A Photojournalist’s Twist on Nazi Image

A visitor to the Getty Center encounters a 1932 photomontage of Hitler, his right arm raised Nazi style. Behind him stands a corpulent German industrialist slipping wads of money into the Fuehrer’s outstretched hand.

The ironic title is “The Meaning of the Hitler Salute: Little Man Asks for Big Gift,” and the picture is part of the small but striking exhibit, “Agitated Images: John Heartfield and German Photomontage, 1920-1938.”

Heartfield was born in Berlin as Helmut Herzfeld to parents who were both ardent socialist activists. They left their four children behind to shift for themselves, when Helmut was 8, and fled Germany to avoid a prison sentence for “blasphemy.”

The boy quickly proved that he had inherited his parents’ rebellious streak. Drafted into the Kaiser’s army at the beginning of World War I, he started out by sending anti-militaristic photomontaged postcards to the front.

In 1916, soldier Helmut Herzfeld expressed his disgust for the war slogan, “May God Punish England,” by anglicizing his name to John Heartfield.

Threatened with transfer to a combat unit, the newly renamed soldier faked a nervous breakdown so successfully that he got a medical discharge.

Was Herzfeld/Heartfield partly Jewish?

Art historian Andres Mario Zervigon of Rutgers University, who curated the exhibition and is writing a book about Heartfield, thinks almost certainly not, though he is still looking into the matter.

But even in this case, Heartfield went against the norm.

“Though he was of German descent, he identified himself as Jewish,” Zervigon said.

Back in civilian life, Heartfield helped found the Dada movement in Germany and began his lifelong membership in the Communist Party.

Initially trained in advertising, he created photomontages to twist standard pictures carried by the mainstream or Nazi press into subversive attacks on the pictured dignitaries.

One of his 1929 exhibits carried the title, “Use Photography as a Weapon,” and the Getty display illustrates what he meant.

Taking a well-known picture of Hitler in the throes of an emotional speech, Heartfield superimposed a chest X-ray, exposing a neatly stacked column of gold coins. The caption reads, “Hitler, the Superman, Swallows Gold and Spouts Tin.” The last two words are German slang for talking nonsense.

One of Heartfield’s favorite targets was the rotund Hermann Goering, mocking him with his own words that “steel makes a nation strong, but butter and lard only makes people fat.”

With Heartfield and his German colleagues in the lead, photomontage became an art form, designed to sell both soap and ideology, which made a strong impression in the United States on the founders of LIFE magazine.

The same style became a major tool for agitprop, especially by the rival Nazis and communists. Heartfield never wavered in his loyalty to the party of Lenin and Stalin and turned out a series of worshipful posters in praise of the Soviet workers paradise.

He also turned to the design of book covers, and his illustrations for the German translations of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and John Dos Passos’ “Three Soldiers” are striking to this day.

Heartfield completed only one book of his own, which he titled, with characteristic irony, “Deutschland, Deutschland Ueber Alles” — then the first line of the German national anthem.

Following the Communist party line, Heartfield could lampoon the Social Democratic leaders of the Weimar Republic as viciously as he did the Nazis, sharpening the enmity between the two left-wing parties that paved the way for the Nazi takeover.

Knowing full well what was in store for him under Nazi rule, Heartfield fled to Czechoslovakia, where he resumed his anti-Nazi fusillade. In honor of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, he designed a montage of new Nazi “sports,” including axe swinging for judges and head-rolling for Brown Shirt bullies.

After wartime refuge in England, he returned to East Berlin in 1948, but was greeted with suspicion. For one, the party now denounced photomontage as a “formalist” art form, and communists who had spent time in the West were seen as potential traitors.

But gradually Heartfield was rehabilitated, had a one-man retrospective show in 1957, and died as an honored artist in 1968, at the age of 77.

The current exhibit brings back, with a sense of immediacy, the fierce political struggles of the Weimar Republic between the two world wars. Now that these hatreds have faded into the past, Heartfield remains as one of the innovative minds that ushered in the golden age of photojournalism.

“Agitated Images,” continues through June 25 at the Research Institute Gallery of the Getty Center. Admission is free, parking is $7, and no reservations are required. For more information, call (310) 440-7300 or visit www.getty.edu.