PRINT November 1976

Heartfield’s Contempt

JOHN HEARTFIELD’S ART WAS ferociously political, and his life a succession of subversive acts. Born Helmut Herzfelde in 1891, he anglicized his name in protest against Kaiser Wilhelm II’s bellicose, anti-English attitudes—choosing World War I when Germany was fighting England to do it. Briefly employed as a letter carrier in Berlin, he dumped mail in the sewers, hoping to assist demoralization among the folks back home and at the front. When the war was finally over, he joined the German Communist Party the first chance he had. Then, becoming progressively more angry and disillusioned, he went on to flay the mealy Weimar Republic and the nightmarish Third Reich with photomontages that are among the most pungent this technique has ever produced.

Five decades have passed, but his works can still upset and illuminate, are memorable in their cruel beauty. Heartfield was as representative of the Weimar left as his friend George Grosz, but was more durably vicious. Because of that and his chosen medium, he occupies an equivocal position in the historiography of art. Either he is safely slotted as a minor member of Berlin Dada whose purely technical contributions to photomontage are worth a paragraph or two (when he isn’t entirely ignored), or he is appropriated by idolatrous left-wing critics who line him up alongside such presumably Socialist heroes as Goya, Courbet, and Daumier. His biographer, Sergei Tretyakov, goes so far as to tell us that Heartfield’s photomontages are "the history of the Communist Party.”1 But such a pious statement really evades the complexity of the historical situation and the work itself.

Heartfield’s photomontages functioned like an X-ray or lie detector—they penetrated beneath the liberal and fascist facades (Spanish and Italian included) and revealed the depravity and bloodymindedness lurking beneath. Technically, he was like a scavenger, who knew where to find photo chaff and then assembled it into montages that chilled foes all around. His vantage point couldn’t have been better—Berlin, cabaret city, metropolis, headquarters of extremism.

He and his brother, the poet Wieland Herzfelde, arrived there in 1913, when it was still the capital of the Hohenzollern empire, to study at the art and crafts school. Both brothers associated with the avant-garde, centering around Franz Pfemfert, publisher of Die Aktion, and Herwarth Walden, who owned the influential gallery and expressionist weekly Der Sturm. Pfemfert’s weekly, founded in 1913, was a forum for activist intellectuals who had had enough of Kriegstimmung (war mood) and agitated persistently against it. At a time when French and German soldiers were shooting and gassing each other in the trenches, Die Aktion carried drawings and articles by and about Frenchmen, such as Roger de la Fresnaye or the writer Charles Péguy.

Wieland and Heartfield, committed pacifists, were drafted, and both proved to be awful soldiers. Wieland was discharged almost instantly as “unworthy to wear a uniform.” Heartfield managed to develop a nervous affliction upon the advice of his friends, and was discharged in 1915 without ever seeing a front. Back in Berlin the brothers became close with George Grosz, whose sojourn in the army had been equally disastrous and brief. Together, they proceeded to denounce the war as a shabby, jingoistic venture that was costing millions of lives, destroying the country and turning the capital into a "city of tightened stomachs, of mounting thundering hunger, where hidden rage was transformed into boundless lust and men’s minds were concentrating more and more on questions of naked existence.”2

Heartfield was fortunate in having an influential benefactor who helped him now and throughout his career—the educated and sensitive writer, diplomat and patron of the arts, Harry, Graf (Count) Kessler. He helped both Heartfield and Grosz (and later Wieland) get jobs at the Universum Filmgesellschaft, a forerunner of the Ufa film studio. They immediately sabotaged their first task, to make a propaganda cartoon called “Pierre in Saint-Nazair,” supposed to show how incompetent the Americans were. What they produced was, of course, useless as a propaganda film, except maybe for the American side. The Germans were depicted as buffoons, lugging cannons around, and Heartfield only kept his job because Kessler intervened.3

From 1916 on, their private war was continued in a magazine called Neue Jugend. New periodicals were prohibited during the war, so Wieland bought up the rights of a moribund boy’s magazine and kept the innocuous name as cover. It was more antiwar than the closely watched Die Aktion could be, and also served as a showcase for Grosz’ virulent attacks on society, often abetted by Heartfield.

