John Heartfield

adolf by John Heartfield

John Heartfield (1891 – 1968) born Helmut Herzfeld, was a pioneer in the use of art as a political weapon. His photomontages were anti-Nazi anti-Fascist statements.

Heartfield also created book jackets for authors such as Upton Sinclair, as well as stage sets for such noted playwrights as Bertold Brecht and Erwin Piscator.

Born in Berlin, his father was a socialist writer, and his mother was a textile worker and political activist. At the age of eight, Helmut, his brother, and his two sisters, were abandoned in the woods by their parents. For a while, the four children resided 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.

In 1916, while living in Berlin, he Anglicized his name to John Heartfield as a protest against anti-British fervor sweeping Germany. Crowds in the street were shouting, ‘Gott Strafe England’ (‘God Punish England!’). In 1917, he and his brother launched a publishing house, Malik-Verlag, with German artist George Grosz. Heartfield and Grosz experimented with pasting pictures together, a form of art later named ‘photomontage.’

In 1918, Heartfield joined the newly founded German Communist Party (KPD), a political threat to the rise of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party. Also that year, he became a member of Berlin Club Dada; he later became active in the Dada movement, helping to organize the Erste Internationale Dada-Messe (First International Dada Fair) in Berlin in 1920. Dadaists were the young lions of the German art scene, provocateurs who disrupted public art gatherings and ridiculed the participants. They labeled traditional art trivial and bourgeois. Heartfield was a member of a circle of German titans that included Edwin Piscator, Bertolt Brecht, Hannah Hoch, and a host of others.

Heartfield built theater sets for Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht. Using Heartfield’s minimal props and stark stages, Brecht interrupted his plays at key junctures to have the audience to be part of the action and not to lose themselves in it.

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. He met Bertolt Brecht in 1924. Heartfield is buried steps from Brecht’s Home.

Though he was a prolific producer of stage sets and book jackets, Heartfield’s main form of expression was photomontage. He 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. 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.’

Heartfield lived in Berlin until April 1933, when the National Socialists took complete power. On Good Friday, the SS broke into his apartment, and Heartfield escaped by jumping from his balcony. He walked around the Sudeten Mountains to Czechoslovakia. In 1934 he montaged four bloody axes tied together to form a swastika to mock The Old Slogan in the ‘New’ Reich: ‘Blood and Iron’ in the AIZ. In 1938, he was forced once again to flee before the Nazi Army—this time to England—before the imminent German occupation of Czechoslovakia. He was interned for a time in England as an enemy alien. His health began to deteriorate. Afterwards, he lived in Hampstead, England. His brother Wieland was refused an English residency permit in 1939 and, with his family, left for the United States.

Following the war, Heartfield settled in East Berlin and worked closely with theater directors such as Benno Besson and Wolfgang Langhoff at Berliner Ensemble and Deutsches Theater. He was greeted with suspicion by the Stasi (East German Secret Police) because of the length of his stay in England. He was denied admission into the East German Academie Der Kunste (Academy of the Arts). He was unable to work as a artist and was denied health benefits. It wasn’t until the intervention of Bertoldt Brecht and Stefan Heym in 1956 that Heartfield was formally admitted to the Academy. Although he subsequently produced some montages warning of the threat of nuclear war, he was never as prolific again.

He is best known for the political montages he created during the 1930s to expose German Nazism. During the 1930s and 1940s, he created some of his most famous montages such as ‘Adolf, the Superman,’ which used a montaged X-ray to expose gold coins in the Fuehrer’s esophagus leading to a pile in his stomach as he rants against the fatherland’s enemies. In ‘Gohring: The Executioner of the Third Reich,’ Hitler’s designated successor is depicted as a butcher. ‘The Meaning of Geneva, Where Capital Lives, There Can Be No Peace,’ shows the dove of peace impaled on a blood-soaked bayonet in front of the League of Nations, where the cross of the Swiss flag has morphed into a swastika. ‘Hurrah, die Butter ist Alle!’ (‘Hurray, the butter is gone!’) was published on the frontpage of the AIZ in 1935. A parody of the aesthetics of propaganda, the photomontage shows a family at a kitchen table, where a nearby portrait of Hitler hangs and the wallpaper is emblazoned with swastikas. The family — mother, father, old woman, young man, baby, and dog — are attempting to eat pieces of metal, such as chains, bicycle handlebars, and rifles. Below, the title is written in large letters, in addition to a quote by Hermann Göring during food shortage. Translated, the quote reads: ‘Iron has always made a nation strong, butter and lard have only made the people fat.’

Heartfield’s artistic output was prolific. His works appeared as covers for the AIZ from 1929 to 1933, a popular weekly whose circulation rivaled any magazine in Germany during the early ninteen thirties. During 1931 Heartfield’s photomontages were featured monthly on the AIZ cover, an important point, because most copies of the AIZ were sold at newsstands. 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 in 1932 and 1933.

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