John Heartfield and the Agitated Image: Photography, Persuasion, and the Rise of Avant-Garde Photomontage

John Heartfield and the Agitated Image: Photography, Persuasion, and the Rise of Avant-Garde Photomontage

by Andres Mario Zervigon

Working in Germany between the two world wars, John Heartfield (born Helmut Herzfeld, 1891-1968) developed an innovative method of appropriating and reusing photographs to powerful political effect. As a pioneer of modern photomontage, he sliced up mass media photos with his iconic scissors and then reassembled the fragments into compositions that utterly


Working in Germany between the two world wars, John Heartfield (born Helmut Herzfeld, 1891-1968) developed an innovative method of appropriating and reusing photographs to powerful political effect. As a pioneer of modern photomontage, he sliced up mass media photos with his iconic scissors and then reassembled the fragments into compositions that utterly transformed the meaning of the originals. In John Heartfield and the Agitated Image, Andrés Mario Zervigón explores this crucial period in the life and work of a brilliant, radical artist whose desire to disclose the truth obscured by the mainstream press and imperial propaganda made him a de facto prosecutor of Germany’s visual culture.
Zervigón charts the evolution of Heartfield’s photomontage from an act of antiwar resistance into a formalized and widely disseminated political art in the Weimar Republic. Appearing on everything from campaign posters to book covers, the photomonteur’s notorious pictures challenged well-worn assumption and correspondingly walked a dangerous tightrope over the political, social, and cultural cauldron that was interwar Germany. Zervigón explains how Heartfield’s engagement with montage arose from a broadly-shared dissatisfaction with photography’s capacity to represent the modern world. The result was likely the most important combination of avant-garde art and politics in the twentieth century.

A rare look at Heartfield’s early and middle years as an artist and designer, this book provides a new understanding of photography’s role at this critical juncture in history.

Editorial Reviews

John J Heartfield

“As John Heartfield’s grandson, I’m constantly on the lookout for books that help reveal his motivations and illuminate his evolution from unsuccessful young oil painter to world-renowned artist. Andrés Mario Zervigón's John Heartfield and the Agitated Image: Photography, Persuasion, and the Rise of Avant-Garde Photomontage is precisely such a book. Professor Zervigón’s book shines with the type of research that informs the reader of the passion the author has for his subject. However, it’s much more than a scholarly exercise. Professor Zervigón is a gifted writer as well as a respected art historian. He employs his vast knowledge of the Berlin Dada community of the early twentieth century to present fascinating theories regarding the vivid personas of its major players such as John Heartfield, Wieland Herzfelde, George Grosz, and many others. His descriptions of the times, the people, and their actions often read more like an engrossing novel than a work of nonfiction. He brings his subjects to life by presenting a wealth of informative quotations. In short, Professor Zervigón’s book is a must read for anyone interested in John Heartfield, his life, his work, and his participation in the one of the most dynamic periods in modern art history.”
History of Photography

“Exemplary. . . . Present[s] a fascinating and complex image of Heartfield himself, as a man of volatile passion and extraordinary courage as much as of dogged, irascible pedantry. . . . Zervigón’s writing has a brisk, sachlich clarity and zips along in an easy, sometimes conversational tone that makes it highly accessible, even when he is dealing with complex concepts and material.”
CAA Reviews

“Zervigón’s book is far and away the most thorough and incisive treatment of the artist’s early work to date. . . . The meticulous research and original interpretation . . . will make the book a crucial resource for future scholarship on the artist, the historical avant-garde in Germany, as well as early twentieth-century photography and photomontage more broadly.”
Oxford Art Journal

“Zervigón’s energetic account is prodigious. . . . A nimble use of anecdotes, correspondence, diaries, and memoirs alongside other primary sources reanimates the debates, sets the scenes, remaps the mobility, chaos, and personalities surrounding Heartfield. . . . Astute and fascinating.”

“Presents one of the best resources to date for scholars working on Weimar-era media, leftist propaganda imagery, and the development of political photomontage. . . . An important contribution to Heartfield scholarship and to our understanding of culture and politics from the beginning of World War I to the twilight moments of the Weimar Republic.”

“An important contribution to Heartfield [studies].”
Graham Bader

“Impeccably researched and grippingly told, Andrés Mario Zervigón’s John Heartfield and the Agitated Image presents a fundamentally new picture of the German photomontage pioneer: as an artist who took his cues from Hollywood starlets just as much as from Marxist theoreticians, and who crafted his images to function as both physical punch and intellectual appeal. Tracing Heartfield’s passage into and beyond Dada with singular care, Zervigón reveals the range of projects and decisions by which he managed to reinvent photography—indeed art itself—during a period of unparalleled historical turbulence."

