Helmut Herzfeld was born in Berlin, Germany on 19th June, 1891. His father, Franz Held, was a socialist writer and his mother, Alice Stolzenberg, was a textile worker and a trade union activist. As a result of their politics the family was forced to flee to Switzerland in 1896. (1)
After leaving school at fourteen Herzfeld worked for a bookseller, Heinrich Heuss, in Wiesbaden. In 1907 he became an assistant to the painter, Hermann Bouffier, and two years later became a student at the School of Applied Arts in Munich. In 1912 Herzfeld started work as a designer in Mannheim for a year before moving to Berlin to study under Ernst Neumann at the Arts and Crafts School. (2)
Helmut Herzfeld was drafted into the German Army in 1915 but succeeds in evading military service. (3) Karl Liebknecht, the leader of the Spartacus League, a secret organization, published a pamphlet, The Main Enemy Is At Home! He argued: "The main enemy of the German people is in Germany: German imperialism, the German war party, German secret diplomacy. This enemy at home must be fought by the German people in a political struggle, cooperating with the proletariat of other countries whose struggle is against their own imperialists. We think as one with the German people – we have nothing in common with the German Tirpitzes and Falkenhayns, with the German government of political oppression and social enslavement. Nothing for them, everything for the German people. Everything for the international proletariat, for the sake of the German proletariat and downtrodden humanity." (4)
On 1st May, 1916, the Spartacus League decided to come out into the open and organized a demonstration against the First World War in Berlin. Helmut Herzfeld was in the crowd that day and heard Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg call for everyone to resist Germany's involvement in the war. Several of its leaders, including Liebknecht and Luxemburg were arrested and imprisoned. Wieland Herzfelde, said that the speeches at the rally had a great influence on his brother. It was at this point he decided to dedicate his art to politics. Wieland later wrote: "We are the soldiers of peace. No nation and no race is our enemy." (5) A pacifist and Marxist, Herzfeld, changed his name to John Heartfield in 1916 in "protest against German nationalistic fervour". (6)
Heartfield began contributing work to Die Neue Jugend, an arts journal published by his brother. His friend, George Grosz, who worked with him at the journal, later recalled how John Heartfield "developed a new very amusing style of using collage and bold typography". (7) Grosz helped him develop what became known as photomontage (the production of pictures by rearranging selected details of photographs to form a new and convincing unity). We... invented photomontage in my South End studio at five o'clock on a May morning in 1916, neither of us had any inkling of its great possibilities, nor of the thorny yet successful road it was to take. As so often happens in life, we had stumbled across a vein of gold without knowing it." (8)
In 1918 Heartfield and Grosz joined the newly formed German Communist Party (KPD) and over the next fifteen years produced designs and posters for the organization. (9) He participated in the First International Dada Fair of 1920. It is claimed that Heartfield had a major influence on the German Dada group that included Otto Dix, Max Ernst, Raoul Hausmann and Kurt Schwitters. (10)
Sergei Tretyakov was another artist linked to the Dada group. "Heartfield's first Dadaist photomontages are still marked by their abstract nature. Scraps of photograph and printed text are arranged not so much according to meaning but according to the aesthetic mood of the artist. The Dadaist period in Heartfield's work did not continue for long. He soon ceased to waste his artistic talents in abstract fireworks. His works became aimed shots... Soon no line could be drawn between his montages and his party work." (11)
Over the next few years Heartfield produced posters for the KPD. However, to earn a living he worked briefly as a set designer for Max Reinhardt and more consistently for the revolutionary theatre of Erwin Piscator. He also designed book jackets for the left-wing publishers, Malik Verlag. In 1923 Heartfield became editor of the satirical magazine, Der Knöppel. (12)
Bertolt Brecht first met Heartfield in 1924. He pointed out that he soon became one of the most important European artists. "He works in a field that he created himself, the field of photomontage. Through this new form of art he exercises social criticism. Steadfastly on the side of the working class, he unmasked the forces of the Weimar Republic driving toward war." (13) Heartfield wrote: "Art and agitation are mutually exclusive". (14)
Wieland Herzfelde argued "he consciously placed photography in the service of political agitation". (15) In 1928 he created The Face of Fascism, a montage that dealt with the rule of Benito Mussolini which spread all over Europe with tremendous force. "A skull-like face of Mussolini is eloquently surrounded by his corrupt backers and his dead victims". (16)
Heiri Strub has pointed out that Heartfield made the decision to use his art for political causes. "Heartfield always considered his photomontages as artistic achievements. He took in stride the fact that he was not recognized by contemporary art critics. The works he created for dissemination in huge editions had no value in the art market. Directing his political charges at the masses, he could scarcely count on a sympathetic reaction from bourgeois art collectors. The worker, however, for whom he intended his photomontages, understood their revolutionary content, but assigned no artistic value judgment to them." (17)
Heartfield began working for the socialist magazine, Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (AIG) in 1929. During this period it became the most widely socialist pictorial newspaper in Germany. Circulation reached 350,000 in 1930. (18) Zbyněk Zeman has pointed out that at this stage Heartfield concentrated his attack on "Prussian militarism and the large-scale industries and industrialists who supplied it with arms". (19)
The German novelist, Heinrich Mann, was one of those who saw the significance of the magazine: "The Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung is one of the best of current picture newspapers. It is full in its coverage, technically good, and, above all, unusual and new... Aspects of daily life are seen here through the eyes of the worker, and it is time that this happened. The pictures express complaints and threats reflecting the attitude of the proletariat - but at the same time this proves their self-confidence and their energetic activity to help themselves. The self-confidence of the proletariat in this weary part of the world is most heartening." (20)
Heiri Strub worked with Heartfield at the magazine. "Heartfield's high demands of quality made collaboration with him difficult. His long-time colleague, the photographer Janos Reismann, related how Heartfield constantly demanded new pictures until he saw his idea realized... With photographic tricks and painting Heartfield arranged the parts of the photo to fit together seamlessly. With extraordinary care he devised his adhesive picture, so that after final retouching it went straight to the printer. Since the AIZ was produced using the highly sensitive copperplate photogravure method, errors were as evident as the artist's real intention. Heartfield's respect for the skills of others was so great that he himself did not do the photography, and he left the retouching to others, but always under his stringent supervision." (21)
Louis Aragon has argued: "John Heartfield is one of those who expressed the strongest doubts about painting, especially its technical aspects... As we know, Cubism was a reaction of painters to the invention of photography. The photograph and the cinema made it seem childish to them to strive for verisimilitude. By means of these new technical accomplishments they created a conception of art which led some to attack naturalism and others to a new definition of reality. With Leger it led to decorative art, with Mondrian to abstraction, with Picabia to the organization of mundane evening entertainment. But toward the end of the war, several men in Germany (Grosz, Heartfield, Ernst) were led through the critique of painting to a spirit which was quite different from the Cubists, who pasted a piece of newspaper on a matchbox in the middle of the picture to give them a foothold in reality. For them the photograph stood as a challenge to painting and was released from its imitative function and used for their own poetic purpose." (22)
John Heartfield's main target in the early 1930s was Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party. His work often appeared on the front cover of AIG. In 1930 the magazine published twelve of his photomontages. This included one that showed Fritz Thyssen, the owner of United Steelworks, a company that controlled more that 75 per cent of Germany's ore reserves and employed 200,000 people. In the photomontage, Thyssen is shown working Hitler as a puppet.
In 1932 Heartfield produced 18 photomontages for AIG. The most famous of these appeared just before the November 1932 General Election. Hitler is showed standing in front of a large man who represents big business. The man is handing over money to Hitler. Printed underneath are the words: "Motto: Millions stand behind me! A little man asks for gifts". Heartfield's friend, Oskar Maria Graf, commented, that all his work was now politically motivated, "the intolerable aspect of events is the motor of his art". (23)
Richard Carline was an English artist who met him during this period: "Slight and little more than five feet tall, Heartfield displayed the unmistakable traits of genius - single-minded and purposeful. With his intense, unpretentious, and uninhibited personality, he warmed toward everyone he met without regard for class or background. He would talk to animals as if they were humans." (24)
In the election in November 1932 the Nazi Party won 230 seats, making it the largest party in the Reichstag. The German National Party, won nearly a million additional votes. However the German Social Democrat Party (133) and the German Communist Party (89) still had the support of the urban working class and Hitler was deprived of an overall majority in parliament. In numerical terms, the socialist parties obtained 13,228,000 votes compared to the 14,696,000 votes recorded for the Nazis and the German Nationalists. (25)
Soon after Hitler became chancellor in January 1933 he announced new elections. Hermann Goering called a meeting of important industrialists where he told them that the election would be the last in Germany for a very long time. He explained that Hitler "disapproved of trade unions and workers' interference in the freedom of owners and managers to run their concerns." (26) Goering added that the NSDAP would need a considerable amount of of money to ensure victory. Those present responded by donating 3 million Reichmarks. As Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary after the meeting: "Radio and press are at our disposal. Even money is not lacking this time." (27)
On 27th February, 1933, the Reichstag caught fire. When they police arrived they found Marinus van der Lubbe on the premises. After being tortured by the Gestapo he confessed to starting the Reichstag Fire. However he denied that he was part of a Communist conspiracy. Hermann Goering refused to believe him and he ordered the arrest of several leaders of the German Communist Party (KPD).
