The Meaning of the Hitler Salute: Little Man Asks for Big Gifts by John Heartfield ,October 1932
Few artists have directly confronted the impending horrors of political tyranny as John Heartfield did in Germany in the late 20s and 30s. A political activist and a member of the German Communist Party, Heartfield was a leading exponent of photomontage among the Dadaists in Berlin.
He unleashed his sharpest satire on Hitler's Führerkult (cult of the leader), the basis of German Fascism. His montages parody Hitler's most iconic poses, gestures, and symbols to create the impression that one need only to scratch the thin surface of Fascist propaganda to uncover its absurd reality.
In the view of contemporary art critics, Heartfield was not an artist. A view that gave him no concern at all.
This picture is among the many hundreds produced by Heartfield in the late 20s/early 30s. It was not created for art dealers or galleries but the front cover of a popular German magazine.
Its title is:The Meaning of the Hitler Salute: Little Man Asks for Big Gifts (October 1932)
Hitler is shown standing in front of a large man who represents big business. The man is handing over money to Hitler. Printed underneath are the words: "Motto: Millions stand behind me! A little man asks for gifts".
Heartfield's friend, Oskar Maria Graf, commented, that all his work was now politically motivated, "the intolerable aspect of events is the motor of his art."
Heartfield used a difference in scale to dramatise Hitler's relationship to Germany's wealthy and financially supportive industrialists.
The leader is a puppet whose now-infamous gesture reads as the acceptance of monetary influence.This is typical of Heartfield’s work in the 30s. He used photomontage as a political weapon to challenge fascism before the 2nd World War. For Heartfield new political problems demanded new means of propaganda.
Much of his work at this time appeared on the cover of the Communist magazine, Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ, Workers' Illustrated Newspaper), a popular weekly whose circulation rivalled any magazine in Germany during the early nineteen thirties.
Hurrah, die Butter ist Alle! ( Hooray, the Butter is All Gone!) 1935, John Heartfield
About John Heartfield
John Heartfield, formerly known as Helmut Harzfeld, was born in 1891 in Berlin. His father was an unsuccessful poet and anarchist. Threatened with prison for public sacrilege, the father fled from Germany to Austria. Both parents died when John was eight. He had no more than primary education.
As a teenager he worked in a relative’s bookshop and from there worked his way into art school in Munich. He came to the view that fine art was a waste of time, and explored other forms of art to express his views.
He changed his name in 1917 to the English John Heartfield. This proved to be bold action for the German-born artist. His name change occurred in a period of fervent nationalism and anti-British feeling as the First World War raged and was a response to what he felt to be an anti- foreigner attitude throughout Germany. This was seen as a particularly unpatriotic thing to do. This outspokenness and defiant attitude characterized his art.
Heartfield was both a pacifist and Marxist. He joined the Communist Party in 1920 and was an early and ferocious enemy of Hitler and the Nazi movement. Heartfield’s work continuously satirised the ‘madman' who seized control of his country.
This outspokenness and the prolific outpouring of his photomontages for the AIZ (workers’ magazine) ultimately made him a target of the Nazi Party, who sought to silence him.
His stunning political art became famous on both sides of the Atlantic as courageous effective artistic weapons that revealed, satirized, and opposed the worldwide threat of fascism and the Nazi Party.
From his early work as a fledging painter to his embrace of Dada to the anti-fascist montages that made him a Nazi target, Heartfield’s life and work was a profile in courage.
This artist who openly attacked the Nazi Party while living in Berlin was five-foot-two inches tall, with red hair and blue eyes. His art was “a weapon.” Its ammunition was his imagination, scissors, glue pots, retoucher’s paint, and stacks of photographs and magazine articles. His montages conveyed moral, not literal, truths.
The power of his images earned him the number five slot on the Gestapo’s Most Wanted List.
In 1938, he was forced once again to flee from the Nazis after they invaded Prague, this time to England, given the imminent German occupation of Czechoslovakia. He was interned for a time in England as an enemy alien, and his health began to deteriorate.
Afterwards, he lived in Hampstead, London. His brother Wieland was refused a British residency permit in 1939 and, with his family, left for the United States.
Following the war, Heartfield settled in East Berlin, East Germany and worked closely with theatre directors such as Benno Besson and Wolfgang Langhoff at Berliner Ensemble and Deutsches Theater.He was greeted with suspicion by the Stasi (East German Secret Police) because of the length of his stay in England.
He was denied admission into the East German Akademie der Künste (Academy of the Arts). He was unable to work as an artist and was denied health benefits. He was suspected of "collaboration" with the West by the Stasi.Due to the intervention of Bertolt Brecht and Stefan Heym, Heartfield was formally admitted to the Academy of the Arts in 1956. Although he subsequently produced some montages warning of the threat of nuclear war, he was never again as prolific as in his youth.
