John Heartfield, a renowned German Dada artist, currently has a long overdue retrospective on view at the Akademie der Künste (AdK), Berlin. The exhibition is a culmination of the digitisation and publication of the Heartfield archive, organised by the AdK. With many works ranging from photomontages to set designs and more, ‘John Heartfield – Photography plus Dynamite’ offers not a glimpse but an in-depth look into the 20th century political artist’s oeuvre.
Divided into five parts and organised in a mostly chronological fashion, the exhibition progresses linearly, akin to a biography. One exception to that linearity is on view at the entrance: a two-channel video installation by contemporary artist Marcel Odenbach. Recent recordings and archival footage intertwine in both projections, giving Odenbach’s interpretation of Heartfield’s life, while alluding to Heartfield’s famous photomontage technique.
Despite the ubiquity of Heartfield’s photomontages, the exhibition does not immediately dive into what might seem to be the core of Heartfield’s work. It begins by rightfully situating Heartfield among his artistic contemporaries, comprised of some Dadaists, such as Georg Grosz and Hannah Höch, and some lesser known connections he had with the theatre world, including Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator. With these people, Heartfield navigated proficiently among the worlds of Dada, graphic design and set design, often mobilizing one field’s techniques in another, for different purposes. The book covers that Heartfield created for ‘The Good Soldier Švejk’ (1921–1923) demonstrate this proficiency well, as the novel was later adapted into a Piscator play, the set of which was directly influenced by Heartfield’s knowledge of Dadaist animation and film projection.
The third room, where the bulk of the exhibition rests, features Heartfield’s most famous works prominently, including ‘The Hand Has Five Fingers’ (1928) and ‘Adolf, the Superman’ (1932). Perhaps it was the curators’ intention to let impactful images speak for themselves; relatively little contextual information is offered to help correspond the photomontages to specific events. That said, this section continues the focus on Heartfield as an artist versatile in various media. In order to design the cover of the German edition of Upton Sinclair’s novel ‘Mountain City’ (1930) (German title ‘So macht man Dollars’), Heartfield enlisted his publisher brother and employees of the publishing house for a photo shoot at a construction site. The scaffolding in the photograph was eventually dextrously replaced with a hand-drawn dollar sign, suggesting a Dada-ness in Heartfield’s bold and more simply constructed political photomontages.
In the last two rooms, Heartfield’s work during exile and in the GDR after 1950 are respectively dealt with. Despite working as a designer on less political books while in London (while earlier in Prague, Heartfield continued to work for the ‘Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung’, a popular anti-Fascist magazine, until the publication stopped in 1938), Heartfield remained passionate about Leftist art – once back in GDR Berlin, he worked as a designer for the socialist theatre of Brecht and Wolfgang Langhoff. He also closely followed the socialist revolutions in Vietnam and China. This interest is somewhat reflected in Heartfield’s unexpected collection of East Asian folk art, some of which appear for the first time in this show.
Rather than acting as an alternative to visiting in person, the online presence of the exhibition merits closer examination. In addition to a panoramic tour, there is the digital catalogue ‘Heartfield Online’, boasting a searchable database with over 6000 digitised works by Heartfield. Not afraid of seeming educational and sometimes didactic, ‘Photography plus Dynamite’ has tapped into Heartfield’s dedication to politics through art, or, more aptly speaking, visual culture.