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Die Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (The Worker's Illustrated Magazine), 1921–1938: A History of Germany's Other Avant-Garde

Andrés Mario Zervigón, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
Paul Mellon Senior Fellow, 2013 – 2014

The Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ) was a popular radical-left magazine that pioneered startlingly new uses of photography and graphic design and significantly defined the cutting edge of Europe’s visual culture between the wars. Yet standing behind the aesthetic innovations of this popular German weekly was a staff of extremist politicians and traditionally trained print professionals. My book-length research project at CASVA explored the history of the AIZ to redefine what it meant to be part of the avant-garde. I can now propose that in this case, far from being the invention of a lone aesthetic genius or group of spirited artists, a modernist visual language was produced by people working in professions far removed from the arts.

zervigon-2013-2014

“13 Jahre Hindenburg” (Thirteen Years of Hindenburg), centerfold photoessay, AIZ, September 28, 1927: 8 – 9. Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – PK / Abteilung Historische Drucke / Signatur: 2” Ue 526/12:R

Opening the pages of the AIZ in the second half of the 1920s was like peering into a kaleidoscope of photographic fragments. As a reader turned its pages, multiple pictorial shards slid against each other, arrows pointed, graphs indicated, and text divulged the news that mainstream press outlets had seemingly concealed. To create these eye-catching visions, which magazines such as Life and Vu later adopted, the AIZ developed formal and content-based strategies that attracted one of Germany’s largest interwar magazine readerships. In the process, it disseminated the most forward-looking aesthetic innovations to a mass audience, particularly in the realm of photography.

My evidence for this proposition consists of archival material that betrays the AIZ’s fundamental difference from its printed competitors. Unlike most illustrated magazines, which relied on large-scale advertising programs for their income, this one received the greater part of its funding from its secret sponsor, the Communist International (Comintern) in Moscow. It therefore responded to an entirely different set of demands that help account for its astonishing inventiveness The popular Berliner-Illustrirte [sic] Zeitung, for instance, sought large circulation numbers to keep its advertising rates high and correspondingly avoided controversial content that might offend readers. As the magazine’s picture editor Kurt Korff explained, “it was not the importance of the material that determined the selection and acceptance of our pictures, but solely the allure of the photo itself.” By contrast, the AIZ, as a Comintern-funded propaganda paper unconcerned with advertising revenue, specifically sought tendentious photographic content.

To aid this quest, the AIZ staff devised creative and highly partisan forms of captioning, cropping, juxtaposition, and montage to prompt a jolting political interpretation of just about any photograph. What the magazine’s storied publisher Willi Münzenberg (1889 – 1940) said of his competitors applied best to his own product: by employing “a combination of several pictures with their captions and accompanying text . . . a skillful editor can reverse the significance of any photograph and influence a reader who lacks political sophistication in any direction he chooses.” This mistrust of photography as an inherently unstable yet persuasive mode of communication, expressed by a publisher who specifically sought the medium’s combative use, demonstrate what I term photo-ambivalence, a simultaneous suspicion of and attraction to photography’s documentary capacity. This conflict, particularly under Comintern pressure to use photography aggressively, made the AIZ continually rethink the medium’s persuasive potential in creative ways.

As my analysis stresses, Münzenberg and his staff were not alone in their photo-ambivalence but shared it with another circle of people to a similarly powerful effect: the artistic avant-garde. Both groups thought that mimetic representation, even in its most modern forms — photography and film — was simply inadequate in the unprecedented conditions of modern reality. Bauhaus professor and pioneer photographer László Moholy-Nagy (1895 – 1946), for example, dismissed mimesis as the stultifying re-presentation of given relationships, while Russian avant-gardist Alexander Rodchenko (1891 – 1956) insisted that no single photograph could adequately grasp or “synthesize” contemporary reality. Their innovations in cameraless photography (photograms), photomontage, and photographs made from vertiginous vantage points resulted from their ambivalence about the medium. For both the avant-garde and the AIZ staff, photography had to be radically reinvented if it was to be used at all in the modern age.

Yet, the magazine counted no artists among its full-time staff, and certainly no one of Moholy-Nagy’s or Rodchenko’s stature. Instead, the AIZ was produced by communists, who saw themselves as a political vanguard, and customarily formed print technicians, who remained isolated from the avant-garde, at least until the mid-1930s, well after developing their signature style. My book explains how these women and men devised their own approaches to photography based on the strongly mixed feelings about the medium they held and the extreme conditions and dictates they confronted. The AIZ’s staff was Germany’s other avant-garde, a politically energized collective capable of pioneering new uses of photography and graphic design that often advanced well beyond the achievements of contemporary artists.

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