The following brief biography of the
artist, John Heartfield, was written by his grandson,
John Joseph Heartfield, for The Encyclopedia of German-American Relations. It has since been slightly modified with additional information provided by respected Heartfield Scholars. See
“LINKS” for additional biographical information. For my personal recollections of my grandfather, please see the “FAQ” section of the Archive.
John Heartfield was a pioneer in the use of art as a political
weapon. His photomontages
became famous on both sides of the Atlantic as daring
and effective tools to
resist the worldwide threat of fascism in the middle
of the twentieth century.
He was born on June 19, 1891 in Berlin-Schmargendorf.
On the back of the photograph at left taken in 1912, he wrote his name “Helmut.” However, in 1917, while living in Berlin, he anglicized his name from Helmut Herzfeld
as a protest against anti-British fervor sweeping Germany.
One year earlier, he had destroyed all his paintings (mainly landscapes), believing they were
unworthy and irrelevant. However, soon he was to become the central figure
in the development of a new form of art that would have a profound effect
upon culture, politics, and society. It began very early one morning in 1920 when he and George Grosz
were experimenting with pasting pictures together. From this grew Heartfield's
lifetime obsession with what was to be known as photomontage.
Sometime during Heartfield’s seventh or eighth year of childhood, he and his three siblings were abandoned
by their parents in the woods. He was raised in a series of foster homes.
Throughout his life, he maintained a very close relationship with his brother,
In 1912, after studying arts and crafts in Munich and Berlin, he found work as a
commercial artist. From the beginning, Heartfield was infused with a
passionate belief that art existed not to glorify the artist but to
serve the common good.
In 1917, John Heartfield founded the Malik-Verlag publishing house in Berlin. At that time, his beloved brother, Wieland Herzfelde, who had changed his name from Wieland Herzfeld in 1913, was serving near the front. The brothers were soon to become partners in Malik-Verlag, with John being responsible for the majority of the graphics for its publications.
Also in 1917, Heartfield became a member of Berlin Club
Dada. In 1920 he helped organize the Erste Internationale Dada-Messe (First
International Dada Fair) in Berlin. Dadaists were the young lions of the
German art scene, opinionated provocateurs who often disrupted public art
gatherings and ridiculed the participants. They labeled traditional art trivial
and bourgeois. Heartfield was a vital member of a circle of German titans
that included Dada playwright Edwin Piscator, Bertolt Brecht, Hannah Hoch,
and a host of others.
In January of 1918, Heartfield joined the newly founded German
Communist Party (KPD). It is important to note that, throughout his life,
Heartfield was a devoted pacifist and never believed in violent revolution. He
had faith in both people and the truth and believed that if he brought the
two together, the result would be an improvement for the vast majority of
Members of Berlin Club Dada would have a profound effect upon him. He, in
turn, deeply influenced their work as well. His theater sets were vital
elements in the early works of Piscator and Brecht. Heartfield played a major
role in helping Brecht to realize the concept of the “alienation effect”
(Verfremdungs-effekt). This new theater technique was to remind spectators
that they were experiencing an enactment of reality and not reality itself.
Using minimal props and stark stages such as those created by Heartfield,
Brecht interrupted his plays at key junctures to encourage the audience to
be part of the action and not to lose themselves in it.
Heartfield preferred reality to artistic pretension. While he referred to
himself as a monteur, he enjoyed the title engineer. In the Museum of Modern Art in New York hangs a George Grosz Montage entitled, “The Engineer Heartfield.”
Although he did not wish to be labeled an artist, he had a full measure of an artist's passion. His
Dada contemporaries tied him to a chair and enraged him just to experience
the unbridled intensity of his emotions.
His strongest emotion, however, was
his hatred of German fascism. During the 1920s, Heartfield had produced a
great number of stunning photomontages, many of which were reproduced
as dust jackets for books such as his montage for Upton Sinclair's The
From 1930 to 1938, John Heartfield designed illustrations for the “Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung," a magazine published by the New German Press, which was run by the political activist Willi Münzenberg. The AIZ had a significant readership in Weimar-era Germany. After the National Socialists took control of Germany, the AIZ was published for German readers in Czechoslovakia, Austria, Switzerland, and easter France.
