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Proletarian Modernism and the Politics of Emotion: On Franz Wilhelm Seiwert and John Heartfield

© 2020 Johns Hopkins University Press

An art form that relates to a particular social class does not exist, and if it did, it would be entirely irrelevant to life.

We ask those who want to create proletarian art: “What is proletarian art?” Is it an art created by the proletarians themselves? Or an art only in the service of the proletariat? Or an art intended to arouse proletarian (revolutionary) instincts? There exists no art created by proletarians because a proletarian who creates art no longer remains a proletarian but becomes an artist.

—Theo van Doesburg, “Manifesto of Proletarian Art” (1923)

The spirited defense of autonomous art by Theo van Doesburg, Hans Arp, and Kurt Schwitters and their denunciation of “proletarian” as a symptom of everything wrong with politically engaged art attest to the deep divides that haunted the culture and society of the Weimar Republic.[1] Their manifesto presented formal innovation as the conduit to aesthetic autonomy and celebrated modern art as liberation from social determinations, national differences, and historical influences. According to van Doesburg, one of the founders of the De Stijl movement, a worker transcended his class origins when he became an artist. But could an artist also stand with the working class? Most Weimar artists associated with the KPD (Communist Party of Germany)—from Otto Dix, George Grosz, and Käthe Kollwitz to lesser-known ones such as Otto Nagel, Curt Querner, Oskar Nerlinger, and Alice Lex-Nerlinger—would have answered with an enthusiastic “yes,” including those who, unlike Nagel and Querner, did not come from working-class backgrounds.

Known for their realist, expressionist, constructivist, and new objectivist styles, all of these artists experimented with new media and techniques to uncover the structures of class society and support the struggle for revolutionary change. Modernist strategies such as typization and abstraction played a key role in the process—a connection first recognized in the late nineteenth-century Social Democratic debates on modern literature and working-class culture and revisited during the early 1930s in the famous Marxist debates on modernism involving Georg Lukács, Bertolt Brecht, and Theodor W. Adorno. What has not yet been considered in greater detail is in what ways the question of workers’ representation in the artistic and political sense is inextricably linked to the process of emotional mobilization—that is, of envisioning and prefiguring collective bodies in the name of the revolutionary working class. Here the notion of proletarian modernism provides a useful critical tool for reconstructing the elusive configurations of politics and emotion that, under the influence of the October Revolution, brought together the political and artistic avant-gardes and redefined the complicated relationship between modernism and communism.[2]

For Franz Wilhelm Seiwert and John Heartfield, in particular, advancing the goals of proletarian art was inseparable from developing alternatives to the institutions and practices of bourgeois high culture. This included addressing the difficult position of the modern artist between classes. As Heartfield’s brother Wieland Herzfelde explained: “The artist [i.e., in capitalist society] is a worker and, like others, exploited. Nonetheless, he is no proletarian. . . . He has no comrades but only rivals and competitors; his existence is bourgeois.”[3] Working through these contradictions for Seiwert and Heartfield meant to become active in artists’ groups—the Cologne Progressives and Berlin Dada, respectively—and to equate artistic innovation with political intervention. It meant showing their work in group exhibitions and nontraditional venues and publishing in new art journals and party newspapers. Last but not least, foregrounding the emotional qualities of political art meant drawing on elements of folk culture and religious culture and appropriating their didactic and rhetorical qualities for class-based interventions.

In this article, the usefulness of political emotions as a critical category in the study of proletarian modernism will be tested on two specific works of art: Seiwert’s painting Demonstration (1925) and Heartfield’s photomontage Fünf Finger hat die Hand (Five Fingers Has the Hand, 1928). Seiwert and Heartfield are uniquely suited for such an exercise—firstly because of their self-identification as communist artists and secondly because of their use of political emotions as a medium of political agitation. Like other communist artists at the time, they sought to forge proletarian identifications through modernist techniques, Seiwert through figurative constructivism and Heartfield through the means of photomontage. In so doing, they expanded the emotional registers of modernism, with Seiwert using critical empathy to model a habitus of class solidarity and Heartfield by drawing on what his brother called productive rage to advance the cause of class struggle. The fact that both relied heavily on performances of the classed body—groups of workers uniting in acts of resistance and workers’ hands turning into fists, respectively—must be seen as a first indication how and why formal innovation and political agitation in Weimar art remained so closely linked to proletarian imaginaries.[4]

The emphasis on agitation as an emotional state and political strategy establishes a direct connection between the group of workers in Demonstration and the ones interpellated by the raised hand in Five Fingers. In fact, the act of marching and the gesture of hailing can be seen as an illustration of the Althusserian scene of interpellation that aligns the project of proletarian modernism specifically with communist positions and allows us to trace its emotional and agitational registers beyond particular artistic media and styles. In order to argue for its relevance as a critical category in the study of Weimar art, however, we must consider the historical contexts in which these two artists defined art’s interpellative qualities in line with a specific communist habitus described at the time as Kampfkultur (militant culture)—that is, confrontational, assertive, demanding, but also righteous, indignant, and outraged about injustices. Such a project could involve histories of Berlin Dada and the Cologne Progressives or theoretical debates about realism, modernism, and politically committed art, the two approaches prevalent in the existing scholarship. This article takes a different approach by situating the two works by Seiwert and Heartfield within a longer history of proletarian and working-class culture, with the two terms often used synonymously in the German context, and a largely hidden and distinctly socialist history of political emotions as mediated by symbolic practices and critical debates. Along the way, Demonstration and Five Fingers will also be used to address more general questions relevant to the study of Weimar culture—namely, how to read politically committed art as a laboratory of emotions and how to make use of artists’ formal and thematic choices in reconstructing an archive of emotions.

Since the nineteenth century, political emotions have played an important, if contested role in the workers’ movement, the socialist project, and the development of Marxist thought. Central to the imaginaries of class and community, they have included the entire range of emotions (e.g., joy, love, hatred, fear) experienced, perceived, and conceived as political and therefore to be regarded as constitutive of the political in the wider sense. The deep emotional attachment to the workers’ movement, the shared ethos of unity and solidarity, the energizing effect of class hatred and pride—all of these phenomena prompted heated discussions among Social Democratic politicians during the Wilhelmine years. After the October Revolution, the divisions between left and right and within the left only intensified the debates over a properly socialist and communist emotional culture and their respective artistic expressions, aesthetic styles, and agitational functions. Compared to the importance attributed to Marxist theories and artistic manifestos in the making of politically committed art, however, the representation and conceptualization of these emotions remains strangely elusive—especially when it comes to their materialization in artistic forms and techniques.

With these questions in mind, the reading of Seiwert and Heartfield in relation to proletarian modernism as an aesthetic, political, and emotional habitus will be presented in three steps. Given the indifference (if not resistance) in German studies to the proletarian as a category of critical inquiry, the first part will have to spend some time arguing for its relevance to the study of Weimar art and politics and, more generally, the history of German socialisms and communisms. This includes considering the conditions under which the appeal to the proletarian as a discursive position served specific functions that are inseparable from the emotional regimes of communist Kampfkultur. In the second and third parts, Seiwert’s Demonstration and Heartfield’s Five Fingers will be used to tease out these connections through a combination of thematic and contextual analyses; the conclusion considers the broader implications of reading works such as these as part of the larger genealogies of proletarian modernism within and beyond Europe.

A Case for Proletarian Modernism

“For many key scholars, the topic of ‘proletarian art’ is a tired topic which doesn’t garner much enthusiasm,” noted one anonymous reviewer after reading an earlier version of this article. His or her lack of enthusiasm may very well predominate within a certain tradition of (post-)Marxist art history embodied by T. J. Clark, who concludes his diagnosis of the end of modernism and socialism with the (mock) confession, “If I cannot have the proletariat as my chosen people any longer, at least capitalism remains my Satan.”[5] Irony or melancholy—the emotional attachment to the proletariat as a personification of the revolutionary fantasy played a key role in the initial discovery during the 1970s of “Weimar” as the golden age of politically engaged art and the subsequent promotion of its art and literature as models of an oppositional public sphere. Unfortunately, the widespread tendency since then to describe all modernist practices as inherently disruptive and subversive or to reduce all aesthetic phenomena to emanations of history and ideology are also a major reason for the increasingly inflationary use of the term “political” as a discursive category in cultural theoretical and neoformalist readings on Weimar art and culture; under these circumstances, the larger questions sometimes get lost in the fetishism of minor details. In his recent book on realism after modernism, Devin Fore compellingly argues that mimetic realism, including the kind preferred by Heartfield, cannot be assigned a fixed value on the left-right spectrum and therefore proposes a formalist approach that “does not address questions of political allegiance because, in the end, these frameworks simply do not provide viable critical categories for aesthetic analysis.”[6] While it is true that the political dimensions of art cannot be reduced to the false alternatives of figuration and abstraction, there are many reasons for not responding to the impasses of ideology critique with a retreat to neoformalism as some superior kind of political critique. New developments in cultural studies have moved Weimar scholarship beyond the old text-context binaries and drawn attention to other forms of mediation between aesthetics and politics, including through closer attention to mentalities and sensibilities. Somewhat ironically, testing the heuristic potential of political emotions along these lines requires that we first return to a more concise definition of the political that limits the designation “proletarian modernism” to those artists who produced modern art in active support of communist groups and initiatives.

