Artwork of the Month, April 2023: Mánes streamlining the caricature exhibition by Adolf Hoffmeister (1934)

On 26 April 1934, the Prague-based satirical magazine Simplicus published a caricature on its cover addressing the growing international influence of the National Socialist Party on foreign cultural affairs. The caricature, drawn by the avant-garde artist Adolf Hoffmeister (1902–1973), shows an exhibition setting, in which portraits of National Socialist figureheads Adolf Hitler, Josef Goebbels, and Franz von Papen are on display. Below them, members of the Mánes artist association selection committee stand around a photograph by Hermann Goering. The caption below the image adds a comment by the German ambassador in Prague, Walter Koch, whose backside is turned towards the viewers: ‘Gentlemen, this one is perhaps still a bit too sharp.’ The main joke of the image is, of course, that the works discussed in the selection process are not caricatures but portrait photographs, presented as caricatures in an act of ridicule.

Adolf Hoffmeister Manes

Adolf Hoffmeister: ‘Mánes streamlining the caricature exhibition in accordance with the ambassador’s wishes’, Simplicus, 1:14 (26 April 1934) © Czech National Literature Archives, Prague

In the typical cover style of the satirical magazine Simplicus, Mánes streamlining the caricature exhibition highlights small features in a single colour, this time rusty red, and Hoffmeister has reduced the characters to their most recognisable characteristics in his signature style of drawing. Unusually for the publication (albeit not for Hoffmeister’s work), the image contains photographs. As official portraits of Nazi leaders, their inclusion in the caricature was twofold: on the one hand, the image suggested that, were the Nazis to decide what to include in the exhibition, it would merely become a celebration of Hitler and his closest supporters; on the other hand, Hoffmeister’s inclusion of the photographs as a stand-in for caricatures implied that those portrayed were themselves caricatures.

While the image can fairly easily be identified as an anti-fascist image, its precise context might be harder to decipher for contemporary readers: Hoffmeister’s cartoon serves as a retort to political events that put the International Exhibition of Caricature at the premises of the Mánes Artist’s Association (1934) into the international spotlight. Introducing the wider context of the caricature, the magazine it was published in, and its artist, this Artwork of the Month essay focuses on an instance when caricature gained growing traction as art in the international fight against fascism and when Prague briefly stood at the centre of such efforts.

Claiming caricature: The interwar avant-garde and anti-fascism

In the early 1920s, the Czech avant-garde group Devětsil emphasised the use of humour as a social and political weapon. In the article ‘Tendentious Cartoonists’ Jaroslav Svrček argued in Devětsil’s first anthology Revoluční Sborník Devětsil of 1922 that caricature was an integral part of the Czech avant-garde as one of the truest representatives of modern art, particularly as a medium for political agitation.[1] As Svrček focused specifically on visual satire in the form of caricature, his interpretation drew together a formal specificity that defined the medium through its abstraction, its exaggeration and its socio-political potential. For Svrček these elements harboured political potential, with the goal to critically inform the masses. He emphasised the social importance of humour, paying particular attention to the medium’s artistic and political potential based on the revolutionary fervour of the Devětsil group.

Svrček’s text reflects how the central narrative of caricature in the early twentieth century was shaped by considerations of the medium’s aggressive potential, relating both to acts of resistance and attack. Additionally, the thoroughly modern character of its visual form was emphasised, based on its characteristics of exaggeration and abstraction. Not only were these elements seen to correspond to the visual avant-garde of the time, they also supported the medium’s social value. Drawing out the most important parts of a caricature’s content – exaggeration and abstraction – presented it as a contemporary art form that could be used to engage the masses. Even though caricature was used as a medium by the radical right as much as by the left, it gained a strong presence in the antifascist movements of the 1930s, where avant-garde artists and writers claimed caricature for their cause. Svrček is one example for this, Hoffmeister another.

