John Heartfield’s Sticky Moments (1992)

Book review by David King

“Goering, the executioner of the Third Reich”, AIZ no. 36, 14 September 1933

Berlin, April 1933: the Gestapo came for him in the night. They burst into the gloomy apartment block and headed straight for the studio door. It was made of oak but they had little difficulty banging it down. John Heartfield, half-undressed but wide awake, shot out of bed, dived for the French windows and leapt into darkness. Searching the deserted courtyard below, the Nazis thought he’d vanished. But they missed a dustbin in the corner of the yard, out of sight. With the lid slanted just enough for him to breathe and nursing a painful ankle, one of the great artists of the 20th century crouched in torment. For the next seven hours he listened as the Gestapo barbarians ransacked his studio, destroying his original artwork. 

Heartfield escaped on foot to Prague, where he produced much of his finest work for Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (later renamed Volks Illustrierte). Each one of the photomontages is reproduced full-page in David Evans’ John Heartfield: AIZ/VI 1930–1938 [Kent], a clearly set out book full of painstaking research and accurate translations. 

At its height, Heartfield’s vision reached a kind of political surrealism never matched before or since. Shown in the book in sequence, the montages provide an illuminating blow-by-blow account of political struggles by an artist at the centre of the storm. It is also a tribute to the strength of Heartfield’s work that it often had to survive onslaughts from the AIZ typographers who seemed most at home with some really ugly overprinting. 

Much is made by the publishers of Evans’s being allowed use of the Heartfield archive. This is misleading. When a friend and I went there in 1975 we were very well received and could look at everything they had. Not many people in the West knew of its existence, which is why so few went. 

Hitler had put a hefty price on Heartfield’s head, so he fled Czechoslovakia and landed in London on 8 December, 1938. He had people here to help him, but when war broke out the following year, the British authorities weren’t exactly friendly. They didn’t like Germans, they didn’t like Communists, and they didn’t like his work. So they interned him on the Isle of Man. On his release, he was forced to modify his uncompromising visual style and scratched a living designing book covers. Some of these are reproduced in John Heartfield [Abrams], edited by Pegter Pachnicke and Klaus Hennef, published to accompany a travelling retrospective exhibition. 

The book is overblown in concept, badly designed, confusingly edited and (the hardback) overpriced. It attempts to focus attention away from his most virulent material, and works banned by the former DDR [German Democratic Republic] have been left out. For example, there is no sign of his depiction of Trotsky in the montage for the cover of Illustrated History of the Russian Revolution, published in 1928. Heartfield much admired Trotsky and the first publication by Malik Verlag, the imprint he founded with his brother, was a pamphlet by Trotsky on the famine in Russia (1921) 

Heartfield returned to Germany in 1950. When I first met him in 1967, it was to ask him if he would make a photomontage for an anti-Vietnam war poster we were producing. But the master was quite frail by this time and sadly declined: “I would like to, but … I just can’t. I’ve lost it … no, I can’t do it anymore.”

Heartfield, a gentle and modest man, died in 1968. His widow Tutti continued with the task of collecting his work and arranging exhibitions. In 1983 I received an urgent and, typically, rather conspiratorial telephone call from her in East Berlin. “Have you got my letter? I sent you a letter.” I replied that I hadn’t received it. She seemed agitated. She said it was important. Three weeks later I heard the news of her death. Then, strangely, two weeks after that I got her letter. No wonder she had been worried. She had sent me one of the original invitations in Russian, “From the shockworkers of Pravda”, to the opening of Heartfield’s first exhibition in Moscow in December 1931. 

Heartfield spent nearly a year in Russia from April 1931 to January 1932. His friend, the great art critic Sergei Tretyakov, looked after him there. Later, in 1936, Tretyakov was to write the first – and still the best – monograph on Heartfield, only ever published in Russian. Tretyakov was arrested by the GPU in 1938 and shot. 

Heartfield held seminars on photomontage with soldiers from the Red Army, made a breakthrough cover for USSR in Construction magazine (which was promptly copied by Nikolai Troshin in the next issue) and became involved, reluctantly, in the tedious and futile art/political battles of his Moscow counterparts. However, he seems to have got on well, judging by the photographs, with the designer Gustav Klutsis. 

Working in Moscow, the Latvian Klutsis transgressed from non-objective painter at the time of the Revolution, to Stalin’s most dedicated political designer. From 1928 onwards, his posters for industrialisation, collectivisation and, in particular, the Stalin cult, employed all the most powerful weapons in the arsenals of suprematist composition, militant typography and montage. 

Klutsis’ work of the time plays a large part in Montage and Modern Life [MIT Press], edited by Matthew Teitelbaum. This publication is the least successful of the three books under discussion here. The cover, which has a sex-aid manual quality about it, gives way to some lifeless picture editing, sterile design and indifferent printing. Heartfield barely figures and there is too much emphasis on pointless American advertising. The accompanying text includes the sort of politically inept and meaningless tosh that we have come to expect from most current American and Russian political/art academics. Here is an example. In her essay on Klutsis, Margarita Tupitsyn tries to sum up his “hands” poster of 1930, Let Us Fulfil the Plan of the Great Projects

“The final version shows a drastic reduction of the workers and a dominant presence of Klutsis’s hand repeated many times but strictly controlled within a strong design sensibility. It is important that, in the final poster, Klutsis kept only his own hand, for it can be said that he submits his authorial hand to that of the proletariat (who thus acquired the power of an ultimate author) and so redefined the role of an artist/creator in a socialist society. He proposed a new authorial paradigm by using an artist’s hand as a metaphor for production rather than creation.”

Rubbish! Klutsis photographed his hand because it was the closest one available. Full Stop. 

But it is in her final paragraph that Tupitsyn really goes over the top. Enlisting the help of a French philosopher, she concludes that El Lissitzky and Rodchenko were both hopeless masochists, and Klutsis a sadist! Visually speaking, presumably. 

Tupitsyn fails to disclose the end of the story. Poor Klutsis. The GPU came for him in the night. Stalin’s loyal propagandist was put under arrest and subjected to intensive interrogation at the Lubyanka, a short walk down the road. It was 1938, the height of the Great Purges, and now Stalin, “the leader and teacher”, had turned his terror against his own supporters, the Stalinists. Klutsis, it is said, had been denounced by a jealous designer as an agent of imperialism. He was sent to a Gulag in Soviet Central Asia, where he lost his life in 1944, just another victim of Stalin’s monstrous and sadistic machine of death. 

In 1929, John Heartfield expressed his ideas with the slogan, “Paint with photos – write poetry with photos!”

In Soviet Russia there is another famous saying about poetry: “Here we die for it.”

Originally published in Blueprint no. 92, November 1992, pp. 47–48. The illustration was used in the article