THE NEW YORK TIMES, FRIDAY, MAY 3, 1991
Anti-Hitler Images, Relentless and Harrowing
By ROBERTA SMITH
Sometimes, though not very often, an art exhibition is as educational as it is esthetic and as harrowing as it is beautiful. This is the case with the meticulously documented show of John Heartfield's anti-Fascist photomontages from the 1930's, now on view at Kent Fine Art. This exhibition provides an unforgettable glimpse of the rise of the Nazi party as seen by one of its most stalwart opponents, a German artist whose unusual talent fused political awareness and visual imagination.
Heartfield was born in Berlin in 1891, and named Helmut Herzfelde [NOTE: This is a typo from the Times Review. Heartfield was born Helmut Herzfeld, not Herzfelde]. He trained as a graphic artist in Munich, and in 1916, while working with his fellow German artist George Grosz, he claimed to have invented photomontage, the Cubist-inspired technique by which disparate Photographic fragments and sometimes texts are pieced together into a single image. The medium was in some senses implicitly subversive; it lent itself to distortion, exaggeration and startling juxtaposition, as well as to mass production. In the images at Kent, we see Hitler as a small puppet, and Nazi Germany as a crayfish with its claws around Czechoslovakia.
John Heartfield's photomontages fuse politics and imagination.
Heartfield seemed to have an innate faith in individual dissent. He adopted his English-sounding pseudo-name during World War I to protest the xenophobia rampant in Germany. Similarly, the photomontage illustrations that he created from 1930 to 1938 for A.I.Z., a leading leftist magazine in several European countries, are like little sharp-edged stones aimed by a skillful David at sundry Goliaths, from Hitler to capitalism.
These slings and arrows did not go unnoticed. Nazi pressure forced A.I.Z., (which stands for Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung, or Workers’ Illustrated Press) to relocate from Berlin to Prague in 1933 and in 1938 to France, where it ceased publication in 1941. Nonetheless, Heartfield, who would make more than one narrow escape in his lifetime, created 236 images for the periodical, of which 152 were used on front or back covers. Two hundred thirty-three of the published versions are on view at Kent, along with four of the original photomontages, on loan from the Akademie Der Künste of Berlin. (After spending World War II in England, Heartfield resettled in East Berlin, intermittently design set and posters for Bertolt Brecht's Berliner Ensemble before his death in 1968.)
At certain moments, this show can seem overwhelming and a bit monotonous. One's interest is threatened by the crowded double rows of relentlessly grim images, and the fact that all the slogans and texts are in German. In addition, except for Hitler, Hermann Goring and Josef Goebbels, many of the political figures pictured are obscure. Nonetheless, it is worth spending some time with the notebook of translations available at the front desk. Written by David Evans (who has written and lectured on Heartfield's work) and soon to be published in a book on the artist, they provide detailed information about the words, images and historical context of each work.
The notes reveal Heartfield bitingly satirizing everything from the Nazi curtailment of civil rights and the Reichstag fire, to pronouncements about German eating habits, made in the face of severe food shortages. One image shows a typical German family dining on a bicycle beneath the heading: "Hooray, butter is finished." Underneath is a quote from Goebbels to the effect that iron ore makes a people strong, lard and butter only make it fat. Nearby, a related image shows a man being spread onto a piece of toast like butter, along with the Suggestion that, when all else fails, Germany can always eat its Jews. A larger caption reads: "Goebbels's recipe against the food shortage in Germany."
But looking alone will eventually reveal Heartfield's images to be diverse and daring in detail and composition, as well as in meaning. No translation is needed to see that advertisements, official portraits, Cartoons and news photographs of all sorts (including several images of World War I battlefield dead) pro-vided grist for the artist's Visual mill. Likewise that religion, German traditions, nature and current events provided story lines, many of which can still be followed. This is especially true where images vividly evoke the 1933 book burnings in Munich, the 1936 Olympics (led by Goebbels, whose clubfoot has been transformed into a little hoof), the Spanish Civil War and the Japanese invasion of China. But it is also true when Heartfield depicts a swastika made from four axes dripping blood or, with more irony, when he shows two doc-tors X-raying a man making a Nazi salute and discovering that he has a crooked spine.
In his repeated uses of skulls, skeletons, swords and cannons, Heartfield can seem to belong to a peculiarly Germanic Visual tradition that Starts with Dürer and Grunewald — a vein of realism so vehemently precise that it becomes macabre. But other images are all modern glamour, big and scary in a cinematic way, as when a Single raised fist is overlaid on a faint tattoo-like pattern that turns out to be a Nazi -saluting throng.
Of course, Hitler is Heartfield's Protagonist. He appears as an avenging angel and, in another X-ray image, as a hollow man who is filling up with money. Heartfield also portrays the Führer as a death's-head moth (a reference to the Nazis' dreaded Death's Head commando units) like those recently featured in the film "The Silence of the Lambs," and as a mirror-gazer asking "Mirror, Mirror on the wall, who is the strongest in the whole country?" The answer, delivered by a skeleton, is "the crisis," a reference to the severe economic conditions that Hitler manipulated to his advantage.
Heartfield clearly did not believe that Hitler was the strongest, and he tried his utmost to alert his countrymen to their own power. "It is still not too late," cries one of the earlier images. And by the show's conclusion, one of the most inspiring aspects is simply the courage implicit in the credit line that appears on every image for all the world to see: "Photomontage: John Heartfield."
"John Heartfield: Photomontages, 1930-1938" was at Kent Fine Art, 41 East 57th Street, through May 18, 1991