Please describe how you’re related to John Heartfield (1861-1968).
German Dada Artist John Heartfield had two children – My father, Tom George Heartfield, and my aunt, Eva Sondermeijer.
My father, Tom George Heartfield (below with Johnny on his right), an American Army Officer, met my mother, Lina Adelina Heartfield (below left on a mountain top in Liguria), an Italian National, when his American Army Unit liberated her hometown of Sestri Levante, Italy.
Above: My father, Tom G. Heartfield, and my mother, Lina A. Heartfield, on the mountains that separate Sestri Levante from Cavi. My mother was a Partisan, fighting against the local Italian Fascists. My father was charged with interrogating German and Italian prisoners of war. The story of their meeting is a tale in itself. My mother and my father have since passed away.
Below is a photo of left to right: my grandmother, Gertrud (Tutti) Heartfield, my mother, Lina, and Johnny.
Tom and Lina had three children. Soon after his birth, my brother, Malik, died of pneumonia in an English Hospital. My sister, Catherine, and I were born in the United States. I am the only surviving paternal grandson of John Heartfield. Below, left to right, Lina A. Heartfield, John J. Heartfield (myself), Catherine Heartfield, Tom George Heartfield.
English speakers call me John. My Italian Family (on my mother's side) calls me Jiani.
My grandfather was affectionately referred to as Johnny. Within this Archive, the name Johnny (by itself) always refers to my grandfather, John Heartfield.
Johnny's widow Gertrud (everyone called her "Tutti") was my paternal grandmother. Although we were not related by blood, we were very close and became even more so after Johnny's death in 1968.BACK TO VISITOR’S QUESTIONS
Were you able to meet and spent time with your grandfather?
How often did you see him before he died in 1968?
In the nineteen fifties and sixties, my family traveled to Europe to spend summers with my mother's family in Sestri Levante and Cavi di Lavagna on the Italian Riviera. I recall that we shared time with my grandfather, Johnny Heartfield, in both Italy and Germany.
If I had to describe my grandfather in two words, they would be passionate and energetic.
He was passionate about his opinions. I clearly remember an extremely loud shouting match between my father and my grandfather that took place on a street corner while my mother, my sister, and I watched from a distance. From the intensity of their voices and hand gestures, a stranger might have thought they were arguing about a matter of life and death. I remember being quite upset.
I turned to my mother and asked, “Mom, what’s wrong?”
My mother said, “Don’t worry. It’s nothing. Grandpa doesn’t like the hotel that daddy picked.”
They soon calmed down. My father idolized Johnny. One of the most vivid memories of my childhood was coming into the living room and being shocked to find my father sobbing uncontrollably on the couch. He had just received word that my grandfather had passed away.
Below are photos of my father, Tom, and his father, John Heartfield, in Dresden. The photo on the right was taken in Prague in 1938.
I also idolized my grandfather. Although he was capable of vehement emotions, I remember him as always being gentle and kind and gentle with me. Between visits, Johnny and I exchange letters. I wrote to him about careers that I chose for myself (with my parents' enthusiastic encouragement) that thankfully did not pan out. I would not have made a good doctor.
My Italian grandmother, aunts, and cousins called Johnny "Professore" (Professor).Although his Italian language skills were not strong, he managed to be as gregarious with Italian speakers as he was with almost everyone of good conscience. Johnny loved meeting and talking with people. He never "put on airs." He never gave the impression that he should be treated differently because of his artistic accomplishments. He was a warm and approachable man, much loved by my family and friends and our acquaintances.
As to the exact dates that I spent time with my grandfather, I still have to access some material that I photocopied when I visited the Academy Der Kunste in East Berlin shortly after the wall came down.BACK TO VISITOR’S QUESTIONS
Would you please share a memory for us?
Could you give us a little insight into his personality?
One of the clearest memories I have of my grandfather is a time we were walking together with my family on a mountain trail. I was a young boy and he was in his senior years. Despite his age, he was as energetic as me.
He could have easily kept up with our party, but often lagged behind. I became frustrated with him, because every five or ten steps, he would stop to take a photograph of a flower or a rock or anything he found interesting.