Despite the clever tactic, the second issue of Neue Jugend was banned. Unperturbed, Wieland kept issuing it in various disguises, such as broadsheets that looked like advertisements. One such item was a collage created by Heartfield and Grosz announcing the “Little Grosz Portfolio.” Replete with little macabre touches—a skull leered from its center, and glued all around were evocative words like “execution” or phrases juxtaposed in an insolent manner, such as “street of pleasure” with “riot of the mad” and “the church”—the collage managed to be reasonably offensive. Its unorthodox disposition of type and volatile wordplay remind us of, and were probably dependent on, the Italian Futurist Marinetti. The Futurists had exhibited with enormous success at Walden’s “Sturm” gallery in 1912, the same year that Marinetti had developed his concept of “parole in libertá” or free words. In Marinetti’s examples, letters, swirls, squiggles and isolated words such as “Prussiens,” “Belle,” or “Guerre” explode all over the page. A Futurist antecedent needs to be stressed in Heartfield’s development with the ironic proviso: although their anarchic syntax converged, the Italian militarists were, of course, celebrating what the German abjured.

Wieland had started his own publishing firm in 1917, the Malik Verlag, which, however, only got going after the war was over. Then his collaborators included, once again, his brother and Grosz, Erwin Piscator, the propagator of the political theater, writers Franz Masareel and Walter Mehring. Malik functioned like a Communist cell which hoped to help provoke the proletarian revolution. The October Revolution had been successful in Russia and to many it seemed that the situation in Germany called for a total reversal of the previous Kaiserreich. While the allied power brokers were writing the terms of the Versailles Treaty, the country and Berlin in particular were crumbling into anarchy. Kessler spent much of his time walking through the streets and recorded the incredible disorder in his diary: “The German people,” he wrote, "starved and dying by the hundred thousand, were reeling deliriously between despair, frenzied revelry and revolution.”4 A few cities, like Munich, actually came under Communist control and set up the “Räte” republics based on Soviet models which allowed for a direct worker participation in the government.

But the illusion of a Bolshevist Germany proved shortlived. For one, the Communists bungled whenever they did get into local, unsupported positions of power. For another, the extreme wing of the party, the Spartakists, which included the thinking and more capable radicals, were decimated right at the start by the “Freikorps” groups of well-equipped volunteer soldiers, or former units of the Germany army, who were obviously financed by those interested in preserving the economic and social status quo. At the end of a general strike called by the Communists in March 1919, some 1,200 corpses were splattered all over the rooftops and streets of Berlin. Political assassinations eliminated several left, centrist, and right-wing leaders, among them Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, who were killed in January of 1919. The Catholic Centrist politician Matthias Erzberger was shot in 1921, while the distinguished Jewish Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau was torn apart by a bomb the following year. Normal life could hardly have been possible at a time when such murders were an everyday occurrence. And this is not to speak of the judicial murders carried out by the reactionary judges, or those shot while trying to “escape” from police dragnets.

“Just control yourself,” says Glubb, the bartender, in Bertolt Brecht’s first play Drums in the Night to some of his customers who want to know what is going on. “Sure you feel offended, they slaughtered you with cannon and sabers, and swindled you and spat on you a little. So what?” One of the drunks rouses himself and sings:

All my brothers are now dead, yes dead.
I’ve come through alive, I don’t know how.
In November I was red, yes Red.
But it’s January now.

In November 1918 a flurry of uprisings began after sailors in Kiel mutinied and refused to participate in a last suicide battle, and spread from Hamburg, Bremen and Lubeck all the way south to Bavaria. But the left wing revolts lost momentum when Karl Liebknecht’s attempt to declare Germany a republic along Bolshevist lines was preempted by the Social Democrat Philip Scheidemann’s impromptu declaration of a democratic republic. And so Weimar came to power in the early days of November to replace the old, authoritarian order with a nominally liberal regime headed by the Social Democrats, originally a working-class party. Thereafter, at almost every opportunity it had to rectify social justice, it not only sided with the prosperous and privileged of yore, but relied on recidivist and repressive militarists and private armies to massacre the poor.

No wonder Grosz, Heartfield, Wieland and numerous others who sympathized with the working classes were frustrated out of their minds! No wonder the word “swindle” came so frequently to their lips and that they could only feel betrayed! Bitter disillusion marked the Malik publications after the war, as can be seen from the scornful treatment the Weimar politicians received on Heartfield’s title page for the only issue of Jederman sein eigner Fussball (Everyman has his own Football). He glued the photographs of President Ebert, Gustav Noske, Minister of Defense, and old General Hindenburg on an opened fan. “German Beauty Contest!” announces the caption. “Who is the prettiest?” The choice must have seemed appalling.

