“Tell me, do you know what’s become of John Heartfield?”

This question, which sounds like the beginning of a detective story, is quite justified. It is almost as if one of the greatest and most original artists of our time had disappeared without a trace, disappeared without trace in our midst, in the GDR! […]”

John Heartfield Supporter Stefan Heym
John Heartfield Supporter Stefan Heym

Heartfield Archiv, Akademie Der Künste Holds Powerful Anti-Nazi Antifascist Art Behind Walls, 1969.

Following John Heartfield’s death in 1969, his third wife, Gertrud Heartfield, remains a resident of East Germany until her death in 1983. For some reason, Gertrud is granted an unusual privilege by East Germany. She is allowed to own a western automobile. She drives all over Europe, collecting pieces of John Heartfield’s surviving art, and taking them behind the Iron Curtain. It is likely that Gertrud had the best of intentions. She wanted to insure John’s artistic legacy would survive.

In 1969, Gertrud makes an agreement with the Akademie der Künste der DDR. (Note: The abbreviation DDR, synonymous with GDR, was increasingly used colloquially by West Germans and West German media.) The Heartfield Archiv, Akademie der Künste, is established in East Berlin. Almost all of John Heartfield’s surviving original art and personal possessions are moved into the Deutsche Akademie der Künste (German Academy of Arts), later known as the Akademie der Künste der DDR (East German Academy of Arts) at 10 Robert-Koch-Platz.

John Heartfield’s only son, Tom Heartfield, lives in New York. Tom did not receive any portion of his rightful inheritance because he did not sign a simple legal document when he came to Berlin for his father’s funeral. No one knows why Tom failed to claim his portion of his father’s estate. His inaction has had an enormous impact on modern political art. If he had received a portion of his father’s surviving art, Heartfield’s work would be currently be displayed in major museums around the world. The curator has spoken with museums such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Getty Museum, and The Holocaust Museum. 

Gertrud writes to Tom. She asks for his assistance with the enormous task of establishing The Heartfield Archiv. She also asks him to send her some original pieces of art Tom has stored in his modest home in Queens, New York.

The GDR Heartfield Archiv, Akademie der Künste, for all intents and purposes, will remain closed to all but a few individuals for almost twenty-five years. Phone calls go unanswered. There is no response to faxes. Scholars who are able to make appointments to visit the archive discover that the door are locked when they arrive. Vague or factually inaccurate bureaucratic reasons are given for their inability to access the vast amount of material in the archive. Heartfield’s recognition and renown as a political artist and a groundbreaking graphic designer fades behind the Iron Curtain of the Berlin Wall.

There are no exhibitions of Heartfield’s work in 1972 and 1973. There are no exhibitions for six years from 1982 to 1988. From 1968 to 1989, Heartfield’s work is displayed in only 18 venues outside the GDR. Several of these exhibits are in towns with populations between 37,000 and 157,000.

After the Berlin Wall came down, the German Akademie der Künste and the GDR Akademie der Künste are united under the directorship of Wolfgang Trautwein. Herr Trautwein had been the director of archives for the western Akademie der Künste. All possessions in East Germany were considered property of the state. The communist owned material in the East German Akademie der Künste were simply absorbed into a Heartfield Archiv, Akademie der Künste. There was no notice or consideration given to any of John Heartfield’s heirs. Precisely the opposite. When the curator visited the Heartfield Archiv after the Berlin Wall came down, Herr Trautwein informed him that all of Heartfield’s art, his possessions, and his copyrights belong to the Akademie der Künste. The curator and sister, Catherine, had to mount a legal battle to prove the copyrights to John Heartfield’s art had always, by law, belonged to The Heartfield Community Of Heirs. Herr Trautwein conceded this fact in letter several years after the Akademie der Künste had already been granting copyright approval and receiving compensation for the reproduction of John Heartfield’s art.

Please refer to the expanding section of this exhibition entitled Hidden Genius to learn more and for the latest updates on the history of The Heartfield Archiv, Akademie Der Künste, Berlin.

east berlin censorship East Germany Heartfield Stamp 1971

DDR stamp issued in 1971

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.

Heartfield Archiv Berlin revealed by John Heartfield Grandson, John J Heartfield, curator John Heartfield Exhibition