When Hitler heard the news about the fire he gave orders that all leaders of the German Communist Party should "be hanged that very night." Paul von Hindenburg vetoed this decision but did agree that Hitler should take "dictatorial powers". KPD candidates in the election were arrested and Hermann Goering announced that the Nazi Party planned "to exterminate" German communists. John Heartfield responded to these events by producing Goering the Executioner of the Third Reich. It shows the "human bloodhound with his axe standing in front of the burning parliament." (28)
Behind the scenes Goering, who was minister of the interior in Hitler's government, was busily sacking senior police officers and replacing them with Nazi supporters. These men were later to become known as the Gestapo. Goering also recruited 50,000 members of the Sturm Abteilung (SA) to work as police auxiliaries. Goering then raided the headquarters of the German Communist Party (KPD) in Berlin and claimed that he had uncovered a plot to overthrow the government. Leaders of the KPD were arrested but no evidence was ever produced to support Goering's accusations. He also announced he had discovered a communist plot to poison German milk supplies. (29)
Thousands of members of the Social Democrat Party and trade union activists were arrested and sent to recently opened concentration camps. Left-wing election meetings were broken up by the Sturm Abteilung (SA) and several candidates were murdered. Newspapers that supported these political parties were closed down during the election. Although it was extremely difficult for the opposition parties to campaign properly, Hitler and the Nazi party still failed to win an overall victory in the election on 5th March, 1933. The Nazi Party received 43.9% of the vote and only 288 seats out of the available 647. The increase in the Nazi vote had mainly come from the Catholic rural areas who feared the possibility of an atheistic Communist government.
Adolf Hitler ordered the arrests of all those artists that had criticized him during his rise to power. (30) On 16th April, 1933, members of the Sturmabteilung (SA) arrived at Heartfield's apartment. Heartfield had been warned about what was going to happen and he managed to flee to Prague. This now became the place where AIG was published. That year Heartfield produced 35 front-covers. However, it was very difficult to smuggle the magazine back to Germany and circulation dropped dramatically from the 500,000 copies that were being sold before Hitler took power. (31)
All forms of mass communication were now controlled in Nazi Germany. The man in overall charge was Dr. Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda. Lists were drawn up of books the Nazis believed contained "un-German" ideas and then all available copies were publically destroyed. The Nazis were especially hostile to works produced by left-wing writers like Bertolt Brecht and Ernst Toller.
Heartfield was especially upset by the passing of the Enabling Bill. This banned the German Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party from taking part in future election campaigns. This was followed by Nazi officials being put in charge of all local government in the provinces (7th April), trades unions being abolished, their funds taken and their leaders put in prison (2nd May), and a law passed making the Nazi Party the only legal political party in Germany (14th July). This situation motivated Heartfield to produce the Executioner and Justice on 30th November 1933.
Adolf Hitler became increasingly annoyed with John Heartfield's photomontages published in Prague (35 in 1933) and he told the government in Czechoslovakia to ban his work. In May 1934 the authorities agreed to Hitler's demands. This created a great deal of controversy and the French artist, Paul Signac, urged international action. He wrote a letter to Heartfield's supporters in Prague: "My whole life long I have been fighting for the freedom of art... I am prepared to contribute my share in organizing a French exhibition of our friend's works... The club is poised for battle against the freedom of the spirit. Let us unite to defend ourselves." (32)
The French poet, Louis Aragon, argued in Commune Magazine: "John Heartfield today knows how to salute beauty. He knows how to create those images which are the beauty of our rage since they represent the cry of the people - the representation of the people's struggle against the brown hangman with his craw crammed with gold pieces. He knows how to create these realistic images of our life and struggle arresting and gripping for millions of people who themselves are a part of that life and struggle. His art is art in Lenin's sense for it is a weapon in the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat." (33)
Heartfield's friends in Europe helped to get his work published. Several photomontages on the Spanish Civil War were published. This included Madrid 1936, a work of art that dealt with the Siege of Madrid. Another poster, The Mothers to their Sons in Franco's Service, was published in December 1936. On the poster it said: "For what you were hired. Whom you are hounding. So permit us mothers to tell you: We grieve for you, young ones. No, we did not raise you to murder. You are allowing yourselves to be abused. You have been betrayed!" (34)
In October 1937 John Heartfield published Warning. In the photomontage an audience looks at a scene of horror caused by Japanese air raids in Manchuria. "Heartfield's pastiche layers in several rows of faceless male heads, backs towards us, beneath the frontal stare of an on-screen victim in the violent newsreel footage at which they are staring: a Chinese mother holding a bloodied child in outsized close-up." (35) It had the caption: "Today you see a film of war in other countries. But remember, if you don't unite to resist it now, tomorrow it will kill you, too!" It was a prediction that was to come true within two years.
When Adolf Hitler ordered the invasion of Czechoslovakia after the Munich Agreement of 1938 John Heartfield was forced to flee the country. In December he arrived in London. Over the next few months his work appeared in the Reynolds News and Lilliput. He spoke at political rallies, organized anti-Fascist groups, and took part in a successful political cabaret, Four and Twenty Black Sheep. On 23rd September, 1939, Picture Post used one of Heartfield's earlier photomontages, His Majesty Adolf, which showed Hitler wearing the Kaiser's uniform and moustache, on its front-cover. (36)
On the outbreak of the Second World War he was interned with fellow refugees who had suffered under the Nazis and were now dubbed "enemy aliens". He was suffering from poor health and he was eventually released but he was not asked to work for the British government. "His whole ambition was to make people fully aware of the menace of Fascism and to expose the Nazi tyranny through his work as an artist... The powerful contribution he might have made toward the Allied victory through his mastery of satire was not acceptable to the British authorities. They were highly suspicious of art, especially experimental forms of art by a German refugee." (37)
One of John Heartfield most powerful photomontages, This is the Salvation that they Bring!, that had originally been published in protest against the Spanish Civil War, was republished during the Blitz. On the poster it had an extract from an article that appeared in the Nazi Party funded Berlin Journal for Biology and Race Research: "The densely populated sections of cities suffer most acutely in air raids. Since these areas are inhabited for the most part by the ragged proletariat, society will thus be rid of these elements. One-ton bombs not only cause death but also very frequently produce madness. People with weak nerves cannot stand such shocks. That makes it possible for us to find out who the neurotics are. Then the only thing that remains is to sterilize such people. Thereby the purity of the race is guaranteed." (38)
John and his third wife, Gertrud (Tutti) Heartfield, settled in Hampstead. During the war he was an active member of the Artists International Association and contributed to its exhibitions. Heartfield also designed book jackets for the London publisher Lindsay Drummond and Penguin Books. (39)
John Heartfield and his wife moved to Leipzig in East Germany in August 1950. Together with his brother, Wieland Herzfelde, he worked for publishers and organizations in the GDR. He also designed scenery and posters for the Berliner Ensemble and the Deutsches Theatre. However, as Peter Selz has pointed out, he found it difficult to produce political photomontages. "While he was celebrated as a cultural leader, his chief idiom, photomontage, was still suspect during the 1950s among the more orthodox advocates of socialist realism." (40)
Heartfield continued to be a peace activist and on 9th June 1967, at the time of an exhibition of his works at the Stockholm Modern Museum, he wrote about the dangers posed by the Vietnam War. "Since we are living in the nuclear age, a third world war would mean a catastrophe for all mankind, a catastrophe the full extent of which cannot be possibly be imagined.... The war of extermination against the Vietnamese people, fighting heroically for their existence... Now there is a war in the Middle East! Shortly before that, a monarchist-fascist putsch smothered every democratic political movement in Greece. The flames are licking at your doorstep! Today peace-loving men of all nations must work together even more closely; must mobilize all the resources to strengthen and preserve world peace, since powerful rulers again lust for war." (41)
John Heartfield died in Berlin on 26th April, 1968.
