- Revolutionary Beauty: The Radical Photomontages of John Heartfield by Sabine T. Kriebel
Photomontage is an art that cannibalizes and capitalizes on the technologies that made photography a truly mass medium. By cutting and reconfiguring images that purport to show the world as it is, photomontage interrupts the visual rhetoric of a passive, transparent registration of reality to critique its effects. It rejects the voracious consumption of images in order to productively act upon them, and its gestures cannot help but appear to be a violent attack on the uniform surface of its materials and, by extension, the smooth operations of the culture industry itself. The technique, in short, weaponizes its means in the service of “the semiotics of rupture” (7).
In Revolutionary Beauty, Sabine Kriebel offers readers a compelling new account of the achievement of John Heartfield, one of the pioneers and unrivaled masters of this technique, which is so often understood to be the quintessential symptom of the fissures of modernity itself. She tackles his most celebrated work, produced in the years 1930–1938 for the Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ), an illustrated weekly that sought to advocate for communism among leftist readers not (yet) affiliated with the party. Kriebel makes the crucial observation that Heartfield’s AIZ photomontages “confront rupture by means of its deliberate concealment, repression, or sublimation, securing a virtually seamless bonding of separate pieces that [she] call[s] a suture” (11). Anyone who has attempted to teach the process and politics of photomontage through Heartfield’s work for the mass media will be immediately confronted with this paradox: what are we to make of an artist who wielded his shears to eviscerate and expose the ideological duplicity of capital and social democracy only to mask any traces of his own production? To what extent did Heartfield mimic the procedural operations of the very forces he set out to unsettle, and what are the consequences— then and now—of his approach to a new ecology of images? Kriebel’s book counts among superlative new scholarship on Weimar photographic culture, reconfiguring the artist’s historical position for future readers without firsthand experience of Soviet communism or the Cold War. By setting out to answer these questions about Heartfield’s masterful illusionism in the pages of AIZ, she has crafted a fascinating narrative, recounted with verve and theoretical sophistication that will be a valued resource for students and experts in the field alike.
Revolutionary Beauty consists of five chapters, bracketed by an introduction and an epilogue, that tell the story of Heartfield’s shift away from the aesthetics of rupture that had characterized his book jackets for the Malik Verlag to the “sutured illusionism” of his AIZ photomontages. Moving chronologically, each chapter examines the technological, political, and subjective significance of that shift through discrete constellations of Heartfield’s images, each anchored by a single photomontage that Kriebel [End Page 403] takes to be paradigmatic of his resistance against attempts to harness the power of mass media (photography, the press, radio) for human exploitation and state violence. This approach allows her to carry out close readings of specific images grounded in meticulous research into the specifics of their manufacture, reconstructing the very labor that Heartfield sought to conceal in the service of his own self-fashioning, his relentless criticism of the press, a direct address to the reader-beholder, leftwing propaganda, an often puerile and grotesquely bodily humor, and, most importantly, what Louis Aragon called “revolutionary beauty.”
What Kriebel ultimately achieves with Revolutionary Beauty is an account of Heartfield’s surreptitious surrealism, which asserts its visibility almost in spite of the necessary legibility of the political critique of his photomontages—be it directed at the perpetrators of police massacres, the titans of the war industry, or an ascendant Nazi party and its bloodthirsty dictatorship. She deftly navigates the complexities of the media theory and fractured politics of the 1930s, laying out with refreshing clarity Heartfield’s difficult relationship to German communism before, during, and after his years in...