A World without Heartfields
“John Heartfield is one of the most important European artists. He works in a field that he created himself, the field of photomontage. Through this new form of art he exrecises social criticism. Steadfastly on the side of the working class, the unmasked the forces of the Weimar Republic driving toward war; driven into exile he fought against Hitler. The works of this great artist, which mainly appeared in the workers’ press, are regarded as classics by many, including the author of these lines.” – Berthold Brecht
Being a realist, I don’t normally ponder hypothetical situations. But I sometimes wonder what the world would be like without the extraordinary contributions of people like Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony, and Mohandas Gandhi, not to mention the contributions of “ordinary” people like Rosa Parks, Crystal Lee Sutton (Norma Rae) and Karen Silkwood. But I shiver to think about the absence of individuals whose sacrifices are not widely recognized, because I suspect that it’s their contributions have had the biggest impact.
It’s the absence of people like John Heartfield that I worry about most.
As the Third Reich became more powerful, its influence over the media increased dramatically (mainly through its influence over newspaper and radio). The Nazi’s propaganda machine became so effective, most German artists and writers formed groups in opposition to the mounting censorship and media manipulation. Many of those same people disappeared between the two World Wars, accused of being enemies of the Weimar Republic. Eventually all communication became so restricted, soldiers on the front line, whose personal correspondence were being monitored, began creating photo collages in an effort to communicate to their families and friends. They glued together pieces of news photographs and illustrations in order to convey the horrors of the butchery they were forbidden to speak about.
John Heartfield, a young socialist and painter, heard about these photo collages and began experimenting with this new cut-up technique, investing heavily in its transformation to a genuinely revolutionary new art form – the photomontage. Although other European artists had been experimenting with similar ideas, Heartfield almost single-handedly developed the technique – bringing technical precision, social consciousness and political savvy to his approach.
Heartfield had always considered himself an internationalist, and he was vehemently opposed to the Reich’s misanthropic goals. In response to the Nazi’s expanding influence, Heartfield’s photographic images went from being illustrative to accusatory. His work became politically aggressive, focusing on Hitler’s deception as well as the Nazi Party’s “transition” from socialism to fascism. Heartfield felt an obligation to expose Adolph Hitler’s true goals and motivations. As his friend Oskar Maria Graf stated in an exhibition of Heartfield’s work in 1932, “The intolerable aspect of events is the motor of his art”.
By publishing his political photomontages on the covers of popular leftist publications (mostly AIZ, Arbetier Illustriente – Zeitung or Workers Illustrated Paper), Heartfield also helped establish the photomontage as a powerful form of mass communication. In keeping with the Berlin Dadaists’ political and esthetic ideals, he aimed to shake up the complacent “bourgeoisie” with politically-bold, often disturbing compositions. His work vigorously exposed the evils of Hitler’s hidden agenda and foreshadowed Germany’s alarming slide into chaos and warmongering.
Heartfield maintained an extensive collection of popular news photos, and was adept at cutting apart and juxtaposing images with other pictures and symbols. Heartfield had a keen sense of satire and theatre, and understood the importance of distilling his messages so they could be easily absorbed by the public. In keeping with this, most of his images were combined with slogans or titles that openly mocked the Nazi rhetoric and propaganda. His messages were powerful emblems, becoming embedded in the minds of Germans and Europeans for decades.
In response to Heartfield’s art, Hitler made attempts to silence his unconventional, yet infamous critic. In 1933 he issued an arrest warrant for the artist, but Heartfield was able to escape to Prague where he continued his work for the publication AIZ and continued to exhibit in galleries throughout Europe. Initially, Czechoslovakia resisted Germany’s attempts to censor Heartfield’s work, citing its commitment to free expression, but eventually capitulated to Hitler’s demands. In 1938, after the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, Heartfield narrowly escaped to London when the Germans tried to extradite him.
Although Heartfield continued to exhibit throughout his life, a combination of ill health, personal issues and his refugee status took a toll on his ability to maintain the same output. Between 1930 and 1938 he’d created over 200 pieces for publication AIZ alone. But the British had mixed feelings about supporting his work, and even placed him into an internment camp for “enemy aliens” for a short time. Despite the various setbacks, he continued to play an active role in political groups that supported artists’ rights on an international level. He remained a steadfastly open-minded person and vigorously opposed any type of discrimination, even against animals.
Although he exhibited his work around the worldwide, and despite his impact during World War II, most people have never heard of John Heartfield or his accomplishments. Despite his development of the photomontage, contributions to the importance of political satire, and his unwavering commitment to improve the world – John Heartfield’s work seems to have been forgotten.
When one considers that the “Obama-Joker” incident was the half-assed creation of a bored college student, this is especially discouraging. That young Firas Alkhateeb stood on the shoulders of someone like John Heartfield, ignorant of his sacrifices… it’s almost too ironic to ponder, especially when one considers their individual understandings of “socialism”. Whereas John Heartfield was acutely aware of it’s specific definition, I doubt Mr. Alkhateeb has a clue.
Which makes me wonder… in a political environment that’s becoming increasingly hostile and chaotic, when the media having been kidnapped by extremists like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, alarmists who seem content to fan the flames of ignorance and hatred for their own political and financial gain…
…where are our modern-day John Heartfields?
And if they’re out there… will we listen this time?