John Heartfield is one of those who expressed the strongest doubts about painting, especially its technical aspects. He is one of those who recognized the historical evanescence of that kind of oil-painting which has only been in existence for a few centuries and seems to us to be painting per se, but which can abdicate at any time to a technique which is new and more in accord with contemporary life, with mankind today. With Leger it led to decorative art, with Mondrian to abstraction, with Picabia to the organization of mundane evening entertainment.
But toward the end of the war, several men in Germany (Grosz, Heartfield, Ernst) were led through the critique of painting to a spirit which was quite different from the Cubists, who pasted a piece of newspaper on a matchbox in the middle of the picture to give them a foothold in reality. For them the photograph stood as a challenge to painting and was released from its imitative function and used for their own poetic purpose....
John Heartfield today knows how to salute beauty. He knows how to create those images which are the very beauty of our age since they represent the cry of the people-the representation of the people's struggle against the brown hangman with his craw crammed with gold pieces. His art is art in Lenin's sense for it is a weapon in the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat.
John Heartfield today knows how to salute beauty. Because he speaks for the countless oppressed people throughout the world, and this without depreciating for a moment the magnificent tone of his voice, without debasing the majestic poetry of his tremendous imagination. Without diminishing the quality of his work. Master of a technique entirely of his own invention, a technique which uses for its palette the whole range of impressions from the world of actuality; never imposing a rein on his spirit, blending his figures at will, he knows no signpost other than dialectical materialism, none other than the reality of the historical process, which he, filled with the anger of battle, translates into black and white.
When John Heartfield and I invented photomontage in my South End studio at five o'clock on a May morning in 1916, neither of us had any inkling of its great possibilities, nor of the thorny yet successful road it was to take. As so often happens in life, we had stumbled across a vein of gold without knowing it.
John Heartfield is one of the most important European artists. He works in a field that he created himself, the field of photomontage. Steadfastly on the side of the working class, he unmasked the forces of the Weimar Republic driving toward war; driven into exile he fought against Hitler. The works of this great artist, which mainly appeared in the workers' press, are regarded as classics by many, including the author of these lines.
He (Wieland Herzfelde) was small of stature, just like his brother John Heartfield. During the First World War, Wieland published a literary journal, Die Neue Jugend - work on which was repeatedly interrupted by bouts of military service. The journal carried poems by Wieland's friends and some of my drawings.
When Wieland was called to the front once again, a new man joined the editorial board: the boisterous poet Franz Jung. Die Neue Jugend at once assumed a new face: it became aggressive. Its new format was based on that of American journals, and Heartfield used collages and bolder type to develop a new style.
Wieland, unlike most of us, was an optimist at heart. He believed that the masses - not only himself - would make a stand, for he imagined that everyone was endowed with his own trusting and noble nature. He devoted more and more of his time to politics, wrote fewer poems, left Dada to its own devices and founded a publishing house he called the Malik Verlag.
All that stopped, of course, when Hitler came to power. Wieland became a refugee like a hundred thousand others.
One must examine the way in which Heartfield's montages worked and in some way assess their reception and success. Put at its simplest, either Heartfield was preaching to the converted or he was preaching in order to convert - for he was definitely preaching. Modern art, created in the belief of art for art's sake, does the former. Those who believe in a necessary spiritual detachment of art from other human activities have their beliefs understandably reinforced by works of art produced, either consciously or by default, precisely for that purpose. The only level on which Heartfield can be said to be preaching to the converted is that of reinforcement or confirmation of ideology either by direct criticism of ideologies contrary to his, or by the presentation of aspects of the ideology to which he subscribed as praiseworthy.
This process of ideological reinforcement is an essential one in art and operates in two ways. Firstly, the image is used to confirm an existing belief. Viewers have their beliefs reinforced by being able to bask in reflected glory. Secondly, ideological back-sliders are reminded of the consequences of their back-sliding. In this case some theoretical expertise on the part of the audience can be assumed and the picture can therefore be made to operate on a relatively sophisticated level without quantities of explanatory material. This is the reason for the continuing comprehensability of Heartfield's work, which is usually shown with the original explanatory material missing.
However, the main purpose of Heartfield's work is preaching to convert, and there are a number of ways in which he did this extremely successfully. Firstly, he used photographs and the technique of photomontage -.a technique of which he was one of the more skilful proponents. The democratic nature of photography was recognised very early.... The relative cheapness of the photograph and resulting printed images makes wide distribution possible and thus photography became the most important tool of information distribution before television, which is in itself
only an extension of photography. Equally early arose the myth that the camera does not lie and thus photographs came to have a documentary power. Even when it is known that a picture is posed or faked it is still regarded as an accurate record. Thus Heartfield could produce the most intellectually convoluted images by montage and still the final product would retain its power as a photographic image. It has rightly been pointed out that many of Heartfield's montages would have looked ludicrous had they been just drawn or painted.
I bore you under the palm trees of Morocco...
I sent you to school in Hamburg...
I hugged you, my child, in Rome...
You speak in foreign tongues,
Cannot ask one another,
For what you were hired,
Whom you are hounding.
So permit us mothers to tell you:
We grieve for you, young ones.
No, we did not raise you to murder.
You are allowing yourselves to be abused. You have been betrayed!
The enemies against whom you have been sent
Are enemies of the poverty that also troubles us,
Are enemies of the war that threatens the world.
You risk your lives. Risk more! Dare to think!
Refuse to execute your brothers!
Damned be your obedience, your false courage!
Don't you know what you are doing?
Our blood sticks to your weapon.
Heartfield always considered his photomontages as artistic achievements. The worker, however, for whom he intended his photomontages, understood their revolutionary content, but assigned no artistic value judgment to them.
Why, then, did he take such great care with each work? Why this strong sense of artistic responsibility for ephemeral political propaganda? Artistic quality, for Heartfield, was identical with the clear solution of a concept, with the purposeful accomplishment of the substance and form of an idea. The graphic means, the distribution of space, the proportions, the choice of lettering, the tonal quality or the color of the photograph were subordinated to this. Every detail was a part of the expression.
John Heartfield v Adolf Hitler: Censorship in Nazi Germany (Answer Commentary)
Käthe Kollwitz: German Artist in the First World War (Answer Commentary)
Adolf Hitler's Early Life (Answer Commentary)
The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich (Answer Commentary)
Heinrich Himmler and the SS (Answer Commentary)
The Last Days of Adolf Hitler (Answer Commentary)
Trade Unions in Nazi Germany (Answer Commentary)
(1) Anthony Coles, John Heartfield: 1891-1968 (1975) page 3
(2) Peter Selz, John Heartfield: Photomontages of the Nazi Period (1972) page 134
(3) Anthony Coles, John Heartfield: 1891-1968 (1975) page 3
(4) Karl Liebknecht, The Main Enemy Is At Home! (May, 1915)
(5) Wieland Herzfelde, Heartfield's Photomontages and Contemporary History (1972) page 22
(6) Ian Chilvers and Harold Osborne, The Oxford Dictionary of Art (1988) page 260
(7) George Grosz, The Autobiography of George Grosz (1955) page 190
(8) George Grosz interviewed by Erwin Piscator (1928)
(9) Peter Selz, John Heartfield: Photomontages of the Nazi Period (1972) page 136
(10) Ian Chilvers and Harold Osborne, The Oxford Dictionary of Art (1988) page 147
(11) Sergei Tretyakov, John Heartfield (1936)
(12) Anthony Coles, John Heartfield: 1891-1968 (1975) page 3
(13) Bertolt Brecht, discussing the origins of photomontage in 1949.
