Essay on Rationalization
“Modernism may be seen as an attempt to reconstruct the world in the absence of God,” – said Bryan Appleyard, an English journalist. Indeed, the Modernist movement has embodied the creative power of human being, focusing on improvement of our environment. Modernism was born in the end on 19th century, affecting diverse areas of life – architecture, sculpture, painting, literature, music, and other types of art. However, the most demonstrative impact of this cultural movement can be seen in graphic design. In this context, Modernism gave a birth to many techniques that remain very popular in contemporary design. Photomontage is, probably, one of the most powerful tools among them.
Photomontage is one of the most powerful techniques in modern graphic design. It is a process of combining several photographs into one composite image, giving a wide range of possibilities. The meaning of photomontage is hard to overestimate – almost every contemporary commercial design implements this approach to more or less extent. This technique appeared in the middle of nineteenth century, though it gained a wide popularity in the beginning of twentieth century.
The development of photomontage was influenced by diverse historical and cultural processes, and the movement of Modernism had a sound impact on this area. Pioneers of photomontage remain true icons even now, and their works inspire both modern designers and audience. In the current paper we will explore the example of modernist photomontage – the artwork by John Heartfield “Rationalization is on the March”, created in 1927 for Der Knuppel.
John Heartfield is the anglicized name of Helmut Herzfeld, the famous German artist of photomontage. Born in 1891, this talented artist and photographer was a member of the Communist Party of Germany. He has always criticized German politic power, participating in various movements and strikes in order to support communist ideas. Heartfield founded a satirical magazine Die Pleite with caricaturist George Grosz. After that he became very interested in photomontage, and his career as an artist began. Participating in Berlin Dada, the anti-war cultural movement during the World War I, John Heartfield started creating montages expressing social and political themes. Very soon John met Bertolt Brecht, whose Marxist views influenced the artist soundly. Heartfield began creating artworks representing political ideas and events in his authentic manner. Publishing his works in communist periodicals, he became very famous rather quickly, mostly for his Hitler-criticizing art. John Heartfield’s “Rationalization is on the March” is considered one of the classic examples of modernist photomontage.
“Rationalization is on the March” was the artwork John Heartfield made for German magazine. In that period the most distributed way to portray photomontage work was placing it in newspaper or magazine as a cover or illustration. Most of Heartfield works were published this way, shaping the history of photomontage development. Being the pioneer of photomontage technique, Heartfield has created this famous artwork in his own authentic style combining several photographs and text. “Rationalization is on the March” presents a good example of photomontage art in its form and content, both from the standpoints of historical and cultural context.
The montage is made in a regular Heartfield’s form, using multiple photos combined in a single composition. Unlike many other artists of the period, John Heartfield did not focus on artistic side of his works, implementing rather simple techniques. Thus, the current artwork resembles magazine or newspaper poster, made for political agitation. Actually, the technical side of the process of present art creation was not very difficult. Heartfield selected several images from his huge collection of multiple photographs, cut them out, put together in a single composition, and took a photo of final composite image. In the “Rationalization is on the March” the author used more than ten separate photographs of various objects, including various industrial mechanisms, stopwatch, pipes, tables, factory pipelines details, hatch, lever, and other industrial objects. The elements were accurately cut out from photos, however they were deliberately pasted in the final image in pseudo-inaccurate way to resemble chaotic composition. Besides the photos, we can see a sketch painting of an industrial factory on the old paper. This image is just another photo that serves as a good background for the montage. There are also some typography elements in this artwork, which van be seen on the photo of German newspaper and some document. The final image is composed in a single picture portraying a figure of running man. The stopwatch pictures the man’s head and face, while his limbs are made of industrial objects and details. The man holds a newspaper in his hand. The montage is made in a very precise and accurate technique.
Besides the form, every photomontage, just like every other artwork, has another important component – the content. The semantic side oftentimes plays very significant role in this technique. In “Rationalization is on the March” the message is a main priority. John Heartfield has always emphasized the message in his montages, paying special attention to content. Unlike most of other artists of Dada movement, John always focused on the message rather than artistic component; hence his works took a special place in the design history. Just like in his other works, in “Rationalization is on the March” Heartfield addressed significant social and political issues. Being an activist of anti-war movement and pro-communist propagandist, Heartfield was a serious critic of German political power. His attitude is clearly seen in all his works, especially in his famous series of satiric montages portraying Adolph Hitler. In the present artwork the author’s communist views are expressed in his regular manner. In “Rationalization is on the March” Heartfield criticizes the policy of capitalist industrial rationalization. Being an activist of communist regime, the artist put the illustration on the cover of Der Knuppel (The Cudgel), the satiric magazine where he worked as an editor, in order to address the initiative of rationalization. The artwork portrays the illogical nature of industrial rationalization, expressing the opinion of the entire KPD (Communist Party) that opposed the Nazi regime. In the photomontage, a figure composed of separate objects resembles a man in a hurry. He runs somewhere, with a newspaper in his hand, consisting of industrial details. The message of the image is obvious – Heartfield expressed the anti-humanist essence of the policy. The figure of industrial objects symbolizes what human being may eventually become if following all the policies of Nazis. Laughing at this initiative, the author at the same time is deeply sorry for what is going on in political life of his country.
The historical context of John Heartfield’s “Rationalization is on the March” interacts soundly with its cultural meaning. Made in the 1927, this artwork addresses the most acute issues of that period. World War I, the development of fascism in Germany, the dilemma between right and left wings of politics, and other significant historical processed influenced Heartfield works soundly. In the difficult period the artist tried to put all his efforts to help German society to avoid the rise of fascism, making it in his own artistic way. “Rationalization is on the March”, just like other Heartfield’s artworks, reflects the reality in the most demonstrative way.
The cultural meaning of John Heartfield’s work is also hard to overestimate. He was a true pioneer of photomontage – the one who, with other modernists, gave a name to this technique. The unique style of the artist became very popular, remaining a symbol of freedom and satirical manner. Heartfield’s leftwing political views helped him to build friendly relationships with Soviet Communists, and his art technique influenced soundly the entire movement in visual design - Soviet constructivist posters. Unlike any other art direction, modernist photomontage combined the art and reality in the acute but relevant way. And John Heartfield’s artworks, including “Rationalization is on the March”, present the best example of this relevance.