Both Wieland and Mehring have left some amusing descriptions of the time they peddled Jederman sein eigner Fussball, which perhaps have gotten a bit colorful over the years. Mehring, for example, writes:

We hired a char-a-banc (cart) of the sort used for Whitsuntide outings, and also a little band, complete with frock coats and top hats, who used to play at ex-servicemen’s funerals. We, the editorial staff, paced behind, six strong, bearing bundles of Jederman sein eigner Fussball instead of wreaths. In the sophisticated west end of the city we earned more taunts than pennies, but our sales mounted sharply as we entered the lower-middle-class and working-class districts of north and east Berlin. Along the streets of dingy grey tenements, riddled by the machine-gun fire of the Spartakus fighting and sliced open by the howitzers of the Noske regime, the band was greeted with cheers and applause as it played its two star pieces, which were the sentimental military airs . . . our Dadaist procession was greeted with delight as spontaneous as the “on y danse” of the Paris mob in front of the Bastille. And “every man his own football” entered the Berlin language as an expression of contempt for authority and humbug."6

The Malik Verlag was constantly being fined or taken to court, issues were banned and confiscated. Once its shop window was smeared after the house had published a book revealing the illegal activities and political murders of the Black Reichswehr. (Which rather proved the artists’ point, and they used the vandalism as advertisement.) Despite such hassling, the Malik Verlag continued, and Heartfield supplied numerous sardonic book jackets for several translations of Upton Sinclair’s anticapitalist novels and works by such authors as Vladimir Mayakovsky, John Dos Passos and Kurt Tucholsky.

Most of the Malik contributors soon joined forces with the Berlin Dada people, among them Raoul Hausmann, Hannah Höch, Johannes Baader and Paul Citroen, who all thought the goings-on unfathomable except as an exercise in horrific lunacy. Dada’s chief targets were the military and bourgeoisie. One of Heartfield’s two favorite outfits, for example, was a dirty uniform which he further enhanced by shaving only half his face. (The other was a blue pair of overalls like those worn by mechanics.)

In The Engineer Heartfield, Grosz shows him as a crafty-looking, stubble-faced proletarian, with a little machine for a heart. Not only did he compile imagery produced by a machine (having destroyed all his early paintings), he bitterly attacked the notion of privileged touch and precious object. Heartfield preferred to be called “monteur” or “Dadamonteur,” and used to sign his collages with an added “mont.” Both the terms monteur and photomontage derive from the French monter, meaning to assemble. Supposedly the visual message was put together as an object is manufactured.

Today, photomontage is usually taken to mean manipulation of negatives in the darkroom, which would make the Dada works, technically speaking, photocollages. But as Dawn Ades points out in her new, informative book Photomontage: Photography as Propaganda, Heartfield and the Dadaists were less interested in the technical process than in the “idea, the operation that transforms the meaning of the original photograph.”7 Heartfield himself said the following: “A photograph can, by the addition of an unimportant spot of color, become a photomontage, a work of art of a special kind.” And Tretyakov, in his biography, notes: “If the photograph, under the influence of the text, expresses not simply the fact which it shows, but also the social tendency expressed by the fact, then this is already a photomontage.” Considering the difference in meaning over the decades, it is, perhaps, best simply to call those works which involve the assembling of predominantly photographic matter photomontages.

Grosz claims that he and Heartfield invented photomontage when they were pasting together pictorial insults aimed at the war, in his studio in 1916. He writes that they pasted “a misch-masch of advertisements for hernia belts, student song books and dog food, labels from schnapps and wine bottles and photographs from picture papers, cut up in such a way as to say in pictures what would have been banned by the censors if we had said it in words.”8

Hausmann and Höch have put in a counter claim for the invention, but, of course, neither of the two teams actually discovered the photomontage.9 Actually, Victorian photographers like Oscar Gustav Rejlander or Henry Peach Robinson had created what they called “composite” photographs which emulated painting and often told a story, like Robinson’s sad Fading Away.

What Heartfield started to do in the early 1920s was to sharpen the 19th century’s device into a political weapon capable of taking on the complex socioeconomic problems of his day and of savaging the government double-speak. He specifically used photographs because they were still considered to be a “poor man’s art” and because they could be easily grasped by the working classes, even though thoroughly modern in their disjunctions.