Johnny was not a professional photographer. Most of the elements of his montages came from other sources. However, he was a most enthusiastic amateur. On that walk, I had to constantly run back to where he was pointing his camera and say, “Grandpa, come on, that's just another flower. ”
He just told me to be patient. Johnny was fascinated with nature. His love of animals is well-documented. The majority of the oil paintings that he produced in art school, and later destroyed, feeling that they were unworthy, were landscapes.BACK TO VISITOR’S QUESTIONS
Because of his ill health before he died, did he have any physical or mental changes or any extraordinary behavior?
This is a somewhat strange question. Johnny Heartfield exhibited “extraordinary behavior” throughout his life. My grandfather's passion to expose hypocrisy and political insanity drove him to risk his life time after time. His ceaseless energy gave him the ability to produce his powerful political art under the most challenging conditions imaginable.
If the visitor wishes to know if he lost his memory or ability to think clearly during his final years, then I would have to write that, to my knowledge, he remained cogent until his death.
Shown here is a note that Johnny wrote to my father on the inside of a book cover in 1967, one year before Johnny’s death in 1968. It’s clear that his handwriting is strong and his mind is clear.
Videos of him at exhibitions in his later years demonstrate quite clearly that he remained articulate, speaking in his quick emphatic verbal style.BACK TO VISITOR’S QUESTIONS
As far as you can remember, can you please describe John Heartfield in his 60s? Can you take a picture of John Heartfield, an excited character who challenged the ruling people of his time with his sarcastic montages, when everything settled down in the 60s?
Johnny Heartfield did not believe that “everything settled down in the 60's.“ He remained vocal about what he considered insane political views and actions up to, and including, his final days. Although he was much less prolific, he executed montages that warned of the dangers of the atomic bomb and the arms race.
My grandfather was, above all, always a pacifist. To my knowledge, he never advocated violent revolution. It’s my belief that his personal view of communism change later in life. In his early years, he believed that communism was the economic system that offered the world’s best hope for human equality and world peace.
Following the outrageous treatment he received from the totalitarian regime of East Germany, he must have been disappointed by the way the reality of communism differed from the idealistic, and in my opinion, naďve, political theory.
When my grandfather was forced to return to East Germany after his exile in England, he received unforgivable treatment from the East German Government. He was under suspicion by the Stasi because of the length of time he had spent in a capitalist country. There was also the absurd fact that Johnny's dentist was under suspicion.
He was denied admission to the East German Academy of the Arts (Academie Der Kunste) for several years. His health deteriorated. He was unable to function prolifically as an artist. It was only through the intervention of Bertoldt Brecht and Stefan Heym that Heartfield was formally admitted to the East German Akademie der Kúnste (Academy of the Arts) in 1956.BACK TO VISITOR’S QUESTIONS
The first international exhibition for John Heartfield was in MOMA in 1993. Do you think that American’s point of view with regard John Heartfield changed after that exhibition? What kind of changes can we talk about until that day and after that day?
(NOTE: Heartfield's first international show was in Moscow in 1931. There was an exhibition in Paris in 1935, followed by one in New York in 1938. There were several more after the war. (Source: Andrés Mario Zervigón, Associate Director of Art History, Rutgers University).
Regarding the 1993 MOMA exhibition, I can't speak for the American People. The MOMA Exhibition was extremely well-reviewed newspapers such as The New York Times. You can browse through the MOMA catalog for the 1993 Heartfield Exhibition in the "My Grandfather" section of the current Internet Archive.
I strolled through the crowds at those exhibitions and saw how thrilled people were to see the originals that contained not only the touches Johnny added to the final original montages by hand, but also Johnny's detailed notes to the rotogravure masters.BACK TO VISITOR’S QUESTIONS
From John Heartfield's death in 1968 until the 1993 MOMA Exhibition there were no exhibitions for twenty-five years. It is possible to relate that fact directly to the Cold War. After the demolition of the Berlin Wall, everything was comparatively better. Would you comment on the policies regarding exhibitions of The East and West German Academies of the Arts (Academie Der Kunste)?
One of the goals of this Internet Archive is to increase my grandfather's recognition and renown. I also hope it will become a hub for worldwide visitors to share their thoughts about John Heartfield's life and work. There will also be a section to highlight modern artists who believe their work was influenced by John Heartfield.
