Sabine Kriebel

“Stop Reading, Look!”

“Stop Reading, Look!”: Revolutionizing the Viewer in 1930s Germany

“Stop reading! Look!” rang the title and refrain of a euphoric article that circulated in the liberal German art journal Das Kunstblatt in March of 1928. The author, Johannes Molzahn, at once lauded the new visual orientation of the Weimar Republic, inundated as it was by a competitive market of illustrated journals and photographic advertisements, and posited the attendant tension between the authority of the word and the new prestige of the image.  Countering those cultural critics who bemoaned the loss of the printed word’s sober authority, supplanted as it was by the quickly-apprehended photograph, Molzahn hailed photography as the new, modern, and liberating means of communication.

With the refinement of the photogravure technique in the immediate pre-WWI period, which enabled text and image to be printed simultaneously on the same page, a new publishing industry emerged that centered on the illustrated magazine.   By the mid-1920s, the culture of photojournalism prompted giddy utopianism, bitter pessimism, or something in between. Intellectuals of the age were acutely aware of the mass-reproduced photograph as an element of a new consciousness industry, a subjectivity specific to the postwar period. 

This paper proposes to extend the theme of “making an audience” from the printed word to the mass-reproduced image by examining the mass-circulation photomontages of the German artist John Heartfield.  Designed to politicize a mass audience in pre-Nazi and Nazi Germany on behalf of the radical Left, John Heartfield’s political photomontages circulated widely in the Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ), or Worker’s Illustrated Journal, which, before being forced into Prague exile by the Nazis, was the second most popular illustrated magazine in Weimar Germany.  Minutely attuned to politicized press culture of the day, Heartfield’s photomontages assert the primacy of the image at the same time that they foreground the role of text, both as a conveyor of meaning and as a visual element, consequently problematizing Molzahn’s utopian call for pictorial privilege.  The image alone, Heartfield insists, cannot do the job.  

Drawing on reception aesthetics and pictorial analysis, this paper investigates how John Heartfield’s photomontages structure and interpellate an audience through formal and linguistic means.  Although Heartfield’s well-known photmontages are designed to address a mass-audience, my work is the first to interrogate how and why he does so.  Relying on primary documents from the period, I demonstrate how Heartfield’s montages mine the widespread anxiety regarding the mass-reproduced photograph—its perceived superficiality in particular—to structure a critical viewer.  I demonstrate how his works stage the tension between the established rationality of the word and the new prestige of the photograph, not only underlining the inherent malleability of each, but also keeping alive the vital play between text and image, between eye-catching graphics and extended contemplation, between ideological insight and political blindness during the advent of fascism and the decline of the Left in Europe.

Making Books, Shaping Readers

School of English, O' Rahilly Building, University College Cork, Ireland.