It’s a historic fact that fascist dictators seek to define the role of women exclusively as producers and caretakers of the “right” type of children. A war on women rights continues. John Heartfield’s “Forced Suppliers” political photo montage could easily be a poster for the pro-choice movement. In this famous political art, Heartfield provides a visual jolt of reality. It’s a 3-D like portrait that makes it clear many politicians consider women nothing but objects to be used. I could comment more. But the story below and the brilliant commentary by scholar Andrea Hofmann do it better than I ever could.
NOTE: The following (text in blue) was reported in a story in the Los Angeles Times by David G. Savage on December 21, 2017.
Scott Lloyd, the anti-abortion activist who heads the Trump administration’s refugee resettlement program, tried to prevent a 17-year-old rape victim in federal detention from getting an abortion, according to court documents. On December 21, 2017, the release of these documents clearly showed how the Trump administration has increased its agenda to stop immigrant teenagers in federal detention from having the option of abortion.
Lloyd held his opinion even though the young rape victim “threatened to harm herself” if she could not obtain an abortion.
“This latest revelation exposes the Trump administration’s extreme anti-abortion ideology,” said Brigitte Amiri, an attorney for the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project. “It seeks to force women to continue pregnancies against their will.”
In a previous case of an immigrant seeking an abortion, administration lawyers filed an unusual appeal with the high court that accused the ACLU lawyers of deception and sought some punishment against them. U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan and the D.C. Circuit, by a 6-3 vote, ruled that a pregnant teenager did have a right to an abortion. The young woman was able to have the procedure before the government could file a further appeal.
“This was a total surprise. We’re disturbed about it,” U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions told Fox News subsequently.
The administration’s appeal in the case of Hargan vs. Garza is due to be considered by The U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 5, 2018.
Written by Andrea Hofmann
Heartfield’s Box Of Tricks: Shock Tactics, Games, And Hidden Clues
“Forced Supplier of Human Material Take Courage!
The State Needs Unemployed People and Soldiers!”
AIZ No.10, March 1930
The Personal is Political!
Heartfield often used newspaper clippings and photos he found elsewhere to create his montages. This time, however, he used one of his own photos and combined it with other material. Incidentally, the photo of the woman prompted the artist Hannah Höch – one of Heartfield’s Dada fellows – to use it for her work “The Mother”.
The shocking caption of the montage is downright sarcastic and cynical. Implicitly it refers to the ban on abortions during the Weimar era. Linking the abortion ban to hard-core economic and military interests instantly rids the topic of pregnancy of any romantic notions and turns it into a political affair.
Babies Become A Commodity
At the same time, the caption questions women’s status in Weimar society and their function as citizens of the Republic. Women had recently gained fundamental rights, like the right to vote and hold public office. So they were finally seen as mentally fit to take part in political decisions. Yet, they still didn’t have control over their own bodies and reproductive performance. To many people that seemed illogical and contradictory at best.
The AIZ line was that this state-of-affairs reduced women to “state-controlled” incubators, nothing but production units with the professed objective to turn out plenty of babies which could be used as military supply and surplus workers to enforce wage dumping.
Note, the snappy caption is beneath the montage. It doesn’t interfere with the image. The spectators are invited to draw their own conclusion. So let’s have a look at how Heartfield clues us in visually?
Setting The Scene
For a start, Heartfield brings us face to face with a heavily pregnant woman looking straight at us. Her condition is emphasized through her enveloping protective arms and hands. She takes center stage. We see the image of a dead young soldier behind her head.
Like Pieter Bruegel, Heartfield often employed proverbs to communicate messages. Proverbs are part of the collective heritage and a treasure trove of cultural references. As such, they can be activated for all sorts of allusions. They are also a way to engage the viewer in a kind of visual game. Everybody likes to play detective. And, spotting a clue provides the viewer with the additional pleasure of feeling clever.
The Game Is On: Time To Spot Some Clues
We are bound to take notice of the woman’s dress in this montage. This brings the German saying “Kleider machen Leute” to mind. It basically means “People are judged by their clothing”. Clothes are a cultural code. In other words, someone’s outfit and appearance reveal their social identity. It also means that clothes reaffirm someone’s social status. So what does the dress tell us about the woman?
The woman’s maternity dress looks worse for wear. Its drop-waist and faded fabric suggest it’s not the latest fashion model. The bursting waist seam indicates ample use. But the tiny bow, the pleated fringe, and dark hem imply there was an attempt at looking dressy once. They are a faint trace of former pleasant anticipation.
This is sharply contrasted by the slumped position of the woman’s body. The visible bra strap tells us that smart times are over for her. This is stressed by the dull expression on her face. At a glance, Heartfield confronts us with the massive clash of expectation and reality for poor women in the Weimar Republic.
Note also, the integrity of the woman is never questioned. This tells us something about the intended audience.
Truth Versus Fiction
Ads create and carry myths. They are all around us. They draw our attention. As such they are a frame of reference. Even if we abhor them we engage with them and dance some sort of mental twist.
When Heartfield created his montage, advertisement was in full swing. In Berlin, where he lived, neon lights were the latest craze. They created a make-believe world and promised the earth.
