In Stop Making Sense Huw Lemmey looks at "the image as political tool" through the works of Hannah Höch, John Heartfield, and Bertolt Brecht's War Primer — a series of photo-epigrams revealing the truth of war.
In the beginning there were words. Faced with horror, anxiety, uncertainty, she picked up her scissors. It felt like the news was escalating rapidly, or descending on her slowly, beyond what she knew, or could know. Her kitchen – dead quiet. Her coffee growing a skin, and the blade cold in her hands. First she scored a line close to the newspaper’s spine, and tore the leaf from the folded bundle. It was just one part she wanted, a square photo where the low contrast of the image was made even worse by a thumb-smudge across the page. A woman held a child in her arms.
The first cuts she made were crude and hasty – the blades cut from hilt to tip, carving a broad straight line through the text, tearing verb from subject, until the blackened image sat as an inland sea amongst the story. Each further cut got sharper, refining the frame as she turned the paper in her hands. In the end was the image.
In Germany, the work of the early generation of Dada artists emerged in response to a new form of mass image production in the early years of the Weimar Republic. An emergent consumer capitalism, facilitated by novel technologies of photographic reproduction, printing, and distribution, was creating a new visual landscape of the everyday. Advertising images, shocking news photographs, repetitions of the bright and desirable – Dada approached them aggressively, brandishing scissors, in order to reorder, to separate and dislodge images and shake them apart.
Artists such as Hannah Höch and John Heartfield took the optic of commerce and capitalism as the raw material of their art; not as neutral stuff (content, perhaps), but as a target. Their collages were intended to undermine the commercial image; to split, divide, recombine, and merge its meaning in order to fracture its ideological power.
This collage art aimed to repoliticise the idea of fragmentation, also serving as a political attack on Cubism. It thumbed its nose at the Cubist abstraction of material reality into pure form: less a new painterly motif and more the cheerful glissando of a stack of plates smashing to the floor.
Today the most real, the mercantile gaze into the heart of things is the advertisement. It abolishes the space where contemplation moved and all but hits us between the eyes with things as a car, growing in gigantic proportions, careens at us out of a film screen. And just as the film does not present furniture and facades in completed forms for critical inspection, their insistent, jerky nearness alone being sensational, the genuine advertisement hurtles things at us with the tempo of a good film […] What, in the end, makes advertisements so superior to criticism? Not what the moving red neon sign says — but the fiery pool reflecting in the asphalt. — Walter Benjamin, 1928
Later, the Dada artists diverged: Hausmann became a photographer of Weimar society and Grosz continued to paint, becoming one of the now revered Entartete, or Degenerate, artists, while Höch deliberately kept a low profile, suppressed by both fascists and her male comrades.
John Heartfield, meanwhile, moved towards a graphic of class struggle through the production of dialectical images. Rejecting the avant-garde, Heartfield embraced posters and the popular press: his antagonistic images had to be seen by the proletarian worker. In 1930, Heartfield started publishing photomontages in the biggest socialist magazine of the time. Under the direction of propagandist Willi Münzenberg, the Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung had a circulation of 350,000 per week and brought all the class war that was fit to print onto the kitchen tables of the working class.
As well as in the medium, Heartfield’s politics lay within the form of the image itself. By the 1930s, Heartfield had moved from the sharp and clashing cuts of the scissor and began producing much smoother, more ‘believable’ blends with the use of airbrushing, of which he was a master. The image was not about creating an unsettling discordance with the detritus of capitalist life, but a dialectical statement, with the shock coming from the way the visual metaphor, the joke, the poke-in-the-eye of the capitalist, intersected with the strapline, the fact, the written command. His incredible visual works remain finely wrought introductions to dialectics, creating complex visual arguments depicting the capitalist class in full grotesque savagery. They still strike like a fist today; they are corporeal and embodied, all blood and guts and barbarism for the bosses, all power and agency for the working class. It’s wrong to define his method as merely “satire” – poking fun and sitting back in the armchair. Heartfield’s art is a tool, a weapon; the dialectical image, a red image.
