Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 8, 2017
Sabine T. Kriebel Revolutionary Beauty: The Radical Photomontages of John Heartfield Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014. 352 pp. Cloth $65.00 (9780520276185)
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Sabine Kriebel’s book Revolutionary Beauty: The Radical Photomontages of John Heartfield is a study characterized by its exceptional rigor and intellectual intensity. Although written in a meticulously sculpted language, precise and full of imagery, this work does not claim to be a definitive, closed, or unequivocal object. Focusing on the monteur John Heartfield, a major artist who curiously has received little scholarly attention until now, Revolutionary Beauty does not belong to the monographic genre, nor is it yet another formalist study. Rather, it explores a medium—photomontage—laden with a substantial critical and interpretive past. Even though the volume focuses on the Weimar Republic and the first years of Nazism, a period of exceptional social and political violence, it skillfully avoids sinking into ideological debates from and on that historical period. This well-researched book is conceived as an open-ended apparatus in which themes, works, concepts, and methods are rigorously yet freely and patiently arranged thanks to the author’s own studied intuition. Revolutionary Beauty is surprising in its level of intellectual independence, drawing its tools and finest ideas from diverse intellectual fields—fields that have been traditionally opposed to one another.

Each of the five chapters opens with the author’s reading of a particular photomontage, the first of which is Heartfield’s 1929 self-portrait, composed according to the strategy of rupture and aggression that the artist developed a decade earlier during his associations with the Dada movement. Heartfield figures in the photomontage as an executioner, cutting off the head of the Social Democratic Party’s police commissioner with a pair of shears. From the beginning, Kriebel demonstrates that the image’s formal self-reflexivity is most powerful when it is charged with a symbolic force, in this case political. The formal strategy of rupture responds nearly mimetically to the concurrent outbreak of political violence in Germany’s public sphere, where, faced with the violence of the extreme right and the state’s bloody repression of communist demonstrations, the left adopted violence as a necessary recourse. The montage’s more than sharp critique of the Social Democratic Party, which would subsequently be accused of “social fascism,” constitutes another sort of resonance with the Spartacist days, when the Dadaists targeted the informal pact between the Social Democratic Party and the Freikorps. All the same, inspired by a liberal French historiography, which emerged at the heart of the debate concerning the French Revolution and the Terror, Kriebel reads Heartfield’s propaganda work critically, particularly at times when he aligned himself along party lines.

The second chapter is a discussion of the stakes of the age of technical reproducibility, which avoids the habitual attempts to reference Walter Benjamin. Here, Kriebel reflects on the evasive, highly malleable nature of the photographic sign, which aroused both optimism and suspicion, as it served the authentic as much as the artificial, reaction as much as revolution, the critical as much as the commercial. She makes use of the agon opposing text and image—a surprisingly topical debate today, when the image reigns as master in the field of art history, not to mention everywhere else in our lives. Between the two extremes, that of the apotheosis of the image, considered to be the natural expression and means of adaptation of modernity, and that of the conservative nostalgia for the reign of the text, expressed by the Gestaltist theoretician Rudolf Arnheim, Heartfield opted for a medium that dialectically combined image and text. It is with respect to this point that Kriebel introduces the notion of “suture,” the conceptual cornerstone of her work. According to the author, if the suture took over following the Dadaist artistic practices of rupture and disjunction, it was because the suture was better able to respond to the major political issue of these years: the production of the masses as an active political subject. In this way, moving beyond Benjamin’s distinction between contemplation and distraction, absorption and critique, passivity and action, Heartfield’s photomontage acted dialectically in its appeal to the double process of realist recognition and defamiliarization. He created images in which the words acted with the bodily force of images, and the images were to be deciphered with the precision habitually attributed to words. This reversal also allowed for the conversion of photomontage from a means of commercial advertising to a means of political propaganda.

One of the signs of intellectual independence that characterizes Kriebel’s book is the way in which she conceives of the malleability of the photomontage medium, which is essentially that of propaganda itself, dipped in the baptismal waters of advertizing and subsequently taken up by all political orientations, including Nazism. Kriebel thus follows the evolution of photomontage in the Nazi illustrated press, which passed from an initial awkwardness to the reappropriation of the formal strategies of Neues Vision and montage, only to disappear once Hitler came to power. During the same period, photomontage crystallized the tensions between the constructivist avant-garde and the dogma of Soviet Socialist Realism. At the heart of this debate, Heartfield attempted to bring forth a “middle ground” solution.

