John Heartfield - Biography and Legacy
German Graphic Designer and Photomonteur
Berlin, former East Germany
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.
Four years after Helmut's birth, his brother Wieland and sister Hertha were born. The family left Berlin and moved to Switzerland, to the northern edge of the Vierwaldstättersees to a town called Weggis. Wieland Herzfelde, Helmut's younger brother, later explained that the reason for the family's move to Switzerland was due to their father's conviction for blasphemy. To avoid jail, Franz fled with his family.
Shortly after settling in Weggis, a fourth child, Charlotte, was born. Both parents became ill; Alice suffered from depression. Fearing that they would lose custody of their youngest child, because the authorities considered them incapable of caring for an additional child; Franz and Alice Herzfeld once again fled. They settled in Gaisberg above the Aigen, a city district southwest of Salzburg in Austria, where they lived in an abandoned mountain hut. One summer night in 1899, both parents mysteriously disappeared. The oldest son Helmut, then eight years old, had to care for his three younger siblings. The authorities were aware of the bad health of both parents; the mayor from Aigen, Ignaz Varnschein and his wife Klara, discovering the abandoned children four days later, took them into their foster care.
The children's uncle Josef, the older brother of their father Franz, a successful lawyer in Berlin and administrator of his grandfather's estate, provided financial support to the itinerant family in the form of a guardian trust. The actual care for the children, however, was left to the Varnscheins. Helmut grew up as an anxious, troubled, and quick-tempered child, which resulted from the mistreatment he received as a Protestant boy raised in a Catholic household in imperial Austrian society. When the Varnscheins moved to Salzburg, Helmut was placed in the home of the Bischof family. Around this time, Helmut ran away from home, then from school, and even organized a school strike, according to Wieland Herzfelde, Heartfield's main biographer. After the school revolt, Helmut spent time in a juvenile detention home run by nuns. However on hearing about his mistreatment at the institution, the Varnscheins took the boy back.
Early Training and Education
In 1901, Helmut began going to school. Yet, four years later, he was thrown out of it. At the age of 14, he moved to Wiesbaden where he was able to live and enter into an apprenticeship with Helena and Heinrich Heuss, who was a book dealer and owner of a small publishing company. In Wiesbaden, Helmut started his artistic training at the state-run University of the Arts (Kunsthochschule). Because he showed talent, he was inscribed into the Royal Academy of Arts and Crafts (Koniglichen Kunstgewerbeschule) in Munich, where he studied painting and design for two years with Albert Weisgerber and Ludwig Hohlwein. He then worked as a graphic designer for advertising at the Bauer Brothers' Printing Company (Druckerei der Gebruder Bauer) in Mannheim. He then returns to Berlin, where his uncle had secured him a place at the School of Arts and Crafts (Kunstgewerbeschule) in Charlottenburg. Here he studied with the well-known artist and graphic designer Ernst Neumann, who made a lasting impact on Heartfield's way of working.
As of 1914, Helmut and his brother Wieland became part of the bohemian circles in Berlin. It is around this time that Helmut carefully crafted an artistic persona with the help of his younger brother that proffered a fragile young man ruled not by reason but by deeply authentic and uncontrollable emotions free of civilizing constraints - reminiscent of his father's own romantic sensibilities. This new persona fit into their new bohemian lifestyle and was inspired by the writer and poet Else Lasker Schuler, who the two brothers admired and befriended. She even took part in cultivating the story of Helmut's madness, which was very much based on his impulsive character, now interpreted as a "creative fury."
Part of Helmut's artistic identity was the story of his wild attack on his military officer to avoid military service. Helmut actually suffered from Jackson Epilepsy and as a result, he was exempted from serving. In 1914, neither Helmut nor his brother Wieland mentioned this illness, instead they had a ready anecdote that explained that Helmut's aggressive temper got him expelled from the military.
Helmut Herzfeld further underscored his antiwar gesture by anglicizing his name to John Heartfield, just as Germany declared war on Britain in 1916. This was a cheeky rejection of Germany's anglophobia and an assertion in no uncertain terms of his internationalist and anti-militarist convictions.