Adolf Hoffmeister: transformations of avant-garde caricature

Hoffmeister had a long and extraordinarily prolific career, which began in the early 1920s as a member of the Czech avant-garde group Devětsil, and he remained active until his death in 1973. He was a painter, prominent caricaturist and writer, a political activist and, not least, a collector and promoter of non-European art.[2] Born in Prague in 1902, Hoffmeister initially studied law and, briefly, Egyptology, before beginning to work as a correspondent and editor for Pestrý týden during the 1920s and 30s, often travelling abroad. He collaborated with the avant-garde Liberated Theatre, and interviewed and caricatured numerous cultural figures, including Tristan Tzara, James Joyce, Le Corbusier and George Bernard Shaw.[3]

While Hoffmeister‘s early artistic work as a member of Devětsil was dedicated to primitivist painting, including works such as Columbus (1921–1922), he later became an important proponent of Czech post-war surrealism, working with combinations of drawings and collage, such as The Strange World of Max Ernst (1960).  Humour played an important role in his art throughout and, by the late 1920s, he increasingly engaged it in his vocal opposition to rising fascism, both with a prolific output of caricatures and a body of theoretical writing on the topic.[4] In the most simple terms, Hoffmeister noted that the caricaturist ought to ‘exaggerate the actual characteristics of people ad absurdum, until their comical nature emerges in all its tragicomedy; that is the first step towards caricature.’[5] Hoffmeister achieved this in his own work through a strictly economized line and hard-hitting satire wrapped in soft shapes, creating a juxtaposition that emphasised its critical content through abstraction. This sense of playfulness is also evident in ‘Mánes streamlining the caricature exhibition’, which dissects the scandal surrounding the International Exhibition of caricature that Hoffmeister organised on behalf of the Mánes artists association.

The International Exhibition of Caricature and Humour: Caricature as an antifascist statement and its consequences

By the 1930s, caricature was widely understood as a modern art form that was particularly prominent in antifascist activism. Karel Teige (1900–1951) noted in reference to the exhibition: ‘Caricature is a new and specific sphere of bourgeois art, which is not bourgeois but anti-bourgeois, in which there is an immanent need for conflict and resistance to the bourgeois world: caricature is an art which, with greater or lesser determination, breaks through the bonds of bourgeois art.’[6] As this complex definition indicates, avant-garde artists and writers such as Teige, Svrček and Hoffmeister positioned caricature decidedly to the left of the political spectrum, emphasising its role as a form attack, which was of artistic merit and carried elements of social ‘truth’ that was accessible to a large part of the population. As such, it is little surprise that the Mánes International Exhibition of Caricature brought together a range of works, that commented on contemporary political events from an antifascist perspective. With artists such as George Grosz (1893–1959), John Heartfield (1891–1968) and Thomas Theodor Heine (1867–1948), as well as Czech artists such as Antonín Pelc (1895–1967), František Bidlo (1895–1945) and Hoffmeister, the exhibition aimed to make a concerted stance against Fascism in a city that had become a significant location of exile – with some unexpected repercussions.

Heartfield Adolf the Superhuman

John Heartfield: Adolf, the Superhuman, A-I-Z, 11: 29 (17 July 1932) © Research Library, The Getty Research Institute

Soon after its opening, the German ambassador to Prague, Walter Koch, called for the exhibition to be censored due to its anti-Hitler caricatures. He specifically referred to Heartfield’s photomontage contributions, including Adolf, the superhuman (1932), which caricatured the German dictator as money-hungry, with his spine depicted as a column of gold coins, and his heart replaced by a swastika. Heartfield, whose photomontages had risen to great popularity on the covers of the Communist illustrated Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung since the late 1920s, was one of the first artists on the National Socialist’s blacklist when they came to power. He fled across the German Czech border on foot without documents, receiving a residency permit on 26 April 1933.[7] The exhibition was the first occasion his work was shown in Prague on such a large scale, including thirty six photomontages. While the scandal surrounding these images at of the exhibition was only the first of three separate occasions upon which the National Socialists tried to intervene in Czech exhibitions because of Heartfield’s work, it is undoubtedly the best-known instance.