(14) Heiri Strub, An Art for the Revolutionary Struggle (1972) page 25
(15) Wieland Herzfelde, John Heartfield (1962) page 24
(16) Peter Selz, John Heartfield: Photomontages of the Nazi Period (1972) page 11
(17) Heiri Strub, An Art for the Revolutionary Struggle (1972) page 25
(18) Eric D. Weitz, Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy (2007) page 211
(19) Zbyněk Zeman, Heckling Hitler (1987) page 37
(20) Friedrich Pfäfflin, John Heartfield's Photomontages of 1930-38 (1972) page 29
(21) Heiri Strub, An Art for the Revolutionary Struggle (1972) page 25
(22) Louis Aragon, Commune Magazine (May 1935)
(23) Peter Selz, John Heartfield: Photomontages of the Nazi Period (1972) page 11
(24) Richard Carline, John Heartfield in England (1972) page 129
(25) Simon Taylor, Revolution, Counter-Revolution and the Rise of Hitler (1983) page 111
(26) Ian Kershaw, Hitler 1889-1936 (1998) page 448
(27) Joseph Goebbels, diary entry (20th February, 1933)
(28) Peter Selz, John Heartfield: Photomontages of the Nazi Period (1972) page 13
(29) Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962) page 262
(30) Berthold Hinz, Art in the Third Reich (1979) page 52
(31) Friedrich Pfäfflin, John Heartfield's Photomontages of 1930-38 (1972) page 28
(32) Paul Signac, letter to a group of Prague artists (May, 1934)
(33) Louis Aragon, Commune Magazine (May 1935)
(34) John Heartfield, The Mothers to their Sons in Franco's Service (December 1936)
(35) David LaRocca, The Philosophy of War Films (2014) page 107
(36) Peter Selz, John Heartfield: Photomontages of the Nazi Period (1972) page 15
(37) Richard Carline, John Heartfield in England (1972) page 129
(38) Peter Selz, John Heartfield: Photomontages of the Nazi Period (1972) page 13
(39) Richard Carline, John Heartfield in England (1972) page 132
(40) Peter Selz, John Heartfield: Photomontages of the Nazi Period (1972) page 16
(41) John Heartfield, statement (9th June 1967)
John Heartfield - History
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John Heartfield: Photomontages
The first extensive American exhibition of the work of John Heartfield, a member of the Berlin Dadaists who is known as the inventor of photomontage, John Heartfield: Photomontages presents some of the most powerful political art of the modern era. The exhibition explores the range of Heartfield’s achievements and provides a substantive view of the artist, who has been previously little-known in this country.
Included for the first time in this country are ninety-six of the artist’s original photomontages, many of them shown alongside their published reproductions from the left-wing workers’ daily Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ), as well as poster- and book-cover designs.
In his works for AIZ, Heartfield uses the very tools with which the mass media of his time constructed “reality,” such as photographs and text, to represent instead the incompetence, greed, and hypocrisy behind appearances. His aim was to expose the dangers and abuses of power in the Nazi regime. For example, Adolf, the Superman: Swallows Gold and Spouts Junk (1932) shows Hitler from the waist up. A swastika replaces his heart, and his torso is an x-ray revealing gold coins flowing down his throat and collecting in his stomach. Meaning of Geneva (1932) shows a dove spiked on a bayonet in front of the League of Nations palace. The headline reads: “Where Capital Lives, There Can Be No Peace!” Such images remain among the most vivid satirical images of German political conditions of the 1930s. Although they deal with figures and events of more than half-a-century ago, they are instantly comprehensible today.
Heartfield’s strikingly original book jackets, for works by such authors as Upton Sinclair and John Dos Passos, were designed for his brother’s publishing firm, Malik-Verlag. These designs—which combine a variety of images relating to the text and convey their meaning through the juxtaposition of images on the front and back covers—represent a dramatic departure from the plain book jackets of the period.
Heartfield’s art is particularly relevant today, in light of the current political climate in Germany, and in the context of European and American artists who draw on the techniques and appearance of the mass media to create a highly politicized art. Nancy Roth writes in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, “Now, at a moment when the model of an autonomous, socially isolated art seems increasingly inadequate, renewed interest in Heartfield is associated with a broad reconsideration of modernism itself. He offers, among other things, an entrypoint into a ‘lost,’ or profoundly obscured body of thought about what art might be and what it might accomplish in a democratic society.”
Born Helmut Herzfeld in 1891, John Heartfield anglicized his name as a protest against German nationalism during World War I. In 1929 Heartfield began his long collaboration with AIZ, furnishing full-page photomontages nearly every month. Forced to flee Germany after Hitler came to power, he continued to create work for AIZ while in exile. He spent the war years in England, where he worked as a graphic artist. Heartfield was an active supporter of Communism and in 1950 returned to what was then East Germany. He continued to work there, mostly designing scenery and posters for the Berliner Ensemble and Deutsches Theater. Heartfield died in East Berlin in 1968, leaving an extensive archive, which, upon his widow’s death, was transferred to the Akademie der Künste zu Berlin. Given Heartfield’s leftist political leanings, his work has rarely been shown in the West. His first exhibition in New York was in 1938 the next was in 1991, when pages from the AIZ were shown.
Organized by Magdalena Dabrowski, curator, Department of Drawings.
The works in the exhibition were chosen from the 1991 touring retrospective commemorating the centenary of the artist’s birth, organized by the Akademie der Künste zu Berlin, the Landesregierung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, and the Landschaftsverband Rheinland, Cologne.
John Heartfield - History
Laughter is a Devastating Weapon (Tate Publishing, October 2015) is an exciting new publication devoted to the work of German artist John Heartfield (1891-1968), known for his incomparably dark, mocking, politically pointed photocollages. The title aptly refers to the satirical power of Heartfield’s artistic efforts, which earned him one of the top positions on the Nazis’ “the most wanted list” when they came to power in 1933 and nearly cost him his life.
Authors David King and Ernst Volland present a fascinating group of Heartfield images from King’s own collection. Volland is a German artist, whose work includes photomontages, as well as efforts in other media. Also an author and curator, Volland has brought to light overlooked figures such as Yevgeni Khaldei, the Soviet photographer best known for the iconic image of a Soviet soldier raising a flag over the Reichstag in Berlin in May 1945.
King has pursued a decades-long interest in the Russian Revolution and its graphic representation, and the relation of the visual to the historical record. He has produced numerous works on the 1917 Revolution and the role of Stalinism, as well as several works about Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition. One of the books he designed was How the GPU Murdered Trotsky, published in 1976 by the International Committee of the Fourth International.
In the new volume, King has adopted the appealing format of his other works––like Red Star Over Russia ––which combines elegant reproductions of hundreds of images with a distinct, bold style of text and layout. The Heartfield tribute is organized chronologically, starting with book covers that he designed in the early 1920s. Often, the authors were able to locate Heartfield’s original materials––collaged photos, airbrush modifications, brushwork and text layout––providing insight into his process.
Nearly every image in Laughter Is A Devastating Weapon is accompanied by an informative caption. King and Volland explain the backgrounds and fates of a wide range of figures in this way, and the association to particular images provides a memorable means by which readers can enter into the history. It becomes clear that an astonishing number of the political and artistic figures mentioned ended up fleeing Europe or falling victim to fascism or Stalinism.
The book begins with a concise account of Heartfield’s early life, which had a very strange twist. Helmut Herzfeld (Heartfield’s original name) was born in 1891 in Berlin, to politically active parents. His mother, Alice, was a textile worker and political activist, and Franz, his father, was a socialist/anarchist author, poet and playwright. He had a brother, Wieland, and two sisters. Franz was politically persecuted by the German authorities, prompting the family to move out of the country in impoverished conditions.
In 1899, for reasons that are still unknown, the children were suddenly abandoned by their parents. The former eventually ended up in the care of foster parents who raised them on strict Catholic lines. Helmut showed skill at drawing and painting, and began studies at the Bavarian Arts and Crafts School in Munich in 1908. He went to work as a graphic designer for printers, and by 1913, he had moved to Berlin and was reunited with his brother Wieland, now an aspiring writer, and they stepped into the lively avant-garde art scene.
When World War One broke out, Helmut was conscripted. Horrified at the prospect of participating in Germany’s nationalist and militarist cause, he faked a nervous breakdown to avoid service. Wieland joined the medical corps and was kicked out in 1915 for hitting a sergeant, was called up again, and then started a hunger strike and was discharged for good.
Helmut decided to change his name to “John Heartfield” as a conscious protest against German anti-British propaganda. John and Wieland (who changed the spelling of his last name from Herzfeld to Herzefelde) met artist George Grosz in 1915, which began a long-term artistic and personal friendship.
The King-Volland book describes how the group invented photomontage. In 1928 Grosz explained that “On a piece of cardboard we pasted a mishmash of advertisements for hernia belts, student song books and dog food, labels from schnapps and wine bottles, and photographs from the picture press, cut up at will in such a way as to say, visually, what would have been banned by the censors had we said it in words.”
Simultaneously, the group launched leftist journals that attacked militarism, the pro-war Social Democratic Party and bourgeois society as a whole. Wieland founded a new publishing firm, Malik Verlag, which would publish many significant works during the Weimar Republic (1919–1933). Heartfield, his brother and Grosz all joined the newly formed German Communist Party (KPD) on December 30, 1918, receiving their membership cards from Rosa Luxemburg in person. Just two weeks later, on January 15, 1919, Luxemburg was assassinated by members of the Freikorps, a far-right paramilitary force ordered by the Social Democratic government to crush revolutionary upheaval in Berlin.
Heartfield, Grosz and Herzfelde were all participants in the Dada movement in Berlin, the most political of its groups. Dadaism arose as a protest against the war, militarism and nationalism and against the “rational” bourgeois culture that had produced the war. The Dadaists hence attacked traditional aesthetics, carried out artistic provocations and valued “nonsense, irrationality and intuition.”