The plight of these workers, as well as that of the middle classes, was great in the first few years following the end of the war. The government, it seems, never tried very hard to stabilize the mark, since it was easier to pay off the absurdly high reparations payments with inflated currency. Furthermore, the majority party of Social Democrats was tainted by having signed the ignominious treaty in the first place. Consequently, the workers tended to vote Communist, giving that party a whopping 12.6 percent in the May 1924 elections. But at the same time, small businessmen and the order-loving bourgeoisie turned more to the right, to the old guard bureaucrats who, even after the toppling of the Kaiserreich, controlled the military, the judiciary system and the economy. The old guard, so the reasoning went, might bring the German nation back to its erstwhile glory, stature and strength.

This desire for military power and revenge against the allies provoked Heartfield’s first outstanding photomontage, completed in 1924 and called Fathers and Sons. Ten Years Later. It is a macabre celebration of the 10th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. A gruff, resolute general, with medals all over his chest and a pointed helmet, marches straight out of a row of skeletons. Below them is a group of children drilling with toy guns. Heartfield exhibited a blow-up in the window of the Malik book store, causing a traffic jam and the arrival of the police. Ten years later, the sons were marching for Hitler, and Heartfield repeated the montage, only changing the caption to read “After twenty years. Fathers and Sons.”

The work is montaged from three separate photographs retouched in the darkroom and then rephotographed for the final image. (For the general he used a press photograph, the skeletons were provided by a museum archive and the photo of the marching children was a documentary photograph.) The distinctive features of such a photomontage are its structural precision and clear message.

Fathers and Sons no longer has anything to do with Dada and is structurally different from his earlier collages like the Dada-merika or the advertisement for the Grosz portfolio, where the entire page was covered with numerous images and letters and an air of fantasy prevailed. Dada was nihilistic. It sneered at the political and economic mess, and went in for promiscuous demolition. But by the early 1920s Heartfield, like Grosz, fully thought that art could be used positively to produce another social order. Grosz wrote about this change that affected him and Heartfield: “We, however, saw the big new task of a tendentious art in the service of the revolutionary cause.”10

This, in theory at least, brings Heartfield’s photomontages close to his Russian counterparts, who also struggled to realize a “new art” on a broad social and political front. But their essentially abstract imagery is not a protest art at all. Whatever the artists’ intentions, revolutionary ardor is rarely communicated in the Russian so-called revolutionary photomontages.

El Lissitsky’s renowned Red Wedge poster supposedly depicting the red forces smashing through the White Russians couldn’t be less rousing. It is exactly what it says—a red wedge in a circle. The contrast is between idealist Russian abstractionists, idolaters of modernity and visionary change wrought by the industrial order, who briefly enjoyed Revolutionary government patronage, and a livid, radical outsider using the most concrete imagery to indict his society, at considerable personal risk.

Following the demise of Dada in the early 1920s, only Hannah Höch continued to devote herself to the photomontage, but her work bears little similarity to Heartfield’s. She is certainly a whimsical observer of social conventions, but her ideological commitment is nil. What happened when both of them, presumably accidentally, used the same photograph of a listless, overworked and pregnant proletarian woman in 1930, is fascinating to note. In Mothers, Let Your Sons Live! Heartfield montages a photograph of a dead boy with his rifle, right behind the woman. The message is clear—agitate for change! Rouse yourself! Help prevent these kinds of atrocities! In contrast, Höch has no sense of mission. She cloaks the woman’s face surrealistically, with a primitive mask, thereby deflecting the impact of the original photograph. La Mere is possibly an affecting but not a politically engaged image.

In 1929 Heartfield found the perfect vehicle for his subversive activities. That was the left-wing workers weekly, the AIZ or Arbeiter Illustrierte, which had a large circulation reaching about half a million. During the next eight years he executed about 200 photomontages which usually took up the entire first page. The AIZ was, in the estimation of Heinrich Mann, “one of the best illustrated papers. It presents the world of the proletariat, which oddly enough does not seem to exist for the other journals.”11

Heartfield joined the AIZ in 1929, the year of the great crash. Shortly thereafter, the Nazi party was suddenly promoted from the level of a repulsive rabble-rousing group to the second largest party in Germany following the 1930 elections. The various groups of Social Democrats still pulled a little more than 24 percent, the Communist Party was in third place.

