John Heartfield and Hannah Höch photomontages

22nd March 2020

I am no stranger to photomontage. I use this technique within my artwork and I also find it a very relaxing thing to do, I can got lost in cutting, gluing and designing my own little abstract worlds and weird human forms. Sometimes my artworks are on a specific concept and they have something to say to the viewer and other times they are merely for fun.

I also have many books on the subject of photomontage and collage which look at the techniques through the ages as well as past and contemporary artists and photographers that use this technique.

I am therefore looking forward to writing this post on two well known artists who used this technique, Helmut Herzfelde who in 1915 Americanised his name to John Heartfield in protest at German war policy and his female contemporary Hannah Höch.

The Dada Movement

Both Höch and Heartfield were part of the Dada movement which evolved from the peoples reactions to World War 1. It was established in 1916 and the artists who were part of this movement rejected the logic, reason and the beautiful, and instead expressed nonsense, irrationality and anti-bourgeois protests within their works. They used photographs within their work as it gave the realist quality that they needed to get their messages across to those who viewed it, realist qualities which brought with it elements of truth of what was happening around them at the time. When juxtaposed with other images the content become other worldly yet still clung on to politics of their modern day life and the conditions in which people were living.

This form of language could say in visual form things that could not legally be done in words or what could not escape censorship of wartime. It was said that Heartfelt started cutting and pasting images in the trenches as early as 1915 which means he had put his life at risk because he was making political art within the Third Reicht. George Grosz however states that it was both himself and Heartfelt who in 1916 had invented photomontage in his studio, Brandon Taylor (2004), Collage, the making of modern art. London, Thames & Hudson pg41.

John Heartfield 1891-1968

John Heartfield was a member of the Berlin Dadaists and the German Communist Party and he used his art as a political weapon. Some of his artworks were anti-Nazi and anti-fascist statements and his best known works, which I love for their strong messages, depict Hitler.

The best resource on the internet to read more about the life and works of Heartfield and to see many examples of his works is the website, John Heartfield johnheartfield.com. The works of Heartfield charge my body with electricity, there is something about the power in his images and the messages that he flaunts in front of the public and the Governments eyes. It gives me a sense of satisfaction as though we are slapping ‘evil’ harshly around the head and ‘it’ cannot do anything about it.

Peter Kennard is a British contemporary artist. He began his art career as a painter but turned his skills to photomontage and addresses issues such as the Vietnam war. His tribute to Heartfield is found on the Youtube video that I watched, ‘Ovation TV, Heartfield, uploaded 2008, this is the link to the video.

Kennard said:

Heartfield stands as an artist is especially relevant and it is upto artists to make visual images that equate the price of weapons and affluence with the facts of poverty and starvation and the destruction of the planet.

Ovation TV, Heartfield Youtube video link

This written text below accompanies the images on the website:

Heartfield’s antiwar, anti-Nazi, and anti-fascist art appeared on the covers of the popular AIZ illustrated magazine. These images were blow-by-blow visual warnings of the rise of fascism and The Third Reich. They were warnings powerful enough to earn John Heartfield the number-five slot on the Gestapo’s Most Wanted List. They are warnings that remain totally relevant today. This page contains only a sample of the famous political art John Heartfield risked his life to produce. In the coming months, with the cooperation of several institutions and the help of exhibition supporters, this museum plans to display all of Heartfield’s brilliant AIZ magazine covers.

John Heartfield website johnheartfield.com

If there is one website that I would say that any artist or photographer should visit it is this one. Not only is it an important documentation of history of WW1 but it is important in the history of conceptual and political art and photomontage. The website has really stimulated and inspired me once again, I forgot (well my art alter is dormant) about my love for Dadaism and artworks in general and this has wet my appetite to create photomontages once again.

Through his photomontages, Heartfield shows how artists can show their views and can produce art against war and the politics of the time. There are many, many people who practice the art of photomontage and there are as equally as many political posters that have been designed based on Heartfield’s Hitler poster. I have included one that I have found on Adobes Behance below.

24th March 2020

Hannah Höch 1889-1978

Höch was also a member of the Berlin Dada movement and a pioneer of photomontage but unlike Heartfield whose work was predominantly politically charged, Höch’s work also looked at gender and racial stereotypes. Her work took on concepts such as the inequality of women, relationships, marriage and same sex couples. Just like Heartfield’s work, Höch’s came under Nazi censorship because it was seen as ‘degenerate art.’