The work of Heartfield and the others within Dada took on a more thoughtful aesthetic character and a deep satirical strain begin to emerge. For Grosz, that took the form of scathing drawings that Wieland published in very successful print portfolios. Heartfield hit his stride with photocollages that often involved a playful and wild use of text and image.
Laughter is a Devastating Weapon presents a range of lesser-known work from the 1920s, particularly book cover designs Heartfield produced for Malik Verlag. Summarizing these, the authors write that “his use of photographs, integrated with his often idiosyncratic typography, transformed cover design in the 1920s. He was the first person to make a wraparound cover and his political vision combined with his visual engineering created strong and dynamic effects.”
Included in the book are striking designs for works by Upton Sinclair, John Reed, Franz Jung, Isaac Babel and others. Heartfield also created a striking cover for a German translation of Leon Trotsky’s My Flight from Siberia in 1922. The artist inevitably had run-ins with censorship. In the case of the cover for Sex and Espionage in Ghent Garrison by Heinrich Wandt, about the author’s experiences in World War I, the result is uproarious. The rejection of Heartfield’s first cover by the authorities led to increasingly absurd versions, which ultimately include an image of the censor himself cutting apart the cover, with far more overt sexual overtones than the original version had.
On the back cover of the Illustrated History of the Russian Revolution, published in 1928, Heartfield initially included a photo of Trotsky within an artistic montage of images suggestive of revolution. The authors note that once Trotsky was sent into exile by Stalin “the back cover photomontage was soon removed and replaced by an advertisement or, in one case, simply a solid red printing.” Later, in postwar East Germany, Trotsky was airbrushed out of the cover.
The year of that cover is significant. In 1928, James P. Cannon, a leader of the American Communist Party, during his stay in the Soviet Union, was accidentally handed a copy of Trotsky’s withering critique of the Draft Program of the Communist International. Cannon agreed with Trotsky’s critique of Stalinism and went on to help found the Trotskyist movement in America. Other sections of the International Left Opposition emerged around the world.
In Germany the Nazi Party began to gain political strength in conditions of economic ruin. In an expression of its impotence and disorientation, the Stalinized Communist Party (KPD) asserted that the Social Democratic Party was “social-fascist,” and rejected Trotsky’s call for a united front of the two workers’ parties against the threat of fascism. The Stalinists’ reactionary, ultimatistic policy, its inability to advance any convincing way for the German masses out of economic despair, left the working class paralyzed and divided, and opened the door to the Nazi barbarism.
During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Heartfield designed many KPD political posters and magazine covers, some of them quite well-crafted and effective as imagery, which promoted the party’s twists and turns. The iconic image of man whose head is entirely wrapped in newspaper pages––“Reading the bourgeois press makes you blind and deaf. Throw away these stupid bandages!”––goes beyond the immediate circumstances and makes a more lasting argument about media-promoted ignorance and narrowness.
Perhaps one weakness of Laughter is a Devastating Weapon is its failure to emphasize sufficiently the devastating impact of Stalinism on Heartfield and his circle, as artists and political figures. One wonders to what extent Heartfield and the others followed the Left Opposition and Trotsky’s positions. We know that playwright Bertolt Brecht, whom Heartfield first met in 1924, was reading Trotsky extensively, along with critic Walter Benjamin.
Heartfield created his most famous work as the German disaster unfolded. In 1930, he was hired by the Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (Workers’ Illustrated Newspaper, or AIZ), a widely read weekly magazine published by “left-wing press baron” Willi Münzenberg, the cultural front man of the Communist International.
Heartfield, the authors of Laughter is a Devastating Weapon importantly point out, “always considered the final mass-production results, printed in their hundreds of thousands, to be his works of art, never the one-off original of cut-up images painstakingly glued together.” At its height, AIZ had a circulation of half a million, with a considerable following in the working class.
Janos Reissman, a Hungarian photographer who took pictures for Heartfield, describes the “painstaking” process. “He insisted on the minutest changes [in the darkroom] which, in the end, I could no longer comprehend. … I used to get so tired that I could hardly stand, let alone think … But he would hurry home with the photos still damp, dry them, cut them out and position them under a heavy sheet of glass.”
Some of Heartfield’s images devoted to the rise of the Nazi Party remain fresh and disturbing to this day. He used inventive metaphors, playfulness, dark humor and seething anger to analyze and expose. One of the most legendary, of course, is Heartfield’s play on Hitler’s boastful claim, “Millions stand behind me.” In Heartfield’s composition, Hitler, making his famous salute, reaches behind his head to take cash from a gigantic, looming capitalist. The work’s text reads: “The real meaning of the Hitler salute: Millions Stand Behind Me––Little Man Asking for Big Donations.” The image appeared in October 1932, only months before the Nazis came to power.
On the night of April 14, 1933, the paramilitary SS burst into Heartfield’s apartment block as he was packing up his work. Hearing them, he dove through the window and leapt over a balcony, spraining his ankle. The Nazi’s searched the courtyard, but failed to find him hidden in a garbage bin, where he stayed for another seven hours. With the assistance of the underground KPD, he escaped over the Sudeten mountains into Czechoslovakia on foot, and he eventually reunited with Wieland and the AIZ staff.
In exile in Czechoslovakia, where Heartfield made some of his most famous anti-Nazi images, the circulation of AIZ fell to around 12,000. The authors state that “to be caught in Germany with a copy would have been suicidal.” When the German and Austrian ambassadors complained about the presence of Heartfield’s work at an international exhibition in Prague in 1934, the organizers removed seven of his 35 works. “The furore fuelled colossal publicity, and the Czech public voted with their feet, streaming to see Heartfield’s photomontages ‘turning laughter into a devastating weapon,’ as AIZ reported.”
One senses in Heartfield’s anti-fascist images of the mid-1930s and beyond a growing despair. There is something savage but strained about some of them. Again, the damage done by Stalinism is incalculable. Heartfield’s output and influence began to wane in exile. Publishing opportunities withered away towards the end of the 1930s, and once war broke out, it took sustained effort by well-known individuals to get the British authorities to admit Heartfield in 1938 as the Nazis threatened Czechoslovakia. Once World War Two broke out, “democratic” Britain detained Heartfield as an enemy alien in a camp. Only severe illness won him release.
King and Volland reveal that British intelligence kept a close eye on Heartfield from the moment he arrived in December 1938.
One MI5 memo from November 30, 1940 reads: “Unless there are strong reasons … for Helmut HERZFELD’s continued release I should, from a security standpoint, recommend his re-internment. He was a known Communist at the time of his admission to the this country.”
In 1950, Heartfield and his third wife, Tutti Fietz, also a German exile, moved to Stalinist East Germany––where he again faced interrogation. Laughter Is a Devastating Weapon contains the transcript of Heartfield’s intensive, blockheaded questioning by the ruling Stalinist party’s control commission on October 18, 1950. The Stalinists were fearful of artists like Heartfield and Brecht, frightened that they could not control their output or the content of their work. Heartfield died in East Berlin in April 1968, aged 77. The King-Volland volume contains almost nothing by him created after 1938.
Heartfield, like many artists internationally, was powerfully influenced by the Russian Revolution and its potential to end war and inequality. Yet tragically, he and many others were ultimately limited or destroyed by the rise of Stalinism. When the book describes Heartfield’s interactions and links to notable Soviet artists, like author and critic Sergei Tretyakov, it also includes their fate, which was often death at the hands of the Stalinist regime.
Laughter is a Devastating Weapon provides an engaging balance of high-quality visuals and informative text to help understand a complex artist living in a tumultuous time. Opening the book to full-page Heartfield images will no doubt grab the attention of a wide variety of readers, and King and Volland have provided the skilled curation, writing and research necessary to represent this important work and history.
