The following four excerpts are the introduction to David King’s “John Heartfield, Laughter Is A Devastating Weapon.” They illustrate the detailed research that went into this publication focusing on John Heartfield’s classic political photomontage. Excerpt Four is an exciting account of Heartfield’s close escape from a Nazi assassination squad. Shortly afterwards, Heartfield would rise to number five on The Gestapo’s Most Wanted List.
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“Helmut Herzfeld was born on June 19, 1891 in Schmargendorf, a residential quarter in the Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf district of Berlin, bordering on Grunewald Forest to the west and Dahlem to the south, and made popular at the time by peasants proﬁting from real estate in the rapidly expanding city. His mother Alice, née Stolzenberg (1867-1911), was a textile worker and political activist from a Protestant background. His Father, Franz Herzfeld (1862-1908) was from a Jewish family of leading cotton manufacturers on the Rhine but at a young age turned his back on a life in industry and chose to become a socialist/anarchist poet, playwright and author, writing under the pseudonym Franz Held.”
CURATOR’S NOTE: Eight years later in 1899, Helmut Herzfeld (John Heartfield), his brother Wieland, and their sisters, Charlotte and Hertha, are abandoned by their parents in the woods at night. All the children manage to survive the ordeal.
“Seventeen years later [circa 1916] Helmut Herzfeld would change his name to John Heartfield in a protest a against German nationalism and become the greatest political artist and designer of the twentieth century.”
“The brothers [John Heartfield and Wieland Herzfelde] first met George Grosz in 1915. Wieland: “My brother and I, though not without our share of bitter humour, were completely different from Grosz, who seemed to us like a freezing cold shower – shocking, sobering and immensely invigorating.” A great friendship with the artist developed and, according to Grosz, the following year he and Heartfield together made an art-historic breakthrough in Grosz’s studio at five o’clock one May morning when they started cutting and pasting pieces of photographs together, inventing photomontage. For Heartﬁeld, scissors and the scalpel knife became his new paint brushes, and from these early decorative witticisms he was able to magnify the new medium with a heavyweight political vision that hit the unsuspecting viewer straight between the eyes and into the brain.”
“Berlin, April 14, 1933: They came for him in the night. The paramilitary SS burst into the apartment block and headed straight for the raised ground floor studio where John Heartfield was in the middle of packing up his artwork, knowing that his only chance left of survival was a life in exile; he was on their most wanted list. Hearing them dislocating his heavy wooden door, he dived through his french windows and leapt over the balcony into the darkness. He landed badly and sprained his ankle. The Nazis made a flashlight sweep search of the darkened courtyard below yet failed to focus on an old metal bin in the far corner on which were displayed some enamel signs, the sort that advertise motor oil, or soap, or an aperitif. Under its battered lid, one of Hitler’s greatest enemies, far from having vanished into the ether, crouched in torment, squashed in a box full of the local residents’ garbage. For the next seven hours he hid there, toughing it out as he heard the nightmare sounds of the barbarians ransacking his studio and destroying his work.
When the raid was over, Heartfield quietly and unobtrusively opened the lid, climbed out of the bin, exited the courtyard and began his nerve-racking flight to Prague. Germany was now enemy territory, there was a high price on his head and he had nothing.”