New York

John Heartfield

Kent Fine Art

This once-in-a-lifetime exhibition brings together virtually all of John Heartfield’s photomontages for the communist publication A.I.Z. (Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung). Made in the early ’30s, the works take a political stand against fascism and for communism. As Anthony Heilbut has written, they “combined surrealism and satire, merging agitprop and the avant-garde,” in the process giving “the tactics of what [Walter] Benjamin called ‘advertising, American-style’. . .a new ideological content.” As art historically fascinating and socially provocative as they are, however, they look a little ironic and even pathetic today, in view of the fact that their style is now standard fare in certain “avant-garde” quarters. Advertising has become the most intense agitprop we know, subsuming all ideology, including that of the contemporary avant-garde, which increasingly seems more like an advertisement for the idea of the avant-garde than avant-garde in social and artistic fact.

This exhibition raises the question as to why Heartfield’s procommunist images are so esthetically bland and even sentimental in comparison to his antifascist ones. All the images are ideologically charged, but those that speak in the name of the good revolutionary cause present their message in such artistically simple, broadly utopian terms that they frequently seem naive, or even self-deceptive. (Never mind endgame communism’s recognition of its betrayal of the societies it governed—its bankruptcy and decadence.) Heartfield wants to undo the fascist lie, but he installs another equally obvious one in its place. These weak images stand in startling contrast to those that speak forcefully and critically against the fascist cause. As in the famous punning image of Hitler declaring “Millions stand behind us,” and receiving, in his hand raised in the Nazi salute, millions of capitalist dollars, Heartfield cunningly uses artistic means to articulate fascism’s hidden social reality. Why was Heartfield a better artist when he was against than when he was for? In answer to this question one might note, psychoanalytically, that since hate is more readily mobilized than love, images premised on aggression—visual aggression to meet sociopolitical aggression in Heartfield’s case—are more likely to be aggressively alive than images advocating human harmony. (How many artists since Raphael have been able to convincingly represent tender human relations?)

Heartfield’s images also force us to take a new look at the dialectic of high and low art that informs so much of Modernism, especially German Modernism and Surrealism. Heartfield’s photomontages suggest that the real point of high art’s pillaging of subcultural sources is not so much artistic—it is not so much aimed at generating new artistic excitement by fusing conventional visual opposites—as communicative. His images suggest that both avant-garde and popular cultural imagery are manifestations of the same desire for an immediately striking, contagious image that would serve as a kind of communicative panacea—a sword of instant communication, cutting through the Gordian knots of our consciousness. Such an image, reconciling what seems irreconcilable in life, presents itself as a soothing propagandistic solution to the contradictions it embodies. But such a dialectical image ultimately bespeaks the relativity of values that is part of the modern existential and intellectual quandary—part of social and self-doubt—rather than a new harmonizing of values.

In fact, Heartfield is at his communicative and artistic best when his dialectic remains unresolved—when stark, ironical contrasts are set up and allowed to speak for themselves. This is the case in a work in which Death—a skeleton with a helmet—makes the soil barren by sewing little swastika seeds in the earth. Another image, which juxtaposes a medieval depiction of a figure being broken on a rack with a “modern” image of a figure being broken on a swastika, is one of the most cogent, moving works in the exhibition, partly because it reaches beyond ideology to suggest the continuity of inhumane tyranny, and partly because of the interplay of likeness and difference between the medieval and modern images.

The contrast of words is as efficient as that of images in Heartfield’s montages. Many of the works are overt caricatures of Nazi leaders, and others appeal to Hans Fallada’s “little man,” usually shown threatened in his very existence. Certain works are an effort to present censored news, such as the beginning of Hitler’s destruction of the Jews, and the reality of concentration camp life. Heartfield’s photomontages make one nostalgic for the days when it was possible for an artist to be politically correct and communicatively direct but also artistically innovative—for a time when form and subject matter seemed made for each other rather than forced together. Above all, they make one yearn for an art in which social and political issues seemed clear, and an artist’s courage was judged on more than career moves.

Donald Kuspit