Andreas Huyssen

John Heartfield and the Agitated Image offers a compelling reconstruction, based on new archival research, of the slow but steady trajectory of John Heartfield, George Grosz, and Wieland Herzfelde toward Dada, photomontage, and critical publishing in the Weimar Republic. With Heartfield as the book’s center, Andrés Mario Zervigón emphasizes the formative role of postcards, book cover designs, animation, and film stills as strategies in the creation of a radical political image sphere. At stake for Heartfield was nothing less than the reinvention of photographic truth, and in that endeavor he remains a key figure in the history of photography and political aesthetics.”

Matthew Witkovsky

“This lively and original book is a cogently formulated work that will make a welcome addition to the rapidly growing literature on John Heartfield. Andrés Mario Zervigón provides a narrative arc for the development of Heartfield’s career as a photomonteur, adding much to the story by looking at his work from 1916–19 and 1921–29. Useful and instructive as well as thought-provoking, John Heartfield and the Agitated Image is an enjoyable read.”

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University of Chicago Press
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Photography, Persuasion, and the Rise of Avant-Garde Photomontage

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-98177-2

Chapter One


We need many more photographs. With them, the work of agitation can be made no more snappy. They allow no facesaving—So it was and that's it, full stop.

KURT TUCHOLSKY, "More Photographs!" 1912

IN MAY 1912 THE MAN WHO WOULD BECOME THE LEADING SATIRICAL ESSAYIST in Weimar-era Germany visited an exhibition of photographs that were decidedly unlike the arty camera works of the day. Hazy portraits and softly modulated, painterly landscapes were nowhere to be seen. Nor was the venue typical. He was not within the velvety confines of an upscale photography studio where works of pictorialism—as the movement generating such prints was called—regularly found their buyers. Instead, this young commentator for the Social Democratic Party paper Vorwärts (Forward), Kurt Tucholsky, stood in the head office of Berlin's industrial woodworker's union. And on this institution's walls he saw sharply focused, dramatically framed photographs documenting the horrific injuries that all too frequently maimed these workers' hands. So impressed was the young writer that he penned a "review" extolling the political potential of such uncompromising, even grisly, photographs:

On the walls of a Berlin trade union office hang photos of mutilated hands—the workplace accidents of woodworkers. They have an effect that arouses even the most indifferent, those whose hard-right-wing opinions are determined by greasy newspaper supplements. Such a thing warrants emulation. For a print of halved fingers speaks (agitationally) more than statistics, more than reports, and even more than the sauciest speech. More Photographs!

These prints were in fact more than arousing. One of them (fig. 1.1), printed on the cover of a labor report that accompanied both the exhibition and its attendant Woodworker's Union Congress, confronts the viewer with a pair of open hands—minus several fingers. Carefully centered within the frame as if all ten fingers were present, the hands provide a shocking contrast between puffy white flesh and inky black absence. The mangled appendages press forward as if against a windowpane. Where the digits abruptly end, the background rushes forward to fill the shallow pictorial space with snap efficiency. The result is a painful visual inventory: three missing fingers and a hobbled fourth, a lost thumb, and a deep incision in the palm of the right hand. Clear and harsh, the image forces its viewers to confront the monstrous results of late Wilhelmine-era laissez-faire labor practices. As the exhibition brochure reported, "The following collection contains photographs of hand injuries so hideous that an uninitiated viewer will be completely unable to recognize the ruins of human limbs."

Writing as just such an uninitiated viewer, the young art and literary critic recognized the power of these images and asserted that "we need many more photographs" to speak and agitate for victims of social misery. Nothing might "arouse the indifferent" more effectively than such images, he pronounced. No other means of reporting could be as well insulated from ameliorative "whitewashing." The combination of tightly framed photographic clarity and grisly subject matter transported him to urban factories, where the overlooked industrial violence of his day pressed forward with shocking explicitness. Such an experience, Tucholsky noted with approval, could truly "thrash" (prügeln) the naïve viewer with what "was, and that's it, full stop." The young satirist, in other words, demanded not simply a greater number of documentary photographs. He wanted partisan, politically aggressive, viscerally veristic testimony that would strike the viewer like a punch to the stomach.

These were nearly the same demands on photography that would be made two decades later by photomontage artist John Heartfield. "Use the photo as a weapon," the monteur famously intoned in 1929. "New political problems demand new means of propaganda," he added in 1930. "For this photography possesses the greatest power of persuasion." Much like Tucholsky in 1912, Heartfield wanted photographic compositions that would be partisan, biased, aggressive, and—most importantly—capable of making optical persuasion a jolting and visceral experience.