He died in 1968 in Berlin.
The Bigger Picture
Germany after the First World War was a country wracked by poverty, suffering and despair. It was led by politicians whose empty slogans only dramatised the gap between them and the people. Coupled with a fervent nationalism and an extreme right wing party combined with an ineffective social democratic party the future for most people looked bleak. Meanwhile, the rich got richer and looked to mavericks like Hitler to support their interests.
Heartfield's agitated images forecasted and reflected the chaos Germany experienced in the 1920s and '30s as it slipped toward social and political catastrophe. In this climate, communists, Nazis, and other partisans clashed in the press, at the ballot box, and on the streets. Heartfield was influenced and helped form a new artistic language.
It was called Photomontage. This refers to the process of making a composite photograph by cutting, gluing, rearranging and overlapping two or more photographs into a new image. Sometimes the resulting composite image is photographed so that a final image may appear as a seamless photographic print.
It was first used as a technique by the Dadaists in 1915 in their protests against the First World War. It was later adopted by the surrealists who exploited the possibilities photomontage offered by using free association to bring together widely disparate images, to reflect the workings of the unconscious mind.
In 1923, the Russian constructivist Aleksandra Rodchenko began experimenting with photomontage as a way of creating striking socially engaged imagery concerned with the placement and movement of objects in space.
The impact of Heartfield's images was so great that they helped transform photomontage into a powerful form of mass communication. He was a pioneer of modern photomontage. For Heartfield new political problems demanded new means of propaganda. For this task photography possessed the greatest power of persuasion. His work targeted the Nazis, aimed at highlighting their absurdities, and those who were backing them in Germany.
Good montage has the effect of a good joke. Many of Heartfield’s best jokes – which in being funny lost none of their savageries – involve an actual use of Nazi rhetoric. This could be words and phrases employed by the Nazis and their obsession with gestures. In Heartfield’s hands, they are turned on his target with enormous force.
Heartfield believed that photomontage achieved a kind of truth of which painting is not capable. If his scenes had been painted, they would have seemed impossibly overwrought. Only the realism of the photos, its factual content, made his work credible and, to this day, unanswerable.
Some of his famous montages created during the 1930s include:Adolf, the Superman (published in the Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung Berlin, July 17, 1932), used a montage X-ray to expose gold coins in the Fuehrer's oesophagus leading to a pile in his stomach as he rants against the fatherland's enemies.In Göring: The Executioner of the Third Reich (AIZ, Prague, September 14, 1933), Hermann Göring is depicted as a butcher. The Meaning of Geneva, Where Capital Lives, There Can Be No Peace (AIZ, Berlin, November 27, 1932), shows the dove of peace impaled on a blood-soaked bayonet in front of the League of Nations, where the cross of the Swiss flag has morphed into a swastika.
Hurrah, die Butter ist Alle! (English: Hooray, the Butter is All Gone!) was published on the front page of the AIZ in 1935. A parody of the aesthetics of propaganda, the photomontage, shows a German family at a dinner table eating a bicycle, where a nearby portrait of Hitler hangs and the wallpaper is emblazoned with swastikas. The baby gnaws on an axe, also decorated with a swastika, and the dog licks a huge nut and bolt. Below, the title is written in large letters, in addition to a quote by Hermann Göring referring to the food shortage. The quote reads: "Hooray, the butter is all gone!" Göring said in one Hamburg address: "Iron ore has made the Reich strong. Butter and dripping have, at most, made the people fat".
His works appeared as covers for the Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung from 1929 to 1933, a popular weekly whose circulation rivalled any magazine in Germany during the early nineteen thirties. As most copies of the AIZ were sold at newsstands, even if people did not buy a copy they could see Heartfield’s work on the street corner.
It was through rotogravure, an engraving process whereby pictures, designs, and words are engraved into the printing plate or printing cylinder—that Heartfield's montages, in the form of posters, were distributed on the streets of Berlin in 1932 and 1933.
Heartfield always considered his photomontages as artistic achievements. He took in his stride the fact that he was not recognised by contemporary art critics. The works he created for dissemination in enormous editions had no value in the art market. Directing his political charges at the masses, he could scarcely count on a sympathetic reaction from bourgeois art collectors. The worker, however, for whom he intended his photomontages, understood their revolutionary content but assigned no artistic value judgment to them.
His approach influenced artists like Richard Hamilton, Kennard, the covers of the British satirical magazine Private Eye and the street art of Banksy in the UK.