Heartfield, like Grosz, was horrified by the Nazi successes and his photomontages seem like previews of things to come. Grosz had already mocked the future chancellor as a puny, fur-clad, scowling Siegfried in his drawing Hitler, the Savior right after the abortive Munich Putsch in November, 1923. Now, nine years later, Heartfield dressed Hitler in the uniform of Kaiser Wilhelm II and sarcastically altered the defunct ruler’s one-time promise “I will lead you into splendid times” to suit the new autocrat. The caption on the photomontage now has Hitler promise “I will lead you into splendid disasters.” Another photomontage is entitled Adolf the Superman: Swallows Gold and Spews Junk. An X-ray of the Führer’s puny chest reveals the trachea filled with gold coins. Kessler liked the photomontage so much he provided the funds to have it made into a poster.

Mussolini is similarly X-rayed for the title page of a book called Italy in Chains, published by the German Communist Party. Part of the face turns into a disgusting fleshless skull. The Duce unwittingly supplied the caption, which in context of the photomontage and coming events becomes a terrible double entendre. It reads, “In the next fifteen years I will change the face of Italy so that no one will be able to recognize it.” This was created at a time (1928) when the Duce was still enjoying a generally favorable reputation.

What we see in the photomontages executed in the 1930s for the AIZ is a progressively more ghoulish society, one in which justice, already undermined in the early years of the Weimar Republic, can be represented with little exaggeration as a hatchet-swinging judge (as Heartfield did in a photomontage dating to 1936). Today, when it is almost possible to nod over the Nazi years, due to familiarity with the atrocities, the photomontages are like a slap in the face. Heartfield’s shocking juxtapositions of images make Lautreamont’s unpleasant conjectural encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table seem like mere piffle. But then, reality in Germany had a way of outdoing Surrealism, and Heartfield was splicing its disparate excesses into an intelligible whole.

Just Like in Medieval Times (1934) is the title of a photomontage which is divided into two parts. At the top is a carving of a man tortured on a wheel which Heartfield had seen on a church in Tübingen. Below is an emaciated figure similarly broken on a life-sized swastika. The caption, which completes the title to read “Thus in the Third Reich,” is almost superfluous. The juxtaposition makes the message crystal clear—then and now, murder is condoned by the ideology of the ruling class.

The two parts are like frames from a film, and one remembers the artist’s earlier experiences in a film studio. “What,” asks Eisenstein, “is involved in . . . an understanding of montage? . . . The juxtaposition of . . . partial details in a given montage construction calls to life and forces into the light that general quality in which each detail has participated.”12 The life of a Heartfield, as in Eisensteinian montage, arises from the revelation of a process of thought as it articulates historical meanings from the fewest details. Of necessity, Heartfield’s syntheses had to erupt from even more compressed elements than the Russian’s. ”The dialectics of Marx are the key to the understanding of Heartfield," writes Hans Hess in the catalogue for the Heartfield exhibition at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. “It is in essence the same principle as that of wit, where out of the juxtaposition of two facts a new meaning, a new truth arises. Heartfield’s work is based on the principle thesis antithesis and synthesis, and thus the revelation of truth.”13

To do this he recycles quotidian documents, juxtaposing materials that are often banal in themselves. Typically, he then inverts and deflates fascist metaphors by making them outrageously literal. The photomontage Millions Are Behind Me (1932), for example, reveals the murky connections between high finance and the Nazis. The motto is from a speech by Hitler, but the Führer was obviously referring to something other than what Heartfield is presenting. Here, the support of “millions of people” is transformed into millions of marks, as an anonymous hulk stuffs some bills into the Führer’s outstretched hand, raised in the Nazi salute. Through two figures alone, “the real meaning of the Hitler salute,” as the photomontage text adds, becomes apparent. The technique allows him, here and in other works, to take all kinds of liberties (distortions of perspective, ambiguities of scale) to make his point. A drawing of the same theme would be awkward and unconvincing, a mere cartoon. But photographs are of real people, real events, and his montages jolt owing to a retained aura of truth and believability.