Mánes immediately refused to bend to Koch’s demands, arguing that this was an art exhibition, whose freedom of expression had to be secured. Yet the Czechoslovak foreign minister Kamil Krofta stepped in after renewed complaints by Koch, and arranged for Adolf, the superhuman, along with five other photomontages by Heartfield, to be taken down under police supervision, stating that the works ‘defamed and insulted the president of the [Third] Reich’.[8] In the following days, Hoffmeister recorded, National Socialist youth groups smashed several windows of the Mánes exhibition building, and the National Socialist newspapers Das Schwarze Korps and Der Stümer published special issues that aimed to defame the German émigré artists and their Czech supporters.[9]

As may be expected, the scandal won the exhibition great press coverage, bringing an unprecedented number of visitors to the show – as many as 3,000 on a weekday – which led to a postponement of the original closing date from 6 May to 3 June 1934.[10] There were also repercussions on an international political scale. The Austrian regime of Engelbert Dollfuß demanded censorship of another set of Heartfield caricatures, which, replacing the works already removed, depicted the Austrian Chancellor. Protests by the Italian and the Polish governments soon followed. Yet none of the grievances of these countries had the same weight as that of the Third Reich. Caricatures of Dollfuß, Mussolini and the Polish leader Piłsudski were simply moved from the public display window into the closed gallery space to avoid further intervention. Despite, or rather because of, these international complaints, responses to the exhibition in the Prague press were overwhelmingly positive. Reviews hailed the show’s achievements, with the German-language Prager Montagblatt, for example, announcing: ‘Caricature is an active art. It takes a position, it fights.’[11]

The political stakes at the Prague show were high: the images also put Czechoslovakia in a precarious diplomatic situation, as a country that was well aware of its powerlessness against the Third Reich in case of worsening relations between the two, as Krofta’s reaction to the ambassador’s complaints has demonstrated. The International Exhibition of Caricature in general, and Heartfield’s works in particular, thus represented Czechoslovakia’s problematic position as a ‘staging point’ in the 1930s: on the one hand, the country was eager to show its democratic openness in the face of increasing radicalisation across central Europe, yet on the other hand it had trouble defending such a strong position against its German opponent.

A bulwark of satire

The scandal around Heartfield’s images highlighted the fact that caricature had gained paramount importance as a cultural weapon. While the exhibition represented a specific instance in which this gained political traction, antifascist caricature gained its highest visibility in the printed press, particularly evident in relation to the exhibition scandal and its reception in the exile publication Simplicus, as Hoffmeister’s caricature illustrates.

By April 1934, Czechoslovakia had become the last democracy in interwar central Europe. Not only had the National Socialists risen to power in Germany a year earlier, but only a few months prior, the brutal crushing of the socialist February Uprising in Vienna had also cemented the position of the authoritarian Dollfuß regime in Austria. These political events had wide-ranging repercussions in Czechoslovakia. Quickly, the country was transformed into a short-lived centre of exile for German speaking migrants fleeing persecution from the Third Reich and Dollfuß dictatorship. As a country with a sizeable Germany minority, it was a place of some familiarity for German and Austrian migrants, and the Bohemian Forest and the Krkonoše and Ore Mountains provided a natural border which was relatively easy to cross.[12] That there was little language barrier was particularly relevant for artists, writers and journalists, who could continue their work from abroad, especially when several progressive German publications, including the Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung, began to be published in Prague.[13] Most of the cultural figures who emigrated – among them, Bertolt Brecht, John Heartfield, Thomas Theodor Heine, and Oskar Kokoschka – were on the political Left, Jewish, or both.

Émigré publishing ventures not only meant that established magazines managed to remain afloat, they also offered new opportunities for collaboration between Czech and German artists and journalists, including Simplicus. Founded as an antifascist satirical magazine, Simplicus built on the legacy on Simplicissimus, the famous German satirical magazine, which had been subjected to national socialist suppression in 1933.[14] Exile publishing could only function with some local collaboration, and Simplicus did this in a manner that not only offered a mouthpiece to exiled artists and writers, but also embedded them in Prague culture. Indeed, in an attempt to widen the publication’s readership, Simplicus was published in separate German and Czech editions for several months, until financial constraints no longer allowed a Czech edition.

