Photos as weapons

John Heartfield exhibition: Barbican Art Gallery, London. August 13 - October 18: Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, November 20 - January 10; Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, January 30 - March 29.

Born Helmut Herzfeld in 1891, he anglicised his name to John Heartfield in response to German anglophobia during World War I. He was the first artist to use photomontage (combining whole or parts of photographs with text to communicate a new message) as a political weapon: "New political problems demand new means of propaganda. For this task photography possesses the greatest power of persuasion."

Inspired by the October Revolution, he joined the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in 1918. In 1917 he had, with his brother Wieland Herzfeld co-founded the publishing house 'Malik Verlag' and as an illustrator of left books he showed that even the dust jacket should be turned into a political argument.

Beyond a reconstruction of the room which he and George Grosz exhibited at the First International Dada Fair in Berlin in 1920, this exhibition shows us posters, bookcovers, postcards, newspapers, and magazines from a prolific output that spans more than five decades. A 1928 poster bears the slogan: "Not a man, not a penny for imperialist war armaments. All out for the people's referendum."

The exhibition includes a continuous showing of the documentary 'Zygosis - John Heartfield and the Political Image', by Gorilla Tapes, where scratch editing, chroma key, paintbox and 3D computer techniques are used to animate images of Hitler's speeches so that his hand gestures become comic demonstrations of chicken slaughter and toothbrush abuse. Hitler's opening of the Berlin Olympics is translated: "I'm not declaring these Olympic games open until someone comes up with a decent pair of binoculars. I can't see a thing through these!"

His campaign posters of the late 20s and early 30s seemed particularly striking given that rival parties rarely used photographs. A 1928 KPD election poster depicts a worker's open hand reaching up for power. "The hand has five fingers. Vot list 5." In the 1990s the same image was stolen by 'Save the Humans': corrupted as an image of a helpless victim sinking out of sight. Another poster: "Fight with us! Vote Communist!", shows a hammer and a sickle held together by a a wholesome looking man and woman.

One of his 1932 posters shows a starving child. "Capitalism is robbing them of their last piece of bread. Fight for yourself and your children. Vote Communist! Vote Thalmann." Other posters had a strong anti-racist message. He urgently warned that the advance of fascism risked another world war. A 1932 photomontage shows two skeletons lying in the mud of the trenches wearing nothing but their boots: "Armament is a must", His artwork for Old Motto in the 'New' Reich: Blood and Iron (March 8 1934) is four bloody axes lashed together in the form of a swastika.

AIZ (Workers Illustrated Paper) regularly gave him a whole page on which to make a photomontage comment on contemporary politics and these were produced under pressure, following tight deadlines; Hearfield maintaining overall control but delegating to professional photographers, retouchers, and printers. A 1932 edition of AIZ includes a composite photographic portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm and Adolf Hitler, entitled 'Kaiser Adolf: The Man Against Europe'. Typical to the genre, the title is an integral element, imposing meaning on the image and resulting in an unambiguous message.

Exposing Nazism, and its leaders, to ridicule was Heartfield's main aim in the 30s. 'The Meaning of the Hitler Salute' shows Hitler's right hand accepting a wad of bank notes from a gigantic bourgeois standing behind him. "Little man requests big donation. Motto: Millions are behind me." Another, 'Mimikry', shows Goebels dressing Hitler up in a Karl Marx beard.

When Hitler took power in 1933 Heartfield was forced into exile, first of all to Prague, where he and his brother transfered the Malik publishing house, and John continued to work for AIZ. Pressure was put upon the Czech government to extradite him until the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938 when he fled to Britain. Wieland, however, was refused an entry permit and survived the war in New York. John was included in Mesens' group exhibition 'Living Art in England'. A version of 'Kaiser Adolf: The Man Against Europe" appeared on the front page of Picture Post in September 1939, but in 1940 Heartfield was interned.

Released on health grounds after complaints to the House of Commons, he moved to Hampstead, recognising that for many British people the Germans were the enemy, as Germans, and not because they were Nazis. He continued working as a freelance for Picture Post, Reynolds News, and Lilliput.

From 1950 until his death in 1968 he lived in East Berlin where, although ill and restricted by Stalin's 'socialist realism', he was re-united with friends and family and was honoured for his massive contribution to the struggle.

Prophetic to the last, among his 1959 works was an image of the socialist GDR frog being gobbled up by an enormous imperialist snake.

Like revolutionary artists such as Brecht, Rivera and others, Heartfield is presented as an 'artiste' with a political quirk. But the very essence of his work revolts against this. It was great art in the service of of the revolution; great art because it was in the service of the revolution. The weapons he forged are still there to be used.

The Leninist - 22 September, 1992.

The Leninist 1992