I'm assured by art historians that John Heartfield can be found on almost every respected list of the twelve most influential artists of the twentieth century. And yet, I constantly meet people (even those heavily involved in the world of art) who tell me they’ve never heard of a Dada artist named John Heartfield.
Although I haven't agreed with some of the policies of the East and West Academies in the past, I now believe that the best way forward is to develop a productive relationship between myself and the Academie Der Kunste.
I visited the East German Academie Der Kunste shortly after the wall came down. I was stunned at the sheer amount of Heartfield art stored in the Heartfield Archive. There were not only original montages, but literally floors of original art. There were also models of stage sets and sketches.
I’m hoping that the Academie feels as I do and they will cooperate with me as I intend to cooperate with them.BACK TO VISITOR’S QUESTIONS
Heartfield was a very brave artist. He used arts as a way of quoting his political ideas fearlessly. This choice undoubtedly affected his living conditions and family relations in a negative way. He left his country, he was expatriated, and had to live away from his family. Did any of his family members have any reaction or anger about this?
Obviously, everyone in my family was often concerned about Johnny's safety and living conditions.
My father told me that Johnny, after his time in England, was denied admission to America to be with his beloved brother, Wieland, and our family. Remember that this was a period in American history when American Politicians were obsessed with the idea of that communists were hell-bent on overtaking the United States.
My family would have gladly welcomed Johnny into our home. There was always great joy when we were able to spend time with him and tremendous frustration when it was not possible.
In return, although he was often on the run, Johnny remained close to his family, especially my father, Tom, and Johnny's daughter, Eva. I have many postcards, letters, and books that are signed with loving messages to “Tömsel” and his family.
In my opinion, Johnny suffered at least two great injustices during his life.
The first was his internment in an English concentration camp when he was forced to flee Czechoslovakia one step ahead of the Nazis. To my knowledge, he was interned because he was a German National. Johnny's health suffered greatly during this period. Photos of him after his release clearly show his gaunt pale appearance. Johnny was quite demoralized by this treatment. He considered going to trade school to make a living as a welder.
The second was when Johnny was forced to return East Germany after the war. He was under suspicion by the Stasi because of the length of time he had lived in England, outside of communist influence. Also, his dentist was under suspicion for his political activities. Johnny was denied admission to the Academy Der Kunste for several years. This meant that he was denied comprehensive healthcare, compounding the health problems he suffered in England and most likely shortening his life. After his great friends, Bertoldt Brecht and Stefan Heym, insisted that Heartfield be recognized, he became a member of the East Germany Academy of the Arts.BACK TO VISITOR’S QUESTIONS
John Heartfield pioneered montage techniques that are currently used in a great many areas such as graphic arts and advertising. We know that he was given a degree and a doctorate at the university. Apart from these did he get any certificates of appreciation, awards, plates, etc. or any other supports from private sector or public corporations hitherto?
I’m very fond of this quote from John Heartfield. When he was offered a teaching job, he responded, “Do I have to become a professor?”
Honestly, I believe that awards, certificates of appreciation meant very little to my grandfather. To believe that any personal or individual award would be relevant to my grandfather would be to misunderstand how he viewed the world.
However, if visitors are interested, my friends who are art scholars tell me that this kind of information is available in the Wieland Herzfelde biography of John Heartfield and the 1993 MOMA Exhibition catalog.
One of the largest commercial supporters of John Heartfield was Malik Verlag, the publishing house he started with his brother Wieland. Johnny and Wieland were extremely close. There’s certainly a strong argument to be made that the accomplishments of John Heartfield would not have been possible without the support and collaboration of his brother.
Wieland also had a warm close relationship with my father, Tom.
My father, Tom George Heartfield, supported my grandfather, Johnny, financially and emotionally. My father sent as much money to Johnny as he was able to as often as he was able to do so.BACK TO VISITOR’S QUESTIONS
Do you think that John Heartfield's works are still disturbing some people? Have you witnessed any reactions to his work from Neonazis or the Ku Klux Klan?
John Heartfield did not risk his life and execute his political montages to disturb personalities such as Adolf Hitler, Herman Goring, and Benito Mussolini. He aim was to expose their insane philosophies and ridicule their hypocrisy to as many thoughtful and reasonable people as possible.