The contested status of the “proletarian” in Weimar debates on art and politics (and in later scholarly assessments) points to the intense emotional investment in this overdetermined figure across artistic media, techniques, and styles and, for that reason, requires some preliminary definition. In the workers’ movement and the parties founded in their name, “proletarian” functioned as a powerful signifier on two levels, as a class position and as a political stance, with the latter marking the difference between the working class as a descriptive category and the proletariat as an ideological fantasy. Inseparable from the interlocking histories of Marxism, socialism, and communism, the question of proletarian art and, more generally, culture, has typically been addressed through the identification of appropriate themes and motifs, definitions of authorship, and conditions of reception. On the most basic level, the designation refers to depictions of the working class. Defined in that way, “proletarian” stands for the demand for representation in the political and artistic sense and involves the equation of particular images with specific Marxist positions. When used to characterize the role of the artist in society, as in the “Manifesto of Proletarian Art,” the term speaks to questions of class position and political commitment. Understood in the third sense of representations for the working class, the approach taken by Seiwert and Heartfield, “proletarian” aims to bring forth the revolutionary subject-to-be and performs its interpellative effects through the emotional techniques of persuasion and forms of identification perfected in the context of proletarian modernism.

The complicated relationship between modernism and the working class can be traced back to the prewar debates within Social Democracy on modern literature, popular culture, and the bourgeois heritage that attest, above all, to the conservative tastes of party leaders and organized workers. Influential critics from the SPD’s Franz Mehring to the KPD’s Gertrud Alexander saw politically engaged art as synonymous with figurative art and formulated their parties’ official positions through the endorsement of social realism and, later, socialist realism that resonate in the formalism debates of the early 1930s and beyond. In the process, the ideology of the aesthetic (Terry Eagleton) became inseparable from the political alternatives of social reform and socialist revolution. In less obvious ways, the deep-seated suspicion toward modernism as a symptom of decadence expressed hidden concerns about the future of working-class culture, with modernist sensibilities feared to weaken political commitments and with the turn away from realism seen as an indicator of the blurring of class distinctions.

Radicalized by war and revolution, several communist artists born during the 1890s not only challenged the antimodernism of the workers’ movement but also rejected the emotional regimes that had dominated politically engaged art during the Wilhelmine years. Instead of relying on compassion or empathy as the main conduits to cross-class solidarity, enlisting melodramatic and sentimental modes in the making of proletarian identifications, and promoting working-class pride through the means of allegory and mythology, Seiwert and Heartfield drew on a combination of emotional and cognitive effects to experiment with distinctly modernist interventions. With the preferred emotional and aesthetic registers—namely, pathos and sentimentality—no longer capable of sustaining the revolutionary fantasy in the wake of the October Revolution, the strategies of artistic production and political agitation had to be rethought as well.

Clark’s observation that socialism was one of the forces that gave modernism its polarized choices (e.g., idealism vs. materialism, individualism vs. collectivism) goes a long way explaining in what ways modernism’s revolutionary habitus remains inseparable from the “revulsion from the working-class movement’s moderacy” (i.e., Social Democracy, in the German case) felt by some radicalized artists and critics at the time and emulated by generations of scholars of Weimar culture ever since (Farewell, 9). While neoformalist scholars have turned to artistic form and technique as the true locus of radicality, those committed to a social history of art continue to expand and complicate the meaning of “Weimar” as a model of committed styles through greater attention to new objectivity and New Vision photography and their respective permutations after 1933; the overlapping histories of progressive and reactionary modernism and the European fascist avant-gardes; and the contribution of exiles and émigrés to a global modernism emerging as part of the antifascist popular front and thriving throughout the Cold War period.[7]

Beyond art history, the most significant changes in the thinking about committed styles have occurred in what is known as New Modernist Studies.[8] As a consequence, modernism has seen a remarkable expansion beyond rigid period and genre definitions and high-low and left-right distinctions and toward a greater awareness of multimedia practices, forms of exchange, and modes of appropriation across national boundaries.[9] The result has been a proliferation of modernisms, including fascist, socialist, popular, vernacular, cosmopolitan, and, to cite a recent article in Modernism/modernity, labor-movement modernism, all of which presuppose a privileged relationship to mass politics, however defined, and acknowledge the power of modern mass culture, including its most commodified versions.[10] Furthermore, the emergence of postcolonial studies has resulted in a wave of publications about proletarian moments in China, Korea, and Japan that, given their very different configurations of modernism and modernity, are bound to challenge Eurocentric understandings of working-class culture in relation to populist and nationalist movements and internationalist and cosmopolitan sensibilities.[11] Finally, the triumph of neoliberalism and the crisis of globalization in the twenty-first century have contributed to a unique moment of rediscovery and reevaluation that is most apparent in the many exhibitions and conferences organized in 2017 in conjunction with the centennial of the October Revolution and the bicentennial of Karl Marx’s birth.[12]

A participant in, and product of, these larger developments, proletarian modernism in the broadest sense refers to a profound crisis of representation in symbolic practices and power structures. As a variant of modernism, it recasts the constitutive tension between individual and society, and subjectivity and collectivity in terms that align the standard modernist diagnosis of alienation and disenchantment with a Marxist analysis of class and theory of revolution. Reintroducing the term “proletarian” into the scholarly debate on modernism(s) means to acknowledge not only the unique conditions that, under the influence of the October Revolution, aligned the goals of the artistic avant-gardes identified with various -isms (Dadaism, expressionism, constructivism) with the political vanguards in the Bolshevik tradition and its various competitors (e.g., syndicalism, council communism). It also means to take seriously Stalin’s famous characterization of writers as “engineers of the human soul” and consider the shared politics of emotion practiced by both types of vanguards. The rewriting of Weimar culture in terms of mentalities, which is associated with names such as Helmut Lethen, Peter Sloterdijk, Anton Kaes, and Janet Ward, offers excellent models for thinking about modernism and modernity in terms of dispositions, attitudes, and temperaments and for using psychological theories and categories in evaluating the new technologies of agitation and manipulation developed in the context of mass movements and mass diversions.[13]

Emotions played a key role in the self-presentation of the historical avant-gardes, beginning with their aesthetics of fragmentation and shock and their performances of disruption and surprise. The configurations of modernism and modernity have often been examined from the perspective of neurasthenia and trauma and their potential usefulness as a heuristic device in retracing the manifestations of a permanent crisis in Weimar culture and society. To the standard coupling of modernism with the crises of subjectivity, the proletarian perspective offers a unique focus on collective emotions, including class unity and solidarity, and on emotions as a formative force in political struggles. Moreover, communist artists and critics were acutely aware of the dialectics of emotion and cognition and, in line with Marxist writings, saw it as the foundation of human self-emancipation and the utopian quality of art; this is one of several reasons for the choice of emotion over affect as the preferred term of analysis, given the latter’s association with the rejection of the emotion-cognition binary in what is generally known as affect theory.[14]

There are many precedents for thinking of working-class culture and proletarian art through the lens of political emotions, beginning with the preoccupation with emotions in nineteenth-century mass psychology and sociology. Social Democrats during the Wilhelmine years remained haunted by what Karl Kautsky and others called emotional socialism, including its utopian and anarchist undercurrents, and actively sought to contain its disruptive energies through the establishment of scientific socialism. Much later, Ernst Bloch pointed to a similar phenomenon when he distinguished two kinds of Marxism, a cold and warm stream, with the former committed to reason and critique and the second sustained by hope, passion, and utopian longing.[15] Could we also speak of a warm and cold stream within modernism (e.g., expressionism vs. new objectivity) and, like Bloch, explain the fissures within politically committed art through two distinctly different emotional regimes? Given the frequent identification of modernism with the kind of cool conduct diagnosed by Lethen as a Weimar-era habitus of detachment, it would be tempting to describe Seiwert’s contribution to figurative constructivism in these terms and to equate Heartfield’s photomontages with the critical potential of pictorial rupture. Yet the two artists’ distaste for sentimentality did by no means result in emotional detachment or, still less, the kind of cynical reason diagnosed by Sloterdijk in his influential study on Weimar-era mentalities. On the contrary, the combination of communism and modernism opened up the possibility for a different kind of engagement that took full advantage of the dialectics of emotion and cognition and its usefulness to the project of proletarian modernism. In the first case study, the political emotion that best defines the approach taken by Seiwert will be called critical empathy—that is, the forging of cognitive, emotional, and social connections with others in the name of class unity and cross-class solidarity.

Franz Wilhelm Seiwert’s Critical Empathy

On April 30, 1925, the day before the annual May Day celebrations, the Sozialistische Republik, a communist newspaper in Cologne, featured an illustration by Seiwert on its front page that introduces best Seiwert’s own lifelong quest for an oppositional aesthetic beyond pity and verisimilitude. The image shows a large group of workers marching together during a demonstration, with the hammer and sickle flags identifying them as communists. The men in the front have individual facial features, while the increasingly smaller and faceless heads in the background suggest a large group merging into one unified body. On the left, two policemen watch the marchers with suspicion. The caption reads: “Masses out on the streets! . . . Watchword for Cologne: To the KPD rally” (fig. 1).[16]

Franz Wilhelm Seiwert, front page of the Sozialistische Republik, April 30, 1925.
Fig. 1. Franz Wilhelm Seiwert, front page of the Sozialistische Republik, April 30, 1925.

