John Heartfield

John Heartfield was part of the Berlin Dada group that came to prominence following the First World War but is predominately known for his politically motivated composite images that he produced as a counterpoint to Nazi propaganda. As his style evolved, his work became more concerned with seamless artifice rather than the style of early Dada, and artists such as Hannah Höch, where drawing attention to the image making process through photomontage was part of a strategy to show the artificiality of art.

Kriebel (2009) makes this analysis of Heartfield’s work:

“Heartfield’s photomontages labored to stimulate political consciousness through compelling visual means during a period of extreme political and social upheaval. The ultimate goal was to create a community of revolutionary-minded citizens who would actively contribute to radical social change, The beholder of the photomontage completes the work…The viewer is as integral as photography and scissors to his political weaponry.”

Continuing, the distinctions between Heartfield’s early Dada work and later photomontages made predominately for the radical German left wing magazine Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (AIZ) is made:

“Heartfield’s AIZ photomontages wanted to transfix their beholders not only visually but also psychologically, to mobilize them to act. The effect of his AIZ photomontage is not that of a missile, felling the viewers’s senses or miming the “shock” of Dada montage, but instead involves a more subtle, guileful conception: the photomontage aims to seduce, absorb, and captivate the viewer with its photographic illusionism. The beholding body under attack was not that of a staid bourgeoisie but that of an AIZ readership to be critically provoked and engaged. We are in the territory of agitational propaganda, or agitprop, whose purpose is simultaneously to stimulate and to ideologically reeducate its viewers.”

Clarke (1997: 199-200) has this to say about Heartfield’s evolution as an artist:

“Emerging from the extremism of Dada, [Heartfield] produced one of the most sustained and richest body of visual montages this century. Working from a declared left-wing position, he used his images to offer increasingly satirical critiques of Nazi Germany. Whereas Hannah Höch and Raoul Haussmann sought to undermine meaning through the use of the irrational, Heartfield uses the absurd and the juxtaposing of different elements in order to deflate and expose. His perspective turns the photograph into a blend of the political essay and the political cartoon or caricature.”

Foster et al (2012: 179) argue that Heartfield was one of the first members of the avant-garde to invoke propaganda as an artistic model. While propaganda has negative connotations, Heartfield aimed to use his artistic practice and aesthetic to find an audience through the mass cultural distribution of the printed magazine. It is also significant that his work is in direct opposition to existing forms of bourgeois mass culture and particularly a counter to the fascist propaganda of the Nazis.

George Grosz and John Heartfield: Life and Activity in Universal City at Five Past Twelve (1919):

This early photomontage by Heartfield and George Grosz shows the early influence of Dada on his practice and was used as the cover of the 1920 Dada fair. Although the work is not typical of Heartfield’s later photomontages, Ades (1992: 26) describes the montage as being a true image of a violent and chaotic society. The difficulty the viewer is faced with trying to read the meaning in the image subverts traditional art appreciation. Personally, I admire the immediacy of this piece, however, I understand that the ambiguity of the message is something that could not serve Heartfield and his aims to make political change.

Self-Portrait with Police President Zörgiebel (1929):

In this image, which was first published in the radical German left wing magazine Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (AIZ) in September 1929, Heartfield presents himself in the act of beheading Berlin police chief Karl Zörgiebel. Zörgiebel was held accountable by the radical left as being the man behind police violence against communist demonstrators on May Day 1929 – an event which became known as Bloody May. Significantly, the weapon Heartfield uses against Zörgiebel is the tool of his trade as a photomontage artist – a pair of scissors. (In the original AIZ publication the picture is framed by the slogan “Use photography as a weapon”.)

Kriebel (2009) observes this about the work:

“Heartfield’s photomontage not only gives the social fascist a face but also thematizes the fight against him; Zörgiebel the victimizer becomes the victim…Scissors in hand, Heartfield wields the instrument of his art, as well as his weapon.”

Whoever Reads Bourgeois Papers Becomes Blind and Deaf! (1930):

Aesthetically, this image represents a move by Heartfield away from drawing attention to the artifice of photomontage towards seamlessness:

“The violence of this image operates not on the register of vicious cut-and-paste but on that of psychological discomfort, generated by the disturbingly realistic representation of a man smothered by newspapers.” (Kriebel, 2009)

On the Occassion of the Crisis Party Conference of the SPD (1931):

This image depicts a slick haired capitalist composited with a growling tiger. As Kriebel (2009) observes:

“It is a demonic possession in which the primitive and the bestial supplant the human, civilized by black coat and a hallucinatory tie whose decorative pattern of dots transmogrifies into skulls and back again.”

