Panel I: Working Process – Revolutionary Beauty

John Heartfield, Untitled, original montage, c.1928


Ute Eskildsen and Angela Lammert

Given the montage as an artistic process in photography and film at the beginning of the 20th century, questions arise about how to describe the differences between an intentionally political work of art and current applications of montage techniques. Where are the points of intersection? Where in contemporary media art can we find “revolutionary beauty” ‒ attributed to John Heartfield to describe his unique fusion of social and visually poetic revolt? Manipulation of photographs is something we have known since their inception. Montage is an image technique in which fragments that do not belong together are combined into visual and substantive contrasts, using art techniques to modify, cut and add from existing images to form a single image. Has photomontage been altered in favour of an anonymously created flood of images? One of the essays asserts that montage’s potential of lies in its ability to sever the linearity of the historical continuum. Can Heartfield’s intended critical political interventions retain their effectiveness in the context of today’s flood of images and the concentrated power of their distribution? In a comparison of Heartfield’s visual and haptic working process with digital techniques and communication forms, do the differences between them lie in the changed relationship between working process and targeted use? Which new possibilities arise? Is it fair to say the critical potential of new technologies is not yet fully developed because they depend on distribution and central data processing? These questions no longer apply solely to visual forms and intended contexts, but also to the role played by a politically critical approach with appropriate usage.


Ute Eskildsen is a Photography Historian and an independent curator. Until 2012, she was the Head oft the collection of photography at the Museum Folkwang, where she was instrumental in building up the collection. Her publications include numerous catalogues and writings on photographers and aspects of photography as a medium. Since 2014, she is a member of the Akademie der Künste, Berlin, Section: Visual Arts.

Angela Lammert is head of interdisciplinary special projects at the Akademie der Künste, Berlin and a private lecturer at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. She co-curated the John Heartfield – Photography plus Dynamite exhibition, together with Rosa von der Schulenburg and Anna Schultz. Her many publications include the following on spatial theory (Raum. Orte der Kunst, 2007), on notation (Bildung und Bildlichkeit. Von der frühen Wissenschaftsfotografie zu den Künsten des 20. Jahrhunderts, 2013), and on changing concepts of sculpture (Film als Skulptur?, 2017).

Contributions by:

Peter Chametzky (Columbia/South Carolina):
Living and Dying and Resisting Montage

Sabine Kriebel (Cork):
The Longevity of Photomontage

Margarita Tupitsyn (New York/Paris):
Political Photomontage ‒ ‟A Worldwide Achievement”

Damarice Amao (Paris):

Volker Pantenburg (Berlin):
Now! Heartfield/Álvarez

Azadeh Akhlaghi (Teheran/Melbourne):
Re-enactment as Working Process

Christian Marclay (London): Christian Marclay in conversation with Angela Lammert


Moderation: Ute Eskildsen and Angela Lammert

Peter Chametzky (Columbia/South Carolina):

Living and Dying and Resisting Montage

U.S. DEATHS NEAR 100,000, AN INCALCUABLE LOSS. Photomontage circulated on Twitter on 24 May 2020, with the front page of the New York Times on the same day

In the words of Jodi Dean, we “live montage” today, online and on our mobile apps. This entry thinks about Heartfield’s legacy and relevance today from the position of a “ghost from the present” (Angela Lammert). Scanning the visual fields of then and now, I find credible counters to domination and despair. Heartfield’s and other artist’s resistance to historical fascism provides inspiration to those responding to Trump and his ilk and to the commercial exploitation of covid-19.

Click here for the full article (PDF)

Questions for Peter Chametzky

Like Sabine Kriebel, you acknowledge a continuation of the political and critical impulses Heartfield left behind. In your essay reflecting on the historical situation, you include a montage of a recently published front page of the New York Times filled with the names of those who have died during the coronavirus pandemic and a colour photograph of President Trump playing golf. He stands before the list of names and seems to be trying to swipe them away with the swing of his club. Speaking of political and critical impulses, what do you perceive to be the differences between the work process and intended use?

