By Michael Faris
The photomontage artist John Heartfield is best known for his very public artworks that belittled and disparaged the actions of the Nazi party in 1930s Germany. As a poster fabricator and artist for AIZ magazine, his anti-Nazi artwork was seen by thousands of Europeans. He was considered a public enemy by the Nazis, and a bounty was placed on his head. He was one of the greatest propaganda artists of all time.
John Heartfield was born with the name Helmut Franz Josef Herzfeld, on June 19, 1891, in Berlin, Germany. His father was Franz Herzfeld, a writer, and his mother was Alice (née Stolzenburg), a textile worker. Both parents were political activists. When he was about eight years old, Helmut’s parents abandoned him, his brother, Weiland, and their sisters Lotte and Hertha in the woods. The children stayed with an uncle for a short while, but were eventually separated and raised in a series of foster homes. Throughout his life, Heartfield maintained a close relationship with his brother.
Young Helmut showed a talent for art, and studied at Berlin and Munich. In 1908, he enrolled in the Royal Bavarian Arts and Crafts School, in Munich. Two commercial designers there, Albert Weisgerber and Ludwig Hohlwein, were early influences for the young artist.
He was in Berlin during WWI, and it was here that he heard chanting crowds shouting “May God punish England!” He was so angry about the anti-England sentiments that he changed his name to John Heartfield.
It was during this time that he met the artist George Grosz, who was known for his satirical works about German society. He and Grosz experimented with making photomontage works, pasting photos together in collage forms, then taking photographs of the resulting collages. In 1917, Heartfield, brother Weiland, and Grosz started the publishing house Malik-Verlag. All three became members of the Dada artists group in Berlin that same year. Richard Huelsenbeck, Kurt Schwitters, Hannah Hoch and Raoul Hausmann were also members of the Berlin Dada group. The Dada artists were completely anti-establishment. During the height of the War, they ridiculed the German government and produced political magazines. In January, 1918, Heartfield, along with several other Dada artists, joined the newly founded German Communist Party (KPD). Huelsenbeck said of that time in wartime Berlin:
“Berlin was a city of tightened stomachers, of mounting, thundering hunger, where hidden rage was transformed into a boundless money lust, and men’s minds were concentrating more and more on questions of naked existence. Fear was in everybody’s bones.”
In addition to his photomontage work, his publishing house, and his work on various political magazines, Heartfield also designed theater sets for playwrights Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht. Brecht became one of the most famous theater personalities in history, both as a writer and as a producer.
In 1923, Adolf Hitler was imprisoned for his involvement in a failed government coup in Munich. After his release in 1924, he gained popular support by denigrating the treaty of Versailles and advocating German land expansion. His speeches were rife with references to attacking Jews, communists, and foreigners. He fired up his audiences with wild, imagined conspiracies against Germany. His autobiographical book, Mein Kampf, was released in 1925. This book outlined his ideals and his plan for a future Germany. By 1933, the Nazi party dominated German politics. Hitler was appointed Chancellor in January of 1933. The Nazis and their supporters in government quickly passed the notorious Enabling Act, which eventually turned the Weimar Republic into a one-party dictatorship under Hitler.
Heartfield was one of Hitler’s most bitter enemies. While crowds of excited onlookers chanted “seig heil” and saluted Hitler unquestioningly, Heartfield mocked him mercilessly with posters and magazine art. Heartfield also used his satirical photomontages to attack those who supported and funded the Nazi party. Nazi henchmen and wealthy Nazi industrialists were often targeted by his artwork. From 1930 to 1938, he designed over two hundred anti-Nazi pieces for AIZ (Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung), a magazine that was published by the New German Press, a company run by political activists. AIZ was published for German readers, but it was distributed all over Europe. AIZ reached a circulation of 500,000 at one point. Thousands of German people read AIZ and hated the Nazis. Supporters of freedom pasted Heartfield’s anti-Hitler posters on walls all over Germany and other countries.
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Eventually, the Nazis targeted Heartfield directly. On April 14, 1933, in the middle of the night, SS soldiers tore into the apartment building where Heartfield had his studio. Heartfield had known they were coming, and he was packing up artwork, trying to salvage what he could before they arrived. He had made arrangements to be secreted to Czechoslovakia on a moment’s notice, and he wanted to take as much work with him as he could. But it was too late. As the soldiers were breaking down his door, he ran through his French doors and jumped over the balcony, into the darkness of a communal courtyard. He was injured in the fall, but managed to hide in an old metal container. The Nazis searched the area, but he wasn’t found. For the next seven hours, Heartfield was forced to remain quiet while he listened to the SS soldiers ransack his studio. When the soldiers left, he quietly left the container, walked out of the courtyard, and immediately began his flight to Prague. He had nothing with him, and he had a bounty on his head.
From Czechoslovakia, Heartfield continued his anti-Nazi works for AIZ and continued to make posters. His time in Prague lasted until 1938, when it became obvious that Germany was going to invade Czechoslovakia. He was on the run again, this time to England. In England, he was interned as an enemy alien, where his health began to decline. His brother, Wieland, was denied an English residency permit, and took his family to the United States. John attempted to join him, but was refused entry into the U.S. In 1941, Heartfield testified to officials that he wanted to remain in England with his wife, Gertrud. They did not want to return to Germany, and they stayed in England for years.
After the War, and the transition of East Germany to communism, Humboldt University in East Berlin offered Heartfield a professorship. By this time, brother Wieland was back in East Berlin, and he helped to convince his brother to go back to Germany. Three years later, in 1950, Heartfield moved to East Germany.
Heartfield, a devout communist from the early years, was greeted with immediate abuse from the communist party in East Berlin. He was interrogated by the Stasi (the secret police) on multiple occasions. He was almost charged with treason because he had lived in England. For six years, he was denied admission to the East German Academy of Art. Because of this, he was unable to work as an artist and was refused any health benefits. After six years of poverty and neglect, Bertolt Brecht and other prominent Germans intervened to help Heartfield. He was eventually admitted to the Academy of Art. He could finally work again. It was 1956. He produced several good works with nuclear war as subject matter, and made some interesting stage sets for Brecht and others, but he was never again as prolific as he had been.
Heartfield died on April 26, 1968, in East Berlin. One of the heroes of WWII was gone.
Dr. Michael Faris is an artist, art educator, and art and civil rights advocate. Visit his website to view more of his work at www.michaelfarisart.com.