An image war is taking place on the walls of Vienna: to gain territorial control of the space, political factions paint and paste up slogans and posters with their demands and exhortations. I’ve been visiting the city every few months for two years now, and I take note of the changes. My boyfriend lives in a working class district just outside the Gürtel, the beltway that straps central Vienna in place. It homes large Turkish and Serbian communities. On one visit there’ll be a new piece of anarchist sloganeering painted on his street; the next time, fascists will have sprayed a thick line through it, the circle A becoming a sun cross. Wheat-pasted posters will call for solidarity with this cause and that, before being torn down and pasted over. You can make out the ghost of “Islam Raus” penetrating the paintwork. Fascist ultras will sticker up the tram stop before leftists scratch them off with keys. Watch out! They hide razor blades behind them! I have no idea whether this waxing and waning war of the image translates into real territorial power, and whether calls to hold the streets are heeded in a significant manner. But, modern life being a series of dissociated half-heard sentences, sometimes you find yourself gasping for air and being unable to find it, and here there is something you can breathe deep and unequivocally.
The image as political tool. This is the logic of Bertolt Brecht’s War Primer, the cultural frame in which it was produced. The German scrum had finally collapsed; the long years of struggle between fascism and the working class had begun its last descent into Nazi barbarity. Heartfield had walked out of Germany across the mountaintops, five years after Brecht had gone into exile, shunting around Scandinavia before getting his US visa. It was in 1940 that Brecht began cutting images from newspapers and magazines and pasting them into his journal, accompanied by rhyming quatrains that drew from the image and spoke back to it. These became the first verses that would later be put together as War Primer. Assembled as the war progressed, the book is an exercise in making sense; you can trace the ideological shifts as, post-Barbarossa, the war is no longer understood as a war between imperialisms so much as a continuation of the anti-fascist struggle. But more than this, you can trace the sheer effort within War Primer: the tension between Brecht’s attempt to give coherence to chaos for himself pulling and pushing against his role as a writer, tasked with ordering chaos for others.
Brecht was a fan and defender of Heartfield and the AIZ. In War Primer, he lays out his own attempts at dialectical image-making. But whilst Heartfield was a technical master, spending long hours obsessively creating stock images or hunched over his desk airbrushing, Brecht paid no heed to technique. He returned to the simple cut-and-paste jobs – the image as it appeared in the commercial press was simply re-presented with his own epigrammic commentary. Ripped from its context of the bourgeois media, the image becomes reactivated in this book – a living book, a resilient story that will be understood, a powerful lesson in understanding, in coming to terms. He’s playing with paper and playing with time, using the newspaper photo and the poem as a bond between the throwaway and the carved.
The power of the work lies in that dynamic relationship between text and image. These are not illustrations. The text reveals the material nature of the image, cast in sorrow, rage, cruelty and pity. Like Heartfield, Brecht leads the reader to draw an unavoidable political conclusion: the rich and the brutal can only realise themselves in barbarism and death, with their senseless fist-fights conducted on the mounting bodies of the poor.
Faced with chaos, calamity – a collapse of meaning, you sit yourself alone, at breakfast, and scroll through your feed. The images that once struck the hardest are eliminated on the grounds of good taste, human decency, political expediency. Instead, you are faced with an entire visual ecology of commercial, press and stock imagery – or – you encounter only bloodied bodies. Represented in the same flat dimension, devoid of context except a desperate desire to shock. Nothing works any more. It says nothing to you about your life.
Soldiers write messages on their bombs. In a scrappy hand they dash a rough cuniform in chalk; a message for Hitler, who it never reaches, for Saddam, who never gets it, and for unnamed citizens and heretics, who don’t read it, but do get the message. The writing on the side of bombs is not quite correspondence, so much as a memorandum: Note to Self – You Do the Work of Many Gods.
War Primer is 40% off (along with all our Brecht reading) until June 11. See here for more details.
War Primer is launched on June 27 at the London Review Bookshop with Esther Leslie, Tom Kuhn and Gareth Evans. Book tickets here.
Huw Lemmey is a writer and author from London. He has written for Frieze, Architectural Review, Icon, Art Monthly and L'Uomo Vogue, amongst others. He is the author of Chubz: The Demonisation of my Working Arse, and tweets at @huwlemmey.