Drawing on archival and recently published documents, this essay examines the historical encounter of two major communist photomonteurs in Moscow in 1931—John Heartfield, visiting from Weimar Germany under the auspices of the Comintern, and Gustavs Klucis, a Latvian resident of the city and thus a member of one of its diaspora nationalities. Despite their formal and procedural differences, both artists promoted photomontage as the premier agitational weapon of world communism and Soviet propaganda, contra the rise of documentary photography as well as various modes of realist painting. The essay provides a new narrative that moves beyond the polarity of realism and constructivism that has shaped our understanding of their work and relationship and has also tended to squeeze out the contradictions of the visual objects to which it supposedly pertains, rendering them mere epiphenomena. An examination of Heartfield's visual production on the ground in the Soviet Union shows how the German monteur responded to the challenge of working in the overwhelmingly affirmative culture of the Five-Year Plans, rather than simply how he was instrumentalized by others in the story of the great undoing of constructivism. Analyzing in detail for the first time his contribution to the photo-illustrated propaganda magazine USSR in Construction—on the reconstruction of Moscow and the Soviet oil industry—the essay probes the relation of Heartfield's production to that of Klucis. It concludes with a brief consideration of three conspicuously Klucis-related photomontages that Heartfield produced for the AIZ in 1934 during his Prague exile.
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Maria Gough; Back in the USSR: John Heartfield, Gustavs Klucis, and the Medium of Soviet Propaganda. New German Critique 1 August 2009; 36 (2 (107)): 133–183. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0094033X-2009-004
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