So, when Heartfield’s shows us his pathetic pregnant woman, he alludes to conventional maternity ads of the Weimar Republic. These mostly equated motherhood with carefree bliss and happiness. They didn’t mention maternity-related deaths and illnesses to say nothing of poverty and hunger. In fact, they were completely out of touch with the reality of a huge part of the population.
After all, the early 1930s were the time of the Great Depression. On the one hand, you had people who enjoyed their life. On the other, there was mass unemployment and tremendous hardship. A high inflation rate had a serious impact on the poor. Many people were underfed. Poverty, housing shortage, and homelessness were rampant. With cramped living conditions and not enough food to go round, birth control and abortion rights became more and more pressing matters.
The Pill Hadn’t Been Invented
The Morning-After pill wasn’t around either. Other contraceptives were hard to come by. Abortion was often the only way out if you couldn’t afford to have a child for whatever reasons. But abortion was illegal.
This meant that women were legally denied access to the full range of reproductive and sexual health services of the day. This risked women’s health, their lives and even the health and life of their potential offspring. But the government wanted to repopulate Germany after a war that had cost so many lives at all costs. So it kept up the abortion ban.
Nevertheless, every year about one million women had an abortion. It wasn’t a lifestyle decision for most of them. They had no other choice. Many of them had self-induced abortions or they went to backstreet abortionists. This resulted in large numbers of pregnancy-related deaths. These women were desperate. They rather risked their health, death, and jail than having a child. But the powers that be were indifferent to their plight. Instead, they judged them.
Poor women who got pregnant and carried the baby to term often faced extremely harsh living conditions and poverty. This made them more vulnerable to abuse. Unwanted pregnancy was nothing to rejoice about for poor women in the 1930s. It meant not knowing how to make ends meet, another mouth to feed. It often meant already born children would go hungry.
So when Heartfield put that montage out there, he showed the flipside of the glitzy world of advertisement and commerce. He demonstrated the absurdity and callousness it presented to the underprivileged.
Visualizing The Invisible
Normally, photos in magazines are about something dramatic or someone spectacular, a celebrity or an achiever. Heartfield’s woman is nothing of the kind. She is an ordinary woman. As such she usually would have been overlooked and dismissed as not newsworthy. Her plight is not spectacular because it is typical for her class. And this is exactly the reason that makes her fate noteworthy to Heartfield and the AIZ.
Their aim was to give a voice to the invisible, unmasking the callous cruelty of an intrinsically sexist and elitist (legal) system. They wanted to draw attention to the ignored and underprivileged. Heartfield’s woman is definitely no heroine. Putting her into the spotlight would have been considered unsuitable in mainstream media. After all, she wasn’t a potential customer. Portraying her side of the story, Heartfield dramatically changed perspective and broke a taboo. He turned hierarchies upside-down. That was subversive.
What we are looking at is a pregnant working-class woman claiming attention simply by occupying space. This is a non-verbal statement: Here I am. You can’t deny my existence. You have to deal with me. You literally can’t get around me or my problems. Stop ignoring my existence. This is emphasized by the fact that she seems real, i.e. three-dimensional. It almost feels as if we could touch her. So, we pay her close attention.
How does John Heartfield do this?
Basically, he uses the newspaper’s edge as a “golden” frame and places the woman’s body in front of a darker background.
I Am Watching You
Interestingly, the woman seems to make eye contact with us and her eyes appear to follow us everywhere. No matter from which angle we look at her – we can’t escape her gaze. We can even turn the image upside-down. Her intense gaze still creates a personal connection between her and the spectator. What a brilliant ploy for a photo that might be lying on a table.
How is that effect created? Essentially, the person in question has to look straight ahead.
Art Exposing Brutal Reality
What is also remarkable about the woman is that she has a bruise on her left eye and forehead. This woman is beat(en) in more than one sense. The bruising hints at domestic violence. The attacker would have come from the right, which adds a subtle political dig. It’s also hinting at the fact that wife beating and beating children were not uncommon. By the way, raping your wife was legal.
Mind, the AIZ campaigned massively against domestic violence and pointed out its fatal effect on children and society as a whole. The newspaper took the stand: As long as there is no equality at home, there can’t be equality in society. Mutual respect is the foundation of a functional society and peace.
Interestingly, Heartfield also implied this by his choice of color scheme. He used the same color to reach the effect of bruising in the woman’s image he used to draw attention to the fatal wound that killed the young soldier.
In a nutshell, Heartfield’s montage is a vivid visual execution of the caption underneath the montage making it even more graphic and real. Caption and montage work perfectly together. This enhances its effect.
Visual content is processed faster in our brain than text. Visual images stick faster in our memory. Odd visual images stick longer. Heartfield’s montage is positively unsettling. It affiliates birth and violent death. So, it would have stuck in the memory of the viewer. It would have made people think. In combination with the drastic caption, this image was dynamite.
It points out that the abortion ban has political and economic reasons and implications. Therefore, it rattled the cage of the powers that be. Incidentally, they were predominantly male.
Heartfield’s montage sent out the message: the personal is political.
Women have to have control over their own bodies. This is vital.
Clearly, Heartfield was spot-on. In fact, he still is.