Up now at Load of Fun is a display of political posters and postcards by John Heartfield, Klaus Staeck, and Joseph Beuys. These three men’s interrelated careers as artists and activists (a distinction they would probably not honor) provide insight into German political and artistic life in the 20th century. The show is a fantastic opportunity to see these significant works in person.
John Heartfield (1891-1968) was a pioneer of the agitprop photomontage in Germany during the Weimar Republic and into the Third Reich. Trained in advertising, applied design and film, and observant of the atrocities of World War I, Heartfield understood the power of the photographic image in manipulating people for good or for bad. Heartfield cut out photos from the newspaper as well as his own original images and combined them with texts to create poignant and memorable anti-fascist and pro-Communist posters and book covers. His work was distributed in a variety of publications, some produced by the official German Communist Party, and some with fellow artist Georg Grosz as a part of their Malik Press.
Like Grosz, Heartfield was associated with Berlin Dada, and was thus involved with the questioning of the role art could take in a revolutionary society taking place at that time. On the one hand Dada rejected bourgeois society and its veneration of art and culture (“Kunst ist Scheisse,” they declared), and on the other they sought visual tactics for assisting revolutionary aims. Later, Heartfield worked officially for the German Communist party, creating posters in promotion of specific events and elections. Aware of his dissentious publications, the SS came after Heartfield in 1933, and he just barely escaped (through a window) to Prague, and then to England.
Klaus Staeck (b. 1938), a lawyer by profession, would years later in the 1960s build on Heartfield’s legacy to again create posters and postcards with strong political messages. Unlike Heartfield, but similar to some of Heartfield’s contemporaries in Dada, Staeck’s works tend to be laced with a black humor and incorporate pop cultural references like King Kong and Old Master paintings, things which Heartfield’s staunchly anti-bourgeois, pro-revolutionary stance would have precluded him from using. Commenting on the issue of art and politics in a recent interview, Staeck said, “Art has only one chance . . . and that is to create haunting, provocative images. It has to express something in images which in words would have hardly any effect.”
Joseph Beuys (1921-1986), though younger than Heartfield, was old enough to have fought in World War II, and would have been familiar with Heartfield. A friend and collaborator of Staeck’s (Staeck printed posters for Beuys), Beuys created posters in promotion of his artwork as well as of the Green Party. Beuys’ philosophy on art, life and politics sought a combination of these categories into emancipatory actions and “Social Sculpture.”
The political poster and postcard, distributed on the street or in low-cost publications remains a potent tool for organizing and reaching a diverse audience, and one need only walk down the street from Load of Fun to see this. Several styles and techniques of posters providing information about the May 1st General Strike, taking place in cities all over the world, can be seen along North and Charles Streets. There is no comparison to be attempted between the situations of Heartfield, Staeck, and Beuys and our own, but it’s obvious that the confluence of political and economic unrest, and a strong, vibrant artist and activist community results in the use of these strategies, and that much is owed to these three figures for this tradition.
The Posters of John Heartfield, Postcards of Joseph Beuys and Klaus Staeck is on view until Saturday the 21st. Load of Fun is located at 120 W. North Ave and is open by appointment only.