The image of Trump montaged onto the front page of the 24 May 2020 New York Times circulated widely on social media. It is an example of today’s “authorless” montage imagery: someone created it in the heat of battle and provided it as ammunition for all to use. I wonder, then, how many of the readers of the AIZ, or those who might simply see a Heartfield montage on its pages at a newsstand or café could also have shown the image around the table or the street not as “art” but as an authorless weapon? Maybe gifted a copy to a friend? I like the interpretation of the Trump image in your question‒ that he is trying to wipe the slate clean ‒ which I had not thought of. I suppose this speaks to the multiplicity of readings that montage enables. On my reading, the superimposition of him golfing ‒ which he did that weekend, again ‒ over these names indicates his desire now simply to ignore this human crisis in favour of satisfying his own selfish personal and political needs, personally, pursuing recreation while the death toll mounts and mounts due to his lies, incompetence, indifference, and calculation.

How can we describe the differences between intentional political art and the applications of montage techniques currently in use today? In this context, how do you view Jodi Dean’s concept “we live montage”?

I think that every artwork has a political dimension, implicitly or explicitly. Today we are living in a moment when the explicit seems imperative, and montage again comes to the fore. But I would argue that work that might have been condemned as “bourgeois formalism” by some viewers in Heartfield’s time ‒ let’s say a Mondrian ‒ also has political implications. After all, without a well-trained formal acuity, how are we to evaluate and judge the world around us ‒ more-and-more defined by rapidly changing, craftily composed visuals? In a sense Dean is saying that technology today allows us all to create and disseminate our own imagery and create realities reflecting our world view. And we are compelled to consume those created by others ‒ which we can also appropriate and alter. By ourselves “living montage” we recognise the artifice more readily. While I have to teach students how to critically analyse works of modernist art, they, as creators themselves, have much to teach me about today’s montage strategies. One notices the different realities created right now in the montage imagery being streamed by the Biden and the Trump campaigns (not linked!). Look at comedian Sarah Cooper mouthing Trump’s ludicrous, homicidal phrases on TikTok, animating for over one million viewers Heartfield’s strategy in Hurrah, die Butter is alle! (Hurray, the butter is finished!, 1935) of using politicians own words against them. Also Heartfieldian is the “Lincoln Project” of anti-Trump Republicans’ ad featuring powerful Republican senator Lindsey Graham (from the great state of South Carolina!), an opponent of Trump when himself seeking the Republican presidential nomination, but now turned into an opportunistic supporter, voicing his truth-filled earlier condemnations as well as praise for Biden. While we don’t have Heartfield himself today, his legacy lives on.

In your short video statement, which happened to coincide with the “Black Lives Matter” protests, you take up the symbolic gesture of the fist that Heartfield used in his montages – concisely and with Heartfieldesque intensification. Do you think that these straightforward symbols still have the same effect today that they had in Heartfield’s time?

That’s a great question. I have known that Heartfield image since I was about eleven years old, around 1970. At the time we were all very familiar with the Black Power salute. My brothers and I wondered why the thumbs in Ob schwarz ob weiss were placed on the side of the index finger and not across the tops of the fingers to make a fist like a boxer’s. It was explained to me that this was an image of solidarity among the working class, derived from the communist movement and inspired by the “Scottsboro boys” case, and that this fist was not for punching, but for hammering/building. That’s why I made both gestures in my little video. While the image of Black and White solidarity is clear, I think that the hammering gesture today, as in 1970, needs explanation. And by making the two together I meant to connote both militant action to dismantle existing forms of oppression and constructive collective work to build a better future.

What is your favourite work by Heartfield? And what was a surprise for youwhile working on your essay or a discovery that you made in the catalogue?