In an article published in the same newspaper a couple of days later, Seiwert explained his artistic choices, aware that readers might respond negatively to his use of abstraction. “I was not interested in reproducing a fleeting reality but in creating a symbol (Sinnbild) of what today is happening all over the world,” he explained:

Everywhere proletarians will gather around the red flag, and everywhere the representatives of law and order will stand around waiting to see whether they can do something about it. Fleeting reality doesn’t really matter, the small pockmark and the “correct” nose in the face of the “correctly” drawn demonstrating worker. Instead, what matters is to convey an image of the proletariat in its incalculable multitude.[17]

A recurrent visual motif since the early workers’ movement, demonstrations, rallies, and marches have allowed many artists to support struggles for democratic freedoms and civil rights, commemorate violent confrontations during strikes and uprisings, and establish the formal conventions for decidedly modern scenes of resistance and revolt. Demonstrations offer perfect opportunities for visualizing political commitment through performances of the collective body. Eugène Delacroix, in the famous Liberty Leading the People (1830), modeled how to draw on realist and allegorical elements in showing the continuities between the French Revolution and the July Revolution. Using a similar frontal composition, Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, for the monumental oil painting The Fourth Estate (1901), combined realist and impressionist techniques, transforming a large group of marching rural laborers into a harbinger of the modern working class. And in Die Internationale (The Internationale, 1928–30), Otto Griebel restaged the same moment of confrontation with a more uniform and unified group of industrial workers in the hyperrealist style of new objectivity. Establishing a predominantly male iconography of labor, the realist tradition continued throughout the 1930s, giving rise to the Mexican muralist tradition and the doctrine of socialist realism. With the arrival of a decidedly fascist iconography of the heroic worker in German and Italian art, the modernist elements eventually disappeared and, with them, the possibility for a different aesthetics and politics of solidarity; similar processes can be observed in the Soviet Union.

Seiwert’s interest in the revolutionary proletariat found its fullest articulation in a group of prints and paintings that share the frontal figure constellations found throughout his oeuvre. In fact, Demonstration can be used to reconstruct how he translated the specificity of the 1925 May Day scene on the front page of Sozialistische Republik into more painterly terms (fig. 2). Thematically speaking, Demonstration stages a paradigmatic scene of class struggle. The workers claim their right to the street, that is, to freely assemble and state their demands. Their strength is conveyed through the introduction of obstacles, and their determination shown by the overall sense of stillness. These mise-en-scènes capture a powerful moment of (self‑)recognition that finds poignant expression in the shared commitment to class struggle. As if standing in front of a mirror, the intended recipients of this image are invited to recognize their similarities with individual workers and the group as a whole. The Marxist dialectic of the particular and universal is essential to such classed identifications; the same can be said about the enlistment of figuration and abstraction in the process of emotional and political agitation. In the painting, a group of six workers dominates the frame; they are led by a central figure whose angular shape embodies their internal strength and determination.[18] The symmetrical composition includes a middle-aged burgher with old-fashioned high collar and bowler hat and a policeman with Tschako (shako, or military cap) and drawn gun as the representatives of law and order; they are surrounded by figures familiar from the social typologies explored by Grosz and Dix. The workers’ faces are reduced to basic ovals (with caps or hair) and simple features (eyes, mouths) that distinguish them as human beings; vertical lines signifying noses add spatial depth through the use of shading. Meanwhile, any references to masculinity, still visible on the front page of Sozialistische Republik, have been removed from geometrical figures whose gender is nonetheless beyond doubt. The similarities of shapes and the staggered presentation inside the frame characterize the group as the sum of individual bodies and a social class in the process of formation. The warm and vibrant colors—browns, oranges, and reds—infuse this collective body with energy and vitality, with the red half circles (flags?) in the center creating an almost halo-like effect: confirmation that the demonstrators are to be seen as revolutionaries fighting for a future classless society rather than as mere social types trapped in the capitalist present.

Franz Wilhelm Seiwert, Demonstration, 1925, oil on canvas.
Fig. 2. Franz Wilhelm Seiwert, Demonstration, 1925, oil on canvas. With permission of Merrill C. Berman Collection.

In 1920, Seiwert, together with Heinrich Hoerle, Gerd Arntz, and several others, founded the artists’ group called the Cologne Progressives. Like others, they were radicalized by the traumatic experience of World War I and the pervasive sense of crisis after the revolutionary uprisings of 1918/19. For them, the new world of mass mobilizations—in the trenches, factories, and big cities—required fundamentally different modes of representation and, by extension, forms of engagement. As Cologne-based painters, sculptors, photographers, and architects, they responded in particular to the pervasive sense of political instability that made the Rhineland a symbol of German defeat for the nationalist right, and that turned the adjacent Ruhr region, home to Germany’s coal and steel industries, into a center of revolutionary ferment. Brought together in their desire, to paraphrase Arntz, to unite the “politically revolutionary” with the “formally revolutionary,” the members of this group validated the workers as both a social class and an agent of historical change by depicting daily life in the factories and tenements and uncovering the social and economic inequities produced by modern capitalism.[19] Convinced of the emancipatory potential inherent in modernist techniques, they relied specifically on clear lines and geometric forms to model the formation of collective bodies in action. In the words of Seiwert, their overarching goal was to “represent a reality stripped of all sentiment and arbitrariness and to make visible its meaning, its underlying principle, its relationships and tensions through the formal laws within the pictorial frame.”[20] Two other works from the year 1925 confirm that “stripped of all sentiment” for him did not imply without feeling—on the contrary. A 1925 linocut print titled Klassenkampf (Class Struggle) published in the expressionist journal Die Aktion uses the same confrontational composition to acknowledge the workers’ anger and determination, celebrate their unity and strength, and promote their commitment to the communist cause. Aware of the power of tradition, Seiwert draws extensively on medieval techniques to present the class struggle as part of a longer fight for justice and recognition (fig. 3). Similarly, Die Arbeitsmänner (The Working Men, 1925) uses the inscriptions shared by religious art and product advertising to make “working men” and “class struggle” synonymous terms and equate both with a distinctly communist way of standing: resolute, confident, and empowered (fig. 4).

Franz Wilhelm Seiwert, Klassenkampf (Class Struggle), linocut, front page of Die Aktion 12, no. 43/44 (1922).
Fig. 3. Franz Wilhelm Seiwert, Klassenkampf (Class Struggle), linocut, front page of Die Aktion 12, no. 43/44 (1922). With permission of Merrill C. Berman Collection.
Franz Wilhelm Seiwert, Die Arbeitsmänner (The Working Men), 1925, oil on canvas.
Fig. 4. Franz Wilhelm Seiwert, Die Arbeitsmänner (The Working Men), 1925, oil on canvas. Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf.

The Cologne Progressives turned to abstraction precisely in order to tap into the utopian potential of aesthetic experience and to harness its powers of prefiguration, i.e., the modeling of emergent identifications in, and for, the present. In the process, they reaffirmed the importance of figuration as a conduit for the powerful attachments that connected the working class to older formations of the people and the folk. They recognized that combining both modalities could only be achieved through an active engagement with Marxist thought, a process that required a clear understanding of the role of artists and the institution of art in bourgeois society. Notwithstanding their belief in abstraction as a precondition of critique, the Cologne Progressives insisted that figuration, with its grounding in referentiality, remained the most promising strategy for reaching radicalized workers and building a proletarian public sphere. Convinced of the liberating potential of modernism, they set out to develop aesthetic, political, and emotional alternatives to the two prevailing modes of engagement with the working class: the mixture of humor and kitsch that sometimes turned the proletarian lifeworld into a modern idyll (e.g., Heinrich Zille) and the surfeit of suffering that haunted naturalist depictions of the urban underclass (e.g., Käthe Kollwitz, Hans Baluschek). Searching for a middle ground between abstraction and figuration, Seiwert and his fellow artists rejected the ecstatic pathos of expressionism and the playful nihilism of Dada as corresponding manifestations of bourgeois individualism. They also sought to distinguish their visual style from the cool detachment of new objectivity, which they regarded as a sign of political resignation. Their shared interest in moving beyond the false alternatives of modern and traditional is especially evident in the ways Seiwert, Hoerle, and Arntz drew on modern poster design for the propagandistic effects of text-image relationships and developed the didactic quality of communist print media (posters, fliers, newspapers) through the incorporation of folk art and religious imagery.

The Cologne Progressives diagnosed the dehumanization of the workers through formal means and, in so doing, turned a consequence of capitalist exploitation (i.e., massification) into a powerful weapon in the struggle of the revolutionary working class. The attendant process of depsychologization is most apparent in Seiwert’s systematic exploration of types, groups, masses, and multitudes and his conscious allusion to the models, casts, and prototypes found in industrial production. These constructivist elements, which, in the imagination of a fully rationalized society, attest to the world-building powers of geometry, could of course be read as a comment on the complete domination of individuals by social structures and economic conditions. However, the rejection of psychological explanations should not be confused with lack of emotion, whether in the mode, form, or content of representation. On the contrary, Seiwert’s refusal of psychological interiority attests to an acute awareness of the limits of bourgeois individualism in capturing the conditions under which the workers are, in fact, constituted as a faceless mass; this is the main reason for the many images of man-machines and prosthetic bodies. Furthermore, the implicit critique of psychology as ideology opens up the world of emotions toward the possibility of solidarity as a form of collective rationality. Under these conditions, the formal choices of type and serialization must be read not as symptoms of loss of individuality but as conduits to the greater power of community and collectivity.

