JOHN HEARTFIELD FEATURE
Although he preferred not to think of himself as an artist, JOHN HEARTFIELD is now internationally regarded as the inventor of one of this century‘s most popular artforms. the photomontage. Miranda France previews an exhibition of his work at the Gallery of Modern Art.
is a short step from revolution to tedium. Take Surrealism. that most anarchic of ‘isms' and now old hat to today's yoof. Once they had exploded onto the scene in the 1930s. Salvador Dali and co quickly passed from enfants terribles to household names. Now they have been reduced to the indignity of Athena posterdom. That’s the down side of mass media for you: if you see Surrealism on television every day. melting watches and bearded fishes quickly lose their shock
Likewise. in the jaded 1990s it is difficult to appreciate the impact that John lleartfield‘s photomontages must have had when he first started publishing them in the German Workers Illustrated Newspaper and other
Heartiield was the only person, with the exception 01 Charlie Chaplin, who was able to undermine Hitler by making a tool at him.
papers and magazines in the 192(ls and 30s. Photomontage is now used in every area of newspaper and magazine design. Not so in Heartfield‘s time. He was the first to use the medium as a device with which to attack the state and overturn the applecart of conventional artistic thought.
lfwe‘re talking ‘isms‘. John Heartiield was more Dadaist than Surrealist. The Dadaists were a revolutionary. anarchic bunch who hated art. because it was bourgeois. trivial and had nothing to do with real life. Their answer was to make trivial artistic statements which went down very well with the bourgeoisie and almost completely unnoticed by the proletariat.
Heartiield was shocked by the frivolity of Dada and abandoned the movement early on, but he took the best of it with him. encapsulated in an interview given by his brother Wieland in 1920: ‘The Dadaists are saying: while once vast amounts of time. love. and effort went into the painting ofa body. a flower. a hat. a hard shadow. etc. we now only need to take scissors and cut out what we need from among the paintings and photographic depictions of these things.‘
For Heartfield photography was a fickle medium. ‘I found out how you can fool people with photos. really fool them.‘ He wanted to confront the media images which spoke ofharmony and prosperity in Weimar and Nazi Germany with his own bleakly prophetic creations. Hitler is shown swallowing workers‘ money: a man‘s back is broken on the ‘wheel' of a swastika: a dove is impaled on a bayonet. In Forced to Deliver Human Material. a pregnant woman is juxtaposed with the image of a dead young soldier. At best. Heartfield‘s montages accused the government ofcorruption and injustice; at worst. of tyranny and torture.
His hatred ofthe Nazis fuelled his frenetic and prolific output and he even adopted an
anglicised version of his name. (he was born Helmut Herzfeld) in 1916.
‘He was on the number one list of the Nazis when they came to power. which gives you some idea of how powerful they thought he was.. says Keith llartley. at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. In 1933 he was forced to flee to Prague and. when the Nazis‘ clamour for his extradition became irresistible. he moved to London. where he stayed until 1951). ‘l leartfield was very much a German and it was difficult for him living in London.‘ says 1 lartley. ‘1 le was an enemy alien and there weren‘t the same outlets for him. The quality ofthe work he did in Britain isn't anything like as high as it was.‘
But his galvanising art stuck in people's memories. Peter Pachnicke. who conceived this exhibition with Klaus l lonnef. describes him as the only person. with the exception of Charlie Chaplin. who was able to undermine Hitler by making a fool of him. 1 lis friends marvelled at the aggression with which he tackled his vocation. A 1920 self-portrait catches him in mid-yell. his hair mercilessly scraped back. clenched fists at the ready. ‘His critical judgement may be just average. but he has a critical sense ofsuch power and certainty. clarity and sensitivity that it is reﬂected in every movement. every expression in his eyes and every pose.‘ said his brother of him. ‘Perhaps it is worth mentioning that he doesn‘t wear any ofthe clothes that have become typical of artists.‘
Heartiield might find it a mite ironic that. inspite of his furious rejection of 'art for art's sake'. his work today is kept in the collections of art galleries and museums. He was one ofthe first artists unashamedly to choose a commercial medium for his work. and preferred to see his montages adorning magazine covers than gallery walls. He called his work 'operative art’ because it was geared to the propagation of a message with maximum energy and efficiency. ‘Ofcourse
Above: 'The Spirit Oi Geneva‘ 1932. Main Picture: ‘As in the Middle Ages. . .So inthe Third Reich.’ 1934.
he was a propagandist —— most artists are.~ says Keith llartley. ‘Most ofthem will fight
do something for society.'
Like so many writers and artists of the time. lleartfield saw communism in romantic and visionary terms. There was no
freedom ofexpression and the mass
Germany after the war there was little work for him to do because he was not interested in the state-proscribed Socialist Realism — the most authoritarian of isms — which expected artists to extol the rustic virtues of the peasant worker. Even so. lleartfield never renounced his faith in Communism nor his hatred of Fascism. It seems
one ofthe first large touring exhibitions to come out of the Unified Germany.
I Olin H eart/ielrl 's works are at the Scottish National Gallery ()fM()(ler'rz Art, 3(1/(1/1—28 Mar. and can be seen later in the year in New
York. Los A ngeles and San Francisco.
for what they believe in. l le wanted his art to
contradiction. for him. between his personal
workers‘ struggle. When he returned to lfiast
appropriate that this retrospective should be
1891 Helmut Herzteld is born in Berlin-Schmargendort
1899 He and his brother are abandoned by their parents and Helmut is sent to a monastery
1905 He starts an apprenticeship in a bookshop in Wiesbaden
School in Munich and goes on to work as a commercial artist tor a printing company
1915 Destroys his earlier paintings and avoids military service by ieigning a nervous breakdown 1916 Changes his name to John Heartiield in protest against the nationalist slogan ‘May God Punish Englandi’
1918 Becomes a Dadaist and a Communist
1924 Becomes friendly with Bertolt Brecht and exhibits his iirst satirical photomontage, Alter Ten Years - Fathers and Sons
1930 Starts working regularly tor Arbeiter-lllustrlerte-Zeitung (Workers‘ illustrated Newspaper).
1933 Flees to Prague, takes part in an international caricature exhibition which causes diplomatic lriction between Czechoslovakia and Germany.
1938 Flees to London. Exhibition One Man's War against Hitler, at the Arcade Gallery.
1950 Returns to East Germany under suspicion oi ‘treasonable connections’ with the West. in 1956 he is cleared oi ‘behaviour hostile or damaging to the WW
1957 First comprehensive Heartiield exhibition in East Germany
1968 Dies in East Berlin
1908 Studies at the Royal Bavarian Arts and Crafts
The-List 29January- l l l’ebruary 199315