Hard to pick one. The absurdist audacity combined with the quotidian image of the inflated “everyman” in Jedermann sein eigner Fussball (Everyman His Own Football, 1919) still makes me laugh. Hurrah, die Butter ist alle! still bites by brilliantly turning fat Goering’s words against his ideas. In Louis Kaplan’s pun (and thanks to Sabine [Kriebel] for the reference), this Nazi family has no qualms about literally “eating Goering’s words,” which will surely make them sick if not dead. But something that Sabine’s work has really illuminated is the affective force of so many of Heartfield’s works that suture. While espousing ideology he is able also to appeal to the uncanny, the unconscious even. So, it is no wonder that Louis Aragon, steeped in Surrealism and Freud as well as in Marx would tag his “revolutionary beauty.” So, to account for such suturing and convulsive beauty, for me, I have to return to childhood and to my mother’s work, when I was at an impressionable age, translating Deutschland Deutschland über alles! for the 1972 University of Massachusetts Press edition (ills. 1‒2: first edition, inscribed by Leonard and Lisa Baskin, and 1972 English edition, translated by Anne Halley). That cover image of the Prussian automaton in the top hat, spouting those words, terrified me! And if I just catch a glimpse of it today, it still does. I did not know then what or why it was or did. But I felt that it was in some way related to why my First World War veteran grandfather and family had had to flee Nazi Germany. Even if when it was published in 1929 he and grandma were both happily practicing medicine in Bremerhaven, it seemed and seems, to me, to have something to do with why I exist and many others don’t.

Peter Chametzky is professor of Art History at the University of South Carolina. He is the author of Objects as History in German Twentieth-Century Art (University of California Press, 2010), which includes two chapters about Berlin Dada, and a forthcoming multicultural study of art in Germany today, in relation to contemporary politics, Turks, Jews, and Other Germans in Contemporary Art (in preparation: MIT Press, 2021).

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Sabine Kriebel (Cork):

The Longevity of Photomontage

Adolf, der Übermensch: Schluckt Gold und redet Blech (Adolf, the superman: Swallows gold and spouts rubbish) advertising brochure for the AIZ, 1932

Contrary to the claims that photomontage is no longer tenable as a critical medium, I argue that photomontage is not yet ‘over.’ Rooted in technological mutability, photomontage will continue to evolve in the digital age. As artist Raoul Hausmann observed nearly a century ago, photomontage actively feeds on change—technological, social, psychological. It is as much a method as a medium. Its powerful analytical and social potential remain underexplored in a context of vast technological possibility and shifting superstructures.

Click here for the full article (PDF)

Questions for Sabine Kriebel

Your book on Heartfield is entitled Revolutionary Beauty. This term, taken over from Louis Aragon, stood for the fusion of social and poetic rebellion as early as 1935. Does such revolutionary beauty also exist in contemporary media art?

Contemporary media art is a very broad term that encompasses all sorts of compelling projects. Surely, revolutionary beauty – that is to say, art forms that hold contradictory structures in fraught suspension – certainly still exists, because it’s precisely the tension between aesthetics and politics, form and friction, that keeps art vibrant.

What do you see as the difference between the everyday use of montage forms in advertising and on social media vs. its application in the work of artists?

There are certainly overlaps between and among advertising/social media/artists, so it’s hard to generalise, but let’s say that advertising montage seeks to market a product to a consumer, social media montage seeks to connect to a base of “followers” who choose to follow a particular person based on a projected identity, and artists are perhaps more invested in the means of communication – the medium – and how it best articulates their content, that is, perhaps there’s greater reflection on the intersections between means and message. But there are artists who work as advertising designers who have social media sites …

Is it fair to say that its critical potential is not yet fully developed within the new technical possibilities?


And can a counterculture develop at all with its dependence on large corporations and centralised data processing?

Of course. The counterculture isn’t dependent on large corporations; and counterculture has always been adept at subverting systems of power, even ventriloquising its terms to destabilize from within.

How has the status of documentary photographs changed?

It has and it hasn’t. Photography has always been doctored; there are many such examples in the history of photography. Today it can be done with greater ease and swifter impact through social media, but the photograph as a “document” has always been a particular discursive category rather than an ontology.