I find Höch’s work harder to appreciate than Heartfield’s. It isn’t the concepts that I find hard to access but the content of her images. Where Heartfield’s were strong and dynamic and very graphic design in construction with clear boundaries for the subjects, some of Höch’s designs chop up body parts and facial features and assembles them together imperfectly and the finished images like Cindy Sherman‘s photographs give me the creeps.

One photomontages that I do like because it is bright, bold and simple is Untitled, 1930, which can be seen below.

The above work is part of a series of images which were inspired by a trip that she took to an ethnographic museum. The composition is perfect, the figure stands on a blue semi-circle and is surrounded by the dominant red which pushes the figure forward, giving it an almost three dimensional feel. Höch has combined the Western women with an ethnic one and has produced a ‘new women’ an exotic and desirable one. Other images from this series ‘… combine female bodies with traditional masks and objects and layers of block colours, capturing the style of the 1920s avant-garde theatre and fashion.’ Hannah Höch at Whitechapel Gallery, London (2014) kolajmagazine.com

Höch’s images were cut from fashion magazines and newspapers. Her best known work is Cut With the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany.

Cut With the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany, 1919-1920
image from The Art Story website theartstory.org

Cut with the kitchen knife is Höch’s voice telling the viewers her views of the political and social issues in Germany.

It shows political chaos which can be felt in the way the many images have been layered within the artwork. However it is not just Höch’s political voice which is speaking to an audience through this photomontage but her female voice.

If you take for an example, part of the title, ‘Cut with the kitchen knife…’ it has a female connotation to it, after all the kitchen was the women’s domain in these earlier times and the knife was their utensil. This title is also a literal concept for her cutting images from sources such as the magazines and newspapers and then piecing the fragments together as she the female artist would want them viewed. The cutting of the parts therefore represent the fragmentation of the world around her.

As a female Dadaist she wasn’t treated as equally as the gentleman. This was the society of the day where women were very much second class citizens still. Although the male Dadaists would preach ideas of equality within society they actually did not practice what they preached.

In the centre of the photomontage there is a portrait of the German Expressionist artist Käthe Kollwitz, the head being severed from her body and a body of a dancer (who I cannot remember) is below. This central image reminds me of a dancing ballerina that I would listen to and watched within my nan’s musical jewellery box. The same applies with Höch’s dancer, it grabs my attention and holds it a while before I search for clues in the surrounding images, this can be seen below in the cropped image.

With the figure (left) our eyes are drawn straight into the centre of the chaos. This is because Höch has left a negative space around the figure and it is the lightest space within the whole image. The figures out stretched limbs, both arms and legs as well as the head, point outwards to other parts of the image. There are actually four divisions within this artwork.

Dr Juliana Kreinik (2011) has divided the photomontage into four distinct sections.

  1. Upper left corner Dada Propaganda
  2. Lower left corner Dada Persuasion
  3. Lower right corner Dadaists or Dada World
  4. Upper right corner Anti-Dadaists

A more detailed description of these four sections can be found on the following website, – Utopia/Dystopia utopiadystopiawwi.wordpress.com

Another interesting theme that is running through this photomontage is the images of cogs and wheels which give another sense of movement to the work and also the concept of ‘machine.’

The symbolism for cogs and wheels is very strong as they carry with them many meanings. For instance we have the visual references where the human brain is replaced with cogs and wheels to symbolise thought and ideas. There are sayings as well, such as the one that has been around since the 1930’s, ‘a small cog in a large wheel.’ This saying could relate to the lack of importance of the general public in politics where they have no voice or women in society. The idea of cogs, wheels and machines being a masculine topic would symbolise mass production.

An important part of the photomontage to focus on is found in the far right corner which is a map of the world. This map is important as it is showing the viewer the countries that had women voting rights at the time.

So Höch is commenting on the role of women and women artists in society. You can also make out Höch’s head stuck over part of the map which is present instead of her signature. It is a bold way of saying this is me, I am female and I am present in this photomontage world.

This artwork is filled with so many clues and symbols and I could write so much more on it. I wanted to focus on this as it is an important part of Hoch’s body of work and one that I champion the most. It is strong and daring it is speaking out for people in society and women, it is her voice and is still relevant today.

Photomontage is a very popular form of art collage and I could research and write many more blogs on contemporary artists who I admire and their work within this technique. I could also look up the enthusiast home artist who practices this art form and find amazing work as well. But I had better not as I know I would never be able to stop.


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