Thursday, September 10, 2009

John Heartfield. Taking one for the working man since 1917.

Political Background

Born in 1891 to mother who was a political activist and father who was socialist writer.

Joined communist party of Germany (KPD) in 1918 along with George Grosz and brother, Wieland Herzfelde, after Anglicizing their names in response to the poor reception of English presence in Germany (ST)

Started Publishing company Malik Verlag in 1917 where much of work appears on book covers and magazines.

Beginnings of Photo Montage

Saw dadaism as only substantial movement in Germany in the last hundred years, but “swayed in midair, and could not assume responsibilities of both classes at once” (GHH)

Heartfield and Grosz began by piecing together postcards to form anti-war messages sent to the front (resembled carte vistas (travel album) of the time which is how they passed censorship). (DK)

Important to remember that “these primative p-montages did not mythically spring from artistic inspiration and settle down into an ascribable authorship for the edification of the future; they arose tactically in a context of dissent.” (DK)

Critique of Bourgeois Art

Two approaches to art expressed as difference b/w formalism and tendency art

-tendency art is committed, political… art constantly in service of class struggle.

-formalist seeks to avoid tendency… illusory goal is to remain aloof, free from demands of everyday life, looking to the eternal and mysterious. (PG)

“Tendency is the rule, not the exception” (GHH)

“what could a worker do with art?” (GHH)

“art belongs in museums to be gaped at by the petit bourgeoisie while on vacation. In the palaces of the bloodsuckers to hide their wall safes!” (GHH

Rationale behind Photo Montage/ Duty of Tendency Artist

Traditional Graphics were too slow to keep pace with the rapidity of events and the readiness of the bourgeois press. Photos had to be used to keep up with the proletarian struggle! (PG)

It is the duty of the revolutionary artist to propagandize in two ways:

1) to purge the world view of supernatural powers, of superstition, of god and angels

2) to show to man his actual relationship to his environment (GHH)

believed that:

“The twilight of art began with photography, when art forfeited its right to report the world”

and that

“the bourgeois pen wrote art out of existence.” Only montage can compete.

“Art is about increasing the effectiveness of Communist Propaganda” (GHH)

(interesting, the liberal use of the word propaganda when read next to the way we situate the word today)

Here we understand a directive to read photographic fragments as indexical, bearing a one-to-one relationship with/ reality. (LM)

P-montages rely heavily on juxtaposition and mimicry (where what is being mimicked participates) (DK)

The illusionism of the work both depends on and refutes the so-called ‘truth’ of photo-journalism and direct a rereading of commercial mass media (LM)

Some photos in publications where his work appears were so naturally idiosyncratic and incriminating that they must be protected by the statement that they remain unedited.

Similarly happens within his own work:

Goering (above) is untouched, actual photo, as mentioned in print

Nazi’s critiqued the montages, saying they were ‘corrupt, degenerate, broken apart.’ (associating them with ‘jewishness’) and contrasting them with Nazi’s corporativist aesthetic and politic, ‘unification of the people.” (PG)

On Viewing work in a current context

1) Number of attacks on socialists is relatively insignificant when compared to total number of montages. However, proportion means little for an artist who made works for the history of the moment. (DK)

2) Figures in political Caricatures are often unidentified. (too much historical subtext for comtemporary digestion)

3) Canonization is problematic when it threatens to upstage the historical context of politics and mass media involvement (LM)

(By virtue of this third sentiment alone, I contend that Heartfield’s work is/was extremely effective.)

Finally, discuss concern with re-appropriation of images far outside of historical context due to a misunderstanding of the properties of the photomontage form.

Works Cited

Gorrell, Paul. “Preface to ‘Art is in Danger!” Jack Hirschman, ed. Art on the Line. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press. 2001. Pp 98-127,

Grosz, George, John Heartfield, and Wielande Herzfeld. “Art is in Danger!” (1925) Jack Hirschman, ed. Art on the Line. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press. 2001. Pp 98-127.

Kahn, Douglas. John Heartfield: Art and Mass Media. NY: Tanam Press. 1985.

Lavin, Maud. Clean New World: Cultural Politics and Graphic Design. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. 2001.

Taylor, Sue. “Hearfield’s Photo-Grenades.” Art in America. No. 6 Jun 06-Jul 06. Pp 156-161.

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