Yet Heartfield understood the photograph's power in a significantly different way than Tucholsky, who seemingly wedded himself to the crisp and seamless photographic document. Heartfield did not. In his most famous work, fragments of appropriated photographs melt into each other and thereby highlight social or political contrasts in a strangely seamless alternative to visible reality (fig. 1.2). Yet this odd world was, in his view, truer than the one presented in his source photographs. "Like no one else," wrote the author Oskar Maria Graf in 1938, "Heartfield shows what is concealed behind things and appearances." For this montage artist, the photograph regularly occluded as much as it revealed, and his images sought to jar the viewer into a critical awareness of just this fact.

The impact of Heartfield's images on audiences accustomed to seeing the photograph as an objective document was no less visceral than the punch thrown at Tucholsky by prints of disfigured hands. The historian-philosopher Walter Benjamin, for example, famously noted that the sort of montages Heartfield made as a Berlin Dadaist "jolted the viewer" like a "missile." Upon seeing one of Heartfield's book covers for the first time, graphic designer Hans Holm recalled exclaiming "Now that's a bomb!" (plate 1). Cultural commentator Hans Reimann noted in 1927 that Heartfield's photomontaged book covers were "disquieting, exciting, gentle, intriguing, and always extraordinary." Nazi Germany's ambassador to Czechoslovakia complained to the Czech government in 1936 that Heartfield's exhibited photomontages "incite an extraordinary degree of violence against the German Reich and its Führer." Other observers likewise remarked on the shock delivered by Heartfield's work, a jolt that could approach physical trauma and be tantamount to incitement. It was this sort of blow, delivered years earlier in the union hall exhibition, that prompted Tucholsky's call for "More photographs!"

The satirist's 1912 entreaty shows that a desire for far more agitational photography existed well before the avant-garde managed to produce such images in movements like Dada, surrealism, and Soviet factography. But the fact that he found a model for this sort of photography specifically in depictions of the physical trauma of industrial modernity, in the fleshy casualties of industrial woodworkers, points to an important recognition: the unprecedented conditions wrought by modernity required a new sort of imagery. Photography, although itself a product of the modern age, no longer seemed capable of adequately representing the massification of deep physical trauma provoked by industrialization and rapid urbanization. It had, therefore, to be transformed if it were to approximate the experience of now. Photomontage arose from this desire for a new and striking photographic realism.

The realization of this desire would be best made by someone who possessed the graphic training of a modern advertising agent and was disposed toward emotional displays—as exhibited in Tucholsky's spicy text. Such an artist would be able to convey his or her own experience of the day's traumatizing reality in a convincing visual form. Many candidates for this position would emerge, but the most successful long-term innovator of photomontage turned out to be the short-tempered and highly trained John Heartfield.


When Tucholsky stepped into the woodworker's union exhibition in 1912, socially oriented, carefully systematized documentary photography was already familiar in Germany, just as it was in New York. But the young Vorwärts critic had not yet seen photographs whose "effect" (Wirkung) was sufficient to "arouse the indifferent" into action. The restrained, "objective" documentary photographs of his time had largely failed to deliver this sort of visceral impact, the almost physical shock that would come from exposing the repressed urban horror of his modern epoch. The young satirist keenly understood this problem of restraint, and he sought to explain it in his 1912 review by referencing the best-known example of social documentary photography in Germany at the time, an annual survey of Berlin's notoriously poor housing conditions entitled Unsere Wohnungs-Enquête (Our Apartment Survey). These reports, Tucholsky wrote, included bleak photographs with a revelatory power that could "make the uninformed grow pale." Yet even these images, he lamented, "are too mild, too transmuted; the reality is worse." Remarkably, the man who year after year commissioned these pictures for the apartment survey, Albert Kohn, believed much the same. Moreover, he expressed his misgivings in an extraordinarily lucid fashion, questioning documentary photography's verisimilitude even at the moment of its zenith in Germany, an ascendance he had helped make possible.

Kohn had inaugurated his survey in 1901 as head of Berlin's Local Group Health Insurance Company for the Enterprise of Businessmen, Merchants and Pharmacists, a private, nonprofit concern. The ostensible point of this annual investigation was to document the living conditions of the company's low-income clients and to outline the threat these conditions posed to Berlin's broader public health. Kohn's larger goal, however, was to provoke a statutory reform in the way Berlin's tenements were built and regulated. Given his position as head of an insurance company rather than a party or trade union, he had to pursue this advocacy with great care.

