The title of this dual portrait refers to the artist’s close friend and collaborator John Heartfield, while the face is that of Grosz himself. The figure’s uniform and the drab, spartan surroundings suggest a sanatorium, where both artists spent time: Heartfield in 1915, after having feigned a nervous breakdown during his military service; and Grosz in 1917, after having suffered or simulated mental instability just one month after he was drafted. Pasted fragments of a postcard, including the words "Good luck in [your] new home," serve as a window for the tiny cell. Franz Jung, referred to in the title, was an expressionist writer and founding member of Club Dada.
In this work Grosz combines traditional, delicately hued watercolor with pasted photomechanical reproductions in an unreal space, inspired by the work of the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico. These pictorial devices convey the satirical ideology that Grosz shared with his subject, John Heartfield, a friend, a fellow Berlin Dada artist, and a frequent collaborator. Heartfield is depicted as bald, grim-faced, and with clenched fists and a machine heart—the personification of the politically defiant anti-authoritarian, which was a stance that infused Heartfield's own art.
His uniform and the drab walls and floor suggest a prisoner in his cell, and the segmented view of a building in the distance, as if glimpsed through a narrow window, bears the mordant inscription: "Lots of luck in your new home." The mechanical gears indicate Heartfield's identity as an engineer or constructor (monteur) of photomontages. In fact, Heartfield called himself a monteur-dada, rather than an artist, and conceived of his own assembled works as images intended only for mass reproduction in magazines and on book covers and posters.
The Engineer Heartfield is translated from the German, Die Monteur Heartfield. The change from "Monteur" to "Engineer" is a little misleading in that the work itself is meant to be a montage, that is to say, an assembly or mounting; in English "engineered" or constructed, while closest, does not quite give the sense of the technique. Here the image is made of cut-and-pasted mechanical reproductions from magazines and technical journals pasted to an extraordinarily delicate and precise watercolor, showing virtuosity as well as invention. The marriage of the mechanical and the artistic is matched by the marriage of the "real" and the constructed in the kind of strange juxtaposition of elements and pseudo-illusionistic space invented by de Chirico but here owed directly to German army photographers who placed portrait heads into idealized oleographic mounts. The antiart aspect of using mechanical repreductions is pure Dada, as is the meeting of high and low art. Pontus Hulten has pointed out that "The 'machine heart' has nothing to do with the old mechanistic interpretation of man as a machine but signifies the degree of identification with the utopian dream of what machines might achieve in the future. Those who have machines for hearts must be very special and strong men, whose spirits are ruled by no weak, sentimental organs but by instruments of rationality and logic." Here Heartfield, Grosz's colleague and friend, is portrayed during one of his stays in prison for political activism—his beard delicately etched as if after several days' growth—still fierce and courageous, while the inscription seen out the window in the upper right wishes him "lots of luck in his new home."
The sly, pugnacious character with the machine heart does not much resemble the artist's friend and Dada co-conspirator Helmut Herzfeld, alias John Heartfield. Toughness and belligerence have been added. If the result evokes a convict, imprisoned in his cell, with a broken water-jug beside him, then that, surely, was how Grosz conceived the antiauthoritarian Berlin Dadaist.
The blue smock suggests prison garb; also, however, the outfit of a mechanic. Heartfield was known as "Monteur-Dada," for his concentration on photomontage—which term (wrote Raoul Hausmann) "translates our aversion at playing artists...thinking of ourselves as engineers, we intended to assemble, construct [montieren] our works." Berlin was the most agressive of Dada centers...When Dada began in Zurich, it opposed machinery and civilization, as associable with the First World War and the materialism that had producted it, and proposed instead—most notably in [Jean] Arp's work—an instinctive and primitive escape from its times. Outside that neutral oasis, however, such an approach seemed far too passive. In hungry, war-weary Berlin, it seemed simply "metaphysical," and there Dada engaged with its times. Hence the importance of photomontage, and of the caricature-based documentary realism that frames it here. Dada was to replace art by documentation, and thus provide a more authentic record of the world than a picture of a narrative could....
But, of course, there is no such thing as inchoate experience; neither can anything that is crafted be simply "an expression of the times." It was all a Dadaist fiction: a way of giving factual shape to the alogical world of instinct that lay at the heart of the Dada imagination. Dada in Berlin, no less than Zurich, opposed the technological with the instinctive....In Berlin, it produced photomontage and documentary realism. For what was required were forms that could give to something unseeable the appearance of something real that had actually been documented, thus to subvert mechanically the modern machinist world and discover within it a primitive internal world as "real" as the world outside. And when, as here, the space of this world needs to be shown, the irrational perspective of [Giorgio] de Chirico is used to define it. But when the effect of de Chirico's art is of traditional techniques used for modern purposes, that of Grosz's is exactly the opposite. Modern techniques are employed for traditional purposes, namely didactic and ideological ones. Modernism is used but not engaged. "Doubt became our life," wrote [Richard] Huelsenbeck of Dada in Berlin. "Doubt and outrage." It was a kind of doubt so fundamental as to suspect even the language in which it was spoken.