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15.10.11 - 03.12.11
John Heartfield was not a photographer; he was a creator of new worlds and realities, juxtaposing existing images with witty slogans to deliver a simple yet effective message. Born Helmut Herzfeld in Berlin at the end of the nineteenth century, he was better known from 1916 onwards by the anglicised version of his name, which was designed to align himself with Germany’s wartime enemy at the same time as obscuring his own identity, nationality and familial relationships. The young avant-garde of the early twentieth century had shunned the bourgeois individualism of painting. Heartfield’s new name and profession, as photomonteur were the perfect tools in making high impact visuals for the masses rather than the privileged few. The montages on display here contain the narrative of Heartfield’s engagement as a political illustrator, from his covers for the left wing publication Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitug (AIZ), to campaign posters for the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). They also contain the narrative of Germany’s interwar political history as many relate to specific events. Powerfully used as propaganda and advertising, they had an ability to sway public opinion with the immediacy of the message; a message that is always bound up with left wing radical politics. They range in subject matter from impassioned pleas against capitalism to biting satire of fascism. Heartfield often used montage to disrupt signs and symbols: where the Nazi party had misappropriated the Swastika - a positive symbol in many eastern religions - Heartfield subverted its misuse to undermine the hold it was beginning to take on the German public’s imagination. The final image displayed here is not from the interwar period, but eight years before Heartfield’s death in 1968. After many years in exile, working as a designer of theatrical posters and book jackets, or travelling with retrospective exhibitions of his work, ‘Never Again’ from 1960 was a return to the politicised images of Heartfield’s 1930s heyday. The white dove, a biblical peace symbol and an emblem of communism is impaled on a dagger. There is a simple clarity in this violent metaphor- the atrocities of World War II must not be allowed to reoccur.
He knows how to create these images of our life and struggle, arresting and gripping for millions of people who themselves are part of that struggle. His art is art in Lenin’s sense, for it is a weapon in the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat. - Louis Aragon 1935.
HERZFELD BECOMES HEARTFIELD
Born Helmut Herzfeld in the Berlin of 1891 to parents who would abandon him at the age of eight, the unofficial anglicisation of his name to John Heartfield serves a joint purpose. By 1916 World War I had been in full swing for two years, and the more patriotic German had been persuaded to shout ‘God punish England’ in the streets. The young painter and graphic designer not wishing to be party to racial slurs of this nature chose a name that would align himself with the enemy as an anti-war protest. Moreover, much of Heartfield’s career as a political artist sought to engage the masses, so he masked his own identity, nationality and familial ties, abandoning the bourgeois individualism of painting in favor of the more impersonal medium of montage. In fact he went as far as to burn all work created prior to ‘birth’ of John Heartfield. Although photomontage would become his medium of choice, Heartfield was not a photographer. He used images from magazines and newspapers, or paid photographers to take additional shots. To take a photograph himself would take work away from a skilled artisan.
DADA & THE INVENTION OF PHOTOMONTAGE
The early decades of the twentieth century saw a proliferation of avant-garde movements form in Europe. Dada, which had begun in Zurich, had quickly established satellite movements, particularly in Germany from 1916 onwards. Based on Marxist ideals, it sought to redistribute social power to undermine the bourgeoisie in favor of the proletariat. It embraced new technologies and ‘machine art’ that was for the people and not the privileged few. Heartfield would become a member of both the Berlin leg of the Dada movement and the Communist Party of Germany, who were at the time sympathetic organisations. Seeking a new visual language to serve their ideology Heartfield and his Dada colleague George Grosz ‘invented’ photomontage, as Grosz recalls in his memoirs at 5am on a May morning in 1916 . Taking inspiration from a technique soldiers on the frontline had developed of cutting and pasting magazine images to get messages past the censors mixed with the recent collages of Cubism, a method now ubiquitous in advertising was ushered into existence. Montage was the perfect medium for the their political agenda. It was easily understandable on a large scale, it was easily reproducible and cheap to make, as opposed to the expense and specialness of painting. The Dadaists referred to Heartfield as a monteur, which is German for mechanic, again aligning him with the working man rather than the heroic artist.
WORK IN PUBLISHING
Heartfield worked as an illustrator for various publications in the late 1910s and 1920s, including the periodicals of his brother Wieland Herzfelde’s Malik Verlag (Malik press). It was in 1924 however that his engagement with the pro-communist Arbeiter-IllustrierteZeitug (AIZ) began with the cover image Ten Years Later: Fathers and Sons, a somewhat prophetic image meant to serve as a warning against a second wave of pro-war sentiment. It would be his employment as a cover artist at AIZ, lasting for fourteen years that would define much of his career and forms the basis of this exhibition. Heartfield used the cover of the AIZ as a space for anti-capitalist messages and the lampooning of political figures, more often than not Adolf Hitler. In 1932 he produced one of his most reproduced images for AIZ- The Meaning of the Hitler Salute: Little Man Requests Big Donations. Although Hitler would not become Chancellor until 1933, Heartfield’s image underlines the fact that the Nazi party was financed by big business years before it came to power. It is a typical example of a lesebilder – a picture designed to be ‘read’, juxtaposing image and text to create a message. The caption comes in two parts- the title or inscripto- The Meaning of the Hitler Salute (Der Sinn des Hitlergrusses) coupled with a lengthier explanation or subcripto- millions stand behind me (millionen stehen hinter mir) Little man requests big donations (Kleiner Mann bittet um grosse gaben). It generates discourse between image and text becoming a verbal / visual statement. It is also an example of Heartfield’s use of inverted symbols, here Hitler, the leader of men becomes dwarfed by the corpulent excess of capitalism, his hand flops backwards to nonchalantly receive his millions disrupting the usually authoritarian gesture of the Hitler salute.