You describe a change and progression from traditional montage techniques to invisible virtual malignancies. Can you explain why Heartfield never got involved in the expanding advertising industry?

Heartfield was pioneering for advertising design and celebrated by mainstream advertising culture, but with the radicalisation of politics by 1928‒29, Heartfield’s commitments really lay elsewhere.

What is your favourite work by Heartfield?

It changes regularly because I keep learning from Heartfield, but I think I’ll just keep coming back to the Kohlkopf (“Cabbagehead” [full German title: Vorwärts ‒ Ich bin ein Kohlkopf, kennt ihr meine Blätter], 1930) or the growling tiger capitalist of Zum Krisen-Parteitag der SPD (On the SPD Party Crisis, 1931) because of the complexity of their visual operations. There’s a lot going on in both montages – visually, psychologically, culturally ‒ at the same time that they’re powerfully simple and still so relevant.

And what was a surprise for you while working on your essays or a discovery that you made in the catalogue?

I continue to be interested in the reception of Heartfield, both synchronically and diachronically. My book sought, among other things, to understand the projected beholder of Heartfield’s pictures at the time of their circulation; but of course these montages continue to attract viewers not anticipated by their maker ‒ or by the guardians of his legacy. Jeff Wall in 1971 was certainly one of them. In many ways, Wall’s photographic tableaux extend the premises of Heartfield’s project, staging socially critical montages of actors and props using the illuminated lightboxes of advertising technology. Wieland Herzfelde’s frosty reception of the interesting but ideologically-dubious long-haired man is disappointing but also illustrative of the narrow confines of Heartfield’s reception at certain points in its history. The friction of worlds summoned by Wall’s narrative stays with me, all the while knowing that history was in Wall’s favor. The 2009 exhibition at the Berlinische Galerie revealed the surprising extent of Heartfield’s international resonance, as I expect will this 2020 iteration at the Akademie der Künste.

Sabine Kriebel is an art historian who has written extensively on photography, photomontage, and German modernism. She collaborated on the groundbreaking 2005 Dada exhibition, authored a book on John Heartfield’s AIZ photomontages, and is currently writing a book on the Neue Sachlichkeit. Raised and educated in the USA, she teaches at the University College Cork, Ireland.

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Margarita Tupitsyn (New York/Paris):

Political Photomontage – ‟A Worldwide Achievement”

Arkadi Schaichet, from left to right: Gustav Klutsis, John Heartfield, Fjodor Bogorodski, Wassili Elkin, Sergei Sinkin und Max Alpert in Batumi (on the Black Sea coast, today Georgia), 1931

This article attempts to shed more light on the “somewhat murky relationship between Heartfield and the Soviet avant-garde.” It includes citations and analyses of Russian avant-gardists’ accounts of John Heartfield’s activities in the USSR in 1931, concluding that regardless of the collective essence and content of political photomontage, its practitioners were unable to mute their authorial identities. Finally, the article addresses a revitalised trust in painting as photomontage began to experience heavy-handed editorial intrusion. The medium’s current status is also briefly appraised.

Click here for the full article (PDF)

Questions for Margarita Tupitsyn

Russian Constructivist Valentina Kulagina, the wife of Gustav Klutsis, made sarcastic comments about Heartfield’s visit to Russia. She tells us he acted like a “conqueror would treat his colonies”. Could you elaborate on this? Please also describe Kulagina’s role as an artist within the male-dominated camaraderie and circle of Arkady Shaikhet, Max Alpert and Klutsis and discuss the “travel collective” around the German photomonteur. Did it represent the differences between the various positions on photomontage used within the Soviet Union (USSR)? What role did painting play in Russian photomontage?