As a prominent exile publication, Simplicus has received much attention in relation to the position of Prague as a staging point of exile in the early 1930s.[15] By comparison, however, the role local artists played in the publication, and the question of how Simplicus allowed them to develop their own work has been much less discussed.[16] This is despite the fact that the publication and the International Exhibition of Caricature, played an important role in raising the international visibility of their work. Indeed, when it comes to antifascist caricature from Czechoslovakia, three artists stand out in particular: Bidlo, Pelc and Hoffmeister. As Hoffmeister’s caricature in focus here shows, Czech leftist artists quickly positioned themselves against National Socialist interventions. Indeed, Hoffmeister was one of the most outspoken artists against fascism in the 1930s, and in subsequent years he would become one of the most prominent anti-fascist Czech artists abroad, culminating with an exhibition of caricatures at New York’s Museum of Modern art, together with Pelc, in 1943.[17]

Erich Godal

Erich Godal: ‘Prážská mezinárodní výstava karikatur’, Simplicus, 1:12 (12 April 1934) p. 3. © Czech National Literature Archives, Prague

As the artists contributing to Simplicus were strongly represented at the exhibition, it is hardly surprising that the diplomatic outrage surrounding it was not left unanswered. Responding to the National Socialists’ uproar over the exhibition, the most immediate reaction was published just days after the show’s opening, on 12 April 1934, and another on the cover page of the following issue. The German-Jewish caricaturist Erich Godal’s (1899–1969) ‘Prague’s international exhibition of caricature’ depicts three men in Nazi uniform sneaking past one of the densely hung exhibition walls, sniggering ‘This is supposed to be caricature? They only show reality!’ Above the image, a caption explains ‘Caricaturists of the Third Reich, from Simplicissimus, refuse to participate in the exhibition.’ The works on the walls are familiar examples from Simplicus artists, including Bidlo, Hoffmeister, Pelc and Godal, while the men below them carry maps titled ‘K. Arnold’, ‘Simplicissimus (Nazi)’ and ‘Olaf G.’ – referring to what remained of Simplicissimus and its collaborator-artists. In the splitting of the visual plane between the anti-Fascist artists on the wall and their counterparts in the hands of the Nazis below, Godal literally drew a line between himself and his former colleagues.

More importantly still, the exhibited artists lay a claim to ‘truth’, which the Nazis confirm by remarking ‘They only show reality!’ At the same time, the uniformed men appeared not to have any sense of humour, because they take the caricatures on the wall at face value. By referring to the exhibition, therefore, Godal’s image contained wider assertions about the relationship between the political Left, National Socialism, and humour as an ideological weapon.

Adolf Hoffmeister Silently does it

Adolf Hoffmeister: Silently does it, 1933 © Galerie výtvarného uměni v Havlíčkové Brode

In comparison to Godal’s caricature, Hoffmeister’s take on the exhibition scandal reiterated and reinterpreted his colleague’s attack, and the two overlapped on two points: first, both accorded caricature the highest status of political criticism, likening it to ‘truthful’ appearance. Second, they suggested that the National Socialists had no sense of humour. Godal insinuated that the National Socialists perceived the Czech caricaturists’ drawings as ‘reality’, implying that they did not understand what was satirical about them, while Hoffmeister proposed that their ideal exhibition would simply contain official portraits of Nazi leaders, or that, out of sheer awe of their leaders, they could not bear to have their image exhibited.

John Heartfield, On the Occasion of the Intervention

John Heartfield: On the Occasion of the Intervention of the Third Reich,
1934 © David King Collection, Tate Modern

Heartfield responded to the censoring of the Prague exhibition with the photomontage On the occasion of the Third Reich, published on the cover of the Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung on 3 May 1934. A slightly later reaction than Godal and Hoffmeister’s, Heartfield’s image contained the caption ‘the more pictures they remove, the more visible reality becomes!’[18] Like Godal’s caricature, the photomontage referenced works by Heartfield himself in a collage style. Yet, where Godal depicted a scene at the exhibition, Heartfield layered his work so that the spots where works had been removed revealed a brick building with barred windows, and a bloodied corpse. The contrast between the dark imagery provided by Heartfield, and Godal and Hoffmeister’s drawings, is striking; where the former showed suffering, death and imprisonment, the latter focused entirely on the NSDAP leadership and the exhibition. Thus, even though both sides played on notions of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’, the realities they referred to differed.

