Monday, June 15, 2009


A little while ago, over at Fighting Talk, Lyndon Hood linked to an article on the German artist and satirist John Heartfield, whose works I was surprised to discover were poorly documented on the Web. I offered Lyndon therefore to scan some of the reproductions of Heartfield's photomontages that I happen to have, and then figured I might as well share them with you all, at what is I think not an entirely inopportune time. For I don't need to tell you of the results of last week's European elections, featuring yet another of the periodical, almost ritual advances of the Far Right, including the election of BNP leader Nick Griffin in the UK and staggering results for Lega Nord in Italy and Wilders' Freedom Party in Holland.

I shall spare you yet another post on whether any of this constitutes the return of Fascism, or whether we need to rethink our taxonomies and how we deal with the root causes of these movements and the products thereof. I'll admit in passing to not being persuaded by the 'history has been forgotten' argument that gets aired - this round amongst others by the most distinguished Maps - every time the xenophobic Right notches a new victory in that particular part of the world. Of all the analyses I read or more frequently skimmed in the last week or so, none in fact came close to matching Philip Challinor's, who needed fewer than 200 words to nail it. That brevity and that poignancy are part of what I want to get to today, for compared to, say, yours truly, who couldn't tell you his street address in fewer than one thousand words, accomplished satirists such as Philip and Lyndon can be depended upon to find the elliptical image - be it in words or pictures - that gets to the heart of what they mean to say.

I am rather a fan of both of these fellows. Philip deals in words, and I think you might enjoy these almost random samples of his prose and poetry; Lyndon is also a graphic artist and is more self-conscious in the use of outmoded forms - including elaborate allegories such as the brilliant Victory Parade for John Key - that reflect his keen interest in the history of the genre. I’m pretty sure they’d both recoil at the idea of being used to introduce the work of a giant such as Heartfield, but the sense of my appeal to their example is that even in our (relatively) benign times we need people capable and willing to use satire both as an instrument of understanding and as a means of articulating the language of political dissent. Besides, there is no guarantee that the times will remain as (relatively) benign as they are for very much longer.

The old slogan of the "new" Reich: BLOOD AND STEEL (1934)

John Heartfield was born Helmut Hirtzfeld and anglicised his name in 1916, at the same time and one must suppose for similar reasons as George Grosz (formerly Georg Groß). The two had met in Berlin in 1913 as art students and together with Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann went on to form the Dada movement in Germany. At the end of the Great War they joined the Communist Party and were involved in the Spartacist uprising. In the early Twenties they founded the Satirical magazine Die Pleite

January 1920, cover by George Grosz.
The Capital and the Military Wish Each Other "A Merry New Year"

and in 1929 Heartfield began his collaboration with the weekly Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ), in which between 1930 and 1938 he published the 238 photomontages for which he is chiefly remembered today. These works, which weren’t rediscovered until the 1950s, document the extent in which some Germans understood from the outset the true nature of the National Socialist movement, the collusions with the existing centres of power that allowed Hitler’s party to gain the ascendancy, and the full extent of the atrocities committed throughout the Nineteen-Thirties. They also happen to be stunning pieces of art. So in lieu of my yapping on about them any further, I leave you to enjoy the small selection below and, if you so desire, click on to the three-part gallery linked to at the bottom of the post where I put all of the scans (28 images in total) at a higher resolution. Allow some time for loading, and all that. Here we go.

An Instrument in God's Hand?
A Toy in Thyssen's Hand!
AIZ, 10 September 1933

The nation is fully behind me.
I know no political parties, just prisoners!
AIZ, 13 July 1933.

German Acorns 1933
AIZ, 21 September 1933.

Justice and the executioner. Göring at the trial for the burning of the Reichstag. "Law to me is a bloody affair". (1933)

The meaning of Geneva: Where there is capital there cannot be peace. (1932)
(note the detail of the Swiss flag on the League of Nations building morphing into a swastika)

The one thousand year Reich. (1934)

The images are sourced from the catalogues of the following exhibitions:
Fotografia della libertà e delle dittature - da Sander a Cartier-Bresson 1922-1946. Milan, Mazzotta 1995.
Arte della Libertà - antifascismo, guerra e liberazione in Europa, 1925-1945. Milan, Mazzotta 1995.

Sites were you can find more of Heartfield's works:
The Heartfield site at Towson University
Heartfield versus Hitler
Heartfield's entry on Artcyclopaedia


Philip said...

You've done us all a great service by posting the pictures, and you've done my ego a greater one by posting the text. Thank you.

Word Verification: egilyn, a derogatory Turkish term for a word in which a dot has been placed on one of those dotless ı's of theirs.

Lyndon said...

And thank you very very kindly from myself too. I may add more when I'm done being awed.

Paul said...

How ridiculous that Heartfield was interned as an enemy alien by the British during the War. And then suspected of being a traitor by the East Germans, because he had been overseas.

It is good that you should remember him and draw our attention to the resemblances to Messrs Hood and Challinor; we need more of their kind today.

harvestbird said...

The ossified bones
of national stories;
the dull competition
of blunted ideas;

a nation soon bound
in a poisoned hide;
an imaginary body
with a slow-spreading rash.

A heritage charges
we find the right metaphors;
be prescient, organised
stubborn and swift.

To sever the thong
that bound the fasces:
a pantomime motion,
a thousand feints.