Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 1, 2013
Andrés Mario Zervigón John Heartfield and the Agitated Image: Photography, Persuasion, and the Rise of Avant-Garde Photomontage Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. 344 pp.; 9 color ills.; 134 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780226981772)

Suffusing his working process, his subject matter, and his address to the viewer, violence is central to the montage-based work of the German artist John Heartfield. It is on clear display, for example, in the missing limbs, firearm, and prominent vagina dentata with which he and his fellow Berlin Dadaist George Grosz assembled the sculptural self-portrait The Middle-Class Philistine Heartfield Gone Wild (Electro-Mechanical Tatlin Sculpture) in 1920. One witnesses it also in his 1928 poster The Hand Has 5 Fingers promoting the German Communist Party’s “List 5” in the upcoming Reichstag elections by way of threat, with a tremendous foreshortened arm appearing to reach through the picture plane to “seize the enemy,” as the caption reads. This theme is perhaps most pointed of all in Heartfield’s 1929 Self-Portrait with Berlin Police President Karl Zörgiebel, in which the photomonteur himself glares menacingly at the viewer while severing the city official’s head with a long pair of shears. Indeed, the latter work receives pride of place on the cover of Andrés Mario Zervigón’s John Heartfield and the Agitated Image: Photography, Persuasion, and the Rise of Avant-Garde Photomontage. This latest contribution to the literature on Heartfield, long a principal example of the early twentieth-century avant-garde’s mass-media political interventions, provides a much-needed account of his early career to balance the existing scholarship’s overwhelming focus on the communist propaganda he produced beginning in the mid-1920s. Zervigón’s book is far and away the most thorough and incisive treatment of the artist’s early work to date, with most existing accounts of this period focusing on his contribution to Berlin Dada, a movement Zervigón casts as less definitive to his career than previous scholars have assumed. Moreover, this book will prove a critical point of reference for future scholarship on all phases of the artist’s career and on photomontage at large, as it forcefully demonstrates that Heartfield’s work in this medium must be understood as a reaction to the use of photography in early twentieth-century Germany.

Charting Heartfield’s arrival at the propaganda work of the 1920s and 1930s for which he is best known, John Heartfield and the Agitated Image traces the artist’s development of tactically aggressive production processes and visual forms to counter the insidious political and social effect he observed in conventional photography. Zervigón shows that during World War I, in the midst of the German government’s draconian censorship of photographs from the front and the print media’s concurrent dispersion of nationalistic imagery, Heartfield developed a profound doubt in photography’s capacity to present the truth. In response, he intervened in the photographic document, first with scissors and glue and eventually with staged photo shoots, airbrushing, and rephotography. In tracking this development, Zervigón forwards a provocative theory of the photographic image and Heartfield’s attempts to redeem it, namely, that photography’s violent distortion of the world required a secondary corrective violence of interpolation and effacement. As Zervigón argues, each such intervention should be understood as the index of the artist’s hand, his discerning mind, and his roiling passion—that is, their direct trace rather than an arbitrary symbol—making the photomontage a site of actual political struggle. The resulting “agitated images,” as Zervigón calls them, would tear up the ideological fabric upon which photography’s implicit claims to presenting the truth have been embroidered, presenting aspects of the world in its actuality; eliciting the visceral, emotional reaction it merits; and training the viewer for future encounters with the Wilhelmine, Weimar, and Nazi regimes’ deceptive self-representation.

Zervigón develops this thesis in a chronological sequence of six chapters, each of which addresses both a specific body of Heartfield’s work and a theoretical or thematic point emerging from it. Three of these chapters examine the nexus of artistic agency, identity, and production, with the book’s very first chapter placing the artist’s historical context on equal footing with his biography. It accomplishes this by touching on the writing of future Heartfield collaborator Kurt Tucholsky, specifically his 1912 proposal that photographic exposés should shift the burden of explaining the significance of ambiguous photographs from accompanying captions to the juxtaposition of images themselves. Well before Heartfield’s earliest photomontages, Tucholsky’s suggestion states a problem to which much of the artist’s work in that medium would later respond while also questioning the “truth” of any objective document in need of such supplementation. Zervigón further develops these themes of agency and identity when discussing Heartfield’s cultivation of his artistic persona, that of a short-tempered neurasthenic. Compiling aspects of the artist’s personal history, the input of established avant-garde figures, and the influence of cocaine, this performance, as Zervigón shows, became inseparable from the typographical design and photomontage in which the artist sought visual equivalents for his own erratic behavior. For Zervigón both artistic intention and identity are in significant ways montage-like constructions, and the avant-garde’s formal experimentation was itself often a performance—that is, a visual and verbal rhetoric—in its own right.