Seiwert’s declaration that “proletarian culture is the intensification of the life of all people” not only announces his identification with the workers but also expresses his belief in their formative role in Marxist theory as the very embodiment of humankind.[21] These positions were not just theoretical ones grounded in his reading of key socialist and anarchist texts. The urgent tone in Seiwert’s writings suggests that intensification included the anticipated transformation of empathy into solidarity and the destructive impulses associated more typically with Heartfield. In several articles, Seiwert denounced the art market as an extension of capitalist society, predicted the disappearance of professional artists in communist society, and speculated about the inevitable transformation of art into a public good. He was greatly inspired by the writings of Gustav Landauer and shared his religious mysticism and anarchist insurrectionism. Like Arntz, he sympathized with the antiparliamentarian Allgemeine Arbeiter-Union (AAUE, General Workers’ Union) and the left-communist KAPD (Communist Workers’ Party of Germany). At the same time, the emotional habitus that suffused his body of work with spiritual intensity and depth is inconceivable without the enduring influence of the culture of Catholicism, beginning with references to the Passion of Christ and the lives of the saints. Suffering for Seiwert was an integral part of the human condition, and loving others, expressed through caritas (charity) and agape (compassion, love), remained a moral obligation.[22] It is as part of these traditions that the woodcuts and linocuts made to commemorate the “martyrs” of the failed German Revolution, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, draw on an established Christian iconography of sacrifice and redemption. Similarly, Seiwert’s contribution to the memory of the 1920 Ruhr Uprising, the lost Christus im Ruhrgebiet (Christ in the Ruhr Region, 1922), references a chiliastic eschatology to promote an insurrectionist strategy along the lines of council communism. Confirming these religious references, Uli Bohnen notes strong similarities to the medieval Blockbuchtechnik (block-book technique).[23]

Demonstration, the clearest articulation of Seiwert’s artistic and political vision, may have established the terms under which the representation of the working class could be accomplished through the convergence of revolutionary art and politics. Nevertheless, it was an actual armed confrontation and its very tangible impact on a work of art—in the form of a bullet—that revealed to him the class-based nature of bourgeois culture in what has become known as the Kunstlump (Art Scoundrel) debate. During street battles in Dresden between Reichswehr and striking workers in response to the 1920 Kapp Putsch, a stray bullet hit Peter Paul Rubens’s Bathsheba in the Zwinger Museum, prompting Oskar Kokoschka to request that all fighting be conducted at a safe distance from the art treasures. In response, Grosz and Heartfield wrote an angry polemic in the appropriately named journal Der Gegner (The Enemy). Denouncing all art as bourgeois, they mockingly asked, “Well, what good does art do the workers? Did the painters give their paintings the contents that correspond to the struggle for liberation of the working people and that teach them how to throw off the yoke of a thousand years of oppression?” Their answer, an angry “no,” allowed only for one course of action, “to accelerate the collapse of this culture of exploitation with all means possible.”[24] Ignoring accusations of vandalism against Heartfield and Grosz in the communist press, Seiwert came to very similar conclusions:

We cannot destroy enough of “culture” in the name of culture. We cannot destroy enough “works of art” in the name of art. Everything true, everything authentic is indestructible. . . . But that which can be destroyed in these works attaches itself to us, burdens us, robs us of the courage to act. Therefore: off you go! . . . Cut down the old idols! In the name of the coming proletarian culture![25]

Seiwert’s enthusiasm proved misguided and premature, with the revolutionary fervor of the postwar years soon giving way to the disillusionment of the stabilization period. Fully in line with his contribution to the Kunstlump debate, a 1921 article in Franz Pfemfert’s Die Aktion still repeated the assertion that art is only proletarian “when content and form are proletarian” and when both support the building of class consciousness.[26] In the end, however, the corrosive effect of the capitalist culture industry on working-class culture proved too formidable an obstacle. “There is no proletarian art,” Seiwert conceded in 1925, the same year he completed Demonstration and two years after the manifesto published by van Doesberg and others:

Because art is the expression of a culture, the visible intensification of a feeling of life. And the proletariat has no culture. . . . The proletariat will never have its own culture, for the concept of the proletariat is inseparably tied to the concept of the capitalist economy. With its disappearance, the proletariat disappears, making room for the classless society that brings forth its own unique, incomparable culture.[27]

Until his early death in 1933, Seiwert continued to produce work whose ethos of critical empathy reflected both the possibilities and contradictions of proletarian art. His interest in enlisting figuration in the fight for social justice continued in Arntz’s collaboration with Vienna Circle member Otto Neurath on the pictorial statistics known today as Isotypes. Figurative constructivism survived World War II in scientific application to the project of social reform and public education. But in art history, the Cologne Progressives were mostly relegated to secondary status within standard accounts of Weimar modernism, a fate the group shared, until recently, with the new objectivity. Some of the scholarly neglect of the Cologne Progressives has to do with the kind of cultural regionalism that does not fit easily into Berlin-centric narratives of left-wing politics and culture. In the two main studies, art historians Uli Bohnen and Lynette Roth have presented rich accounts of the unique circumstances that made Cologne both a provincial center and a European city with strong ties to Belgium and the Netherlands. As Dirk Backes has shown, Seiwert, Hoerle, and Arntz later disagreed on whether an aesthetic of resistance could be developed through the resistant qualities inherent in visual forms, with Hoerle eventually turning to portraits and still lifes and with Arntz (together with Neurath) inventing the above-mentioned scientific system of pictorial statistics.[28] Notwithstanding their recognition as regional artists with a strong connection to the history of labor and industry in the Ruhr region, the political provocation of the Cologne Progressives is still evident in their recent denunciation as “Legoland artists” in the sectarian DKP party press.[29] The less-than-friendly reception of Heartfield in the early GDR confirms this long-standing problem with modernism especially on the dogmatic left and allows us for the second case study to return to the original question of proletarian art by looking at Five Fingers as a performance of productive rage.

John Heartfield’s Productive Rage

John Heartfield today knows how to salute beauty. He knows how to create those images which are the very beauty of our age since they represent the cry of the people. . . . His art is art in Lenin’s sense for it is a weapon in the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat. . . . [And] he knows no signpost other than dialectical materialism, none other than the reality of the historical process, which he, filled with the anger of battle, translates into black and white.

      —Louis Aragon, “John Heartfield and Revolutionary Beauty”[30]

Anger and rage are powerful artistic weapons. No Weimar artist was more aware of their strategic potential than the famous photomonteur, and no fellow communist knew this better than the French writer Louis Aragon, whose paean to revolutionary beauty singles out Heartfield for uniting radical aesthetics and politics in the name of the proletariat. Like Seiwert, Heartfield uncovered the power structures in capitalist societies by rejecting conventional notions of realism as verisimilitude and, like other Cologne Progressives, he forged class-based attachments without recourse to psychological models of identification. Choosing photomontage as his preferred weapon, however, Heartfield was unique in drawing on a singular emotion—what his brother Wieland Herzfelde called productive rage (produktiver Jähzorn)—and in making its formal manifestations the organizing principle behind his highly original approach to photomontage.[31]

The coupling of “productive” and “rage” can be studied exemplarily through a visual motif closely related to the classed body, namely that of hands and fists. Herzfelde first used the evocative phrase in a 1962 biography to explain his younger brother’s all-consuming rage as the result of having been abandoned by their parents. This traumatic experience, he concluded, contributed to the strong sense of injustice that Heartfield later channeled into his fervent belief in the future of communism.[32] With the exception of Grosz, no other Weimar artist employed modernist techniques with such visceral contempt and disgust: contempt for the political elites and disgust with the hypocrisies of petty bourgeois life. Whether this aggressive energy also served as protection against a very different set of emotions—fear, despair, and a sense of powerlessness—can only be raised here as a question, since pursuing this line of inquiry would require a longer discussion of communist militancy and the crisis of modern masculinity; the same is true concerning the limits of psychobiography in the context of communist agitprop.

The surviving originals for the posters, fliers, and magazine covers designed for the KPD and affiliated organizations reveal the almost physical impact of Heartfield’s aggressive cuts, pastes, tears, erasures, and inscriptions. Unlike Kurt Schwitters or Hannah Höch, Heartfield never had any interest in exploring the ambiguity and multivalence revealed through textual rupturing. Rhetorically his photomontages are either for or against, animated by complete opposition or full agreement; his default emotional style is antagonistic and combative. Photomontage for him was synonymous with partisanship, a vehicle for channeling experiences of powerlessness into a singular outward emotion: rage. By translating deep-seated resentments into simple slogans, Heartfield’s approach was fully in line with the aggressive Kampfkultur promoted by the KPD as an alternative to the harmonious, inclusive Gemeinschaftskultur (communitarian culture) favored by the cultural organizations associated with the SPD.

Nothing is better suited for studying Heartfield’s productive rage than his sustained interest in the most symbolically charged part of the working-class body and the proletarian body politic: the hand. Sergei Tretyakov was the first to note the photomonteur’s preoccupation with hands, concluding that, “in Heartfield, the hand plays an even more important role in the composition than the face. Rarely does an artist manage so well to convey the appearance of a person through the representation of the hand.”[33] The radicalized workers of the nineteenth century had made the raised fist their official salute, a practice that continues in civil rights and liberation movements to this day. Working within these traditions, Heartfield repeatedly used hand images to address questions of labor and industry and juxtapose the conditions of production in capitalist and communist societies. Toward the end of the Weimar Republic, hands and fists serve to announce his full support for the Communist Party and his unrelenting attacks on the National Socialists. The return of the human body in modern art, which for Fore includes references to physiognomic thought, remains reserved for the political enemies.[34]

For the KPD election campaign in 1928, the Dada provocateur turned communist propagandist designed a well-known poster, Five Fingers Has the Hand, the first of several works included in later exhibitions as a prime example of politically engaged art. Capturing the gestus of dissent in a simple gesture, the poster functioned like a political primer on the representational practices through which “hand” and “fist” came to function as performances of commitment (fig. 5). As confirmed by election results, the sense of urgency conveyed by the poster may even have swayed some voters in cities such as Berlin to vote for the communists. Emboldened, the KPD leadership interpreted declining support for the established parties and widespread disaffection with democracy as confirmation of their Moscow-endorsed confrontation course with the SPD. In reality, the proletarian dream was already being appropriated, if not hijacked, by a very different socialist revolution. Only five years later, the KPD was banned and Heartfield was forced into exile in Prague and, later, London. His postwar reputation as the inventor of photomontage would not come from his extensive work for the KPD, but from the antifascist photomontages that, during the 1930s and early 1940s, appeared on the covers of AIZ (Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung) and in exile publications such as Volk-Illustrierte.[35]

John Heartfield, 5 Finger hat die Hand (Five Fingers Has the Hand), 1928, KPD election poster.
Fig. 5. John Heartfield, 5 Finger hat die Hand (Five Fingers Has the Hand), 1928, KPD election poster. Bundesarchiv-Bildarchiv. © The Heartfield Community of Heirs / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020.