The Meaning of the Hitler Salute (1932):

This image mimics the tropes of documentary and photojournalism to show Hitler raising his arm towards a Nazi salute with an oversized figure, representing faceless capitalism, passing money behind him. The ironic caption reads, “Millions stand behind me” and drives home the message that it is this support behind the scenes that drives Hitler’s electoral success. Foster at al (2012: 178) have this to say about the image:

“Extremely simplified, grotesque, comical and therefore all the more stunning, this form of argument was meant to clarify the otherwise inscrutable political and economic links that attracted big business to the leader of German fascism.”

Ades (1992: 49-50) states:

“Heartfield renders Hitler’s salute ambiguous – from Nazi salute, intended to thrill and terrify millions, it becomes a deceitfully open, grasping hand. An opposition is set up between the apparent and the real significance of the salute, which is de-mystified and deprived of its rhetorical power.”

Adolf – the Superman. Swallows Gold and Spouts Junk (1932):

In this image, Hitler’s body is shown in X-Ray, a swastika in place of his heart and an iron cross instead of a liver. His vertebrae are made of gold coins as a way for Heartfield to emphasise the view that German capitalists were financing the Nazi party. (Foster et al, 2012: 178)

Ades (1992: 49) states:

“In Adolf the Superman the montage is so skilful, the airbrush so discreetly used, that the impression of a real figure, even down to the unnaturally puny shoulders, is perfect, and all the more successfully punctures the illusion of Hitler’s rhetoric. The speeches that were so essential a part of the Nazi programme are shown for what they really were, not just bombastic but money-fed and representing the interests of capital, not the people: ‘he swallows gold and spouts junk’.”

German Natural History – Metamorphosis (1934):

By 1934, the warnings Heartfield had projected in earlier works were realised by fascist reality. in this image, the style and authoritative tone of a picture encyclopaedia is appropriated to illustrate the photographic proof of how the Weimar Republic was the caterpillar from which the third Reich hatched. Former Presidents Friedrich Ebert (1919-25) and Paul Von Hindenburg (1925-34) have their heads fused onto the body of a caterpillar and cocoon respectively on bare oak branches that are a traditional symbol of Germany. Above them Hitler is shown as a death’s head moth – the metamorphosis is complete. Kriebel (2009) notes: “Heartfield uses natural history to offer an allegory of political history, not as “myth” but as some sort of immanent truth.”

Hurrah, the Butter’s Finished! (1935):

For Clarke (1997: 200) this image is archetypal Heartfield. The title and text refers to a speech by Herman Goering where he proclaimed: “Iron always makes a country strong, butter and lard only makes people fat.” Through exaggeration and absurdity, Heartfield attacks this claim as a family sit around a table ready to feast on old iron objects. The execution and attention to detail, portrait of Hitler on the wall, swastika wallpaper and an embroidered cushion with the face of Hindenburg on it, add to the richness and power of Heartfield’s message.

Links:

John Heartfield Website

John Heartfield – J. Paul Getty Museum

John Heartfield – MoMA

Bibliography:

Ades, D. (1992) Photomontage. Revised and enlarged edition. London: Thames and Hudson.

Badger, G. (2001) The genius of photography: How photography has changed our lives. London: Quadrille Publishing.

Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph: A visual and cultural history. New York: Oxford University Press.

Foster, H. et al. (2012) Art since 1900: Modernism * Antimodernism * Postmodernism. (2nd ed.) London: Thames & Hudson.

Herschdorfer, N. (2015) The Thames & Hudson dictionary of photography. London: Thames & Hudson.

Jeffrey, I. (1981) Photography: A concise history. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Koetzle, H-M. (2015) Photographers A-Z. Cologne: Taschen

Kriebel, S. (2009) Manufacturing discontent: John Heartfield’s mass medium. Available at: https://cora.ucc.ie/bitstream/handle/10468/215/Kriebel_HeartieldSuture.pdf?sequence=1 [accessed 9th May 2019]

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Warner Marien, M. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History (4th ed) London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.

Wells, L. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.