartfield and Modern Art,” in John Heartfield, Peter Pachnicke and Klaus Honnef, eds., New York, Harry N. Abrams, 1992, pp. 20-21.
(5.) See Simmons, “Hand to the Friend,” pp. 329-30.