Together with their close friend and fellow satirical artist George Grosz, Heartfield, and his brother Wieland Herzfelde (who added an "e" to the end of his last name as a poetic flourish) wasted no time in expressing their new radical-left outlook in an immediate and intelligible form in the newly founded journal the New Youth (Die Neue Jugend). At this time, Heartfield became immersed in the print medium and its public culture. Imitating Franz Pfemfert's journal The Action (Die Aktion), he reprinted excerpted material from other, recently published sources in the New Youth. These three collaborators continued to develop other satirical magazines, after New Youth was censored, such as Bankruptcy (Die Pleite).
Herzfelde and Grosz were called to a second tour of duty after long respites in Berlin: Herzfelde left in November 1916 and Grosz left sometime after January 4, 1917. This left Heartfield in charge of New Youth. Remarkably he continued printing the periodical and published a double February/March issue shortly before the ban of it. Even two weekly editions subsequently hit kiosks without a permit. This was possible because of the help of Franz Jung, who was adept at getting around the censors.
In 1918, the German November revolution aimed to harness the political vacuum left in the wake of WWI and the severe disillusionment with war. But it failed. The sobering experience of war and revolution, military and economic devastation, as well as social and cultural crisis found expression in the literary and artistic avant-garde. This experience politicized Heartfield and his brother, who in December 1918 joined the Spartacus League (a formative German Communist Party). In 1919, Heartfield and his brother Wieland became founding members of the Berlin Dadaists, and collaborated extensively with George Grosz, Raoul Hausmann, and Hannah Höch.
Wieland had by now become editor and publisher of the Malik Publishing Company (Malik Verlag) and Heartfield was its informal artistic director. The Malik Verlag acted as the quasi-headquarters of the Berlin Dadaists at the time, publishing their satirical newspapers, books and journals, such as the single issue of the humor magazine Everyman his own Football (Jedermann sein eigner Fussball) with a Heartfield montage on the cover, and the satirical magazine Dada, which had a short run. Together with their fellow Dadaists, Heartfield and his brother focused their actions upon the deceitful and false application of language (word and images) in advertising and propaganda, despite government censorship. It is around this time that Heartfield took on the persona of Monteur (engineer), donning overalls to avoid looking like an artist or an adman.
Because Heartfield had a growing family to care for, he needed a steady income. He had married Helene Balzar and they had two children, a son Tom and a daughter Eva. Heartfield therefore began to work as a stage designer for Max Reinhardt's theater, where he met the young writer and dramaturg Bertolt Brecht. He went on to collaborate in Erwin Piscator's proletarian theater, parallel to working for his brother's Malik Verlag.
On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the First World War, Heartfield expressed his strong sentiments against war in a photomontage After Ten Years" which visualizes for the first time his views against war. This poster-size image hung in the window of his brother's Malik Verlag, arousing much controversy. It signals Heartfield's transition from Dada to full fledge political photomonteur.
By 1924, Heartfield had made his mark on the use of photography in book design for his brother's Malik Verlag. He cleverly devised a unique and highly successful formula for book jacket designs that appealed to a broad audience, encouraged booksellers to display the book prominently, and ultimately to sell the books. It became widely emulated at the time. Some of his more well-known dust jacket designs were for the books authored by the American leftist writer Upton Sinclair, "The Swamp," "100%," and "This is how you make dollars."
At times, the Malik Verlag assisted Willi Münzenberg, head of the International Worker's Aid (Internationale Arbeiterhilfe, IAH), a leftist, supraparty organization. It published a series of Münzenberg's writings and a call for a fundraising effort among artists in its newspaper The Opposer (Der Gegner). This close collaboration at the Malik Verlag made it possible for Heartfield to meet Münzenberg, who sought out artists like him who could create effective visual propaganda for the IAH.
Heartfield's goal to create a community of revolutionary-minded citizens who would actively contribute to radical social change, complimented Münzenberg's project to create a collective worker illustrated magazine. This was evident in Heartfield's front cover design for the journal The New Russia's special issue dedicated to "10 years of Soviet Union 1917-1927" (November 1927), published by Münzenberg's New German Publishing Company (Neuer Deutsche Verlag).