A deceptively simple design, Five Fingers features a man’s open hand against a neutral white background, with the fingers slightly curled and the lines of the palm clearly visible. The hand’s size and shape, together with the dark cuff of the boiler suit, suggest an industrial worker, with the shaded areas on the left evoking the dirt and grime of manual labor. As was his practice, Heartfield retouched the original photograph, in this case in order to highlight the gesture of grasping and seizing. The intended message is one of strength and confidence, but given the interrelatedness of rage and fear, the raised hand may also suggest a man (and a party) pleading for support. In fact, the oddly long index finger is reminiscent of Christian hand signs and an established iconography of sacrifice that the communist ethos of party discipline frequently referenced. The artist’s signature in the upper left and the number five are drawn in bright red. A centrally placed “5” appears as part of two slogans, “With 5 You Seize the Enemy” and “Vote List 5 Communist Party.” The slippage, in the mode of address, from the second person singular (“You Seize”) to the plural imperative (“Vote”), prefigures the necessary move from individual to collective agency that would produce a successful election outcome—if need be, through violent action. Lest there be any doubts about the broader implications, it was Ernst Thälmann, the leader of the KPD, who personally approved the poster and, in another context, allegedly said: “You can break one finger, but five fingers make a fist.”[36]

In May 1928, on the streets of Berlin and elsewhere, Heartfield’s posters could be found on apartment buildings, underpasses, and construction fences, with the rows of raised hands suggestive of religious revivals and political rallies (fig. 6). One week before the election, Five Fingers appeared again on the front page of Die Rote Fahne, the daily newspaper of the KPD, with the fingertips now reaching across its masthead, a telling indication of the infiltration of writing by more aggressive impulses. On election day, the number “5” (i.e., the number under which the KPD was listed on the ballot) acquired an even more ominous quality when the newspaper’s front page showed five Weimar politicians, including a member of the SPD, hanging from nooses attached to these numbers, a shocking illustration of the KPD’s social fascism thesis.[37] One year later, the influential 1929 Film und Foto exhibition in Stuttgart opened with an entire section devoted to Heartfield that displayed Five Fingers under the above-mentioned motto of “Use Photography as a Weapon.” And two years after that, the poster was exhibited in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, amid works by Grosz and others, but now under a banner declaring, “Glory to the Soviet Union. Glory to the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.”[38] Given the various political and artistic contexts in which Five Fingers appeared during the Weimar years, its arrival in the Soviet Union at the height of Stalinism cannot be seen as anything but a logical extension of its originating emotional and political energies.

Heartfield’s KPD election poster on the streets of Berlin, photograph.
Fig. 6. Heartfield’s KPD election poster on the streets of Berlin, photograph. With permission of Bundesarchiv-Bildarchiv.

Confirming this point, on two occasions in the 1920s Heartfield used his own hands to establish the gestus of photomontage as one of emphatic appeal as well as violent assault. Both self-portraits corroborate Andrés Mario Zervigón’s description of Heartfield’s photographic practice as “an emotional rather than a rational means of communication” that acknowledges the psychological elements but downplays the performative functions and their agitational effects.[39] Evidence of Heartfield’s carefully constructed public persona as a Dada artist can already be found in an early self-portrait from 1920 that shows him in profile, with sharp, tight facial features and hands raised plaintively (fig. 7). Eerily reminiscent of later portraits of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, the performance references the figure of the angry artist and skilled agitator.[40] A second self-portrait appeared as part of a photomontage in AIZ 7, no. 37 (1929) together with the exhortation to “Use Photography as a Weapon” (fig. 8). Here Heartfield inserts himself into the picture frame in order to complete the transition from theory to praxis. He literally cuts off the head of SPD police commissioner Zörgiebel and, in so doing, demonstrates how a primal emotion is translated into an artistic technique and how the latter, in turn, can bring forth a revolutionary situation. Establishing precisely this connection, Franz Carl Weiskopf, in the accompanying text, describes Heartfield’s cutting as “a weapon in the struggle for a new, truly humane society where the workers are able not just to satisfy their hunger for bread but for culture and art as well.”[41]

John Heartfield, self-portrait, 1920.
Fig. 7. John Heartfield, self-portrait, 1920. Akademie der Künste Archiv, Berlin. © The Heartfield Community of Heirs / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020.
John Heartfield’s exhibit Benütze Foto als Waffe! (Use Photography as a Weapon!), in the Film und Foto exhibition in Stuttgart, May 18–July 7, 1929.
Fig. 8. John Heartfield’s exhibit Benütze Foto als Waffe! (Use Photography as a Weapon!), in the Film und Foto exhibition in Stuttgart, May 18–July 7, 1929. This includes his 1929 self-portrait with Police Commissioner Zörgiebel. AIZ 29, no. 37 (1929): 17. With permission of Akademie der Künste Archiv, Berlin.

The gestural codes of communist rage were informed by, and mobilized against, the rich imagery of hands in Western art and the attendant discourse of work and faith that had sustained it since the Renaissance. Hands have figured prominently in religious and secular art ever since Leonardo da Vinci’s Study of Hands (1474), the inspiration for The Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel, and Albrecht Dürer’s famous etching Praying Hands (1508) established their significance to the competing discourses of faith and work. Intricately drawn hands allowed artists to demonstrate their familiarity with basic human anatomy and their mastery of artistic tools and techniques: paint, pencil, brush, or, in this case, scissors, masks, and retouching ink. Praying and working hands remained a ubiquitous reference point even as the medieval dictum of ora et labora (pray and work) was adapted to the decidedly modern regimes of industrial labor and class struggle. The ritualized gestures of supplication, instruction, and argumentation that endowed hands with symbolic currency continued in the visual archives of communist doctrine. It might even be argued that the conventions of the emblem—that is, the pictorial image of a concept with didactic functions—influenced Heartfield’s approach to image-text relations and did so in ways that confirm the close links between religious and political traditions in the registers of proletarian modernism. Thus, in Five Fingers, the emblem’s three-part structure returns in the pictura, which refers to the visual component of the emblem (i.e., the hand); the inscriptio, which makes an ethical demand or conveys a political message (“Five fingers has the hand/ with five fingers you seize the enemy”); and the subscriptio, which further clarifies the relationship between inscriptio and pictura (“Vote for list 5/Vote for the Communists”). Nothing illustrates better the dialectics of cognition and emotion that informed Heartfield’s approach to photomontage in his work for the KPD.

By the end of the industrial revolution, hands had become a ubiquitous visual trope in representations of modern industry, technology, capitalism, and the working class.[42] New mass movements, including the workers’ movement, had appropriated the hand—raised or extended, offered or withheld—as a powerful symbol of unity and solidarity. As Barbara McCloskey has shown, Grosz’s contribution to this emerging class iconography provided an important inspiration for Heartfield and others.[43] It can be assumed that he was familiar with the 1917 cartoon “The Hand that Will Rule the World,” published in Solidarity, the journal of the International Workers of the World (IWW), also known as Wobblies. After the October Revolution, this gesture acquired a more violent charge on election posters, such as the 1920 “Vote for Spartakus” (i.e., the precursor of the KPD), which depicts a bright red (bloody) fist smashing an ineffectual Reichstag. A comparison to Lucian Bernhard’s famous 1915 poster featuring an ironclad fist in support of war bonds would confirm that the symbolism of hands and fists was part and parcel of a broader militarization of civil society during and after the war. These connections can even be traced to later Nazi propaganda posters depicting muscular German workers crushing the representatives of parliamentary democracy and global finance capital. They are also on full display in Heartfield’s design of the circular logo for the RFB (Alliance of Red Front Fighters), the paramilitary group affiliated with the KPD, that shows a raised fist, knuckles facing outward, set against the backdrop of a mass demonstration. It cannot be confirmed that the KPD adopted the fist as its official salute only after Heartfield created the Rotfront logo, as Aragon claims in the above-cited paean to “revolutionary beauty” (fig. 9). However, it is easy to see how the anticapitalist and antidemocratic positions shared by KPD and NSDAP made it difficult to promote the raised fist as a gestural alternative to the Nazi salute, given its proliferation on election posters from 1929 onward that, with exhortations like “Put an End to Corruption! Vote National Socialists!,” show large red fists crushing so-called Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracies.

John Heartfield, Rotfront logo, cover of Der rote Stern 11 (1928).
Fig. 9. John Heartfield, Rotfront logo, cover of Der rote Stern 11 (1928). Deutsche Nationalbibliothek, Leipzig. © The Heartfield Community of Heirs / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020.

Trained in advertising and graphic design, Heartfield was well familiar with the most advanced techniques that, in early twentieth-century visual culture, made marketing and propaganda almost coextensive terms. Through his cooperation with the Malik publishing house run by his brother and through his work for the IAH (International Workers’ Aid), Willi Münzenberg’s communist media empire, he was closely attuned to new and old methods of emotional mobilization. Turning individual hands into symbols of collective strength, he relied heavily on modern typography to transform any vague sense of indignation into more targeted expressions of class hatred, beginning with his graphic approach to captions and slogans. His mode of address always involves imperatives, and his exhortations always refer to struggle and confrontation. For instance, on the cover of the KPD’s 1927 Maifestzeitung, Heartfield pairs the image of three male workers raising their fists with the closing line from The Communist Manifesto, “Proletarians of all countries, unite!” An election poster from 1930 enlists a male and female worker holding up a hammer and sickle to implore voters to “Fight with us.” Captions from AIZ covers include entreaties and declarations such as “Hit hard, proletarian! So that a new world emerges from misery and pain,” “We all only know one enemy, the class of exploiters,” or “All fists clenched into one, show the fascists your power!”[44] In all of these examples, image-text relations are defined not by contrast, conflict or contradiction, the standard elements of photomontage, but by the intensifying effects of duplication. Within the emotional economies that define Heartfield’s approach to political agitation for the KPD, achieving cognitive clarification and emotional intensification was considered necessary for drawing potential voters into the fantasy of the communist will to power.