Beyond his ongoing collaborations with both Grosz and his brother, the publisher Wieland Herzfelde, Heartfield’s most significant allegiance during the late 1910s was to the Berlin Dada movement, of which all three men would become members. In addressing Heartfield’s Dadaist work, Zervigón is keen to highlight that his photomontages of 1919 represented a return to this medium and an entry into the movement, following a period in which he distanced himself from both. In this way he offers an important contribution to studies of Berlin Dada, foregrounding the often overlooked fits, starts, and shifting allegiances of a movement that, despite its great heterogeneity, presented itself as a unified front.

While the Berlin Dadaists made no secret of their interest in cinema, Zervigón offers major contributions to the study of photomontage’s relationship to motion pictures. Chapter 4, an extensive account of the now-lost animation films Heartfield made with Grosz, is the book’s most significant discussion of this topic. Zervigón crafts a remarkably rich account of this absent body of work, drawing upon the circumstances of its patronage and production, a survey of related projects Heartfield would later undertake, and an analysis of the few animation films the artist might have seen despite German censorship. Such challenges of an incomplete art-historical record are not an issue in Zervigón’s account of the book covers Heartfield designed for Malik Verlag, his brother’s publishing house, as it gained influence during the 1920s. Zervigón casts these bold compositions, designed to seize shoppers’ attention within a bookshop’s visual din, as signaling a marked shift in Heartfield’s work from the provocative ambiguity of Berlin Dada photomontage toward narrative and representational clarity. Here Zervigón convincingly demonstrates that Heartfield’s book covers offered static visual analogs for cinematic devices such as the “establishing shot,” telegraphing key tensions and potential outcomes of a film’s scenario for viewers to take in at a glance. Thus, rather than casting Heartfield as part of a monolithic, Europe-wide “return to order” during the 1920s, following a period of more adventurous formal experimentation, Zervigón shows how Heartfield’s work after Dada built upon features of earlier montage-based works. Whether presenting archival materials or providing visual analysis of mass-produced images, Zervigón’s attention to historical detail brings Heartfield into a sharp focus that challenges conventional narratives of early twentieth-century art.

The significance of John Heartfield and the Agitated Image goes well beyond its definitive account of the artist’s early career with much of its impact derived from Zervigón’s very notion of “agitation.” Rather than whipping viewers into a frenzy, he shows that Heartfield instead aimed to produce with his works a calculated level of agitation at which photographic material could indeed reveal an aspect of truth. For example, while the relatively placid kitsch of Heartfield’s photomontage cover for the February 1919 leaflet Everyman His Own Soccerball responds to a context of actual social unrest, he crafted the more chaotic forms usually associated with Berlin Dada, such as the densely discordant Hustle and Bustle in Universal City, Five Past Noon he made with Grosz in 1920, to rouse audiences from a late Wilhelmine or post-revolutionary state of complacency. Thus, the avant-garde shock effects Walter Benjamin originally described in his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” should, in Heartfield’s case, be understood less as an all-out assault on the viewer and more as a means of producing and maintaining a productive equilibrium of agitation.

In describing the effect of visual coherence with which Heartfield controls the agitational effect of his work, Zervigón coins the term “glazing,” referencing the glossy appearance that rephotography lends to photomontage. Offering a rigorous and nuanced account of the artist in eminently readable, engaging prose, John Heartfield and the Agitated Image might be said to have a glazing of its own. The meticulous research and original interpretation beneath this approachable surface 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.

Daniel Hackbarth
Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Colgate University