John Heartfield was a photomontage artist active during several eras and movements in Germany. He was active in the Dada community during WWI, created radical leftist media after the war, and churned out many anti-Nazi posters during the rise of Hitler. Originally named Helmut Herzfelde, the artist changed his name to the English sounding “John Heartfield” in protest to WWI German nationalism. A large majority of his work has political connotations aligned with the interests of the German Communist Party (KPD). Influenced by both Dada and the Geman object-poster trend Sachplakat, many of Heartfield’s creations were photomontages presented within a distraction-free composition, allowing him to communicate a clear message. His jarring juxtapositions were both eye catching, as well as thought provoking, making him an ideal designer for the KPD’s propaganda department.
One of Heartfield’s most striking pieces, in my opinion, is pictured above, named “The Hand Has Five Fingers”. This poster was produced in 1928 while Heartfield was working in the agitation-propaganda department in the KPD. The purpose of the department was to gain supporters and illustrate the treachery of capitalism. The photo cut-out of a worker’s open hand displays both photomontage characteristics of Dada and the bold minimalism of Sachplakat. The hand, weathered by capitalist industry, appears to be reaching out at the viewer, demanding attention and urgently requesting support. A red number 5 is printed twice, once to symbolize the five fingers of the worker’s hand, and once to represent the five political candidates that the KPD endorsed. The poster suggests that workers have the power to rise up and overthrow the rich bourgeois industrialists, if only they band together and support this party’s candidates.
Heartfield’s impact on Germany, especially the Communist community, was powerful and impossible to escape. His KPD propaganda was seen everywhere, from posters and magazines, to leftist novels and children’s books. His “Five Fingers” poster sparked the creation of a mutual gesture of recognition among KPD supporters, in which they would greet each other with an open hand as seen in the photograph. In his work during the rise of the Nazi regime, he used photomontage to scrutinize photography, highlighting the misleading nature of photographs as documentary tools. Through the creation of obvious nonsensical pseudo-photos, he forced viewers to realize how photography had the potential to obscure as much as it revealed, questioning the reputation of Nazi propaganda. Heartfield should be remembered for challenging both political and artistic convention, and for his persistent dedication to spreading a message he believed in. His political photomontages may have not ended the war, but they inspired free and critical thinking among a confused and troubled population.
Eskilson, Stephen. Graphic Design: A New History. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007. Print.