As noted earlier, proletarian modernism opened up attractive alternatives to the emotional socialism of nineteenth-century Social Democracy and the expressionist pathos and ecstasy of the early postwar years. For Heartfield the goal was to align the program of vanguardism with the cold streams within Marxism—that is, a seemingly unemotional approach to class politics that promised both self-control and control of others. Like the popular communist agitprop troupes, he did so by mobilizing the forces of rage and, in the process, imagining a body and a habitus for the subject-to-be, the proletariat under the leadership role of the KPD. Heartfield’s promotion of a communist Kampfkultur took place in close dialogue with developments in the Soviet Union.[45] This included extensive exchanges with Tretyakov, the most influential mediator between Berlin and Moscow, and creative encounters with El Lissitzky, Alexander Rodchenko, and Gustav Klutsis. In fact, Heartfield’s cover “All fists clenched into one” for a special issue of AIZ 13, no. 40 (1934) features a large fist, a symbol of the antifascist resistance, made up of many men and women with raised fists; the image closely resembles a 1930 photomontage by Klutsis that pairs a similar composite arm with slogans like “Workers! Everyone must vote in the election of Soviets” and “Let’s fulfill the plan of great works.”[46] These patterns of influence (or acts of appropriation) confirm the strong appeal of the project of proletarian culture first introduced by the Proletkult movement and developed further by the photographers associated with Lef. Heartfield’s photomontages have sometimes been described as techniques of demystification, but his propaganda work in support of the Soviet Union speaks even more to his considerable skills at remystification. The ways that his images of militant masculinity at once depend on the fantasy of the New Soviet Man and reproduce the traumas of World War I would require further discussion; for the purposes of this article, it must suffice to conclude that his productive rage is always highly gendered.

Heartfield’s productive rage found programmatic expression in the communist slogan Foto als Waffe (photography as a weapon), which was displayed prominently in several exhibitions of his work during the last years of the Weimar Republic. The militaristic terminology marked a sharp departure from the aspirational discourse of culture and education and the belief in aesthetic experience as self-actualization in the humanist tradition that characterized the workers’ movement during the Wilhelmine years. Following Friedrich Wolf’s announcement that “art is a weapon!,” artists no longer had any need for the standard distinction in idealist aesthetics between purposeless enjoyment and purposeful instruction.[47] Photography came to occupy a central place in the ensuing battle over images and imaginaries, with Adolf Behne describing photomontages as “photography plus dynamite” and Kurt Tucholsky calling on all communists to “fight in league with photography.”[48] In Die Rote Fahne, even Durus declared montage a “Marxist method of artistic creation,” ideally suited for uncovering the contradictions in social reality.[49] Indeed, his advice to photomonteurs, “to hammer the truth into people’s brains over and over again—the truth of exploitation, of the degrading capitalist system, of the conditions for the liberation of the proletariat—and thus to agitate and propagandize the masses as effectively as we possibly can” reads very much like a description of Heartfield’s strategic enlistment of hands, often in combination with tools, in unleashing the emotional forces of class struggle (“Photomontage,” 184, emphasis in original).[50]

Five Fingers is a typical example of Heartfield’s work for the KPD, but it does not fit easily into prevailing views of photomontage as a strategy of resistance and disruption. Without the obvious signs of manipulation, it brings out the underlying emotional investments with particular clarity. As a propagandist for the KPD, Heartfield could not draw on the corrosive force of biting satire and irreverent humor that animated his later antifascist photomontages and characterized his contribution to what art historian Sabine Kriebel perceptively calls “left-wing laughter.”[51] The complicated connection between productive rage and communist orthodoxy has been impossible to ignore ever since Tretyakov, in the first monograph on the artist, declared that “his photomontages cannot be separated from his party work. In fact, they are a history of the Communist Party of Germany” (“John Heartfield montiert,” 298).[52] A member of the KPD since the day of its founding on December 30, 1918, Heartfield continues to cause methodological problems for art historians because of the constitutive tension in his Weimar-era work between political dogmatism and artistic innovation. It is easy to claim his later antifascist photomontages for the project of democratic modernism and to celebrate his mockery of Hitler as critical intervention; it is much more difficult to draw the same conclusions about the antidemocratic positions in his propaganda work for the KPD. If photomontages are indeed forms of assault—sharp shots, in Tretyakov’s phrase—what can be concluded about the intended targets during the Weimar years? More specifically, what does Heartfield’s productive rage reveal about the problematic aspects of proletarian modernism, namely its dogmatism?

Drawing on Kriebel’s work, we can address these questions best through the constitutive tension between photomontage as a technique either of rupture (i.e., the standard interpretation) or of suture, a term adapted from Lacanian-inspired film theory that, in her opinion, captures best the integrative, illusionist tendencies in Heartfield’s work. The scholarship on Heartfield, she rightly notes, has privileged elements of shock and tension in order to maintain photomontage’s status as an artistic technique well suited for the democratic narratives of modernism prevalent during the Cold War. Examining the equally important processes of suturing, of “being stitched into” fictional worlds and, by extension, ideological configurations, brings into closer view those instances when critical detachment is not needed and adherence to political doctrine required. Following Kriebel, Five Fingers could be read as a perfect example of suture in the name of ideological interpellation, with the hand performing what Louis Althusser, in his often-cited definition, compares to the act of hailing. Despite the deceptively simple design, the meaning of the hand is far from unambiguous: Must the gesture be interpreted as an act of aggression, as suggested by the command “Seize the enemy”? If so, who is the enemy? Conservative bourgeois parties, such as the German National People’s Party and the Catholic Center Party, or the KPD’s rivals on the left and right, the so-called “social fascists” (i.e., SPD) and the National Socialists? Or is the gesture a plea to be heard, a plea offered in response to the anticommunist measures passed since the fateful days of January 1919? Should the curled fingers be understood as an invitation, directed at the workers themselves to be seized by the promise of revolutionary strength? Or, as yet another possibility, must the extended hand instead be seen as a desperate appeal to support the KPD against the repressive emergency measures and, after 1933, enabling laws?

Kriebel’s discussion of suture as an artistic and psychological technique can be used on this article’s final pages to consider Seiwert’s and Heartfield’s contributions to the emotional culture emerging at the intersection of German communism and modernism. Seiwert’s association with figurative constructivism and Heartfield’s experiments with photomontage have been examined, on the one hand, as an integral part of the artistic program of the Cologne Progressives and Berlin Dada and their involvement with communist groups such as the KAPD and KPD, on the other. However, the emotional energy of the political in their work cannot be reduced to party and group affiliations, recurring themes and motifs, or formal choices and techniques. On the contrary, the notion of political emotions has allowed us to situate their work within the complicated histories of emotional socialism, including its legacies in communist Kampfkultur, and the contested status of modernism in the working-class movement and main leftist parties, the SPD and KPD. The focus on critical empathy and productive rage as aesthetic and emotional modalities has highlighted the intersubjective dynamics that connect artist’s biographies and art movements to the collective imaginaries and discourses of revolution emerging in Weimar Germany after the October Revolution. At the same time, the focus on two particular scenes of hailing has drawn attention to the central role of political emotions, especially those linked to images of class struggle, in defining the formative as well as normative function of political art under these conditions.

The convergence of art and politics during the Weimar Republic has usually been conceptualized along two lines of inquiry, as a model of the historical alliance between artistic and political avant-gardes, including their doctrines and orthodoxies, and as a model of politically committed art that continues to inform approaches to an oppositional public sphere and aesthetics of resistance. A term like proletarian modernism, just like the other hyphenated modernisms that have been introduced over the past decades, allows us to reclaim previously neglected aspects and discover new connections within the modernist project: to folk culture and popular culture, to national, transnational, and international cultures, and to the class-based emotional cultures of Marxism, Social Democracy, and Comintern internationalism. The two artists discussed in this article contributed to this process by making their artistic interventions within the larger context of communist Kampfkultur and through the range of political emotions necessary to sustain its habitus of militancy and solidarity. Against the cult of the individual artist promoted by van Doesburg and others, Seiwert and Heartfield made the revolutionary working class the subject and object of their strategic aesthetic, political, and emotional interventions. And against their colleagues’ defense of autonomous art, these two committed communists insisted on using all cognitive and emotional faculties and all social and cultural resources in turning modern art into a political weapon.

Many questions remain and can hopefully be addressed in future studies: the ways in which proletarian modernism in the German context participated in the post-World War I culture of militant masculinity and Fordist modernity could not be addressed here in any detail. To what degree the habitus of critical empathy and productive rage must be considered unique to Seiwert and Heartfield or fairly typical of postwar German communism in its various manifestations would have to be determined through a closer look at the work of other artists, writers, and critics. And to what extent the proletarian modernism of the left shared key traits with reactionary modernism and fascist modernism, including in their emotional regimes, would involve another look at Walter Benjamin’s polemical juxtaposition from the mid-1930s between the politicization of art in communism and the aestheticization of politics in fascism.[53] One way of addressing these complicated issues would involve moving beyond the Eurocentricism of the historical avant-gardes and taking seriously the internationalist claims of the Comintern, for instance by comparing the distinctly European configurations of modernism and communism with then-contemporary developments in the United States, Latin America, and East Asia.

