John Heartfield

John Heartfield

Helmut Herzfeld was born in Berlin, Germany on 19th June, 1891. His father was a socialist writer and his mother was a textile worker and trade union activist. As a result of their politics the family was forced to flee to Switzerland in 1896.

After leaving school at fourteen Herzfelde worked for a bookseller in Wiesbadenl. 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 Herzefelde started work as a designer in Mannheim for a year before moving to Berlin to study under Ernst Neuman at the Arts and Crafts School.

During the First World War Herzefelde began contributing work to Die Neue Jugend , an arts journal published by his brother, Wieland Herzfelde. He was drafted into the infantry where he meets George Grosz. While working for the journal Heartfield developed a new style of work that later became known as photomontage (the production of pictures by rearranging selected details of photographs to form a new and convincing unity). A pacifist and Marxist, Herzfelde, changed his name to John Heartfield in 1917 in protest against German nationalism.

After the war Heartfield joined the newly formed German Communist Party (KPD) and over the next fifteen years produces designs and posters for the organization. During this period artists such as George Grosz, Otto Dix, Max Ernst and Kurt Schwitters form the German Dada group. Some of these artists, including Ernst and Schwitters, were influenced by the work of Heartfield and developed his ideas on photomontage. Grosz later recalled: "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."

Louis Aragon has argued: "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."

In 1923 Heartfield became editor of the satirical magazine, Der Knöppel . Heartfield also worked for the socialist magazine, A.I.Z. , where he used photomontage to attack Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party. Under threat of arrest, Heartfield was forced to leave Germany in 1938.

John Heartfield, Photomontage (1933)
John Heartfield, Photomontage (1933)

Heartfield moved to England where he produced photomontages for the Reynolds News, Picture Post and Penguin Books. The writer, Bertolt Brecht, argued: "John Heartfield is 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."

Heartfield returned to Germany in 1950 where he designed scenery and posters for the Berliner Ensemble and the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. In 1960 he became professor at the German Academy of Arts in Berlin.

John Heartfield died in Berlin on 26th April, 1968.

Primary Sources

(1) Louis Aragon, John Heartfield (1935)

As we know, Cubism was a reaction of painters to the invention of photography. 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 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.

(2) George Grosz interviewed by Erwin Piscator (1928)

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.

(3) After the Second World War the German poet and playwright, Bertolt Brecht, discussing the origins of photomontage (1949)

John Heartfield is 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.

(4) George Grosz, The Autobiography of George Grosz (1955)

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.