Of course, his aim was to disturb his audience. His goal was to have them realize that Fascism was a deeply flawed political ideology. His genius was that he was able to do that with humor, word and image juxtaposition, and a brilliant visual sensibility.
Since I don't interact with member of Neo-Nazi Groups or members of Ku Klux Klan, I can only imagine how they might react to a Heartfield montage such as Hitler Swallows Gold and Spits Junk.
Without referring to a specific group or personality, it is clear to me that Heartfield's brand of political satire is as relevant today as it was in the 1930s. The United States Supreme Court decision Citizens United allows modern politicians to "swallow gold and spit junk" just as Hitler once did.BACK TO VISITOR’S QUESTIONS
According to the resources, it is not known what happened to Franz Herzfelde’s wife, Alice Stolzenberg.. Do you have any information about where she was until her death in 1911 or where she lived?
According to Professor Andrés Mario Zervigón, author of the upcoming book, The Agitated Image, Alice lived in Berlin shifting between a mental institution and a boarding house.
It is obvious that Johnny's mother and father suffered from mental disorders of varying severity. Sadly, their story is not a pleasant one.BACK TO VISITOR’S QUESTIONS
Quoting a book(?): “Then in 1968, after revisiting London, he (Heartfield) had a third heart attack and died. His brother, who published a vivid, if slightly doctored account of his life and work, would survive him by twenty years.” Do you agree with this?
It's a fact that Johnny passed away in 1968 from a heart attack and Wieland lived for several years afterwards. I remember walking into our living room in Elmhurst, Queens, New York, one afternoon to find my father crying like a child.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“Papa’s gone,” he said.
Shortly afterwards, my father traveled to Berlin to attend a celebration of Johnny's life.
He was treated like a celebrity. There’s one thing I can’t understand. Under German Law, my father would have only needed to sign a simple document in order to claim his right to one quarter of Johnny's estate, which would have included one quarter of his art catalog. Perhaps he didn’t do so because he felt it would endanger Tutti's position in East Germany. Tutti was Johnny's widow and my paternal grandmother. Perhaps he believed the Berlin Wall would never come down. Perhaps his legal rights weren’t made clear to him while he was in Germany.
We never discussed it. In fact, I only found out about the estate after my father had passed away. I can guarantee, however, that If my family had taken possession of some of Johnny's art at any point, then originals of his work would be available at this moment to museums such as The Getty Museum, MOMA, and the Holocaust Museum.BACK TO VISITOR’S QUESTIONS
There is almost no information about your grandmother Helene Balzer, your father Tom Heartfield, your cousin George, etc. Can you make a family tree of four generations starting from Franz Herzfeld finishing with you (as we are interviewing you) with dates of birth and death?
An entire family tree will be forthcoming in another area of the Archive. Please check Twitter and Facebook to see when it's completed and posted.
For the moment, I’ll provide this information. John Heartfield had two children - his son, Tom George Heartfield and his daughter, Eva Heartfield (married surname: Sondermeijer). My father, Tom George Heartfield, married Lina Adelina Bo (married surname: Heartfield). They had three children - My brother, Malik, who died in infancy, myself, John Joseph Heartfield, and my sister Catherine Heartfield. My sister, Catherine, and I reside in America. Eva had two children - Bob Sondermeijer and Jolanda Sondermeijer. Bob and Catherine have children. Wieland Herzfelde had a son, George Herzfelde, who resided in Switzerland. George and I were friends and I’m saddened to report that George Herzfelde has passed away.
Once again, I’ll suggest Andrés Mario Zervigón's upcoming book, The Agitated Image. Professor Zervigón tells me that his book contains a great deal of information regarding the Heartfield Family Tree.BACK TO VISITOR’S QUESTIONS
Was your father, Tom Heartfield interested in visual arts? Is there anybody interested in visual arts in your family? When did your father go to the USA? Was he a political refugee? Why the United States?
For the son of man with the core politics of John Heartfield, my father, Tom, truly believed in the American Dream. He was certainly not a refugee. In his youth, he bicycled throughout Europe. He lived for a time with Johnny in several cities.
My father came to the United States to start a business and make a good life for his family. When America got into World War Two, he joined the American Army. Because of his language skills, he was tasked with interrogating Axis Prisoners. He met my mother, Lina, who had been a Partisan, fighting the Germans in and around her home town of Sestri Levante, Italy.