Historically Russian modernists were repeatedly accused of imitating the West, both by critics abroad and at home. As a result, in the post-Revolutionary period, the avant-garde circles concerned themselves with constructing an independent artistic identity and inventing new art forms “yet unseen in the West”.(1) Nonobjective painting of the 1920s was one of such original styles that most pioneer Soviet photomontagists had practised and that had a direct influence on the formation of compositional and formal rules of early photomontage. For example, Klutsis, a student of Malevich, based his photo collage Dynamic City (1919) on his earlier nonobjective composition of the same title, to which he added architectural elements and four figures of construction workers. In the early 1920s, Kulagina studied at the Vkhutemas with nonobjectivists Natan Pevsner, Liubov Popova, and Aleksandr Vesnin and always relied on preliminary experimental drawings in her subsequent photomontage designs. The second art form that the Russians dubbed as their invention was political photomontage that was “developed independently on Soviet soil” and, Klutsis continues, “has had a decisive influence on the Communist press in Germany (Heartfield and Tschichold).”(2) In Kulagina’s eyes, Heartfield’s decision to exhibit alone on the Russian soil signified a return to the narrative of the Western artistic advantage that her milieu aspired to overturn. Moreover, such separatist behaviour downplayed the Russians’ primary role in the medium’s development and violated its collective premise. All of this together caused Kulagina’s defensiveness.

Unlike the circles of nonobjectivists that included a significant number of women, they were scarce among photographers and photomontagists. Kulagina complained more than once about the chauvinistic attitudes of her male colleagues and sexual advances from powerful bureaucrats. In her diary, she talks about Klutsis instructing her how to make a proper photomontage and tells stories of sexual harassment during professional meetings. She writes: “It was strange when once, at the Mossovet, during a discussion of how to lower the banners from the windows, he [B. F. Malkin] suddenly got up and kissed me … how can ‘he’, the chairman of the board of Izogiz, such a staunch communist and a man in such a position of responsibility, have ‘that kind’ of relationship with an employee?”

In your text, you note a battle for Russian photomontage that grew up around Gustav Klutsis and other artists. They fought against the numerous epigones and charlatans who had vulgarised the methods of montage techniques. When were there points of connection between the monteurs of the 1920s and 1930s? And how do these relate to further artistic developments based on Heartfield’s political and critical impulses?

After the death of Lenin in 1924 and during the first five-year plan (1928‒31) the Bolsheviks needed a visually effective form of public imagery that propagated their agenda. Many artists shared in developing the latter since it empowered the working class and did not infringe on artists’ formal choices. These mutually beneficial working conditions effectively propelled political photomontage until the early 1930s when a dictate to include Stalin and members of the politburo was issued, creating a squad of censors committed to keeping an eye on what and how pictures were cut and pasted. In this climate of looming authoritarian regimes, Heartfield’s retrospective and the group exhibitions of local photomontage organised at the same time, even though shown separately, demonstrated a broad scope of experimental creativity invested in envisioning a working-class utopia.

(1) “To ‘Original’ Critics and the Newspaper Ponedelnik”, Anarchy, no. 85 (15 June 1918)

(2) Gustav Klutsis, “The Photomontage as a New Kind of Agitation Art”, op.cit. p. 237

Margarita Tupitsyn is an independent scholar, art critic and curator. She is the author of many books, catalogues and articles on the Russian avant-garde and contemporary art. Her recent publications include Moscow Vanguard Art, 1922–92 (2017) and Russian Dada, 1914–1924 (2018).

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Volker Pantenburg (Berlin):

Now! Heartfield/Álvarez

NOW!, directed by Santiago Álvarez, Kuba, 1965

Where can we find the cinematic legacy of the photographic tools used by the artist John Heartfield to ignite his explosive photomontages? What happens to the combative, interventionist dynamism of montage? “Give me two photos, music, and a moviola, and I’ll give you a movie”, exclaimed Cuban film director Santiago Álvarez. His short film Now! (1965), an assemblage of hundreds of photographs, press illustrations and newsreel footage, is a depressingly topical panorama of racist police violence in the USA.

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Questions for Volker Pantenburg

Azadeh Akhlaghi and Santiago Álvarez not only use montage principles in photography and film, but also operate from other cultural environments. Do you see related differences, for instance to the montage techniques of Sergei Eisenstein or Jean-Luc Godard?

