Image as Weapon

Jessica Backus
Mar 25, 2013 7:03PM

This image appeared as the October 16 1932 cover of the Arbeiter Allgemeine Zeitung (The Worker’s Pictorial Newspaper), a politically uncompromising publication launched by communist activist Willi Münzenberg in 1924. The image condemns Hitler’s backing by big money, portraying the diminutive future dictator receiving a backhanded payout from a fat cat. In a climate of escalating fascism and tightening constraints on freedom of expression, the political stakes of such a defamatory statement  were high. Not even a fortnight prior the Anti-semite Julius Gombos had formed a new government in Hungary and the British Union of Fascists was founded. A mere three months later Hitler would seize power. An outspoken antifascist, Heartfield vehemently attacked militarism and capitalism in his work.  In 1919 he joined the Communist party, which saw itself as the frontrunner of the antifascist cause, and later founded the German Association of Revolutionary Artists.  

With this powerful visual critique, Heartfield reveals how leftist intellectuals and the Communist party were able to tap into a growing visual literacy amongst the urbane readership of the Weimar Republic, employing illustrated magazines as their weapon of choice. Images, they found, had a powerful potential for propaganda, a lesson National Socialism would exploit to devastating ends. In the unprecedented deluge of media images at this time, it soon became clear that those who knew how to manipulate, organize, communicate and disseminate these images would be the influencers of the future. In a 1927 essay entitled “Werbephoto” (advertising photography), Bauhaus instructor Herbert Bayer projected that “advertising experts” who combined all these skills would be as sought-after as the photographers they employed, while Frankfurt School Theorist Siegfried Kracauer commented that society had never had so many images of itself but known so little.

Heartfield’s earlier collages tended to be more cubistic in composition, combining an explosion of overlapping, expressionistic cut-outs and jostled text. These works met with criticism by the Communist party for their clutter and lack of visual clarity, rendering them unsuitable for instructing the public. As a result, Heartfield moved towards clearer compositional strategies, as we see with the Sinn des Hitlergruss. Instead of a jumble of fragments, the two figures against a simple background portray a clear message: that the National Socialist Party does not represent the interests of the people. The target of this unabashed critique rightly gauged its political potency; shortly after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 the SS were dispatched to the artist, who narrowly escaped arrest by jumping from his balcony and fleeing over Czechoslovakia before emigrating to England.

Jessica Backus