John Heartfield: Art and Mass Media

AUTHOR: Douglas Kahn


The Neglected Collage Art Innovator John Heartfield

REVIEW by Lucy Lippard on

John Heartfield is one of the most important artists of the 20th century and also one of the most neglected. He was responsible for the development of an entirely modern art form, that of political photomontage. This development took place first within the context of the avant-garde, especially Berlin Dada, around the time of WW1, and then later, in the context of the revolutionary working class movement in Germany.

During the early 1930’s, Heartfield’s work reached millions of people in the pages of one of Germany’s famed illustrated magazines, the most advanced form of mass media at that time, precursors to Life Magazine in the United States and Picture Post in England. Even after fleeing Hitler’s Germany for Prague, Heartfield continued his work unabated, achieving an international reputation for his scathing indictments of the Nazi regime.

This remarkable integration of artistic avant-garde, political vanguard and mass media is unique to the art practice of John Heartfield. As we confront the overwhelming impact of the mass media on our culture, along with the increasingly scarce critical capacity of most current art, Heartfield’s relevance grows. Growing also is the need to discuss his work, to translate it into the present day. John Heartfield: Art and Mass Media is the first book in English to break into this discussion, offering an interpretation new to any language.

“At last, John Heartfield in context, his cutouts intercut back into history, and also put in their place as contemporary models. Douglas Kahn’s witty, readable and appropriately iconoclastic book recalls the original, revolutionary meaning of the avant-garde. The ‘mimikry’ section is particularly good for the soul, with tantalizing glimpses of current media activism, grass-rooting for an ‘expanded oppositional politics of artifice.’ You should have to be a pundit to write on Heartfield; Kahn a mimikry artist himself, is an expert of the sharp undercut as well as a masterful cultural historian of interwar Germany. Read this book…and arm yourself for a period in which history sems to be trying to repeat itself.”

— Lucy Lippard