Let’s look back to the 1920s and imagine a free press critical of abusive regimes that visualize the criminal acts of despicable characters. That was the German Dadaist John Heartfield, who has the retrospective John Heartfield ‒ Photography plus Dynamite at the Akademie der Künste on view until August 23 in the Pariser Platz (Berlin), a few metros away from the Hotel Adlon where Michael Jackson held his baby from out of the balcony in 2002.
Originally scheduled for March 2020 the exhibition John Heartfield ‒ Photography plus Dynamite was postponed to summer due to the imminent outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. The show now sees its end in the physical space of the Akademie der Künste (Academy of Arts), although the expo has been the excuse to show the world the digitization and cataloging of all the material of the infamous Dadaist and photomontagist John Heartfield, that to the delight of all of us, it is available online. All details about all digital materials will be found at the end of this article, so keep reading.
The exhibition explores the many facets of Heartfield’s art while shedding light on his methods and the powerful image motifs used in very different contexts. It also traces his corresponding production processes. Works and documents — until now some of them have remained unknown — trace the artist’s complex sphere of references, including his relationships with theatre directors and producers, Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator, the foremost exponents of German epic theatre, Dada artist George Grosz, and of course his brother, editor, and publisher Wieland Herzfelde.
Photomontage as Agitprop. The power of images
“To tell the truth, to report the facts and to breach the wall of lies” — this is how the graphic artist, animator, and set designer John Heartfield described the task of his political photomontages in an interview in 1967. His works were meant to accuse, enlighten, and expose – they were weapons of political agitation.
Heartfield relied on the power of the image. He was convinced that “with a photo, one can quite simply express the fact, the truth, the verity”. Observing his art, one can sense the anger and the creative energy which is unleashed in a battle fought with photos, scissors, brushes, and glue.
Heartfield became one of the most important and innovative artists in the resistance against fascism, and, accordingly, one of the most hated enemies of the National Socialists. It was only through luck that he escaped arrest in 1933 and was able to save himself in exile in Czechoslovakia and later in England.
In the Internet Era: Fake news, right-wing radicalism & hate-discourse
Thanks to his aesthetics and suggestive effect, his political satires have retained their artistic volatility. Heartfield’s aggressive call for political enlightenment and the exposure of lies has lost none of its relevance in the face of contemporary fake news, increased right-wing radicalism and hate-filled tirades in the social media. Yet his unconditional belief in the enlightening power of images and facts gives pause for thought.
As the introduction to the exhibition’s catalog questions, “What ‘truths’ do images convey in the age of Internet phenomena such as memes, perfect digital image manipulation, and image files created exclusively from algorithms? Has the belief in the authenticity and objectivity of photography given way to the no less naive belief in its complete manipulability? Has Heartfield’s art of political photomontage stood the test of time? Or have other forms of visual expression emerged which further develop Heartfield’s artistic principle of the (de-)construction of images?
The fragmentation of the politically interested public was already a characteristic feature during the years of the German Weimar Republic. Political satire primarily served its own camp. What is the situation today? Has social media created partial public spheres that predominantly serve as echo chambers catering to like-minded people and primarily serve political affirmation? Has the dialogue about facts in many respects not given way to dialogue about opinions?”
This exhibition explores these questions and places Heartfield’s works in a contemporary context and, it makes his working method comprehensible: the artistic work of selecting, cutting out, and assembling.
John Heartfield Biography
Hellmuth Joseph Stolzenberg (Heartfield’s birth name) was born on 19 June 1891 in Schmargendorf, near Berlin.
1905: Apprenticeship as a book dealer in Wiesbaden. 1907–1914: training and art studies in Berlin and Munich.1917: founding of the Malik-Verlag publishing house together with his brother Wieland Herzfelde, as well as work as a film set designer. 1919: co-founding of the magazine Die Pleite with Wieland Herzfelde and George Grosz. 1920: recognised as a leading member of the Berlin Dada movement, calling himself “Monteur- Dada”, and (until 1920) head of production and set design at the Max-Reinhardt-Bühne. Collaboration on various satirical leaflets and publications. 1924: Heartfield creates his first political photomontage as a critique of current events. 1928: becames member of the Association of Revolutionary Visual Artists of Germany. 1930–1938: created photomontages reflecting current events for the newspaper AIZ: Arbeiter-Illustrierten-Zeitung in Berlin and Prague. 1933-1938: flight to Prague, where Heartfield worked for the AIZ and the Malik-Verlag. 1933–1939: deprivation of citizenship in Germany. 1938–1950: exile in London; collaboration with the Free German League of Culture and work as a freelance cartoonist. 1940: short-term internment as an enemy alien in England. 1950: Return to communist Germany (GDR); settles in Leipzig. 1952–1968: Member of the Verband Bildender Künstler Deutschlands (VBK, the artists’ association of the GDR). 1956: Move to Berlin, where he worked for various publishers and theatre, together with his brother Wieland. 1956–1968: Member of the Akademie der Künste/German Democratic Republic. The artist died in East Berlin on 26 April 1968.
John Heartfield’s Archive
In addition to the visual artworks, archive materials also belong to the John Heartfield Archive at the Akademie der Künste, where 158 boxes of written material contain letters, biographical documents, and 3000 photographs of works and individuals. There are also more than 600 museum objects, ranging from a living room chair to a c. 11th-12th century Chinese tea bowl.
Heartfield’s network is recognizable also from the surviving archives of many of his friends, companions, and comrades-in-arms, including the already named Bertolt Brecht, George Grosz, Erwin Piscator, Otto Schmalhausen and, of course, his brother, Wieland Herzfelde. The evaluation of these sources has made possible to present Heartfield’s international network and his productive collaboration with others: in the form of designs for stage sets and books, as well as photographs and animated films.
