Patrick Harrington reviewed a John Heartfield exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery
John Heartfield is an artist best known for his work in the area of photo-montage (the German word “montage” is an engineering term, meaning fitting or assemblage) in which different photographs are combined and retouched to create a new (and potentially startling) whole.
The first room one enters at the exhibition is concerned with the Dada Fair of 1920 held in the small gallery of Dr. Otto Burchard on the Lutzow-ufer in Berlin. Heartfield, then 27, showed ‘The Bourgeois Archangel’ (sometimes called ‘The Prussian Archangel) with Schlicheter. This combined a papier mache pig’s head and officers uniform. The room also contains a number of slogans on posters using different forms of typography such as Dada ist das Genteil bon Lebensfremdheit (Dada is the opposite of living strangely) and Dada Steht auf Seiten des revolutinaren proletariats! (Dada stands with the revolutionary proletariat). Strangely, translations of these slogans were not provided – perhaps everyone is expected to know German in the United States of Europe?
The real meat of the exhibition, however, is not in the first room but the rooms beyond it. Heartfield explained in 1930 that:-“New political problems demand new means of propaganda. For this task, photography possesses the greatest power of persuasion”.
From 1930-1938 Heartfield contributed to the Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (Worker’s Illustrated Newspaper). His main propaganda work was aimed at combating the rise of National Socialism. Many of his images and criticisms are extremely telling, compelling even. Unfortunately, however, the exhibition fails to convey the full meaning as they are displayed without being placed in context. To give some examples: ‘Mimicry’ 1934, in which Goebbels is depicted as dressing Hitler to look at Karl Marx might well have confused many; and Five Minutes to Twelve depicting (London, 1942) Hitler and other Nazis seeking to hold back the hand of a clock has a richer meaning if one knows that it is a reversal of a text in a Hitler speech in which his repeated boast was “it is five minutes to Midnight”.
The propaganda images created by Heartfield are powerful – Millions Stand Behind Me in which Hitler is shown giving a salute into which a plutocrat is handing money; The Thousand Year Reich with its House of Cards illustration; the Christmas Tree with its limbs made to resemble the Swastika – O Christmas Tree in Germany, How crooked are your branches.
As a communist the ideology informed his view of National Socialism. He sought through his art to draw out the fact that National Socialism was in many ways a continuation of the old order in a new form. It is interesting to note that he placed inverted commas around the caption/title The Slogan in the ‘New’ Reich:Blood and Iron in this respect. Nor was it a coincidence that in Twenty Years Later General Karl Lutzman (1850-1936) was depicted – he was both an active nazi and a First World War veteran.
There is a curious gap in the exhibition – we see Heartfield the crusader against National Socialism but we do not see recorded here his reaction to the Nazi-Soviet Pact. A pity.
In the final room exhibition one can view a film made by Gorilla Tapes. It is worth seeing — in contrast to the informed and meaningful images of Heartfield, this film has doctored footage of Nazi rallies showing Hitler playing with a yo-yo, catching a Swastika covered Frisbee, assaulting a chicken and brandishing a gargantuan toothbrush. Heartfield had something to say and the form in which he expressed himself augmented rather than distracted from his message. Something for the exhibition organisers to reflect upon. To ridicule evil is one thing to trivialise it quite another.
Heartfield eventually went to live in the ‘German Democratic Republic’ in 1950. There are a few examples of his work there in the final room of the exhibition. He was not well thought of in the GDR as he had chosen to spend his exile in London (why not Moscow), because the authorities didn’t like avant garde art (including photo-montage, and because it had taken him till 1950 to move to the GDR… which was founded in 1949! He was friendly with the playwright Brecht and so was able to do theatre work such as the stage-set for Mutter Riba (Deutsches Theater, 1955).