John Heartfield and the dawn of photomontage
John Heartfield – self-portrait with Police Commissioner Zörgiebel, 1929
Photomontage as an art technique was initiated and developed by Dadaists in the interwar period. Back then, it proved to be the perfect tool for expressing rebellious moods and political critique. One of the first and at the same time most important artists using this technique was John Heartfield. He was German, his real name was Helmut Herzfeld. He provocatively changed his surname to an English-sounding one and through his art he strongly criticized the government in Germany. His works poke fun at politicians, showing them in absurd situations. The artist used photos from official, governmental press and then published them with new meaning. Sometimes, he also took the photos himself, like for example for the “So macht Man Dollars” project. Heartfield’s photomontages have a harsh, provocative expression as befits the head Berlin Dadaist, but even the most controversial ones conceal a metaphor and force the viewer to give a deeper thought about the world he/she lives in. The works are mostly black and white, austere, with sparse, simple typography, which is a complementary factor. They also have a touch of surrealism, strangeness which can be compared to Magritte’s tastes. Hand-crafting, with the use of simple tools such as scissors and glue, makes the montage far from ideal – it is very different from computer montages nowadays. But it is exactly this lack of idealism that establishes the character and good taste of Heartfield’s works. Besides, these days it is also a thing to stray from polished, photoshopped manipulations to manually crafted pieces or skillfully made intentional mistakes in digital graphic designs. Back to the topic of Heartfield, let’s take a closer look at one of his works:
John Heartfield – Deutsche Naturgeschichte – AIZ Magazine, 1934
The title is Deutsche Naturgeschichte (Natural History of Germany) and the subtitle reads: Metamorphosis, which is an allusion to Franz Kafka’s story, where the main character transforms from a human into a nasty insect.
In Heartfield’s project we can see insects with the heads of politicians, who are as follows: Friedrich Ebert (1871-1925) – as a caterpillar, Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934) as a chrysalis, dangling from a withered bark and finally Adolf Hitler as fully functional, flying moth with a skull symbol. It is a sad metaphor of pre-war history of Germany. Hindenburg is shown as a powerless marionette and Hitler’s stepping stone towards spreading his wings and wrecking havoc. Oak leaves are an important element in the whole composition – they symbolize the everlasting power of Germany. In Heartfield’s piece we can see the leaves are considerably damaged and eaten by pests, which alludes to decomposition of the whole country. This photomontage, just like many other by Heartfield, is an apt critique of the governing that led to World War II.
The piece was put on the back cover of AIZ magazine in 1934. It’s in sepia, the composition is well balanced, the details refined and if take into account only its form – it is one of the most beautiful photomontages that were created in the avant-garde of pre-war period.
John Heartfield – “Whoever Reads Bourgeois Newspapers Becomes Blind and Deaf: Away with These Stultifying Bandages!” (Wer Bürgerblätter liest wird blind und taub. Weg mit den Verdummungsbandagen!) AIZ Magazine, 1930
John Heartfield – Art Poster – Crisis Party Congress of the SPD – AIZ Magazine, 1931. The SPD party crisis montage refers to the close relationship of Germany’s Weimar Republic SPD party to The Nazi Party. The photomontage is also known as “The Tiger Montage” John Heartfield – “So Macht Man Dollars” by Upton Sinclair c. 1931
Photo by John Heartfield for the “So macht Man Dollars” project John Heatfield – “The Three Magi from the Land of Sorrow” (Die drei Weisen aus dem Sorgenland), AIZ, 1935
John Heatfield – “Appeasement” (Hitler Prepares to Kill the French Cockerel). Hitler sharpens his knife, preparing to kill the French cockerel. Bonnet, French Foreign Minister, says: “Don’t be afraid, Hitler is a vegetarian” John Heatfield – “Blood and Iron”. The slogan which Bismarck formulated lives again in the new German state. The executioners’ bloodstained axes from the Nazi swastika
John Heatfield – “Peace and Fascism”. The dove of peace is transfixed by the fascist bayonet before the League of Nations building, whose white cross has become a Swastika
Heartfield’s photomontages are today an inspiration to many artists who use this technique. Some of his famous works appeared also on contemporary CD and book covers, here are some examples:
From left: Japanese edition of the 1st CD by System of a Down CD cover for Siouxie and the Banshees book cover for “Der finanzierte Aufstieg des Adolf H.”
In the late 1940s, in the last decade of his life, Henri Matisse made a significant shift in his artistic methodology and turned to cut paper as his primary medium, using scissors as his tool. His new creations were called cut-outs. Using gouache paint, Matisse would colour sheets of paper and cut these sheets into different shapes and sizes. Often, they were inspired by the natural world – flowers and plants – and at other times they were abstract. Then, he arranged those different cut-outs into lively compositions. They started out modest in size, but over time they grew in scale, becoming as large as murals. The cut-out medium allowed Matisse to finally make the kind of monumental works he had wanted to make for a long time, transcending the confines of easel painting and working with a new type of free reign. The paper cut-outs could be pinned into place, easily rearranged, and seamlessly fused colour with his signature arabesque lines. His line drawing, he had once said, most directly translated his emotions. Now, with the cut-outs, his saw himself as drawing with scissors.
Heartfield's name is synonymous with his 1930s anti-fascist photomontages. He became known for his one-man battle against Hitler due to his concentrated critique of this dictator as a liar, backed by the big industrialists.
Montage, for Heartfield, was a vernacular art form, readily used for propaganda and commercial purposes. The Berlin Dadaists used photomontage to rupture the commercialized media's view of reality by dismantling it into fragmented parts. Cubism dismantled the mimetic representation in art. Similarly, Heartfield's violently cut and pasted fragments with their rough edges exposed the media's realistic description of the world as a mimetic illusion. To call the authenticity of reality into question was to show the masses how they had traded in their own perception of reality for the media's view. Regrettably, these Dadaists lacked a popular audience.
Heartfield's agitational method, equated with the worker photography movement's notion of 'photo as a weapon,' aimed to visualize the realities that lay behind the agitation for war or whatever cause the government persuaded the citizens to back. Heartfield's seamlessly sutured photomontages show how the photographic medium was mere artifice. The montaged interplay of animal and human, animate and inanimate, technological, and 'natural' are revealed as the hidden structure in mechanical reproductions under industrial capitalism.
Heartfield caused the times to speak for themselves through cut-out fragments from everyday materials, such as advertisements, newspapers, and illustrations. He provoked reality to snap its own picture through excerpts taken from popular mass media products, as a variation on a cameraless photographic process.
Only recently has Heartfield's work been studied on its own terms, as progressive graphic design. His formative training in advertising and experiences with Dada theatricality provided him with the visual tools to affect and persuade viewers to action and critical thinking. Heartfield's pro-communist, anti-capitalist photomontages emerge in a moment of war and revolution, and in dialogue with the late Weimar Republic's commodity culture. His provocative photomontages aroused both critical acclaims as well as a controversy at the time - especially famous are his anti-fascist montages, for which he was persecuted by the Nazis and spied on by Gestapo agents. The capacity of Heartfield's photomontages to provide a technique through which to conceive alternative views of reality is his contribution to artistic practice across the media arts.
John Heartfield (born Helmut Herzfeld 19 June 1891 – 26 April 1968) was a German visual artist who pioneered the use of art as a political weapon. Some of his most famous photomontages were anti-Nazi and anti-fascist statements. Heartfield also created book jackets for book authors, such as Upton Sinclair, as well as stage sets for contemporary playwrights, such as Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator.
John Heartfield was born Helmut Herzfeld on 19 June 1891 in Berlin-Schmargendorf, Berlin under the German Empire. His father was Franz Herzfeld, a socialist writer, and his mother was Alice (née Stolzenburg), a textile worker and political activist.
In 1899, Helmut, his brother Wieland Herzfelde, and his sisters Lotte and Hertha were abandoned in the woods by their parents. The four children went to live with an uncle in the small town of Aigens.
In 1908, he studied art in Munich at the Royal Bavarian Arts and Crafts School. Two commercial designers, Albert Weisgerber and Ludwig Hohlwein, were early influences.
While living in Berlin, he began styling himself "John Heartfield," an anglicisation of his German name, to protest against anti-British fervour sweeping (Germany) during the First World War, during which Berlin street crowds commonly shouted "Gott strafe England!" ("May God punish England!").
During the same year, Heartfield, his brother Wieland and George Grosz launched publishing house Malik-Verlag in Berlin. In 1916, he and George Grosz had experimented with pasting pictures together, a form of art later named photomontage, and which would be a central characteristic of their works.
In 1917, Heartfield became a member of Berlin Club Dada. Heartfield would later become active in the Dada movement, helping to organise the Erste Internationale Dada-Messe (First International Dada Fair) in Berlin in 1920. Dadaists were provocateurs who disrupted public art gatherings and ridiculed the participants. They labeled traditional art trivial and bourgeois.
In January 1918, Heartfield joined the newly founded German Communist Party (KPD).
In 1919, Heartfield was dismissed from the Reichswehr film service because of his support for the strike that followed the assassination of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. With George Grosz, he founded Die Pleite, a satirical magazine.
Heartfield met Bertolt Brecht in 1924, and became a member of a circle of German artists that included Brecht, Erwin Piscator, Hannah Höch, and a host of others.
