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The following brief biography of the ground breaking German
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 this Internet 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, satirically mocking and actively resisting 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.” (See back of photo above). 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) except one, 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 exercise 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, Wieland. 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 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 Millennium.
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. It may easily have been the second most popular magazine in Nazi 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.
In Göring: The Executioner of the Third Reich (AIZ, Prague, September 14, 1933), Hitler's designated successor is depicted as a bloody butcher.
Meaning of Geneva, Where Capital Lives, There Can Be No Peace (AIZ, Berlin, November 27, 1932), shows a 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.
As Germany 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 prolific 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.
Incredibly, 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.
Force to flee from Berlin, 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 had to again run for his life—this time to England—before the imminent Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. He was interned for a time in England as an enemy alien, then release as 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.
Humboldt University in East Berlin offered Heartfield the position of “Professorship of Satirical Graphics” in 1947.
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 Bertolt Brecht and Stefan Heym that, after six 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 addressing the threat of nuclear war, 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 original montages.