Born 1891 in Berlin – Schmargendorf with the name Helmut Herzfeld, John Heartfield changed his name in 1916 as a reaction against German nationalism and the prevailing hostility in Germany against the English (Herzefelde, 1986: p. 10-17). He was one of the founders of the Dada movement in Berlin and belonged to the left wing. This article will focus on the process that can be identified with the creation of the artist’s intellectual infrastructure by analyzing the objects he utilized by means of Dadaist photomontage techniques in order to show his attitude and political views against an authority which was looting a large part of Europe.
Aimed directly at art institutions of the Berlin Dada period, and with the intention of protesting war and its traditional rules, John Heartfield’s works take the form of a political space of action which attempts to raise the awareness of social classes against racism that was spreading in the country through the principles of the German Communist Party (Die Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands / KPD) (which he was a member of, when it was first established), the rise of Nazism, and Hitler (1889-1945). Published in widespread media channels such as newspapers and magazines, his works included slogans which warned the masses with regard to the danger that came with the National Socialist Workers’ Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei / NSDAP), in other words the Nazi Party. In order to help the public realize that they are a part of the group that’s oppressed and exploited, Heartfeld stood up to the institutional authority alone, by overthrowing the values of the protectors of the state (Bostanci, 2012a: p 6-8).
His montage titled “Adolf the superman, Swallows Gold and spouts Junk” is one of the clearest examples of this: It’s as if Heartfield takes an x-ray of the dangerous speaker (Hitler), by emphasizing the coins in his esophagus and the swastika in the place of his heart. The consumed gold also recalls the power of the capital wealth in the core of Hitler’s National Socialism (Taylor, 2006: 156). When Hitler, in the presidential elections of the Weimar Republic in 1932, utilized quite expensive tools of propaganda in order to direct more votes to the Nazi Party, the German Communist Party member Heartfield took note of this attempt and questioned where it received its budget. This set the preliminary conditions for this montage which focuses on the respiratory system and the stomach of Hitler, who had swallowed gold and was speaking rubbish like a piece of tin. In contrast to Dada artworks, which deal with how the machines effect human life and make them spiritless, this work created in the 1930s displays with a tragicomic encapsulation of how a person in the position of Hitler can turn into a machine that operates with coins. The transformation of gold into tin, as if in a reverse alchemical process, represents the replacement of spirituality with material goods and the loss of the soul. As Heartfield depicts the mechanized transparent body of Hitler by means of the “gold” (coins) –which he talks about in the slogan– , he references an unjust and unmoral trade. On the other hand, the word “tin” also references the weapons industry, war equipment and weapons. The wealthy class of Germany saw Hitler not only as a person aiding them make huge profits, but also as a savior who would help them deal with the militant workers movement and neutralize the threat of the Soviet Union (Bostanci, 2012b: p. 67-75).
Shortly after this montage was published on the whole back cover of the Illustrated Workers Magazine (Die Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung / AIZ), it was turned into a poster in August 1932 by the financial support of Junker communism-sympathizer Harry Graff Kesler (1868-1937) and hung all around the state as an anti-propaganda tool against the Nazi Party (Maerz, 1993: 96).
In his work “The meaning of Hitler salute” which was a reaction to Hitler’s statement “Millions stand behind me” Heartfield again used Hitler’s words as a slogan and created an image with satirical references to who was actually supporting him (Pachnicke, 1992: 39). Heartfield tries to expose the “real” relationships behind Nationalist Socialists to the readers of the 1930s. The image of Hitler saluting is one that was often featured in press, and the imagery used in the montage comes from a photo that depicts him saluting the SA troops. The montage shows Hitler saying “There are millions supporting me!” with a Nazi salute, and then, in a quite clever manner, his hand reaches back to take millions from a bulky capitalist, revealing the source of Hitler’s election budget (Kriebel, 2009: 73). It could be said that the financial support of the monopoly-capital to Hitler and the Nazi Party is the reason this montage was made. In another montage made for the 42th issue of AIZ in 1932, Hitler raises his right hand to take a pile of German Marks from a characteristic representative of German capitalism; and he’s depicted smaller than the capitalist representative in order to make it seem as if he’s begging for the money (Siepmann, 1978: 22).
One of the most common methods utilized by Heartfield in making fun of his political opponents is to turn the statements of others into his own weapons: “Hurray! The Butter is All Gone” exemplifies this. The montage was created in response to what Hermann Wilhelm Goering (1893-1946) said in his speech during the famine of 1935: “Iron makes a country stronger, but lard and butter only make people fatter!”. The work is based on the ironic attitude of John Heartfield in reaction to this horrifying statement (Pachnicke, 1992: 39).With it, the artist attempts to warn the public against the deception of the Hitler myth and the danger civilian freedom faces, in addition to the corruption within the social balance of the Third Republic. These works also criticize Nazism and its lie regarding “people’s community” (Volksgemeinschaft) (Kay, 1996: 14). The work depicts a whole family eating what the government believes to be more important than food: machines, petrol, weapons, bullets, a bicycle handlebar and other metal objects… The wallpaper in the background is embellished with swastikas and is especially a work of mastery. It shows, how the regime can diffuse into every dimension of domestic life. Created during the period of famine, the work ironically points out, how the middle-class may not agree with the priorities of the government. An excerpt from a popular song written during the France-Prussian war in 1870, appears as a slogan on the wall: “Dear homeland, you’re peaceful”. On the other hand, the Hitler portrait on the easel and the Paul von Hindenburg picture on the couch pillow are also important.
The photomontage made in 1933, “The executioner and Justice”, is a satirical response to Hermann Goering’s words during the trial regarding the Reichstag Fire: “Law for me is a little bloody”. In mythology the goddess Justitia who represents justice holds a scale and a sword and is depicted with her eyes covered. Heartfield’s goddess of justice however, holds the sword tightly with the fabric wrapped around her wrist. The scale on the other hand is depicted so unbalanced, that it causes the arm to break off. In the arrangement, the depiction of the woman covering her burnt body and face with bandages is made from a photo of Hella Guth (1912-1992) –an artist influenced by Heartfield’s art– who assisted him in this work by modeling as the justice goddess Justitia.
Joseph Goebbel’s (1897-1945) recipe against the food shortage in Germany- “What? Your meals are lacking lard and butter? You can eat your Jews!” statement is the reason why the montage carrying the same name was created. The term schmalz mentioned in the montage, is the name of melted chicken fat in Jewish, but in German it means melted pig or goose fat. Schmalz is used in frying or as a bread-spread in Jewish, German and Polish cuisine. Here the artist makes a satirical reference to the discrimination and the racism of the government (Bostanci, 2012a: 353).