If we accept the description of Heartfield’s photomontages as ‘oases of freedom’, could the Czech caricaturist’s images be understood in a similar way? Czechoslovakia was still a democracy in 1934, but Hoffmeister’s caricatures exemplified similar courage in attacking the National Socialists after the Czechoslovak government had bowed to their wishes. In this light, local Czech artists provided the other side of the coin of antifascism – one that was utterly aware of the German threat and felt allegiance with its exiled artists, but also one that wrapped its criticism in lighter visual forms.

Julia Secklehner

[1] Jaroslav Svrček, ‘Tendenční Kreslíři’, in Revoluční Sborník Devětsil, eds Jaroslav Seifert and Karel Teige (Prague, 1922) p. 154.

[2] Adolf Hoffmeister, Made In Japan: Cestopisná reportáž o zemi, kde vybuchla první atomová puma (Prague, 1958); Adolf Hoffmeister, Kuo-Chua: Cestopisná reportáž o čínském malířství (Prague, 1954); Adolf Hoffmeister, Mrakodrapy v pralese (Prague, 1964).

[3] Karel Srp, Adolf Hoffmeister (Prague 2004) p. 74.

[4] Adolf Hoffmeister, Poezie a karikatura (Prague 1961); Adolf Hoffmeister, Sto let ceské karikatury (Prague 1953).

[5] Hoffmeister, Poezie a karikatura, p. 79

[6] Karel Teige, ‘Svobodné umění‘, Doba, 24 May 1934, p. 141.

[7] Jindřich Toman, ‘Émigré Traces: John Heartfield in Prague’, History of Photography, 32:3 (2008) p. 273.

[8] Ondřej Chrobák and Tomáš Winter, V okovech smíchu: Karikatura a české umění 1900–1950 (Prague, 2006) p. 80. The other images by Heartfield that were removed are Der Sinn des Hitlergrußes, S.M. Adolf, Göring, der Henker des Dritten Reichs and Das Mörderkreuz; see Keith Holz, Modern German Art for Thirties Paris, Prague, and London: Resistance and Acquiescence in a Democratic Public Sphere (Ann Arbor, 2004) p. 85.

[9] Adolf Hoffmeister, ‘Monteurdada John Heartfield’, in Stále ještě… výstava John Heartfield fotomontaže v upomínku na velkou mezinárodní výstavu karikatur v Mánesu v roce 1934 (Prague, 1964) p. 10.

[10] Sabine Kriebel, Revolutionary Beauty: The Radical Photomontages of John Heartfield (Berkeley, 2014) p. 217.

[11] ‘In tyrannos’, Prager Montagblatt, 9 April 1934.

[12] Peter Becher and Sigrid Canz, Staging Point Prague: German Exiles 1933–1939, (Munich, 1989) p. 22.

[13] Becher and Cantz, Staging Point Prague, p. 92.

[14] Patrick Rössler, ‘Wielding a sharp pencil against the Nazi regime: The illustrators of the satirical magazines Simplicus and Der Simpl (1934–1935) and their work in exile in Prague,’ Matériaux pour l’histoire de notre temps, 135136:1 (2020) p. 16.

[15] Kriebel, Revolutionary Beauty; Holz, Modern German Art.

[16] Chrobák and Winter, V okovech smíchu; Tomáš Prokůpek and Martin Foret, Před komiksem. Formování domácího obrázkového seriálu ve 2. polovině XIX. Století (Prague, 2016).

[17] Anna Pravdová, ‘Part 1: Anti-Fascist Caricatures by Adolf Hoffmeister and Antonín Pelc at MoMA in 1943Post. Notes on Modern and Contemporary Art Around the Globe, 4 January 2017.

[18] Kriebel, Revolutionary Beauty, p. 215.


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