From 1933 on, Heartfield used montage in the service of a relentless critique of National Socialism. Leaving behind the imperative of the communist revolution, he responded to the urgency of denouncing National Socialist ideology. Kriebel initially moves between the neighboring tropes and genres of satire, irony, caricature, the grotesque, and comedy in order to explicate the photomontages created by Heartfield beginning in 1933. This section of the book, in which Kriebel marches through a series of texts, from Mikhail Bakhtin and Henri Bergson to Georg Lukács, each addressing one of those genres or tropes, is perhaps the driest and most labored of the book. In contrast, the most brilliant parts are those in which Kriebel demonstrates the corporality of Heartfield’s photomontages. For it is as a body that Heartfield represents German society, a body of masters and slaves, leaders and their victims, a man-eating, grotesque, and repulsive body, diametrically opposed to the glorious body of the German race propagated by the National Socialist party. Above all, this political corporality, often scatological, is a striking expression of Heartfield’s Marxist materialism, which, already in his Dadaist days, subtly avoided the unequal division between substructure and epiphenomenon, matter and spirit, truth and ideology.

The last chapter bears the book’s title, and it is here that Kriebel plunges deeper into her ideas regarding “suture.” In 1933, the Gestapo actively sought Heartfield, so he left Germany, initially taking refuge in Czechoslovakia. During this time he implemented a strategy to denounce the terrifying nature of National Socialism via the hallucinatory use of the indexical status of photography. He fabricated an “illusory” montage capable of interrupting the hypnotic absorption that it first cultivated, like a sort of sleep that one falls into only to wake up to a nightmare. Heartfield’s universe is metamorphic, similar to that of so many other artists—painters, photographers, filmmakers—of the 1930s. The natural kingdoms are no longer divided clearly, nor do time periods follow each other successively; rather, they overlap, anachronistically and discontinuously. Everything is focused on the “against the grain” nature of the suture; pretending to be technically acheiropoetic and immaculate—Heartfield indeed uses reproducibility in an enchanting way—suture no longer serves the confident, gradual evolutionary theory, but instead expresses a world that is more unstable and contingent than ever. Derailed from the dominant evolutionism of the nineteenth century, human history, like natural history, has taken the regressive path of the allegorical ossuary.

Kriebel’s intention to study the dialectical succession of rupture through the lens of suture is ingenious. It would, however, be possible to go into more depth concerning the formal processes and temporal experiences inherent to these two notions that provide penetrating insight into the intense history of the avant-gardes, from the eve of the First World War to the outbreak of World War Two. It was actually the theorist Carl Einstein, the first historiographer of the avant-gardes, who theorized this transition through the lens of his conceptual binome of the “tectonic” and the “hallucinatory”: the transition from one formal, contrasting act and fleeting yet intense temporality to a more latent act that is carried out in phases (first that of the mimicry of the trauma and the subsequent entering into hypnosis, followed by that of the critical awakening).

Finally, the greatest merit of Revolutionary Beauty is its rigorous pluralism. It is undoubtedly because she believes in the power of the “particular” and allows the subject to dictate the method and not the other way around that Kriebel proceeds with the attentive observation of Heartfield’s images. Yet she knows perfectly well that these images will only become fully intelligible thanks to a plethora of texts disseminated in the German and European public spheres during this time. Kriebel has carried out extensive archival research, which allows her to situate each photomontage within a specific political and artistic debate. These formal and discursive elements have given rise to and been interpreted by a rich theoretical apparatus. Overall, just as Heartfield himself did, Kriebel has dialectically united words and images. This is a matter worthy of attention, particularly today when the fascination with Warburgian “Pathosformel” (often interpreted in an excessive manner) leads so many art historians to condemn purely and simply Erwin Panofsky’s iconological method, citing the image’s enslavement to the text. Let us instead be open, tolerant, and rigorously eclectic, as the reality in which we live demands of us.

Maria Stavrinaki
Associate Professor, Art History, Université Paris-Panthéon-Sorbonne

Translated by Jennifer Branlat.

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