German Graphic Designer and Photomonteur
Berlin, former East Germany
Summary of John Heartfield
Only recently has John Heartfield's work been studied on its own terms, as progressive graphic design. 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. 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 acclaim 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.
- 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.
- Heartfield's name is synonymous with his 1930s antifascist 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 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.
Biography of John Heartfield
John Heartfield was born Helmut Franz Josef Herzfeld in Berlin on June 19, 1891. His father Franz Herzfeld was a Jewish socialist writer, dramaturg, and poet; and his mother was a textile worker and political activist. Helmut may have grown up poor, because his father chose to become a radical, almost anarchist writer under the pen name Franz Held. Yet, his father came from an established middle-class family. His grandfather Jonas had a successful cotton textile business in Neuss bei Düsseldorf and his wealth was divided among four sons. How this inheritance benefitted Helmut's family is uncertain. Grandfather and grandson Herzfeld shared similar leftist political views. Karl Marx was a frequent guest at grandfather Jonas' house.
Important Art by John Heartfield
This photomontage suggests the dynamic movement of the Republic automotive tire that runs over, crashes against, moves around emphatic slogans, ads, world news, and various Dada nonsense. The cut-out words and images drawn from newspapers, advertisements, and magazines are used to spell non-words, such as "DADA," and project the Dadaist outrage at the status quo (its rational norms and values), as seen in the shouting face of the dandy Raoul Hausmann in the bottom left corner of the montage. This Dada montage intended to playfully jolt the viewer to confront the contemporary moment of social and political crisis.
Photomontage enabled the Dadaist Heartfield to allow the news headlines and advertising slogans to speak for themselves in the form of fragmented words and images that conveyed the social turmoil and the cacophony of the urban street of commerce and news. Hannah Höch, like Heartfield, appropriated mass media fragments. Yet, Höch created a cohesive image out of these pieces to critique the patriarchal political establishment. The very use of commodities (e.g. the tire), advertisements, and the very language of photographic mass media demonstrates how the Dadaists mocked and even broke down the conventional means of representation ubiquitous in the visual culture of the Weimar Republic.
An oversized grasping hand energetically confronts the viewer. This popular 1928 election poster equates the five fingers of the laboring hand with the number 5 of the Communist Party's electoral list. On the morning of May 13, 1928, commuters, pedestrians, and all city dwellers would have seen this affective poster plastered throughout the urban areas of Berlin, and even on the front page of the Red Flag (Die Rote Fahne), Sunday issue, as readers opened the folded paper to its length. This image unequivocally urged them to vote the party's electoral list. It demonstrates how Heartfield used advertising techniques for the purpose of political persuasion to great effect. This symbol of the working hand was one among the many political symbols Heartfield produced that resonated with the working classes.
Under the tutelage of Ernst Neumann, a renowned professor of advertising design, Heartfield learned how to attract the attention of potential customers by means of an optical surprise, achieved by pairing two often-oversized figures or objects with an emphasis on simplicity. Here Heartfield pairs the number five with the hand's five fingers. This optical surprise was most effectively delivered in what was called an "object poster" that highlighted a company's trademark or commodity devoid of any decorative flourishes. For this poster, Heartfield deployed this concept to great effect in synthesizing the demands of the workers with the Communist Party's electoral platform.
This self-portrait captures Heartfield in the act of "cutting off" with scissors the police commissioner Zörgiebel's head in a printed photograph. It is a literal description of his technique of gathering needed printed and visual material to construct his montaged-images. This is also a mock execution, a satirical critique of this police commissioner's ruthless policies - for example, the unprecedented police violence unleashed against the Communist demonstrators on May Day, 1929 in Berlin. Here in this mock-up of the montage, it is evident how the abutting images of Heartfield with scissors and the head of Zörgiebel are simultaneously hinged together and severed by the scissors. Heartfield intentionally aimed to show his technique and perform his social identity as an artist, as he conceived it in 1929. He designed this violent image for the well-established mass-circulating leftist AIZ. The image insists on being understood in pictorial terms due to the absence of any text. This self-portrait provides an opportunity to see his self-constructed visual utterance about himself and his artistic project to counter social injustice.
This montage-image introduced the readers of the AIZ to the political photomonteur John Heartfield in the magazine's September 1929 issue, as an endorsement for his collaboration with Kurt Tucholsky on the soon to be published book Germany, Germany above All. This endorsement was a practical strategy on the part of the New German Publishing Company (Neuer Deutscher Verlag), the publisher of both the AIZ and the satirical book. This montaged self-portrait of Heartfield showcases his critical art, which boldly fused Dada theatricality with a resolute political stance. Such declarative self-representations were rare, as Heartfield soon became embroiled in internal Communist party politics. His brother Wieland Herzfelde, as the art historian Sabine Kriebel noted, actively participated in the narrative construction and replication of Heartfield's life, but it became more necessary in the thirties for him to adjust facts, simplify the narrative, and emphasize certain details to promote an exemplary account of their lives so they could survive the shifting political climate of the time. For instance, Wieland thought it best for his brother to deny, as of 1936, to have ever worked for Münzenberg, who became a non-person and a renegade in the eyes of the Communist International (Comintern) in 1936.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on John Heartfield
- John Heartfield and the Agitated Image: Photography, Persuasion, and the Rise of Avant-Garde Photomontage (2012)Our PickAn investigative look at the art making practices of the artist
- John Heartfield: Art and Mass Media (1986)Images and Essays analyzing the connection between John Heartfield's work and mass media
- John Heartfield: Laughter is a Devastating Weapon (2015)Our PickIndex of 150 reproductions of the artist's works
- Revolutionary Beauty: The Radical Photomontages of John Heartfield (2014)Compilation of works by the artist
- John Heartfield (1992)Comprehensive collection of the artist's works over the span of his career
- John Heartfield, AIZ/VI 1930-1938 (1992)
- The Original Meme KingOur PickBy Jack Doyle / The Daily Dose via OZY / December 2, 2016
- John Heartfield: PhotomontagesOur PickPress release to accompany 1993 MoMA exhibition of the artist's works
- Listing of articles about the artist from the official website
- John Heartfield's Insects and the "Idea" of Natural HistoryBy Cristina Cuevas-Wolf / Elective Affinities: Testing Word and Image Relationships / Boston: Brill | Rodopi, 2009