Often his audacity is mindboggling. You begin to marvel that he actually survived a photomontage like Goering, the Butcher of the Third Reich (1933) and then went on to produce more like it. On February 27, 1933, the Reichstag was mysteriously set on fire. Although it was never proven, it is probable that Goering, President of the Reichstag, engineered the conflagration, especially since the Communists and Social Democrats were immediately accused and persecuted by the Nazis. Heartfield was outraged by the subsequent trials which attempted to frame four Communists and the purpose of his photomontage was to expose the real culprit. Indeed, he has so firmly montaged the yelling, porcine minister into place in front of the burning building that it is hard to remain unconvinced. He had the cheek to note on the photomontage that Goering’s face was taken from an original photograph which had not been retouched. The work well summons up the man who said, “We have not come to exercise justice, but to destroy it root and branch.”14

Often he could be insidiously funny. Hurray, the Butter’s all Gone! (1935) presents a German family at dinner time. It is stuffing itself with chains, bicycle handles and screws, in happy response to another one of the obese Goering’s idiotic utterances, “Iron always makes a nation strong. Butter and lard fat.” In Mimicry (1934) Heartfield mocks a newspaper release which noted that the design of the medallion for the May Day celebration would include a portrait of Goethe, the German eagle, and also the Bolshevist hammer and sickle—to woo those workers still opposed to Hitler. Heartfield gives the Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, and Hitler some helpful advice—he advises Hitler to stick on a Karl Marx beard whenever he is making a speech to the proletariat. Technically the photomontage is perfect—the little body standing so gracefully on the chair actually seems to belong to Goebbels, until you realize, dwarf that he was, he couldn’t possibly have been that top-heavy.

Heartfield snipped most of his incriminating material out of magazines and, occasionally, newspapers. His apartment was a disorderly archive filled with bits and pieces of photographs he anticipated using. He preferred glossies, which he got at newspaper morgues, archives, and press agencies. If he needed an image he didn’t have, he would produce it with the help of a photographer. (He never took his own pictures, nor did any retouching, saying he had too much respect for other people’s craft.)

War, Heartfield correctly judged, would be the result of Germany’s sullen withdrawal from the Second International Disarmament Conference in 1933. That same year, his apartment was occupied by the SA storm troopers and he fled to Czechoslovakia. The situation had become dangerous for Communists following the fire in the Reichstag. The German Communist Party was in the final stages of disintegration. Run mostly by petty and rigid bureaucrats, it had failed to accomplish anything in Germany, owing to shortsightedness and dependence on Moscow. From a historical viewpoint, its greatest error was in refusing to make any distinction between the Social Democrats and the Nazis, and in the critical years of the early 1930s its antipathy to liberals in a common cause effectively helped the Nazis to power. Surely by that time Hitler should have been recognized as the nemesis of not only Germany.

Heartfield himself was frequently guilty of weakening his photomontages by limiting their audience to Party members. That remarkable image of the dove of peace impaled on a bayonet loses some of its impact if we read the truculent Marxist slogan at the top—“Where capitalism lives, peace cannot exist!”

Similarly he depicts the SPD party of Social Democrats (in 1933) as a snarling tiger and condemns them for putting the elimination of Hitler on the agenda before class struggle and the collapse of capitalism. Yet though he was, at an early moment, remarkably prescient in assessing the characters of Hitler and Mussolini, the upheavals and disasters of Lenin and Stalin left him unperturbed. In 1934, he produced a photomontage entitled Lenin’s Vision Becomes Reality which celebrates the delivery of the 100,000th tractor in Stalingrad, just as Lenin had promised 10 years before. The dictator’s smiling face floats benignly over tractors and people. Today, it comes across as a satire but, of course, it was meant as a deadly serious tribute at the time.

He continued his war against Hitler from Czechoslovakia since the AIZ (now called VI for Volks-lllustrierte) had moved its headquarters to Prague. He and Wieland, who had also emigrated, often sent postcards of the photomontages to presumably infuriated Nazis back home. He further infiltrated the “fatherland” through the assistance of friends, who would smuggle works out in innocent-looking notebooks. Unable to attend the Olympic Games in 1936, he montaged together his own events for VI, which are quite different from anything Leni Riefenstahl filmed. The program includes such new attractions as “Head Bowling” “Swinging Hatchets” and “Rope Pulling” (with a Jew attached to one end). He saw clearly, even at a distance.

The Kunstverein in Prague bravely gave him two exhibitions in 1934 and in 1937. Both were heavily protested by the Nazis and after considerable harassment, the weary Czech authorities acquiesced and removed a few works particularly offensive to the North. In counter protest several French supporters, among them Tristan Tzara, Paul Signac and Louis Aragon, mounted a show of some 150 photomontages in Paris in 1935.