The cultural and historical context montages feed on and impact is decisive. In Eisenstein’s work the positions are clear: the bourgeoisie is the enemy, the proletariat the hero. In montage, both groups can clash intensely (as in a class war) and then be brought into a socialist synthesis. In the 1960s the situation was less clear-cut. Visual pop cultural excesses (in television, print, advertising) were gargantuan in expression; indications of criticism, affirmation or subversion and intricately entwined. This also means that being able to control the effect images have (which Einstein initially believed) is increasingly lost. The autonomy of images is becoming more noticeable, their instrumentalisation more problematic.

Is photomontage still relevant or was there a break in the 1960s (i.e. after the artist died in 1968)? Most of the examples of a direct artistic connection or discourse with Heartfield’s work continue into the 1960s.

I still see cleverly chosen motifs today, even though they aren’t photomontages in the classical sense. There’s the image showing Trump from behind, swinging a hammer and sickle instead of his infamous golf club, and the front page of the New York Times with the names of the [first] 100,000 people who have died from Covid-19.(1) For me, that kind of a correlation is in the tradition of Heartfield. At the same time, in the age of TikTok and Twitter, I think the definition of montage needs to be expanded and should include the composition of images and sound. In this respect, Sarah Cooper’s re-enactment miniatures, in which she lip-synchs to an audio track of Trump’s exact words, are absolutely on point.(2)

You quote Alvarez as saying: “My style is the style of hatred for imperialism” ‒ a sentiment which could have come from Heartfield. Do the work process and the end result differ when they are not used as a critical impulse, but rather to propagate right-wing ideas?

The process and individual montage techniques might be similar, but the objective remains diametrically opposed: in Heartfield’s case and the political art that followed on from him, agitation is aimed at emancipation, solidarity and community; in the case of right-wing propaganda at resentment, division and misanthropic isolationism.

(1) Cf., last access on 13 Jul 2020

(2), last access on 13 Jul 2020

Volker Pantenburg is a professor of film studies at the Freie Universität, Berlin. Among other subjects, he researches, teaches and writes about essayistic practices, as well as projects in which cinema and museums intersect. Recent publications include Harun Farocki: Ich habe genug! Texte 1976–1985 (2019, ed.), Gerhard Friedl. Ein Arbeitsbuch (2019, ed.), Handbuch Filmanalyse (2020, co-editor). In 2015 he co-founded the Harun Farocki Institute, of which he is also a board member.

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Azadeh Akhlaghi (Teheran/Melbourne):

Re-enactment as Working Process

Azadeh Akhlaghi, Mohammad Mosaddeq, 5 March 1967, 2012, digital print on photo paper, 110 x 171 cm

By an Eye-Witness examines a series of deaths of prominent figures in Iran ‒ including writers, poets, journalists, political activists and students ‒ from the Constitutional Revolution in 1908 to Islamic Revolution in 1979. It depicts events that were never photographed.

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Azadeh Akhlaghi (b. 1978, Shiraz, Iran) holds a computer science degree from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. The artist lives in Tehran and Melbourne. Akhlaghi has participated in numerous art exhibitions and biennials, including the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, Somerset House, the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, Paris Photo, Shanghai and Seoul Biennales, Photo London, and the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, Tehran. She was named the 2019 Robert Gardner Fellow in Photography, Peabody Museum, Harvard University.

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Christian Marclay (London):

Christian Marclay in conversation with Angela Lammert


Christian Marclay, 48 War Movies (excerpt), 2019, single-channel video installation, color and stereo sound, continuous loop, dimensions variable

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Christian Marclay
is known for his work in a wide range of media, including video, sculpture, photography, collage, and performance. For 40 years he has been exploring the connections between the visual and the audible, creating works in which these two distinct sensibilities enrich and challenge each other. A pioneering turntablist since 1979, Marclay has performed and recorded with many musicians. His works can be found in prestigious public and private collections around the world.