By David Boyd
During the twentieth century, artworks had the ability to mobilise audiences behind political ideologies, and some of the most progressive developments in the use of art as a political weapon were made by the German artist John Heartfield, a pioneer of the use of photomontage in the 1920s and 1930s. By dissecting and reassembling images and text from the German media he sought to expose the reality of social and political issues that photographs alone could not. Having strong leanings towards the radical left of German politics, Heartfield used the medium to agitate and rally the public towards political action. In the process, he developed a visual language that would come to symbolise Germany’s struggle towards communist revolution.
Photomontage allowed Heartfield to create some of his most famous works satirising the Nazi party. By splicing images from various sources he subverted the visual narrative of Nazi invincibility and revealed the true face of National Socialism. In Adolf the Superman: Swallows Gold and Spouts Junk (1932) he cut and pasted images of x-rays and coins to create a grotesque depiction of the dictator’s internal form – a biting critique of a party he saw as enslaved by capitalism and fuelled by violence.
He developed a visual language that would come to symbolise Germany’s struggle towards communist revolution.
The inherent flexibility of the medium Heartfield chose to work with allowed him to create striking artwork that could articulate his political ideas and be readily reproduced in order to stimulate a political awakening among the masses. It was these explicit desires that made him a leading figure of a burgeoning group of revolutionary propagandists in Europe. He created work that was not only consumable for the general public, but also widely accessible. Through his use of posters and covers in the left wing magazine Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ), Heartfield endeavoured to educate and enlist the German proletariat to his adopted cause. He made no secret of his wish to create art intent on encouraging a communist response to events within the viewer.
While in Moscow in 1931 he stated: “It is our task to influence the masses, as well, as strongly, as intensely as possible.” This quotation raises a vital question about the artist’s work. Heartfield’s intent was not to challenge the Nazis from an objective viewpoint. Instead he worked as an organ of the German Communist Party creating montages that were as didactic as the fascist propaganda he attacked. He sought to manipulate his viewers’ ideological beliefs through the use of sensational imagery rather than to fulfil his claim and expose the truth of political issues. Moreover, problematic to the acceptance of Heartfield as an artist intent on fighting for the proletariat was his promotion of the Soviet Union as a utopian state. In 1934 he created a photomontage titled Lenin’s Vision Became Reality in which a messianic Lenin looks down on the thriving industry of the nation. Regardless of the cruelties inflicted in the Soviet Union Heartfield refused to direct the same critical gaze he applied to Hitler.
He made no secret of his wish to create art intent on encouraging a communist response to events within the viewer.
Criticism aside, it is important not to forget the personal danger Heartfield placed himself in by creating his artworks. After Hitler’s rise to power, he fled to Czechoslovakia as one of the most wanted artists in Nazi Germany. He continued to produce images that caught the eye and stimulated the mind of the viewer. It is no wonder therefore that he has left a lasting mark on political artists following in his wake. From Peter Kennard’s arresting images of conflict to the montaged graphics of the punk movement in the 1980s. Heartfield’s resilience and dedication to his political outlook has inspired revolutionaries of many shades.
While the partisan nature of Heartfield’s work undermines its ability to present the full reality of German politics, it must be stressed that he was an artist and not a politician. His technical aptitude, along with his sharp wit and his political zeal contributed to an art form that had the ability to provoke or unite its viewers, depending on their outlook.
Although his dream of a communist Germany was lost he revolutionised the nature of photomontage as a medium that could kindle political change.