It is notable that prior to March of 1933, Heartfield lived in Berlin, where his fervent anti-fascist political montages appeared on the cover of the AIZ on newsstands throughout the city. This is a vital point, because during 1931, while he was living in Berlin, Heartfield's scathing anti-Nazi montages were visible at newsstands throughout the city.
Although he shined in several other mediums, such as stage sets and book covers, there's no doubt that Heartfield is best known for the satiric political montages
he created during the 1930s to expose The Third Reich. During the 1930s
and 1940s, he created some of his most famous montages: Adolf,
the Superman (published in the Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung [AIZ, Workers'
Illustrated Newspaper], Berlin, July 17, 1932), used a montaged X-ray to
expose gold coins in the Fuehrer's esophagus leading to a pile in his stomach
as he rants against the fatherland's enemies.
Goering: The Executioner of the Third Reich (AIZ, Prague, September 14, 1933), Hitler's designated
successor is depicted as a butcher.
Meaning of Geneva, Where Capital Lives, There Can Be
No Peace (AIZ, Berlin, November 27, 1932), shows the
dove of peace impaled on a blood-soaked bayonet in front of the League of
Nations, where the cross of the Swiss flag has morphed into a swastika.
Heartfield’s artistic output was prolific.
careened into fascism, Heartfield's montages filled the streets of Berlin. His
work was also circulated throughout the city in the form of posters.
Heartfield believed the best way to distribute his work to his audience was to distribute it through forms of mass media such
as periodicals, posters, and book jackets.
(NOTE: I’m certain my grandfather would be pleased and fascinated to see his work reproduced throughout the Internet and on this Digital Archive).
During his most profilic years, it was through rotogravure—an
engraving process whereby pictures, designs, and words are engraved into
the printing plate or printing cylinder—that he was able to reach the
audience he coveted.
Heartfield lived in Berlin until April 1933. On Good Friday, the SS
broke into his apartment, and he barely escaped by jumping from his
balcony. He then walked around the Sudeten Mountains to Czechoslovakia.
There, he continued to use the National Socialists' own words to expose the
truth behind their twisted dreams. In 1934, he montaged four bloody axes
tied together to form a swastika to mock The
Old Slogan in the “New” Reich: Blood and Iron (AIZ, Prague, March 8, 1934).
In 1938, he was forced once
again to run for his life—this time to England—before the imminent German
occupation of Czechoslovakia. He was interned for a time in England as an
enemy alien, and his health began to seriously deteriorate. His brother
Wieland was refused an English residency permit in 1939 and, with his
family, left for the United States. John wished to accompany his brother but
was refused entry.
In 1941, Heartfield made it clear that he wished to remain in England and did not wish to return to Germany (see John Heartfield Letter, 1941). He and his new
wife, Gertrud, found themselves with limited options. He was offered a
professorship of satirical graphics at the Humboldt University in East Berlin.
His response was, “Do I have to be a professor?”
He returned to East Berlin
in 1950 and was greeted with suspicion by the authorities because of the
length of his stay in England. For six years, he was unable to work as a artist and was
denied health benefits. He was suspected of “collaboration” by the East German
Government because of the amount of time he had lived in England and the fact his dentist
was under suspicion.
It was only through the intervention of Bertoldt Brecht and
Stefan Heym that, after eight years of official neglect, Heartfield was
formally admitted to the East German Akademie der Künste (Academy of the
Arts) in 1956. However his health has deteriorated and, although he subsequently produced some memorable
montages, he was never as prolific again.
John Heartfield died on April 26, 1968 in East Berlin, German Democratic Republic.
Almost all of John Heartfield’s surviving original art can be found within the comprehensive Heartfield Archiv in the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, Germany.
From April 15
to July 6, 1993, the second floor of the Museum of Modern Art in New York
City was the American venue for a critically acclaimed exhibit of Heartfield's