Though he was a prolific producer of stage sets and book jackets, Heartfield's main form of expression was photomontage. Heartfield produced the first political photomontages. He mainly worked for two publications: the daily Die Rote Fahne and the weekly Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (AIZ), the latter of which published the works for which Heartfield is best remembered. He also built theatre sets for Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht.
During the 1920s, Heartfield produced a great number of photomontages, many of which were reproduced as dust jackets for books such as his montage for Upton Sinclair's The Millennium.
It was through rotogravure, an engraving process whereby pictures, designs, and words are engraved into the printing plate or printing cylinder, that Heartfield's montages, in the form of posters, were distributed in the streets of Berlin between 1932 and 1933, when the Nazis came to power.
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Cutting edge resistance: review of Heartfield: One Man’s War exhibitionThe Hand Has Five Fingers, John Heartfield, 1928
It’s something of a miracle that we can even see John Heartfield’s revolutionary art today. In the dead of night, on 14 April 1933, he was hastily packing up his artwork when he heard the Nazi SS breaking into his studio.
They had come to destroy the artist and his art. Heartfield was a prominent and powerful opponent of fascism. His artwork, which exposed the brutalities and mocked the pretensions of the Nazis, appeared on the front covers of the Worker’s Illustrated Journal (Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung). It was a popular publication, with a weekly print run of 500,000.
Heartfield had no time to lose. He opened the windows, jumped off his balcony (spraining his ankle) and hid in a bin that, according to David King, ‘displayed some enamel signs, the sort that advertise motor oil, or soap, or an aperitif’. It’s an absurd image that recalls Heartfield’s own concern with juxtaposition.
The Nazis destroyed the art in the studio, but Heartfield, who hid inside that bin for seven hours, escaped. He made it to Czechoslovakia where he immediately commenced his onslaught on the Nazis. He was now number 5 on the Gestapo’s most-wanted list.
War and revolution
John Heartfield developed his art and politics in response to the horror of the First World War. Born Helmut Herzfeld, he adopted the English-sounding ‘John Heartfield’ as a reaction to the xenophobia stirred up by the German ruling elite during the war. He also got out of serving in the army by feigning mental illness.
The intolerable experience of the First World War produced revolutionary conclusions. There were strikes, mutinies, and uprisings across Europe as working people realised that it was only by taking action against their own ruling class that they could stop the slaughter.
Most spectacularly, in 1917 a revolution in Russia overthrew the arch-reactionary Tsar followed by a second revolution, this time led by communists, which dragged that country out of the war and began to construct a new kind of society.
Not long after, in January 1918, Heartfield joined the German Communist Party. He supported the communist Spartacist uprising in 1919 which was brutally crushed by the proto-fascist Freikorps who murdered leading revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Heartfield defended the communists through a powerful new visual medium born out of the brutality of war and capitalism.
Art and War
Heartfield had witnessed the nations that prided themselves on being the most developed economies and civilisations in the world prosecuting a seemingly never-ending war over tiny stretches of crater-pocked mud. The short, glorious war, as it had been sold in 1914, was nothing like the reality.
But how could that reality be conveyed? Millions of people never returned. Millions more returned maimed and mangled, traumatised, some unable to speak, others incoherent with shell shock.
In the midst of the war, a group of radical artists created ‘Dada’. It was an assault on everything the establishment held sacred. They were subversive, deliberately shocking and irreverent, distorting words and images – a reflection and critique of the grotesque distortions of bourgeois society.
Heartfield was among the first German adherents. He was in the forefront of a radical, artistic avant-garde, working alongside artists including George Grosz, producing stage sets for Bertolt Brecht's plays (he formed friendships with both men), and designing book covers for socialist authors - there's a cover for a novel by Upton Sinclair in the exhibition. Heartfield pioneered photomontage: cutting up photographs and pasting apparently unconnected images together to reveal a deeper reality.
It was a revolutionary technique that still has the power to shock. The first image in the exhibition is Heartfield’s Ten Years Later: Fathers and Sons (1924) in which a military parade of young cadets is juxtaposed with the skeletons of those who had been conscripted to fight in the war ten years earlier. When this image was displayed, it drew huge crowds that were dispersed by the police.
In another photomontage, War and Corpses – the Last Hope of the Rich (1932), an attack dog, in the bourgeois trappings of top hat and légion d’honneur medal (doctored to read ‘for profit’ instead of ‘for honour’), bears its teeth over the corpses on a First World War battlefield.
In 1916, Rosa Luxemburg argued that bourgeois society would transform into ‘a great cemetery’ of barbarism if socialism did not triumph over it. Heartfield, who had lived through the First World War and then seen the Social Democratic-led German republic unleash fascistic paramilitary forces to murder Luxemburg, knew first-hand what the capitalist elites would resort to if their system was under threat.
Appreciating the exceptional brutality of Nazism, he refused to treat it as an aberration or a national peculiarity. Instead, he understood that this was the solution favoured by a threatened ruling class. The Meaning of the Hitler Salute (1932), in which Hitler’s claim that ‘millions stand behind me’ is juxtaposed with Hitler receiving a backhander of millions in banknotes, starkly underlines the alliance between the industrialists and the Nazis.
A member of the Communist Party, Heartfield's message generally adhered to the party-line propounded by Stalin, which in the early 1930s disastrously condemned the socialists as 'social fascists', thereby obstructing united action against the Nazis. The examples of Heartfield’s promotion of Stalin’s pronouncements are the weakest and least convincing of the art on display. The poster celebrating the enormous numbers of tractors manufactured in the Soviet Union as the realisation of 'Lenin's Dream' hardly does justice to the man who dedicated his life to working-class liberation.
The anti-fascist images for which Heartfield is rightly most famous, however, are hauntingly eloquent: the Hitler salute made of exhaust trails from bombing planes over ruined cities, the swastika made of blood-soaked axes, the medieval torture wheel transformed into a swastika crucifixion scene.
When Nazi Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938, Heartfield had once more to hurriedly seek refuge. Arriving in Britain, where the government had pursued a policy of appeasement (that had, in fact, enabled the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia), he found it hard to find an audience for his uncompromising images.
When Britain declared war on Nazi Germany in September 1939, the well-known Picture Post published Heartfield's 'Hitler: Man Against Europe' on its front cover. Then, horrifically, the following year, Heartfield was interned as an 'enemy alien' and only released after his health broke down.
Initially forbidden from working, this was revoked in 1943 allowing him to produce covers for books on nature. He was nevertheless involved in the radical artistic exile community, having helped found the Free German League of Culture.
Lost and found
After the Second World War, the leading anti-fascist artist's application for residency was rejected by the British government.
Moving to East Germany, which was under Soviet control, he also found himself rather unwanted there. Some of his former comrades had fallen foul of Stalin's purges, while Heartfield's satirical montages hardly conformed to the simplistic, one-dimensional 'socialist realism' favoured by the Soviet state. Brecht's personal intervention on his behalf, however, ensured a modicum of security.
In 1967, a year before he died, Heartfield received an invitation to speak to the students at Liverpool School of Art and Design. He was planning a future retrospective in Britain when he died. Heartfield's widow Gertrud later gifted 33 prints, to form a ready-made travelling exhibition, to the Liverpool School of Art and Design in memory of his time there and in appreciation of the students' enthusiastic reception.
These are the prints that Professor John Hyatt rediscovered and has brought to light again. The gallery has supplemented these prints with specially commissioned wall text and a beautiful accompanying booklet, which are historically informative and politically inspiring. The prints are displayed in the Four Corners gallery in the order they were intended, allowing an exciting insight into the way Heartfield's art related to the politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Heartfield was well aware that his images still resonated in the Cold War. On display are a number of prints, originally created to expose fascist atrocities, that Heartfield recaptioned to warn of the barbarism of nuclear war.
The enthusiasm of the Liverpool art students in 1967 foreshadowed an increasing and renewed interest in Heartfield's work. The exhibition highlights a number of radical artists who have looked to Heartfield for inspiration, from artists involved in the 1968 protests to Peter Kennard's attacks on Thatcherism in the 1980s. The curation ensures that this is not only a retrospective but a call to arms.
The exhibition tells the story of one man's war. It is a war that is yet to be won.
'Heartfield: One Man's War' is on at the Four Corners Gallery, 121 Roman Road, London E2 0QN from 1 November 2019 - 1 February 2020. It forms a part of the Insiders/Outsiders Festival which celebrates the contributions of refugees from Nazism to British culture. The exhibition is curated by Four Corners and John Hyatt, Director of The Institute of Art and Technology, Liverpool John Moores University.
The anti-fascist artist who used his work as a weapon
An impassioned communist radicalised at the end of World War I, John Heartfield created subversive photomontages to combat Nazi propaganda in ’30s Germany.
