John Heartfield did everything he could to avoid serving in the German military during World War I. He and his friends, dabblers in Dada like Georg Groszt, believed that people liked the black-and-white agitprop of war and companies liked the sure revenues. The war could go on forever. So they found their own way to dissent.
At the time, the government exercised complete censorship over the press. Criticism of the war or the government would be severely punished. Even critical remarks made on the street could land one in a cold cell if they were to be overheard and reported. John and Georg tried to start an art journal, but it was soon shut down because it included a “poem for peace” in its contents. But John and Georg were not so easily silenced.
They began to send packages and postcards to friends, family, and odd acquaintances serving on the war front. The packages contained seemingly random assortments of objects, including starched shirt-fronts, a pair of cuffs, a dainty shoehorn, a set of tea bags, and hand-written labels explaining how each gift should arouse patience, sweet dreams, respect for authority, and fidelity to the throne.
The postcards were collages glued onto cardboard. But the content of these collages allowed John and Georg to criticize the war in a more subtle manner. They arbitrarily cut and pasted ads for suitcases, fraternity songbooks, enriched dogfood ads, labels from Schnapps and wine bottles, photos from illustrated magazines– the possibilities were endless. The images were meant to represent the words that the censor would not allow them to write or speak. Soon soldiers began replying in kind, with their own images to “speak” the censored words.
And so emerged the dadaist technique of “photomontage”, which allowed Heartfield and others to “wage one man’s war against Hitler”. George Grosz and John Heartfield left history as part of the Dada movement in Berlin which was instrumental in making montage into a modern art-form. They first coined the term “photomontage” at the end of the war, around 1918 or 1919. Other major photomontagers included Hannah Höch, Kurt Schwitters, Raoul Hausmann and Johannes Baader.
Photomontage allowed Heartfield to create loaded and politically contentious images. To compose his works, he chose recognizable press photographs of politicians or events from the mainstream illustrated press. He then disassembled and rearranged these images to radically alter their meaning.
Heartfield’s strongest work used variations of scale and stark juxtapositions to activate his already gruesome photo-fragments. The result could have a frightening visual impact, as in this image warning that the country’s rearmament exposed a dangerous impulse toward war and its profits.
Adolf, the Superman, Swallows Gold and Spouts Tin, 1932
To create this image, Heartfield overlaid a widely published photograph of Hitler with a chest X-ray. The caption reads, “Adolf, the superman, swallows gold and spouts tin.” Here, Heartfield refers to the large contributions that wealthy industrialists were making to the Nazi Party (National Socialist German Worker’s Party) despite its alleged basis in socialism. Heartfield’s image reveals the contradictions between Hitler’s financial support and his workingman rhetoric.
(Source: Agitated Images Exhibit, The Getty Museum)
“There are a lot of things that got me into working with photos. The main thing is that I saw both what was being said and not being said with photos in the newspapers… I found out how you can fool people with photos, really fool them… You can lie and tell the truth by putting the wrong title or wrong captions under them, and that’s roughly what was being done…”
And yet it moves!, 1943
This piece refers to a remark made by Galileo when he was forced to deny his belief that the Earth moved around the sun. Upon his release from the Inquisition, he stamped the Earth with his foot and said, “And yet it moves.” This image shows that despite Hitler’s terror, the world survived.
Individual photos combined together to create a new subject or visual image proved to be a powerful tool for the Dadists protesting World War I and the interests that they believed inspired the war. Photomontage survived Dada and was a technique inherited and used by European Surrealists such as Salvador Dalí. The world’s first retrospective show of photomontage was held in Germany in 1931. A later term coined in Europe was “photocollage”; which usually referred to large and ambitious works that added typography and brushwork or even actual objects stuck to the photomontage.
Chasing butterflies through photomontage:
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