Last but not least, the death of communism and the renewed interest in Marxism has allowed scholars across a number of disciplines to revisit the proletarian imaginary without the old romantic attachments and theoretical orthodoxies and with acute awareness of the very different alliances between modernism and communism forged in the service of democratic, nationalist, populist, and anti-imperialist movements. In other words, it is finally possible to think of proletarian culture as one would about any scholarly subject—that is, to take seriously the claims by Weimar-era artists, writers, and critics to the proletarian as a political identification and to the modern as an aesthetic program; and to do both in full awareness of the intense emotional attachments and exaggerated expectations identified in this case with two works by Franz Wilhelm Seiwert and John Heartfield.


Notes

The two case studies are taken from two of my chapters in The Proletarian Dream: Socialism, Culture and Emotion in Germany, 18631933 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017). I sincerely thank Christopher Bush who was very supportive from the start and the two anonymous readers whose comments on a first version of this article greatly strengthened the argument. All translations from the German are mine unless noted otherwise.

[1] Theo van Doesburg, Hans Arp, and Kurt Schwitters, “Manifest Proletkunst,” Merz 2, no. 1 (1923): 24–25, 24.

[2] Surveys of art and politics during the Weimar Republic are too numerous to mention. For a collection of relevant texts, see The German Left and the Weimar Republic: A Selection of Documents, trans. Ben Fowkes (Leiden: Brill, 2014). For a philosophical perspective, see David C. Durst, Weimar Modernism: Philosophy, Politics, and Culture in Germany 1918–1933 (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2004). On the centrality of class to Weimar culture, see my own Topographies of Class: Modern Architecture and Mass Society in Weimar Berlin (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008).

[3] Wieland Herzfelde, “Gesellschaft, Künstler und Kommunismus” (1921), in Zur Sache: Geschrieben und gesprochen zwischen 18 und 80 (Berlin: Aufbau, 1976), 54–91, 65.

[4] See Debbie Lewer, “Revolution and the Weimar Avant-Garde: Contesting the Politics of Art, 1919–1924,” in Weimar Culture Revisited, ed. John Alexander Williams (New York: Palgrave, 2011), 1–22. The best introductions to the challenges of leftwing art and politics can be found in two monographs on George Grosz: Beth Irwin Lewis, George Grosz: Art and Politics in the Weimar Republic (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991); and Barbara McCloskey, George Grosz and the Communist Party: Art and Radicalism in Crisis, 1918 to 1936 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997). On the visual arts in the workers’ movement, see W. L. Guttsman, “Bildende Kunst und Arbeiterbewegung in der Weimarer Zeit: Erbe oder Tendenz,” Archiv für Sozialgeschichte 22 (1982): 331–58. For early studies on proletarian art more generally, see F. W. Plesken, G. Peters, and Wieland Herzfelde, Proletariat und Kunst: Expressionismus und Realismus—Gesellschaft, Künstler und Kommunismus (Cologne: facit, 1970); and, from an East German perspective, Harald Olbrich, Proletarische Kunst im Werden (Berlin: Dietz, 1986). Proletarian literature also inspired numerous studies in the 1970s and 1980s, including Erobert die Literatur! Proletarisch-revolutionäre Literaturtheorie und-debatte in der “Linkskurve” 1929–1932, ed. Frank Rainer Scheck (Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1973); and Gerhard Friedrich, Proletarische Literatur und politische Organisation: Die Literaturpolitik der KPD in der Weimarer Republik und die proletarisch-revolutionäre Literatur (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1981).

[5] T. J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 7–8.

[6] Devin Fore, Realism after Modernism: The Rehumanization of Art and Literature (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), 14. For a less convincing application of neoformalist tenets, see Brigid Doherty, “The Work of Art and the Problem of Politics in Berlin Dada,” October 105 (2003): 73–92.

[7] Examples include Keith Holz, Modern German Art for Thirties Paris, Prague, and London: Resistance and Acquiescence in a Democratic Public Sphere (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004); James A. van Dyke, Franz Radziwill and the Contradictions of German Art History, 1919–45 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010); and Barbara McCloskey, The Exile of George Grosz: Modernism, America, and the One World Order (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015). The term “reactionary modernism” is taken from the influential study by Jeffrey Herf, Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture, and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); the reference to the fascist avant-garde comes from Andrew Hewitt, Fascist Modernism: Aesthetics, Politics, and the Avant-Garde (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993).

[8] For an excellent brief summary, see Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, “The New Modernist Studies,” PMLA 123, no. 3 (2008): 737–48. The term “committed styles” is taken from Benjamin Kohlmann, Committed Styles: Modernism, Politics, and Left-Wing Literature in the 1930s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[9] Sometimes used synonymously with working-class literature and/or communist literature, “proletarian” has remained an important designation in the study of American and British literature. For the American case, see James F. Murphy, The Proletarian Moment: The Controversy over Leftism in Literature (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991); Barbara C. Foley, Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929–1941 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993); and Anthony David Dawahare, “American Proletarian Modernism and the Problem of Modernity in the Thirties: Meridel Le Sueur, Tillie Olsen, and Langston Hughes” (PhD diss., University of California at Irvine, 1994). On the British situation, see Nick Hubble, The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2017). There is also growing interest in the proletarian moment in the Americas, as evidenced by Andrew Hemingway, Artists on the Left: American Artists and the Communist Movement, 1926–1956 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002); and John Lear, Picturing the Proletarian: Artists in Labor in Revolutionary Mexico, 1908–1940 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017).

[10] The reference is to Christoph Schaub, “Labor-Movement Modernism: Proletarian Collectives between Kuhle Wampe and Working-Class Performance Culture,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 2 (2018): 327–48. For another recent publication in this journal that could be used to engage more explicitly with the question of gender in the reading of Seiwert and Heartfield, see Sascha Bru and Anke Gilleir, “Red Rosa: On the Gender of the November Revolution in the German Avant-Gardes,” Modernism/modernity 24, no. 3 (2017): 461–83.

[11] For examples, see Elizabeth J. Perry and Li Xun, Proletarian Power: Shanghai in the Cultural Revolution (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1997); Xiaomei Chen, “Reflections on the Legacy of Tian Han: ‘Proletarian Modernism’ and its Traditional Roots,” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture 18, no. 1 (2006): 155–215; “Proletarian Arts in East Asia,” ed. Heather Bowen-Struyk, special issue, The Asia-Pacific Journal 5, no. 4 (2007), which focuses on Japan, China, and Korea; Samuel Perry, Recasting Red Culture in Proletarian Japan: Childhood, Korea, and the Historical Avant-Garde (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2014); and Sun-Young Park, The Proletarian Wave: Literature and Leftist Culture in Colonial Korea, 1910–1945 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).

[12] The many art exhibitions organized to commemorate the 1917 October Revolution include the Royal Academy of Arts exhibition in London, Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932, (2017) with a catalog of the same name edited by Natalia Murray, and the Zentrum Paul Klee and Kunstmuseum Bern exhibition on The Revolution is Dead. Long Live the Revolution! (2017). The key role of the Soviet Union in a global history of communism and modernism is evident in the 2011 exhibition at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid, with an exhibition catalog edited by Jorge Ribalta, The Worker Photography Movement, 1926–1939: Essays and Documents. The local manifestations of October Revolution have been foregrounded in Natalia Murray, Art for the Workers: Proletarian Art and Festive Decorations of Petrograd, 1917–1920 (Leiden: Brill, 2018).

[13] The respective studies are (in chronological order): Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, trans. Michael Eldred (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987); Janet Ward, Weimar Surfaces: Urban Visual Culture in 1920s Germany (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001); Helmut Lethen, Cool Conduct: The Culture of Distance in Weimar Germany, trans. Don Reneau (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); and Anton Kaes, Shell Shock Cinema: Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

[14] For an incisive critique of the political project of affect theory, which is not to be confused with the research on affect in cognitive psychology, see Ruth Leys, “The Turn to Affect: A Critique,” Critical Inquiry 37, no. 3 (2011): 434–72. A useful summary of the emotional turn in history can be found in Ute Frevert, “Defining Emotions: Concepts and Debates over Three Centuries,” in Ute Frevert, Monique Scheer, Anne Schmidt, Pascal Eitler, Bettina Hitzer, Nina Verheyen, Benno Gammerl, Christian Bailey, and Margrit Pernau, Emotional Lexicons: Continuity and Change in the Vocabulary of Feeling 1700–2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 1–31. For a comprehensive overview, also see Jan Plamper, The History of Emotions: An Introduction, trans. Keith Tribe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). Two influential studies are William M. Reddy, The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); and Barbara H. Rosenwein, Generations of Feeling: A History of Emotions, 600–1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[15] See Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), 3:1367–68. The diagnosis of coldness and coolness has been an integral part of the history of modernism and modernity. For a comparison with the Anglo-American context, see Jessica Burstein, Cold Modernism: Literature, Fashion, Art (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012).

[16] Front page of Sozialistische Republik, April 30, 1925. Gerd Arntz created a very similar image in support of the AAUE’s program of council communism for the title page of Die proletarische Revolution 2, no. 23 (1927).

[17] Franz Wilhelm Seiwert, “Unser Maibild,” in Der Schritt, der einmal getan wurde, wird nicht zurückgenommen: Franz W. Seiwert Schriften, ed. Uli Bohnen and Dirk Backes (Berlin: Karin Kramer, 1978), 46–47, 47. Other depictions of demonstrations include Hans Baluschek’s Proletarier/Streik (1920) and Curt Querner’s Demonstration (1930).

[18] In a rather crass case of Cold War revisionism, Demonstration is renamed Arbeitgeber, Arbeitnehmer und Polizei (Employer, Employee, and Police) in Carl Oskar Jatho, Franz Wilhelm Seiwert (Recklinghausen: Aurel Bongers, 1964), 39, exhibition catalog. On the critical reception of the Cologne Progressives during the Cold War, see Hoerle und Seiwert: Moderne Malerei in Köln zwischen 1917 und 1933: eine Monographie (Cologne: Kölnischer Kunstverein, 1952), exhibition catalog.

