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  • Photomontage and the Visual Language of Advertising:Two Reviews
  • Paul Messaris (bio)
Photomontage between the Wars (1918–1939). Texts by Adrian Sudhalter & Deborah L. Roldán. Madrid: Fundación Juan March, 2012.
Zervigón, Andrés Mario. John Heartfield and the Agitated Image: Photography, Persuasion, and the Rise of Avant-Garde Photomontage. University of Chicago Press, 2012.

In the world of visual media, “montage” refers to the combination of two or more images with the aim of creating a new meaning through their interaction. Montage is a fundamental ingredient of just about any kind of visual advertising. Most commonly, montage in advertising takes one of three forms:

  • • linking a product with an image (e.g., a bottle of perfume paired with a romantic scene)

  • • comparing or contrasting one image with another (e.g., an ad for Braun electric razors, in which shaving transforms an orangutan into a human; see Figure 1)

  • • combining parts of objects into a single image (e.g., an ad for Witte Molle pet food, in which the body of a bird blends into the head of a dog; see Figure 2)

The distinction between Figure 1 and Figure 2 is crucial. In a study of metaphors in advertising, Gkiouzepas and Hogg have labeled the type of montage found in Figure 1 a “juxtaposed” composition, and the type of montage found in Figure 2 a “synthesized” composition.1

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Figure 1.

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Figures 2.

All three of these visual devices can be found in ads from as far back as the late nineteenth century. Advertisers’ use of montage became increasingly creative and innovative, however, in the period between the two world wars (1918-1939).A major impetus for this development was the work of a group of graphic artists, mostly European, who were experimenting with “photomontage”—cutting and pasting photographic images into visual compositions that might also include hand-made pictures and text. Taken together, the two books covered in this review can serve as an excellent introduction to photomontage in general and, more specifically, to its relationship to visual persuasion.

Photomontage between the Wars (1918-1939) was published to accompany an exhibition based on the Merrill C. Berman Collection. This distinguished collection of graphic art is notable for its inclusion of commercial work, such as posters and other forms of advertising. The book contains the exhibition catalog, whose clear and well-annotated reproductions provide a wide-ranging look at photomontage’s many forms. This material is accompanied by a useful chronology of the interwar history of photomontage, a selection of writings by some of the artists and other contemporary commentators, and an informative analysis (by Adrian Sudhalter) of the artists’ own understanding of what it was they were trying to accomplish.

John Heartfield (1891-1968) was a German photomonteur (born Helmut Herzfeld) who had started out as a commercial artist but is best known today for political images that appeared in the Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (Workers’ Illustrated Newsmagazine) during the 1930s. Heartfield’s work for I-Z has attained lasting fame because of its sustained attack on the Nazis, whose eventual take-over of German politics forced both the magazine and the illustrator out of the country. Andrés Mario Zervigón’s book is a meticulous and discerning account of Heartfield’s evolution as a visual thinker and polemicist. The book contains many revealing dissections of the ways in which photomontage works, and Zervigón argues convincingly for Heartfield’s reputation as one of its most effective practitioners.

As in Heartfield’s case, much of the art discussed in these two books was created in the service of various social or political causes, rather than commercial advertising. Some of the most prominent European photomonteurs of the interwar period were left-leaning in their politics, and several of the Eastern Europeans among them were working for the Soviet cause. Nevertheless, as Stephen Prince has pointed out (in his article, “Are There Bolsheviks in Your Breakfast Cereal?”), it is an irony of history that many persuasive techniques created by opponents of market economies have ended up as major marketing tools.2 The creative side of...