Meanwhile, my father's business partner back in the states bankrupted his business and ran off with his first wife. My father and his first wife subsequently divorced.
My father and my mother married in Italy and my mother gave birth to a son, Malik. Sadly, while he was still an infant my brother, Malik, contracted pneumonia and died in an English Hospital.
My father and mother emigrated to America. He became a typesetter and a proof reader for a German language newspaper. My father was also very active in his union, eventually spending many hours as a financial officer. However, he did not inherit the artistic DNA of my grandfather.
I studied literature. My undergraduate degree was in computer science. Rather than pursue a doctoral degree in mathematics at the Courant Institute, I applied to the Interactive Telecommunications Program, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.
The ITP program, chaired by the iconic Red Burns, was one of the first masters programs in America to meld the visual and sound arts with computer technology.
When I received my masters, I was fortunate enough to be honored with a Tisch School of the Arts award "for pioneering work in interactive media."
Since then I've been writing books, both fiction and non-fiction, writing songs, designing website, and helping small businesses to grow. Although I plan to expand this website with a different technology and a new design, everything you see, read, or hear on this current website was designed and created by myself. In short, I have a long history of professional visual design.
Currently, I'm searching for corporate or institutional grants to continue this work. If you've enjoyed any part of the Archive, please donate whatever you can on the OFFICIAL ARCHIVE DONATION page. All donations go directly to building, expanding, and maintaining the John Heartfield, Dada Photomonteur: Official Internet Website.BACK TO VISITOR’S QUESTIONS
Did John Heartfield spend time with his own children? Was he a family man? Was he with his children while they grew up? Did you hear ever hear any complaints from your father?
Johnny was definitely a family man and deeply loved his children. Before the war, he lived with his son, Tom, and had great affection for his daughter, Eva. Of course, during the war, it became almost impossible for his family to maintain contact. However, after the war, they came together as often as possible given the constraints of the East German political system. I never heard a word from my father regarding my grandfather that didn't express the depth and breath of his love and respect for Johnny.BACK TO VISITOR’S QUESTIONS
Are you aware of any interview of your grandfather that we could find on Internet and use?
There are many interviews and videos of John Heartfield that are available on You Tube. As I watched many of these videos, I realized that this is one of the goals I have for the Heartfield Internet Archive. I want to bring together a database of interviews and works by artists who are influenced by John Heartfield's work.
One way to see many Heartfield videos is to watch my own video on YouTube, Born Yesterday, a song I wrote with my grandfather's montages in mind and access the videos on the right side of the page.BACK TO VISITOR’S QUESTIONS
Do you have favorites out of all of your grandfather's creations?
I’d have to say I’ve always been fond of two of Johnny’s photomontages. One is “Hitler Swallows Gold and Spits Junk.” Is there a better way to depict how some persons in power spew hatred because of the huge compensation that lies in that activity. The other montage I love is “The Meaning of Geneva.” The simplicity ferocity of the image of a dove impaled on a bayonet is an unforgettable statement of how the innocent are brutalized by war.
As I’ve mentioned previously, Johnny loved nature and animals. I'm certain that he used the dove specifically for this point.BACK TO VISITOR’S QUESTIONS
Do you own any of his original pieces?
Unfortunately, I do not own any of John Heartfield’s original art. I tried for many years to challenge the legality of what a part of my family considered the state seizure of his property and his art. However, we were told that we would not have a chance to challenge the German Government or the Academie Der Kunste in a German Court.
I hope that soon the Academie and I will find ourselves in a friendly, productive, and mutually beneficial dialogue so that some of John Heartfield's art can be loaned out to the many major museums that are eager to display it.BACK TO VISITOR’S QUESTIONS
Do you have any special objects, possessions, etc. that remind you of your grandfather?
Yes. I have a wonderful collection of personal photographs, letters, postcards, and even a bronze medal. My eventual intention is to donate these objects to a major art research institute. As soon as I can have the objects digitized and organized, I will present them on the John Heartfield, Dada Photomonteur: Official Internet Archive.
This collection is at a secure location and, at this time, I'm waiting for it to be evaluated by art scholars and historians.BACK TO VISITOR’S QUESTIONS