An impassioned communist radicalised at the end of World War I, John Heartfield created subversive photomontages to combat Nazi propaganda in ’30s Germany – landing him on the Gestapo’s most-wanted list in the process .
Armed with scissors, paste, and stone cold reserve, German artist John Heartfield (1891-1968) used art as a weapon to fight Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s. His acerbic photomontages, which subverted Nazi imagery to reveal the rising political threat, appeared on the cover of communist magazine Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung – they were seen by millions of people on the newsstand, and in their homes.
Now, thanks to a new exhibition, a new generation of audiences are set to be introduced to his work. Titled Heartfield: One Man’s Wa r , the show explores how the artist risked his life in a propaganda war where he played the part of the anti-Leni Riefenstahl. Trained in advertising, he understood better than most the power of image and text held in swaying public thought.
As an impassioned communist radicalised at the end of World War I, Heartfield recognised photography was the most modern and persuasive visual language available at the time. He believed that his photomontages had the power to change public discourse, while simultaneously reclaiming modern art from the ineffectual idea of “art for art’s sake”.
“Heartfield was really good at finding photographs he felt were iconic for certain problems whether in politics, society, or culture,” says Andres Zervigón , Professor at Rutgers University and author of John Heartfield and the Agitated Image . “ He knew exactly which photos to appropriate, and then he would juxtapose these distillations with each other. One commentator at the time said that Heartfield’s photomontages were ‘photography plus dynamite’.”
Hitler, who deftly understood the power of the press, coordinated his rallies with the camera in mind. Heatfield took great care to foil his opponent at every turn, using Hitler’s carefully crafted image against him.
Heartfield famously cut Hitler’s head out of a press photograph where he was giving a speech and placed it atop of another photograph of a chest x-ray. He then Heartfield showed gold coins slipping down Hitler’s agape mouth and into his belly, before adding the slogan, “Adolf the Superman swallows gold and spouts junk.”
The Nazi Party was not amused, though they waited until they officially came into power in 1933 before making their move. Heartfiled got caught at a printing press making a poster, but managed to escape. He bolted back to his apartment, heard the Gestapo coming, jumped out the window, and eventually fled over the mountains to Prague.
At one point, he reached number five on the Gestapo’s most-wanted list. “Heartfield was high on the list of opponents the Nazi wanted to execute, as he was on Stalin’s list of people – because he was seen as not sufficiently towing the line,” Zervigón says.
Both Hitler and Stalin recognised Heartfield’s impact . “Heartfield wasn’t only reflecting the perceptions of politician but initiating further debate about their politics. It was activist art because he could intervene at a national level.”
A true testament to Heartfield’s influence occurred in 1937 when the Nazis refused to include his work in the notorious Degenerate Art Exhibition . “Heartfield’s work was too powerful to be satirised or humiliated in that show,” Zervigón adds. “It was just too dangerous to share it with the public.”
Heartfield: One Man’s War is on view at Four Corners in London through February 1, 2020.
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What Heartfield family records will you find?
There are 2,000 census records available for the last name Heartfield. Like a window into their day-to-day life, Heartfield census records can tell you where and how your ancestors worked, their level of education, veteran status, and more.
There are 263 immigration records available for the last name Heartfield. Passenger lists are your ticket to knowing when your ancestors arrived in the USA, and how they made the journey - from the ship name to ports of arrival and departure.
There are 202 military records available for the last name Heartfield. For the veterans among your Heartfield ancestors, military collections provide insights into where and when they served, and even physical descriptions.
There are 2,000 census records available for the last name Heartfield. Like a window into their day-to-day life, Heartfield census records can tell you where and how your ancestors worked, their level of education, veteran status, and more.
There are 263 immigration records available for the last name Heartfield. Passenger lists are your ticket to knowing when your ancestors arrived in the USA, and how they made the journey - from the ship name to ports of arrival and departure.
There are 202 military records available for the last name Heartfield. For the veterans among your Heartfield ancestors, military collections provide insights into where and when they served, and even physical descriptions.
A Lynching Survivor Returns
When a Black man named John Hartfield was lynched in Ellisville, Mississippi, on June 26, 1919 – hanged from a gum tree alongside nearby railroad tracks, riddled with bullets, and then burned – press coverage in newspapers throughout the country reported that ten thousand white men, women, and children had traveled from throughout the state to watch his gruesome murder.
Photo postcards of the brutal spectacle were sold afterward and a gleeful spectator even boasted of cutting a finger from the corpse to keep as a souvenir.
No reports, however, gave voice to the whispered horror, sadness, and fear of those who knew and loved John Hartfield, those who experienced his lynching as an act of terrorism aimed at intimidating the entire Black community, and those who fled in fear for their own lives.
It has taken nearly 100 years for that side of the story to be told. Mrs. Mamie Lang Kirkland has been waiting.
Mamie Lang was born in the southeastern Mississippi town of Ellisville on September 3, 1908 to Edward Lang and his wife Rochelle. Earlier this month she celebrated her 107th birthday in Buffalo, New York, with family and friends, then marked another milestone on Wednesday, September 9th when she traveled to visit her birthplace for the first time in 100 years. The memory of John Hartfield’s lynching had kept her away and it was now what brought her back.
This past February, Tarabu Kirkland – Mrs. Kirkland’s youngest child and only living son – read an online article about the Equal Justice Initiative’s new report documenting racial terror lynchings. Clicking a link to browse the online summary report, he was struck by a full-page image of a newspaper headline: “John Hartfield Will Be Lynched By Ellisville Mob At 5 o’Clock This Afternoon.” He immediately showed the page to his mother, who was visiting him and his wife in Los Angeles.
“She had talked about John Hartfield for many years,” he recalled, “but his name had changed. She told me his name was John Harvey for a long time, so I could never get a beat on him. But when I saw the article, and I showed it to her, I asked her if this was the person she remembered. Before I could finish, she said that’s him, that’s the man.”
“My dad came home at 12:30 in the morning,” Mrs. Kirkland recalled in an Ellisville hotel lobby last week. “And he said, Rochelle, I got to leave. Get the children together, then you leave early in the morning.”
A mother of five children, including one nursing baby, Rochelle Lang gathered seven-year-old Mamie and her siblings and traveled by train to East St. Louis, Illinois, where they reunited with their father. There he explained that his friend, John Hartfield, had been seeing a white woman, and white men were after them both for the deadly transgression. This was in 1915, Mrs. Kirkland recalls, and for the moment they were safe.
The family remained in East St. Louis for about two years until May 1917 when, in the face of growing Black migration into the area and increasing competition for jobs, three thousand white men waged a violent racial attack against the city’s Black residents, homes, and businesses. By the time the violence was quelled, as many as 200 Black people were dead and thousands were left homeless.
Two years later in June 1919, the front pages of newspapers in Jackson, Mississippi and New Orleans announced the time and location of a premeditated murder not yet committed: the target was a Black man named John Hartfield, and the method of death would be lynching.
Perhaps the violence in East St. Louis and the seemingly inescapable threat of racism left John Hartfield tired of running and longing for home. “[My father] told him, don’t go back. But he did go back,” Mrs. Kirkland explained. “And some time after he went back, that’s when they said he had a white girlfriend. So that’s when they murdered him.”
Hartfield was accused of assaulting a white woman in an era when any contact between Black men and white women attracted suspicion and violence. A posse of white men wounded and captured him after a ten-day manhunt, then kept him alive in downtown Ellisville while arranging for his public and torturous death.
“[Hartfield] has been taken to Ellisville and is guarded by officers in the Office of Dr. Carter in that city,” the Jackson Daily News reported on June 26, 1919. “He is wounded in the shoulder but not seriously. The officers have agreed to turn him over to the people of the city at 4 o’clock this afternoon when it is expected he will be burned.”
Despite the ample warning, and the organized efforts of a “committee of Ellisville citizens appointed to make the necessary arrangements for the event,” no effort was made to prevent Mr. Hartfield’s extrajudicial death or ensure him a legal trial. Governor Theodore G. Bilbo, an avowed white supremacist, declared himself powerless to prevent the inevitable lynching and predicted any attempt to do so would only lead to hundreds of deaths.
Instead they settled for just one.
“First, they kept him alive,” Mrs. Kirkland recalls hearing her parents discuss in hushed tones after they heard news of the lynching. “Then the next day they say they had a rope around his neck and was dragging him down the street with a horse, dead.”
After seeing the documented evidence of John Hartfield’s lynching in the EJI report and confirming it with his mother, Tarabu Kirkland resolved to visit Ellisville. His mother, who had long said she would never return to her birthplace, announced: “If you’re going, I’m going.”