THE HAND & THE SWASTIKA
The final years of the Weimar Republic was home to a bitter struggle between the far left and the far right in the form of Communism and Fascism, both factions utilized symbols as emblems of their respective causes. The clenched fist and the swastika, symbolic of left and right would become motifs of Heartfield’s political montages. The Swastika, which has its roots in ancient Indian traditions and classical antiquity already had a long history in Germany before its association with the Nazi party. During the nineteenth century it symbolized societies of the Volkisch or Populist movement. Hitler was one of many involved in its resurrection as an emblem of National Socialism. Heartfield’s reapproration of the Swastika was designed to challenge the hold it was taking on the public imagination, to strip if of the meaning it was quickly becoming imbued with. In The Old Slogan in the New Reich: Blood and Iron, from 1934 the symbol is constructed from blood stained axes, a play on Bismarck’s comment from 1886 that ‘blood and iron’ were the foundation of the German Reich combined with the recent ‘legal’ beheading of four young communists by the Nazi party.
THE HAND & THE SWASTIKA CONT’D...
Heartfield played a key role in the adoption of the hand and the clenched first as communist symbols. The Hand has Five Fingers- With Five you Seize the Enemy was part of the Communist Party of Germany’s (KPD) campaign in the Reichstag elections of 1928. Again it uses text and image to give a simple message, denoting that the KPD were placed at number five on the ballot paper, giving voters an instant way to remember which box to tick. In an exhibition held after the elections the poster was judged best campaign poster for all parties. It was also a success, with votes for the KPD climbing from 10.7 to 13.1 per cent. An open hand in Heartfield’s work is representative of calling like minded people together‘hand to the friend’. Whereas the clenched fist often seen in his work is an aggressive gesture to the enemy- ‘Fist to the foe’. The fist is used more often in relation to communist ideals; however in Black and White- United in the Fight from 1931 it is used as a protest against racial injustice.
PROPAGANDA & ADVERTISING
Photomontage as a visual tool has become inextricably linked with two things, political propaganda and commercial advertising, however the two things themselves are inextricably linked, both with the aim of swaying public opinion. Interestingly the word propaganda was used interchangeably with Reklame or advertising throughout the Weimar Republic. Heartfield would actually work in both disciplines, becoming a prolific designer of theatrical posters and book jackets. He also saw the two things as closely associated: “If it is my task to provide a jacket for a book or a brochure for our Front, then I try to organize it so that it has the greatest attraction for the broadest mass, so that it guarantees the widest circulation of revolutionary ideas, best represents the content, and beyond that, is an independent page that serves our purposes”. The appropriation of photomontage by both politics and business speaks of its ability, as Heartfield notes, to reach the biggest audience, quickly, cheaply and efficiently. The montage creates its own reality designed to serve the purpose of its campaign, without the time and financial restraints of painting. Viewing Heartfield in terms of propaganda and advertising may however negate his engagement with formal innovation. His work in fact often shrewdly combines aesthetics with whatever he was trying to ‘sell’, be it revolutionary politics or a Berlot Brecht play.
EXILE & RETURN TO GERMANY
The constant antifascist themes in his work and his ridiculing of Hitler did not make Heartfield popular with the Nazi party. In 1933 after his Berlin apartment was raided he fled to Prague where his was able to secretly continue his work for AIZ which was renamed VI in 1936. In 1938 Hitler demanded his extradition back to Germany so once again he fled, this time
EXILE & RETURN TO GERMANY CONT’D...
to London. Here he met his third wife and for once lived a quiet life away from the political forefront. He would not return to Germany until 1950. The body of Heartfield’s political oeuvre was created between 1916 and 1938. During exile he created posters for ‘safe’ non -political plays, became a noted public orator and traveled with retrospective exhibitions of his work. On his return to Germany he reapplied to become a member of the Communist party, however things had changed. Socialist Realism that toed the party line had replaced the avant-garde imagery of the interwar years. However six years later wishing to keep links to the antifascist sentiment of the Weimar days Heartfield was readmitted to the party and made a member of the German Academy. The final piece in this exhibition Never Again, produced in 1960 was a return to the political form of his pre war heyday. Heartfield had used the same image in 1932, as comment on an antifascist demonstration in Geneva with the caption What Geneva means: where capital lives, peace cannot live. Twenty-eight years later the impaled peace symbol needed scant text, it serves as simple a reminder that what had gone before should not be allowed to happen again. John Heartfield died in East Berlin in 1968.
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