Wednesday, September 5, 2007

John Heartfield: AIZ / VI 1930 - 38

The artist John Heartfield probably needs little introduction to most of the readers here at 5B4.

Born Helmut Herzfeld in 1891, he trained as a graphic artist in Munich and was a founding member of the Berlin wing of Dada and collaborated with many artists including George Grosz and Hannah Hoch. Around 1916, Heartfield started to experiment with “photomontage” and made it his main communication tool between 1930 and 1938, creating many images for the Arbeiter Illustrierete Zeitung (Illustrated Worker’s Paper renamed Volker Illustrierte in 1936).

Photomontage was a term coined by the Berlin Dadaists and Heartfield used it as a form of social commentary and satire. His most well known images spar with Hitler and fascism’s rise to power in the early nineteen thirties.

Bertolt Brecht spoke of Heartfield as: “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 exercises social criticism. Steadfastly on the side of the working class, he unmasked the forces of Weimar Republic driving towards war; driven into exile, he fought against Hitler. The works of this great artist, which mainly appeared in the worker’s press, are regarded as classics by many, including the author of these lines.”

Photomontage as a new art form was not universally accepted with praise. In 1928, Franz Hollering, the editor of Der Arbeiter Fotograf (The Worker Photograph) wrote an article urging his readers to steer clear of “this horrible epidemic called photomontage.” He went on to warn photographers that “what will always remain trivial is whimsy, hobby work, shop talk. Photomontage seduces with these…Simple, clear, beautiful pictures of your world - that is your goal. No dilettantish artiness.”

Always steadfastly political (in accordance with the times) Heartfield demanded to “use photography as a weapon.” In his montages, he used several devices to create his messages including: anthropomorphism, hybridization, use of image size (often to relate imbalanced power), and mismatching of image and texts.

Linking fascism with big business was often the subject of many of Heartfield’s images. Being a committed member of the German Communist Party, his identification of capitalism as being the root cause of major wars fueled much of his commentary. His most famous photomontage shows Hitler’s torso replaced by an x-ray into which gold coins are filling his belly. Its title is Adolf, The Superman: Swallows gold and spouts rubbish. This montage appeared opposite an article about the Nazis anti-capitalist rhetoric and their pro-capital practices.

In his work The Death Boom from 1933, Heartfield contrasts factory smoke stacks with several cannon barrels that have the names of arms manufacturers like Krupp and Skoda written on their sides. American industry does not escape his critique as Bethlehem Steel’s name makes an appearance on one of the larger barrels. Oddly, when this montage was reproduced in Wieland Hertzfelde’s John Heartfield: Leben und Werk, the title was changed to from The Death Boom to GOTTESLASTERER (Blasphemers) and the names of Krupp and Skoda were removed from the gun barrels.

Heartfield was apparently a difficult man to collaborate with as he would work continuously on each piece with little rest in between montages. Janos Reismann worked for Heartfield from 1928 to 1931.

“The photographs which I made for Heartfield, in accordance with an exact pencil sketch and always under his supervision, often took hours, many hours. He struggled for nuances which I could no longer perceive. At the developing stage, he would stand by the enlarger until the prints were ready. I was generally so tired that I could no longer stand or think; all I wanted was sleep - but he hurried home with the photos still damp, dried them, cut them out, and assembled them under a heavy sheet of glass. He would sleep for one or two hours, and early at eight in the morning he would already be sitting with the retoucher. There he would stay for two, three, four, or five hours, his nerves stretched to the limit, always fearing that the retouching could spoil it. Then the photomontage is finished, but there is not much relaxation: new tasks, new ideas. He burrows in the photo-libraries for hours, for days, looking for a suitable photo of Hermann Muller, Hugenberg, Rohm, whoever is needed - or at least a suitable head, for the rest can be managed. Then he turns again to the photographers, all of whom he hates, me included, because of the nuances which we are unable to perceive.”

Copies of AIZ or VI are rare but exist. Most of Heartfield’s preparatory images and sketches are either lost or were destroyed when he fled Berlin in 1933, very few survive.

The book John Heartfield: AIZ / VI 1930 - 38 published in 1992 by Kent Fine Art is a thick volume that includes all 237 photo montages that Heartfield created for the AIZ and VI illustrated papers. Each reproduction is accompanied by facing page translations of the montage’s texts and historical notes to clarify context. The reproductions are good; the original papers that these were taken from only allow a certain degree of fine reproduction. The quality of the paper feels slightly thin and cheap. This is probably due to the amount of material being handled. If the paper were a nicer, heavier weight, this inch and a half book would be three to four inches in thickness. The trim size is 8.5 x 11 inches. The first printing is 5,000 copies.

This is now a rather expensive book on the market at $250.00, it was originally $60.00 in 1992. Seeing as this is a complete catalog of Heartfield’s published work, I find it worth the asking price to have all of these wonderful montages in one book.

Where is the distinct voice of a John Heartfield of today? Political cartoonists? The power of his imagery to raise awareness of political motion would be a welcome sight today. Or would we disregard the use of photomontage in this day and age as just “dilettantish artiness?”

Book Available Here (John Heartfield: AIZ / VI 1930 - 38)

Buy online at Kent Gallery