Book Review: John Heartfield Laughter is a Devastating Weapon

Art historian and writer, Tom Powell reviews the book, John Heartfield: Laughter is a Devastating Weapon and finds it an excellent visual resource.

John Heartfield

‘Ein interessantes Wahlplakat der kommunistischen Partei in den Strassen Berlins zu der großen Reichstagswahl am 20. Mai.’ (May, 1928). Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-05929 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons.

David King & Ernst Volland, John Heartfield: Laughter is a Devastating Weapon (Tate, 2015). Review by Tom Powell.

Berlin, April 14, 1933. A knock at the door. An hour before sunrise, a figure lowered itself from the first-floor balcony of a Berlin apartment block and scrambled into a nearby rubbish bin. Moments before, Gestapo agents had forced entry to the Berlin studio where the infamous political artist John Heartfield was preparing to flee the city. Trapped, the artist had leapt through a set of French windows and into the fading dark. After seven hours, having only just dodged the Gestapo, Heartfield emerged from his dirty hiding spot and made contact with the underground network that would soon smuggle him on foot through the Sudeten mountains and over the border into Czechoslovakia. From there, Heartfield might continue to assemble the images that had made him a wanted man in his own country.

It was no surprise that Heartfield had fallen foul of the Nazi secret police; his prolific output of critical imagery had begun one May morning in 1916 with his earliest photographic collages. From the late 1920s, working with photographers and retouchers, Heartfield cut up press images that were normally used to communicate an uncontested political message and reassembled them with text and original photography to transmit a new, irreverently subversive meaning. A reworking of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People featuring Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. Adolf Hitler as a puppet in the hands of the rich industrialists who funded the Nazi programme. Christ bearing a cross modified into the shape of a swastika. These montages were then published as book covers, front pages for popular left-wing newspapers such as the Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung and Die Volks-Illustrierte that were passed around in factories and canteens across Germany, or put up as posters on the street for all to see.

John Heartfield

Janos Reismann, a Hungarian photographer who worked with him in Berlin, stressed that Heartfield’s work was ‘a bitter struggle, repeated every day . . . to utilise, in the interests of the revolutionary working class, the power and effectiveness of photography against those who had hitherto misused it’. In recognition of this daily struggle, Heartfield became known to his circle as the ‘monteur’ (which in German means a mechanic, engineer or assembler). This struggle would see the photomonteur chased across Europe; first to Prague by the Nazis; then to London where – as an enemy alien – he was spied on, interned and only released due to ill health; and finally, after the war, to East Germany where – under investigation – Heartfield’s communist party membership was suspended, making work an impossibility once more.

* * *

Hampstead, London, October 1967. A knock at the door. David King had come to interview Heartfield for the Sunday Times Colour Magazine. Heartfield and his wife Gertrud were in London while the Institute for Contemporary Arts prepared a major retrospective exhibition of his work, and the Times was running a profile of the now somewhat forgotten artist. When Heartfield was asked if he would make a new montage for the cover, he apologised and confessed, ‘I can’t do it anymore. . . but I still take photographs’. Later, having completed his interview, King left the house on Pond Street and headed off into the cold afternoon. He soon noticed a figure – bundled up in a thick hat, overcoat, scarf and boots – trudging down the path from the direction of the house, camera in hand, towards the heath. Heartfield died the following year.

Heartfield was resistant to making new material, so King went back to what had been saved in the archives. King was an insatiable amasser of graphic documents who became interested in the manipulation of images through his research into the purging of Trotsky from the photographic imagining of Soviet history. Unsurprisingly he was fascinated by Heartfield’s struggle to rediscover the revolutionary potential of photographic imagery.

John Heartfield

Laughter is a Devastating Weapon is a patchwork of items drawn from King’s now expansive collection containing over 250,000 objects – documenting the history of Soviet Russia, Weimar Germany and the Spanish Civil War through books, posters and other ephemera – and Gertud Heartfield’s tireless effort to bring together her husband’s lost works at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin. The David King collection was acquired by Tate in 2016 and has since featured in a rotation of displays (the next being Red Star Over Russia: A Revolution in Visual Culture 1905–55 until February 2018). Laughter is a Devastating Weapon was King’s final publication before his death in 2016.

For Laughter is a Devastating Weapon, King and his collaborator Ernst Volland assembled Heartfield’s photomontages with preparatory sketches, early mock-ups and the final applied designs (the fundamental purpose of his work) into a volume that is both revealing yet, at times, frustrating. While the wealth of high quality archival imagery is welcome, the lack of rigorous dating and contextual information can sometimes beg more questions than are answered. Nevertheless, Laughter is a Devastating Weapon is an excellent visual resource for those interested in the increasingly politicised use of visual media and the practice of one of photomontage’s chief innovators.

Tom Powell is an art historian and writer.

Twitter: @mrtompowell


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