By 1949, John Heartfield was quickly running out of options. He had written letters and filed documents that made it clear he did not want to return to East Germany (GDR).
During the war, he was a famous and effective anti-fascist anti-Naz artist activist. His early images were warnings about the rise of fascism. The messages in his art had literally saved lives. During World War II, his Photomontages Of The Nazi Period had made him a target for Nazi assassination. Heartfield rose to number-five on the Gestapo’s Most-Wanted List.
However, once the war was over, countries that should have honored him denied him sanctuary. The Czech Refugee Fund denied his request to remain in England. All efforts on his behalf were rejected. It was an era when western politicians appeared to view communism as a greater threat than Adolf Hitler’s Army.
Heartfield’s brother, Wieland Herzfelde, was doing well in Berlin. He wanted his brother to join him. He could arrange for Heartfield to return to Berlin through Czechoslovakia. Wieland assured John that he would be treated well in East Germany.
By 1950, Heartfield had no choice. He had been born in Germany. He knew he’d be free to express himself in West Germany. However, West Germany would not this refugee from its own country. Heartfield felt he had to return to East Germany. He knew the language and the culture of East Germany. Or so he thought. He trusted his brother. Powerful allies such as Bertolt Brecht and Stefan Heym would protect him.
However, Heartfield’s youthful support of utopian communism ran directly into communist betrayal. This communist betrayal came from both the East German Akademie der Küste and the GDR (East German Government). He was nearly tried for treason against East Germany because of the length of his stay in England He was under suspicion by the Stasi because of his requests to remain in England and the fact his dentist was under suspicion.
He was labeled a traitor to the GDR. He narrowly escaped a trial for treason.
From 1950 to 1956, he was denied membership in the communist party. He was denied admission to the East German Akademie der Künste. This meant he was denied proper health care. He suffered heart attacks. His ability to work as an artist was severely limited. Only because of the efforts of Bertolt Brecht and Stefan Heym was Heartfield admitted to the Akademie der Künste in 1956.
It is the height of irony that the great majority of Heartfield’s surviving original art was stored in the East German Akademie der Künste because of a three page will he signed with Gertrud Heartfield shortly before his death in 1968. Heartfield’s surviving art was then absorbed into the Akademie der Künste of Germany when the East and the West were united. West Germany had betrayed him. The communist betrayal of East Germany was worse. The result was East German ownership of Heartfield’s legacy. East German Akademie der Künste repression, and later, German Akademie der Künste policies regarding ownership of John Heartfield’s art has kept his work from major museums and public view for decades. It has effected not only Heartfield’s renown, but also recognition of powerful political artist everywhere. It is the effects of those policies that The Official John Heartfield Exhibition
is dedicated to change.
John Heartfield’s grandson, Professor John J Heartfield, offers an Art & Politics, Politics & Art
presentation to audiences in all types of venues. He was a featured presenter at 2016 DADA WORLD FAIR (The Collage Museum, San Francisco). Please write to him for more information.