John Heartfield – Photographie plus Dynamit. The Exhibition
The name of the exhibition is taken from his friend, the art critic Adolf Behne, who aptly stated in 1931, “photography plus dynamite” when referring to Heartfield’s work. The starting point was the digitization of Heartfield’s graphic oeuvre. In 2018 the Heartfield online catalog was completed, The catalog offers a comprehensive overview of the artist’s output, comprising more than 6200 works.
The retrospective John Heartfield – Photographie plus Dynamit contextualizes the artist in his time and explores his many facets by focusing on his working methods, his production processes, as well as his avant-garde vision of the power of the image, to which we are now subordinated almost globally.
John Heartfield – Photographie plus Dynamit. The Exhibition Display
Divided into five parts and organized almost chronologically, the exhibition progresses in a linear fashion, similar to his biography (major events listed above). An exception to this linearity is the entrance to the exhibition, which is accessed through a yellow doorway and where we are greeted by a video installation.
Wer leidet der Schneidet/ He Who Suffers, Cuts. Marcel Odenbach’s two-channel video installation
Contemporary artist Marcel Odenbach piece He Who Suffers, Cuts is a multimedia collage made especially for the John Heartfield retrospective.
Odenbach has taken filmed statements of Heartfield talking about his work, combining them with documentary materials. He also includes new recordings made at the artist’s summer cottage in Waldsieversdorf (Brandenburg), which can still be visited today. Thus in Odenbach’s work, the montage expands into three dimensions using offset projection surfaces, magnifications of film stills, and photographs that he has adjusted to the room. The specially produced sound and the alternately related film sequences, which are sometimes facetted like a kaleidoscope, are perceived antipodally or as one film image on two screens.
He Who Suffers, Cuts begins the presentation on Pariser Platz, opening a current perspective on the historical contexts behind Heartfield’s work. The installation, incorporating a combination of fast changes and slower passages, functions as an introduction to the exhibition.
Despite the great importance of photomontages, the exhibition does not immediately immerse itself in the core of this work, but rather begins by contextualizing John Heartfield in the artistic circle of his time. For this reason, the second room displays artworks made in collaboration with some of his contemporaries, such as the Dadaists Georg Grosz and Hannah Höch. As well as the already mentioned and lesser-known connections with the world of theatre: Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator. With them, Heartfield navigated between the worlds of Dada, graphic design and scenography, often mobilizing his techniques from one field to another.
Third Room: Works from Newspaper the AIZ (Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung) and more
The third room, the largest exhibition space, presents in a striking way the most famous works of John Heartfield. Due to the publication in AIZ, his works reached an audience of millions and became classics of political art. Pages of the AIZ, such as 5 Fingers Has the Hand. With 5 You Seize the Enemy. Vote for List Number 5: the Communist Party! (1928), Whether black or white – in struggle united! (1931) and Adolf, the superman: Swallows gold and spouts rubbish (1932), and the cover The meaning of Geneva. Where capital lives, peace cannot live! (1932) contributed to making photomontage an art form in its own right.
While in Prague, Heartfield continued to work for AIZ until the publication was halted in 1938 by the impending outbreak of World War II. Once in London, he worked as a graphic designer on less political books.
This section continues to focus on John Heartfield as a versatile artist with a mastery of various media. Designing covers for novels such as Kurt Tucholsky’s picture book Deutschland, Deutschland über alles (Germany, Germany above all) or the cover of the German edition of Upton Sinclair’s novel Mountain City (1930).
Fruit of his collaboration with the German theatre, are the popsters from different periods: Berliner Theater (1929) and Citizen Schippel (1955). He also followed the socialist revolutions in Vietnam and China. This interest is somehow reflected in his collection of East Asian folk art, some of which appear for the first time in this exhibition.
Heartfield Goes Digital
For those who could not come to Berlin and enjoy this wonderful and well-cared exhibition in person, it is offered —as usual from Covid19— a very detailed online panoramic tour of this exhibition.
Cinematic tour through the exhibition
A cinematic tour through the exhibition allows the camera to take viewers on a concentrated, approximately 20-minute virtual tour through the entire presentation. In video interviews, curators Rosa von der Schulenburg and Angela Lammert guide viewers through the show, providing insights into their concept as well as detailed information about selected works.
Interactive 360° Panoramic Tour
The retrospective John Heartfield – Photography plus Dynamite offers users the opportunity to navigate through the exhibition halls and the related displays in the lobby of the Akademie der Künste on Pariser Platz. A floor plan helps with orientation. Designed so that viewers may follow at their own pace and interests, the tour allows users to get up close to the exhibits in each room and zoom in on details. Additional information can be obtained by clicking on the works.
This virtual presentation shows photos, documents, and audiovisual material attesting to the life and impact of John Heartfield, a pioneer of photomontage, providing new impulses to the discussion about the political artist. Available in German and English, the website also showcases Heartfield’s collaborative creative network and complements the exhibition at the AdK.
Heartfield Online Catalogue
The comprehensive online catalog of Heartfield’s estate, which is administered by the Akademie der Künste is publicly accessible online. It features more than 6000 works and makes John Heartfield’s entire graphic oeuvre accessible in a digital format. Many previously unknown works are presented to the public for the first time and can thus provide new impulses for scholarly debate.
Finally, there are exhibitions of John Heartfield with the same audiovisual material and also original works at the Museum de Fundatie in Zwolle, Holland until May 3, 2021, and at the Royal Academy of Arts in London until September 2021.
AKADEMIE DER KÜNSTE
Pariser Platz 4, 10117 Berlín