In 1938 Heartfield discovered that he was on a secret list of persons wanted by the Nazis and fled to London. It was none too soon since Germany occupied Czechoslovakia shortly thereafter. Among his last works for the VI is the chilling This Is the Salvation They Bring. As five bombers depart after bringing death and destruction to a city, their exhaust fumes form a skeleton hand that covers the entire sky. The accompanying text quotes a German magazine Biology and Research which matter-of-factly discussed the positive aspects of bombing from the viewpoint of social hygiene and elimination of the racially inferior.

Heartfield produced and published few works in London. The British were not very knowledgable in agit prop and even placed Heartfield in a concentration camp in 1940. He was soon released, however, due to illness.

In 1950 he returned to Germany—the eastern sector—and over the years accumulated many honors from membership in the Deutsche Akademie der Künste (where most of his work is now located) and the Karl Marx Order. Until his death in 1968 he produced mostly posters and settings for the theater and occasionally revamped his earlier photomontages (like the Dove of Peace). But his contributions in this field were no longer vital. Comparisons with Bertolt Brecht and his last unproductive years in East Berlin are in order.

The East Germans were most happy to welcome him as a fighter of fascism, but had little use for him esthetically. Ironically, the technique of photomontage was still regarded with disfavor in Communist circles during the 1950s, owing to the position held by the influential Marxist philosopher and literary critic, Georg Lukacs. In the essay “Es geht um den Realismus” (1938) the apostle of realism had dismissed the photomontage as a “good joke” and deplored its destruction of the whole into fragments as bourgeois and decadent.15

But more importantly, with the defeat of fascism (Communists would say, diffusion) after World War II, Heartfield had lost the focus of his hate, and with that, the insurgent value of his work. In retrospect, his art deployed a most acute understanding of Futurism, Constructivism, and Surrealism, brilliantly manipulated for purposes of invective. Heartfield proved that esthetic innovation and highly specific social commentary are compatible, liberal formalism notwithstanding. For almost two decades he had fought, as his brother writes, “with scissors, paste and photos, and often, like his friend Brecht, with a peculiar gaiety.” He showed us what the photomontage could do in indicting twisted psyches and a derailed society.

Manuela Hoelterholf is a scholar of 19th and 20th century German art. I am indebted to Diana Edkins for suggestions.



Factual information on John Heartfield was primarily drawn from Wieland Herzfelde’s biography of his brother John Heartfield. Leben and Werk. (Dresden: VEB Verlag der Kunst) 1962.

1. Sergei Tretyakov, John Heartfield: A Monograph, Moscow, OGIS State Publishing House, 1936. Excerpts are printed in the catalogue of the Heartfield exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, Oct. 6–Nov. 8, 1969.

2. So noted Richard Huelsenbeck in 1917 upon his return to Berlin from Dada Zurich. See Robert Motherwell, ed., The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology, New York, 1951, p. 23.

3 Beth Irwin Lewis’ George Grosz: Art and Politics in the Weimar Republic, Madison, Wisconsin, 1971, is a rich, essential source for this period and provides much information on Heartfield and Wieland.

4. Otto Friedrich, Before the Deluge, New York, 1972, pp. 36–37.

5. Ibid., p. 41.

6. Cited in Hans Richter, Dada’: Art and Anti Art, New York, 1965, pp. 110–112.

7. Dawn Ades, Photomontage: Photography as Propaganda, New York, 1976, p. 9.

8. Hans Richter, Dada: Art and Anti-Art, New York, 1965, p. 117.

9. See Ades or Richter on this quarrel.

10. Hans Hess, George Grosz, New York, 1974, p. 102.

11. John Heartfield: Krieg Im Frieden, essays by various authors, Munich, 1973, p. 111.

12. Sergei Eisenstein, The Film Sense (tr. Jay Leyda), New York, 1947, p. 7.

13. Hans Hess, essay in the catalogue of the Heartfield exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, Oct. 6–Nov. 8, 1969, p. 12.

14. Ernst Johann and Jorg Junker, German Cultural History of the Last Hundred Years, Munich, 1970, p. 162.

15. In West Germany, however, Heartfield today has a disciple in Klaus Staeck, a left-wing lawyer-artist.