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John Heartfield and the Agitated Image

Photography, Persuasion, and the Rise of Avant-Garde Photomontage

Working in Germany between the two world wars, John Heartfield (born Helmut Herzfeld, 1891–1968) developed an innovative method of appropriating and reusing photographs to powerful political effect. As a pioneer of modern photomontage, he sliced up mass media photos with his iconic scissors and then reassembled the fragments into compositions that utterly transformed the meaning of the originals. In John Heartfield and the Agitated Image, Andrés Mario Zervigón explores this crucial period in the life and work of a brilliant, radical artist whose desire to disclose the truth obscured by the mainstream press and imperial propaganda made him a de facto prosecutor of Germany’s visual culture.
Zervigón charts the evolution of Heartfield’s photomontage from an act of antiwar resistance into a formalized and widely disseminated political art in the Weimar Republic. Appearing on everything from campaign posters to book covers, the photomonteur’s notorious pictures challenged well-worn assumption and correspondingly walked a dangerous tightrope over the political, social, and cultural cauldron that was interwar Germany. Zervigón explains how Heartfield’s engagement with montage arose from a broadly-shared dissatisfaction with photography’s capacity to represent the modern world. The result was likely the most important combination of avant-garde art and politics in the twentieth century.
A rare look at Heartfield’s early and middle years as an artist and designer, this book provides a new understanding of photography’s role at this critical juncture in history.

336 pages | 9 color plates, 134 halftones | 8 1/2 x 11 | © 2012

Art: European Art, Photography


Media Studies


“Exemplary. . . . Present[s] a fascinating and complex image of Heartfield himself, as a man of volatile passion and extraordinary courage as much as of dogged, irascible pedantry. . . . Zervigón’s writing has a brisk, sachlich clarity and zips along in an easy, sometimes conversational tone that makes it highly accessible, even when he is dealing with complex concepts and material.”

History of Photography

“Zervigón’s book is far and away the most thorough and incisive treatment of the artist’s early work to date. . . . The meticulous research and original interpretation . . . will make the book a crucial resource for future scholarship on the artist, the historical avant-garde in Germany, as well as early twentieth-century photography and photomontage more broadly.”

CAA Reviews

“Zervigón’s energetic account is prodigious. . . . A nimble use of anecdotes, correspondence, diaries, and memoirs alongside other primary sources reanimates the debates, sets the scenes, remaps the mobility, chaos, and personalities surrounding Heartfield. . . . Astute and fascinating.”

Oxford Art Journal

“Presents one of the best resources to date for scholars working on Weimar-era media, leftist propaganda imagery, and the development of political photomontage. . . . An important contribution to Heartfield scholarship and to our understanding of culture and politics from the beginning of World War I to the twilight moments of the Weimar Republic.”


“An important contribution to Heartfield [studies].”


“Impeccably researched and grippingly told, Andrés Mario Zervigón’s John Heartfield and the Agitated Image presents a fundamentally new picture of the German photomontage pioneer: as an artist who took his cues from Hollywood starlets just as much as from Marxist theoreticians, and who crafted his images to function as both physical punch and intellectual appeal. Tracing Heartfield’s passage into and beyond Dada with singular care, Zervigón reveals the range of projects and decisions by which he managed to reinvent photography—indeed art itself—during a period of unparalleled historical turbulence."

Graham Bader, Rice University

John Heartfield and the Agitated Image offers a compelling reconstruction, based on new archival research, of the slow but steady trajectory of John Heartfield, George Grosz, and Wieland Herzfelde toward Dada, photomontage, and critical publishing in the Weimar Republic. With Heartfield as the book’s center, Andrés Mario Zervigón emphasizes the formative role of postcards, book cover designs, animation, and film stills as strategies in the creation of a radical political image sphere. At stake for Heartfield was nothing less than the reinvention of photographic truth, and in that endeavor he remains a key figure in the history of photography and political aesthetics.”

Andreas Huyssen, Columbia University

“This lively and original book is a cogently formulated work that will make a welcome addition to the rapidly growing literature on John Heartfield. Andrés Mario Zervigón provides a narrative arc for the development of Heartfield’s career as a photomonteur, adding much to the story by looking at his work from 1916–19 and 1921–29. Useful and instructive as well as thought-provoking, John Heartfield and the Agitated Image is an enjoyable read.”

Matthew Witkovsky, Art Institute of Chicago

“As John Heartfield’s grandson, I’m constantly on the lookout for books that help reveal his motivations and illuminate his evolution from unsuccessful young oil painter to world-renowned artist. Andrés Mario Zervigón’s John Heartfield and the Agitated Image: Photography, Persuasion, and the Rise of Avant-Garde Photomontage is precisely such a book. Professor Zervigón’s book shines with the type of research that informs the reader of the passion the author has for his subject. However, it’s much more than a scholarly exercise. Professor Zervigón is a gifted writer as well as a respected art historian. He employs his vast knowledge of the Berlin Dada community of the early twentieth century to present fascinating theories regarding the vivid personas of its major players such as John Heartfield, Wieland Herzfelde, George Grosz, and many others. His descriptions of the times, the people, and their actions often read more like an engrossing novel than a work of nonfiction. He brings his subjects to life by presenting a wealth of informative quotations. In short, Professor Zervigón’s book is a must read for anyone interested in John Heartfield, his life, his work, and his participation in the one of the most dynamic periods in modern art history.”

John J Heartfield, Curator of the John Heartfield, Photomonteur: Official Internet Archive,

Table of Contents


One The Photograph and the Punch: 1891–1914

Two Postcards to the Front and the Road toward Photomontage: 1915–1916

Three Heartfield the Performance: 1914–1917

Four “A Political Struwwelpeter?” John Heartfield's Early Film Animation and the Wartime Crisis of Photographic Representation: 1917–1918

Five A Spectacular Reflection: Heartfield’s Return to Photomontage and Berlin’s Postwar Dada Movement: 1918-1920

Six From the Shop Window to the Book Cover: 1920–1929

Epilogue The Artist of German Communism: 1926–1933


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