[19] Gerd Arntz in Rainer Mausfeld, “Kunstspektakel, Anarchismus und politische Kunst heute: Fragen an Gerd Arntz,” Unter dem Pflaster liegt der Strand 7 (Berlin: Karin Kramer, 1980): 31–44, 32, quoted in Lynette Roth, Painting as a Weapon: Progressive Cologne 1920–33. Seiwert—Hoerle—Arntz, trans. Uta Hoffmann (Cologne: Walther König, 2008), 17, exhibition catalog. On art and culture in Cologne during the 1920s, see Von Dadamax bis zum Grüngürtel: Köln in den zwanziger Jahren, ed. Wulf Herzogenrath (Cologne: Kölnischer Kunstverein, 1975), exhibition catalog. Roth’s catalog for the 2008 exhibition at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne remains one of the few English language assessments of Seiwert.

[20] Seiwert, quoted in Annedore Scherf, Franz Wilhelm Seiwert und die rheinische Tradition: Seiwerts Bildsprache zwischen Tradition und Moderne (Norderstedt: Books on Demand, 2013), 53.

[21] Franz Wilhelm Seiwert, “Aufbau der proletarischen Kultur,” Die Aktion 10, no. 51/52 (1920): 719–24, 721, emphasis in original.

[22] Franz Wilhelm Seiwert’s affinity with the working class as the suffering class had strong biographical elements; the same could be said about Hoerle. Both men experienced debilitating illnesses as children, Seiwert after a failed X-ray treatment that left him with seeping wounds and led to his early death at thirty-nine, and Hoerle through recurring bouts of tuberculosis to which he succumbed at the age of forty.

[23] See Uli Bohnen, Franz W. Seiwert, 1894–1933: Leben und Werk (Cologne: Kölnischer Kunstverein, 1978), 17.

[24] John Heartfield and George Grosz, “Der Kunstlump,” in Eckhard Siepmann, Montage: John Heartfield vom Club Dada zur Arbeiter-Illustrierten Zeitung (Berlin: Elefanten Press, 1977), 54–56, 54, 56. “Der Kunstlump” was originally printed in Der Gegner 1, no. 10/12 (1920): 48–56.

[25] Franz Wilhelm Seiwert, “Das Loch in Rubens Schinken,” Die Aktion 10, no. 29/30 (1920): 418–19.

[26] Franz Wilhelm Seiwert, “Offener Brief an den Genossen A. Bogdanow!,” Die Aktion 11, no. 27/28 (1921): 373–74, 373.

[27] Franz Wilhelm Seiwert, “Zeichen—Versuch der Aufzeichnung einer dialektischen Entwicklung in der Darstellung des Gesichtes der Welt,” Die Aktion 15, no. 9/10 and 11/12 (1925): 311–13, 313. A revised version of the article, “Die Kultur und das Proletariat,” appeared in A bis Z. Organ der Gruppe Progressiver Künstler Köln 21 (1932): 83–84.

[28] See Dirk Backes, Heinrich Hoerle: Leben und Werk, 1895–1936 (Cologne: Rheinland-Verlag, 1981).

[29] See Dietmar Spengler, “Klassenkampf im Legoland,” Unsere Zeit, March 28, 2008. The Deutsche Kommunistische Partei (DKP) is the successor of the West German KPD. Legoland refers to the famous plastic construction toys.

[30] Louis Aragon, “John Heartfield and Revolutionary Beauty” (1935), quoted in Wendy Ann Parker, “Political Photomontage: Transformation, Revelation, and ‘Truth’” (PhD diss., University of Iowa, 2011), appendix A, 129.

[31] Wieland Herzfelde, John Heartfield: Leben und Werk. Dargestellt von seinem Bruder (Dresden: VEB Verlag der Kunst, 1976), 18. In her analysis of the relationship between the two brothers, Nancy Roth translates the phrase Jähzorn as “high-energy temper” (Nancy Roth, “Heartfield’s Collaboration,” Oxford Art Journal 29, no. 3 [2006]: 395–418, 397).

[32] See Herzfelde, John Heartfield: Leben und Werk, 12. After the war, the psychobiographies of Weimar-era communists would become part of the selective reclamation in the GDR of Weimar modernism for the socialist heritage.

[33] Sergei Tretyakov, “John Heartfield montiert . . . 1936,” in John Heartfield: Der Schnitt entlang der Zeit—Selbstzeugnisse Erinnerungen Interpretationen, ed. Roland März (Dresden: Verlag der Kunst, 1981), 291–318, 311.

[34] See the chapter on Heartfield in Fore, Realism after Modernism, 243–304.

[35] For a historical perspective on the 1928 electoral campaign, see Eric D. Weitz, Creating German Communism, 1890–1990: From Popular Protests to Socialist State (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 62–99.

[36] Original: “Einen Finger kann man brechen, aber fünf Finger sind eine Faust.” The often-quoted sentence appears in Kurt Maetzig’s two-part biopic Ernst Thälmann, Sohn seiner Klasse (Deutsche Demokratische Republik: DEFA, 1954). On Thälmann’s reaction to the poster, see the memo by Gertrud Heartfield reprinted in John Heartfield: Der Schnitt, 151.

[37] Cover of Die Rote Fahne, May 20, 1928. The “victims” are Chancellor Wilhelm Marx, Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann, Interior Minister Walther von Keudell (spelled Keudel here), former Interior Minister Wilhelm Külz, SPD politician Arthur Crispien, and NSDAP leader Adolf Hitler.

[38] My thanks to Mark Smith for the translations from the Russian.

[39] Andrés Mario Zervigón, John Heartfield and the Agitated Image: Photography, Persuasion, and the Rise of Avant-garde Photomontage (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 6.

[40] In this early Dada self-portrait, Heartfield not only looks uncannily like Goebbels; his expressive hand gestures also resemble the oratorical poses developed by Hitler in collaboration with his personal photographer Heinrich Hoffmann. For a close reading of the image, see Sabine Kriebel, “John Heartfields Selbstporträt von 1929,” in John Heartfield: Zeitausschnitte—Fotomontagen 1918–1938, ed. Freya Mülhaupt (Ostfildern: Hatje Canz, 2009), 64–73.

[41] The occasion for the publication in AIZ was an article about the 1929 Greater Berlin Art Exhibition.

[42] For a discussion of the rich symbolism of the clenched fist, see Gottfried Korff, “Rote Fahnen und geballte Faust. Zur Symbolik der Arbeiterbewegung in der Weimarer Republik,” in Fahnen, Fäuste, Körper. Symbolik und Kultur der Arbeiterbewegung, ed. Dietmar Petzina (Essen: Klartext, 1986), 27–60. Korff links these symbols to the experience of loss of utopia, with (pseudo)religious images and ideas replaced by concrete political programs. For the continuities between Communist and Nazi uses of the fist as a political symbol, see Sherwin Simmons, “‘Hand to the Friend, Fist to the Foe’: The Struggle of Signs in the Weimar Republic,” Journal of Design History 13, no. 4 (2000): 319–39. For a comparative history of the fist in the larger context of totalitarian politics, see Steven Heller, Iron Fists: Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State (London: Phaidon, 2008).

[43] See McCloskey, George Grosz and the Communist Party, 101.

[44] The captions are from AIZ 9, no. 52 (1930); AIZ 13, no. 36 (1934); and AIZ 13, no. 49 (1934). A number of these images have been reprinted in David King and Ernst Volland, John Heartfield: Laughter Is a Devastating Weapon (London: Tate Publishing, 2015).

[45] On the centrality of modern masculinity to communist Kampfkultur, see George L. Mosse, The Nationalization of the Masses: Political Symbolism and Mass Movements in Germany from the Napoleonic Wars to the Third Reich (New York: Howard Fertig, 2001); and, more generally, Bernd Widdig, Männerbünde und Massen: Zur Krise männlicher Identität in der Literatur der Moderne (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1992). For an account of Weimar art and the problem of gender, see Marsha Meskimmon, We Weren’t Modern Enough: Women Artists and the Limits of German Modernism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

[46] On the Heartfield-Klutsis connection, see Maria Gough, “Back in the USSR: John Heartfield, Gustavs Klucis, and the Medium of Soviet Propaganda,” New German Critique 36, no. 2 (2009): 133–83.

[47] See Friedrich Wolf, Kunst ist Waffe! Eine Feststellung (Berlin: Arbeiter-Theater-Bund Deutschland, 1928).

[48] Adolf Behne, “John Heartfield (Künstler des Proletariats, Nr. 16),” in John Heartfield: Der Schnitt, 185–87; Ignaz Wrobel [Kurt Tucholsky], “Die Tendenzfotografie,” Die Weltbühne 21 (1925): 637.

[49] Durus [Alfred Kemény], “Photomontage, Photogram,” trans. Joel Agee, in Photography in the Modern Era: European Documents and Critical Writings, 1913–1940, ed. Christopher Phillips (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989), 182–85, 184, emphasis in original.

[50] On the affinity between photomontage and proletarian identifications, see Eckhard Siepmann, “Was hat das Proletariat mit der Fotografie, die Fotografie mit der Montage und die Montage mit dem Proletariat zu tun?” in Politische Fotomontage, ed. Jürgen Holtfreter (Berlin: Elefanten Press, 1979), 25–33.

[51] This is the title of chapter four in Sabine Kriebel, Revolutionary Beauty: The Radical Photomontages of John Heartfield (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014).

[52] In fact, Tretyakov’s book features Five Fingers on its cover.

[53] The reference is to Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).