Kohn's firm was the largest of tens of thousands of public and private companies that provided Germany's population with medical insurance in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In this capacity, it insured the workers employed by a hodgepodge of Berlin's businesses and pharmacies. These clients and their employers each paid a percentage of the employees' wages to Kohn's firm to purchase group health coverage, much as American employees and employers have done through the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In Germany, however, these schemes arose far earlier, as part of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck's legislative effort to undermine the growing hold of the Social Democratic Party on German workers and, more generally, to bypass the Reichstag. His hope was to place administration of this insurance provision in hands regulated directly by the imperial state, thereby fostering a form of "state socialism" in place of full industrial socialism. As historian Joseph Biesinger recently affirmed, "Bismarck's goal was not inspired by a humanitarian motive to protect workers from the uncertainties of the industrial economy but to win over the 'great mass of propertyless people' to the conservative way of thinking." The group-health insurance companies that workers and employers were obliged to set up and join were thus intended to provide something close to universal health care without the socialization of a key German service. Moreover, because the membership of each company's board was constituted in proportion to dues paid, its makeup was generally two-thirds workers' representatives and one-third employer delegates. This mix provided an internal check on any "abuses" made by openly socialist delegates. Such checks were critically important from the state's point of view and that of conservative businessmen.

The SPD, which advocated the full socialization of Germany's economy, fought Bismarck's health-insurance legislation when he offered it to the Reichstag on three occasions between 1881 and 1883. The party was keenly aware that the act formed part of the chancellor's bid to undermine its calls for socialization with—as SPD members saw it—mere half measures. But not long after the legislation passed, party members such as Kohn made peace with the resulting companies, recognizing their value as demonstrations of socialist administrative talent and vehicles for social change. Kohn may, for example, have ostensibly initiated his Berlin apartment survey to document the causes and threat of illness among his largely working-class clients, but he also hoped that the survey would serve as a springboard for stricter housing regulation. His project ultimately succeeded in gaining him the authority to influence policy at a national level.

To stave off possible criticism by conservative politicians and businessmen—some of whom participated in his company and might see the survey as a political program well beyond the charge of a nonpartisan insurance company—Kohn devised a standardized, scientific method that mirrored the late nineteenth-century housing surveys and exhibitions of Robert Weeks De Forest and Lawrence Veiller in New York. And like these predecessors, of whom he seems to have been unaware, Kohn turned to photography, beginning with the 1903 survey, to add an "objective" and compressed register of data. As he explained in this first pictorial volume, "We accompany this year's work with several illustrations because we believe that some things can be better represented in this way than is normally possible with the quill." This argument for photography was specifically one of neutral efficiency rather than partisan agitation.

Kohn's survey employed a statistical methodology that threw out any numerical or pictorial extremes. This removal of outliers not only contributed to its sense of carefully designed objectivity but, just as important, inhibited potentially sentimental or plaintive advocacy. Like other late nineteenth-century statisticians, Kohn took his lead from a burgeoning social science that sought numerical representation of "the average man," "the criminal type," or "the typical Jew," as Allan Sekula has demonstrated. Kohn, for his part, sought to define the "typical" living conditions of the low-income patients to whom his insurance company paid claims. This constituency provided a massive pool from which to extract the quintessential. As he confirmed in the 1902 survey, "Our agents have encountered no house and no street in which infirmed policy holders of our company do not reside." Nevertheless, as he added, despite this great mass of potentially plaintive cases "we have endeavored to give an objective account and stay away from any extreme representations."

Kohn applied this drive for the statistical median to his "objective" photographic reports as well, assuring readers that "we have refrained from representing particularly crass examples." "These reports," he wrote, "just as the pictures standing alongside them, only illustrate the conditions that our tables numerically yield." In fact, the juxtaposition of his photographs with exhaustive matrixes accounting for room measurements, number of windows, sicknesses in relation to availability of heating, people per room, people per toilet facility, people per bed, humidity, age of patients, and much more, suggests that the photographs arise directly from the pages of statistics and computed averages preceding them (fig. 1.3). He repeatedly claimed that the apartments he selected to photograph represented the typical or average conditions of his clients.

One can thus find consistent indications of restraint in Kohn's pictures. He always used, for example, the photography firm of Heinrich Lichte & Co. rather than his own agents, a practice that ostensibly guaranteed objectivity. Visually as well, the photographs adhere to a standard formula. The rooms are generally shot from eye level and at the greatest distance possible across a given space. Nearly all of the pictures include at least two walls and the corner between them, which provides a focus that helps make structural sense of the often motley and unhealthy confusion of living spaces (fig. 1.4). Emphatic close-ups and dramatic framing are entirely absent from the apartment survey's illustrated volumes, published from 1903 through 1922. Instead, the photos offer a sweeping interior slumscape, frequently featuring sick residents, to underscore the health-insurance company's mission. They also highlight other family members at work in informal cottage industry.


Excerpted from JOHN HEARTFIELD AND THE AGITATED IMAGE by ANDRÉS MARIO ZERVIGÓN Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Andrés Mario Zervigón is assistant professor in the Department of Art History at Rutgers University.

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