Andrés Mario Zervigón

Andrés Mario Zervigón

John Heartfield and the Agitated Image, Andres Mario Zervigon

John Heartfield and the Agitated Image

Andrés Mario Zervigón is a Heartfield Scholar and professor of Art History at Rutgers University.

The following excerpts are taken directly from Professor Zervigón’s brilliant book on John Heartfield’s early career, John Heartfield and the Agitated Image: Photography, Persuasion, and the Rise of Avant-Garde Photomontage.

“The demise of their German communist utopia, in other words, pushed them back to the fury of Dada.”

“Heartfield’s staged sets worked in a correspondingly didactic and provocative manner. For Russia’s Day, as Piscator remembered, ‘the stage was enclosed by drapes with a map of Europe as a backdrop. There was a turnpike painted with the flags of Europe on each side of the stage, one with the placard ‘East,’ the other with ‘West’ above it.’ Heartfield thus placed the hard-edged character types on Europe’s political stage, where their actions defined geographic dominance and rebellious resistance. As Capital and Military seek to squelch uprisings by the Worker (of Germany and Hungary, where there had also been a short-lived revolution), Russia offers guidance or threat in the form of a colossal presence on the map’s right side. Herzfelde remembered there being a shining red sun above ‘the East.’'”

“The ranting ‘Nein! Nein! Nein!’, however, warrants particular notice. Heartfield clipped these words directly from Berlin Dada’s first manifesto, penned by Richard Huelsenbeck for the April 12, 1918, lecture evening and signed by Grosz, among many others, but not by Heartfield or his brother. Wieland, of course was then deployed near the western front and, even if present, might not have been inclined to sign his name to a document attacking the literary expressionism then represented by his journal, Die neue Jugend. This, of course, had changed with the subsequent weekly issues of May and June 1917. For his part, Heartfield could have worried in the spring of 1918 that his open participation in such a spectacular and rambunctious movement would threaten his position as a film director working quietly, and with subversive intention, for the Foreign Service.'”
“Behind all of these advents lay a specific set of conditions that further account for the structure of Heartfield’s book covers and how they, in turn, came to perform so effectively. As Wieland Herzfelde explained in his 1962 biography of the monteur, ‘These surfaces were meant to prompt not only the few leftist booksellers but also those of a different opinion to display our new publications and reprints in their show windows.’ Malik of, course, lacked the distribution channels that would have come from a direct relationship with the KPD and its bookstores, had Herzfelde been willing to build such a connection. Wanting too was a Malik book club or subscription service, which would have guaranteed returning customers, and a large advertising budget. Private booksellers were, therefore, the press’s primary sales agents. But many of these largely middle-class merchants were politically opposed to Malik’s undisguised communist orientation. How could the press surmount their recalcitrance and not only earn space on their shelves but compete for the coveted real estate of their window displays? This is where Heartfield’s adaptation of the language of cinema proved essential.”
“He [Heartfield] now had to employ his increasingly cunning desing skills to make the ‘wallflower that nobody took notice of, the dust jacket, [as Lilly Becher, onetime editor of the Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung, later put it], perform two potentially conflicting tasks. It should operate as an alluring wrapper that would attract buyers and, at best, earn the volume a spot in the bookseller’s show window, the publishing world’s most important stage. It should also function as a political poster, impressing didactic points on sympathetic and unsympathetic customers alike, even those who never glimpsed the book’s contents. On his success rested the press’s very identity and survival.”
“A month after he [Heartfield] signed his name to the ‘Laws of Painting’ manifesto, the now famous Dadamonteur began a new professional peregrination by agreeing to design stage sets for playwright Erwin Piscator’s recently inaugurated and forever itinerant Proletarian Theater. This move made professional sense considering Heartfield’s stage work for the Schall and Rauch cabaret a few months earlier. But the new backdrops he would produce for Piscator performed a different task than the cabaret sets. These designs were hastily composed and proffered straightforward pedagogical lessons behind the professional and amateur actors they helped position. Rather than decorate the performance space or transform it into a faraway time or location, as was traditional, his backdrops—in one case, an enormous map—’ made the political meaning of the play’s setting clear from the very geographical situation,’ as Piscator later explained.”

“It was this sort of highly focused picture that exploded onto the political scene when his photomontages began appearing on KPD and other communist-affiliated publications. His [Heartfield’s] arrival as one of the broader culture’s primary artists was then conclusively announced by the landmark Film and Foto exhibition of 1929, an event that gave him an entire room to fill. This was a luxury afforded only to him and to the famous former Bauhaus professor László Moholy-Nagy, who had played an important role in organizing the exhibition. The room, which Heartfield himself seems to have installed, allowed the monteur to stage what was essentially a retrospective of his work. Although KPD party leaders remained famously nervous about these untraditional avant-garde images even as they deployed them, a critic closely associated with the party finally declared their great potential in 1932. In his essay ‘Photomontage as a Weapon in the Class Struggle,’ Hungarian émigré Alfred Kemény described Heartfield’s work as ‘classic.’ He pioneered the use of photomontage for book jackets and in the design of political picture books,’ Kemény explained. ‘After years of stubborn and consistent work, he won the adoption of the line which he considered the most appropriate for the proletarian liberation struggle.’ Yet this was an adoption based not just on his photomontage’s political standard but on its ‘high artistic…value.’ What had once appeared as an agitating poster in the Malik bookstore was now the art of German communism. Famously declaring that radical citizens must must ‘paint with the photo’ and ‘write with the photo’ in order to take command of their world through its representation, Heartfield had arrived at his creative apex.”