The remarkable art of John Heartfield, master of the political photomontage
I am delighted to present a guest blog by artist Anthony Cockayne on the power of art as a political tool.
Recent revelations of lewd and unbecoming behaviour alleged to have taken place during ritualistic practices in the Oxford of the 1980s have been aimed at the present head of government of this country. An old friend of The Prime Minister and a one-time funder of the Tory Party has made claims in his book that the leader of the Conservative Party presented a leading part of his anatomy, to the open jawed, severed head of a pig, as part of an induction rite, to gain membership of the “Piers Gav” society. Now, I wouldn’t know if shipping the member in this fashion would gain you access to a select club named after a bedmate of Edward 11,King of England (1307-1327) but it is certainly a most timely reminder of the fecund source from which political satire emerges. Britain has a long and esteemed history in the business of ridicule, where ridicule is due and no more brilliant exponents than the likes of Thomas Rowlandson and James Gillray exist.
Their satirical jousts with the establishment were rich pickings for two hugely gifted graphic artists, whose needle sharp pens, dipped well in to the inky depths of the British Society of their day. However, it was to a German artist, with a very English sounding name, that my mind re-connected with during this last week.With much to revile and rail against in our present world, way beyond the student shenanigans and buffoonery earlier referred to, it was to the serious and assiduously accomplished graphic art of John Heartfield that I turned to have another look at. The Blue Plaque,that bears his name in Hampstead,London states, “ Master of the political photomontage” lived here, 1938-1943. Significantly, these years in exile, for Heartfield, were war years but John’s war had begun much earlier
Born Helmut Herzfeld on June 19th,1891, Heartfield would take his new English AKA ,following anti-British feeling circulating in his native Germany during and after the 1st World War and go to war himself on the injustices beginning to ravage the country of his birth.
Photomontage was his weapon and what a weapon. Deadly in its precision, he conjured images from the cut up magazines and periodicals of his day, to reassemble visual statements so extraordinary, so lacerating in their comment, as to put him on the top of the SS’s hit list. The method, formulated and used by The Dadaists, in Berlin, in the 20s was brought to the form’s apotheosis by Heartfield, skilfully adding retouching techniques and the work of photographers to assist him, in establishing the final image, before it was re-photographed, to create a large negative, prior to the final photogravure print.
For Heartfield, the means of disseminating his work to a large audience, was answered in the form of The Worker’s Illustrated News, or AIZ, as it was known in Germany. Published between 1921-1938, AIZ, reached a circulation of half a million people and contributors included Maxim Gorki, George Bernard Shaw, George Grosz and Kathe Kollwitz. Often Heartfield’s most searing work graced the front covers presenting his visual critique of a society gone rotten at the core.
With the seemingly innocuous tools of scissors, scalpel, pencil and glue, Heartfield set about making his statement and it is a reminder of what can be achieved with so little. As we face ever alarming times ahead, not just with endless wars, we now stand on a precipice watching the consequences of climate change, increasingly breathing in air toxic to our lungs, it seems to me that two-dimensional graphic art, can still play a huge part in our protest and the fight for a better world and who better to lead us by example than John Heartfield.