There are a lot of things that got me into working with photos. The main thing is that I saw both what was being said and not being said with photos in the newspapers… I found out how you can fool people with photos, really fool them… You can lie and tell the truth by putting the wrong title or wrong captions under them, and that’s roughly what was being done.
– John Heartfield
John Heartfield (1891 – 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.
Heartfield’s 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. 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. 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 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.
The child of politically active socialist parents, Heartfield (who retained the name Herzfeld until 1916) witnessed the political persecution of his father, writer Franz Herzfeld (who wrote under the pen name Franz Held). The Herzfeld family fled Berlin, first moving to Switzerland. About 1899, when they were forced to seek refuge outside Switzerland, his parents abandoned him and his siblings. Information about who cared for them at that point is ambiguous.
Heartfield studied graphic design at the Royal School of Arts and Crafts in Munich, specializing in poster and advertising art. Soon after completing his studies, about 1912, he found his first job as a graphic designer for a paper-packaging company in Mannheim, though that position lasted for less than a year. Before the outbreak of World War I, Heartfield moved to Berlin with his brother, Wieland Herzfelde (who added an e to his surname in 1914), and the pair quickly connected with the avant-garde writers and artists there. When in 1914 war broke out, the brothers were both drafted, Herzfelde to the front lines. Heartfield managed to avoid active service by feigning mental illness. The brothers were reunited when Herzfelde returned to Berlin in 1915. That year the brothers met German caricaturist and social critic George Grosz, who, at the time, was still called Georg Gross. In response to the rampant German nationalism, which engendered extreme anti-British sentiments, in 1916 Helmut Herzfeld Anglicized his name to John Heartfield, a new persona that he inhabited fully through his artistic and political expression. It was at least partly due to his relationship with Grosz that Heartfield arrived at the conclusion that the only art worth creating was that which depicted and commented on social and political issues. He destroyed all of the art that he had created before the war. Heartfield joined the German Communist Party in 1918. In that same year, he and Grosz became founding members of the Berlin Dada Club, which included avant-garde artists such as Hannah Höch, Raoul Hausmann, and Johannes Baader. As an anti-art movement, Dada allowed Heartfield the freedom to experiment with new materials and forms of expression. Starting with a clean slate and a fresh outlook, Heartfield voiced his political and social views through photomontage.
Heartfield continued to advance his skills as a book designer, becoming an innovator in the use of photography on dust jackets. He served as the in-house designer for Malik Verlag, a publishing house founded and run by his brother. Though a celebrated graphic and scenic designer, Heartfield is best known for his work with photomontage. He was a master at conveying strong pointed messages with his juxtapositions of images and text fragments from mass media. His commentary was chiefly reserved for Nazi actions and party leaders such as Adolph Hitler, Hermann Göring, and Joseph Goebbels. Heartfield’s earliest photomontages date to 1916, but his best-known works were created for the Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ; “Workers’ Illustrated Newspaper”), a widely circulated left-wing weekly that he worked for from 1927 to 1938. Because he was a regular contributor to journals and newspapers, his work was gaining a lot of exposure—so much so that in 1929 an entire room of the famous photography exhibition “Film und Foto” (Stuttgart, Germany, May–July 1929) was dedicated to him; the room was labeled “Benütze Foto als Waffe” (“Use Photography as a Weapon”). Two of his most-recognized photomontages date to 1932: Adolf the Superman Swallows Gold and Spouts Tin, a picture of Hitler with his mouth open speaking and a chest X-ray superimposed over his torso, which reveals an esophagus made of gold coins and a pile of coins in the pit of his stomach; and The Meaning of Geneva, depicting a dove speared by a bayonet in front of the League of Nations headquarters, which is flying a Swiss flag whose cross has morphed into a swastika. The former image was so powerful that it was produced as a political poster featured prominently throughout Berlin. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Heartfield and his anti-Nazi imagery were immediately targeted. With the Nazis on his heels, Heartfield left Berlin on foot for Prague, where he continued to work for AIZ. He is said to have created some 230 images for AIZ, with more than half of them appearing on the front or back cover. In 1938, when the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia was imminent, he moved to London, where he worked as a book designer for the Lindsay Drummond and Penguin Books publishing houses.
In poor health after 17 years in exile, Heartfield returned to his homeland, settling in Leipzig (then in East Germany) in 1950 and eventually moving to East Berlin, where he continued to make art and to design sets for the Berliner Ensemble and the Deutsches Theater. Heartfield’s years in London raised suspicions of treason among the Stasi (the East German secret police). Brecht and writer Stefan Heym advocated for his innocence and the value of his art and helped pave the way for his election to the East German Academy of the Arts in 1956. In 1960 he became a professor there. In 1964 his name was legally changed to Heartfield. Since his death in 1964, his works have been exhibited regularly throughout the United States and Europe, including a retrospective that he helped organize but that ran posthumously at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1969 and an extensive exhibition, the first of its size in the United States, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1993.