John Heartfield [Top. Credit: John J Heartfield Collection] is credited as the founder of modern photomontage.
His stunning political art became famous on both sides of the Atlantic as courageous effective artistic weapons that revealed, satirized, and opposed the worldwide threat of fascism and The Nazi Party.
From his early work as fledging painter to his embrace of Dada to the anti-fascist montages that made him a Nazi target, Heartfield’s life and work was a profile in courage.
This artist who openly attacked the Nazi Party while living in Berlin was five-foot-two inches tall, with red hair and blue eyes. His art was “a weapon.” Its ammunition was his imagination, scissors, glue pots, retoucher’s paint, and stacks of photographs and magazine articles. His montages conveyed moral, not literal, truths.
Adolf Der Übermensch and Goering: Der Henker are two examples of photomontages Heartfield produced and had widely distributed while he remained under constant threat of assassination by Hitler’s Third Reich.
HIS ART->Periodicals->AIZ contains more of John Heartfield’s anti-fascist photomontages, along comments and historical perspective.
He was born “Helmut Franz Josef Herzfeld” on June 19, 1891 in Berlin-Schmargendorf. The photo above of a young Helmut Herzfeld with a moustache was taken in 1912. Under the photo at the top of this page is a scan of what Herzfeld wrote on its back [Credit: John J Heartfield Collection].
It was in 1916, while he was living in Berlin, that Herzfeld became appalled at the shouts of “God Punish England!” that were so common in the streets of the city. As a symbolic political protest against this anti-British fervor sweeping Germany, he informally anglicized his name from Helmut Herzfeld to John Heartfield. It was not until April 29, 1968, that his name was legally changed to John Heartfield.
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 the purpose of art was not to glorify the artist, but to serve the common good.
In 1916, Heartfield destroyed all his paintings [mainly landscapes] except one entitled, “The Cottage In The Woods.” Although the young artist was considered talented, he believed his artwork to be unworthy and irrelevant. Yet, 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, advertising, politics, and society. Early one morning in 1920, Heartfield and George Grosz experimented with pasting pictures together. From this exercise grew Heartfield’s lifetime obsession with “photomontage.”
Sometime during his seventh or eighth year of childhood, Heartfield’s parents abandoned him, his brother, and their three sisters in the woods. The children were eventually separated and raised in a series of foster homes. Throughout his life, Heartfield maintained a close relationship with his brother, Wieland. In 1913, Wieland Herzfeld had also changed his name, less dramatically to “Wieland Herzfelde.”
In 1917, John Heartfield founded the Malik-Verlag publishing house in Berlin. At that time, his beloved brother, Wieland, 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.
Heartfield invented the concept of three-dimentional wrap-around book dust jackets. There’s reasonable speculation that Malik-Verlag sold more publications because of Heartfield’s covers than the actual content of the books.
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 Edwin Piscator, Bertolt Brecht, Hannah Hoch, and a host of others.
In January of 1918, Heartfield joined the newly founded German Communist Party (KPD). The KPD, eventually blamed by the Nazis for the burning of the Reichstag, was a serious political threat to the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich. From many of his montages, it is clear that Heartfield blamed the greed of capitalists, especially those that manufactured steel and munitions, for the horrors he had witnessed firsthand during World War One.
It is essential to note that the vast majority of his work demonstrates that Heartfield was a devoted pacifist. [CURATOR’S NOTE: My own conversations with my grandfather made it clear to me that he never believed in violent revolution]. He had faith in both people and the truth. He was certain if he brought the two together, the result would help build a better life for the vast majority of society.
The members of Berlin Club Dada would have a profound effect upon Heartfield. He, in turn, deeply influenced their work. His theater sets were vital elements in the early works of Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator.
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 preferred the title “engineer.” In the Museum of Modern Art in New York hangs a George Grosz painting entitled, “The Engineer Heartfield.”
Although he did not wish to be labeled an artist, Heartfield 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.
During the 1920s, Heartfield had produced a great number of stunning photomontages. Many were dust jackets for books such as his montage for Upton Sinclair’s The Millennium.
Heartfield’s strongest emotion, however, was his hatred of fascists, particularly Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich. From 1930 to 1938, Heartfield designed illustrations for publications such as the AIZ [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 had the second highest circulation in Germany in the early nineteen thirties. After the National Socialists took control, the AIZ was published for German readers in Czechoslovakia, Austria, Switzerland, and Eastern France.
It is notable that prior to March of 1933, Heartfield lived in Berlin, where his fervent anti-fascist political montages appeared on the covers 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 clearly visible on Berlin Streets. Supporters also had posters of his montages pasted on walls and surfaces for passersby to see them.
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 insanity of Adolf Hitler, Herman Göring, and the entire Nazi philosophy. To battle the Third Reich with art, Heartfield created some of his most famous montages.
Adolf The Superman: Swallows Gold and spouts Junk used a montaged X-ray to expose gold coins in the führer’s esophagus leading to a pile in his stomach as he rants against the fatherland’s enemies.
In the photomontage Göring: The Executioner of the Third Reich, Hitler’s designated successor is depicted as a bloody butcher.
One of Heartfield’s most famous montages, The Meaning of Geneva, Where Capital Lives, There Can Be No Peace!, 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. John Heartfield’s love of all animals and nature is well documented. This image can be considered an especially deep emotional expression.
Der Sinn von Genf The Meaning of Geneva AIZ Cover, Berlin, Germany, 1932
You can learn more about this montage and many others, including historical perspective, in the HIS ART->Periodicals->AIZ section of the exhibition.
Heartfield’s artistic output was prolific.
As Germany careened into fascism, Heartfield’s art filled the streets of Berlin. His message reached residents of Berlin through of mass media. 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 this audience he coveted.
CURATOR’S NOTE: I’m certain my grandfather would be pleased and fascinated to see his work reproduced throughout the Internet and on this Digital Exhibition.
Incredibly, Heartfield lived in Berlin until April, 1933. On Good Friday, the SS broke into his apartment. He barely escaped by squeezing his small frame through a bathroom window and jumping from his balcony. He then walked around the Sudeten Mountains to Czechoslovakia.
[Below: John Heartfield In Mountain Gear. Credit: John J Heartfield Collection.]
Forced 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 released 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 third 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 East German Government (GDR) because of the length of his stay in England. For six years, he was unable to work as an artist and was denied health benefits. He was suspected of “collaboration” by the Stasi, the brutal secret police of German Democratic Republic, due to the length of time he had lived in England and the fact his dentist was under suspicion.
After six years of official neglect by the East German Akademie der Künste [Academy of Arts], Bertolt Brecht and Stefan Heym intervened on Heartfield’s behalf and he was formally admitted in 1956. However, his health had 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.
Bertolt Brecht wrote, “John Heartfield is one of the most important European artists.”
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.