At the end of the twenties, when Heartfield had achieved much success, ranging from popular appeal to mainstream approval: He was hailed in the leading graphic arts journal Commercial Graphics (Gebrauchsgrafik), designed a myriad of SPD (German Social Democratic Party) and KPD (German Communist Party) publications, especially the KPD's organ the Red Flag (Die Rote Fahne); well represented in the exhibition "Photomontage" in Berlin in 1929, and had his own room in the well-known 1931 Film und Foto (FIFO) exhibition in Stuttgart. Heartfield then began to work exclusively for the Workers' Illustrated Magazine (Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung, AIZ).
Working for the AIZ brought about a further change in Heartfield's montage-practice, because it was a modern picture magazine that required him to adapt to the conditions of commercial photojournalism and his work being printed in rotogravure. The AIZ showcased Münzenberg's new collective photojournalism that focused on the worker, as both subject and audience.
In the midst of this creative activity, Heartfield married Barbara Friedmann, who would accompany him through the next episode of his life until he fled Berlin in 1933.
Heartfield undertook a business trip for the AIZ to the Soviet Union from April 1931 to January 1932. He traveled to Baku, Batumi, and Odessa on behalf of the Soviet newspaper USSR in Construction. During these trips, he held photomontage workshops for Red Army officers and for photomontage artists and printers at the Graphic Institute, gave numerous lectures, and designed a special issue for which he created the Lenin montage. A Heartfield exhibition was mounted at the All-Russian Cooperative of Artists in the center of Moscow, displaying 300 works. Heartfield met leading avant-garde artists, such as Gustav Klucis, El Lissitzky, and Alexander Rodchenko. He formed a close friendship with the prominent writer Sergei Trejakov. Yet, Heartfield found his work heralded and criticized, because his photomontages were both effective propaganda and formalist arrangement.
Beginning in the fall of 1932, Heartfield openly differed in opinion from the official German Communist Party line and like the AIZ expressed an antifascist position, which was initially evident in the montage for the cover of the AIZ 24 July 1932 issue and became readily apparent in his AIZ photomontages, which focused on criticizing Hitler.
On the night of April 14, 1933, Heartfield dared to return to his apartment to gather the artworks he wanted to take with him into exile, even though he knew the SS (a paramilitary Nazi organization) was after him. Having avoided arrest, the actor Heinz Greif helped him flee over the Sudeten Mountains to Czechoslovakia.
Heartfield's imagery of a menacing fascism proved influential in Europe in the early thirties, creating a persuasive web of political unity just as Heartfield found himself embroiled in controversy in Prague. Heartfield contributed 36 AIZ photomontages to the Third International Caricature Exhibition at the Mánes Art Association in Prague in April 1934. The German authorities found five anti-Nazi montages offensive and demanded they be removed from the front display windows to the back of the exhibition. Then, they intervened a second time, requesting that the five montages be removed from the exhibition all together. The photomontage "On the occasion of the intervention of the Third Reich" (AIZ, May 3, 1934) comments on the German authorities intervention against the display of Heartfield montages at this exhibition. This episode of an international diplomatic scandal provoked by Heartfield's anti-fascist montages was widely publicized. To counteract the imposed censorship over the Mánes exhibition in Prague, Paul Signac, Président des Société des Artistes, organized a Heartfield exhibition in Paris in Spring 1935, which opened to much success. During his stay in Paris, Heartfield met Tristan Tzara, Louis Aragon (who wrote a short essay "John Heartfield and Revolutionary Beauty"), Eduard Fuchs, and even Walter Benjamin.
In 1938 Heartfield fled to London, where he lived for twelve years. He joined the Free German Culture Association and his work was shown in two key exhibitions in 1939. After World War II commenced, Heartfield was interned with other German emigrants in an internment camp over six weeks. It was during this very difficult time that he met his third wife Gertrude (Tutti) Fietz, who became the guardian of his estate. Eventually he worked as a graphic designer in 1943 at a new publishing company, Lindsay Drummond and then, at Penguin Books.
Heartfield reconnected with his brother, friends, and comrades in Leipzig and Berlin, when he arrived on August 31, 1950 in East Germany. During the first years there, he was not permitted to work, along with other communist artists. As the art historian Peter Selz pointed out, "While he was celebrated as a cultural leader, his chief idiom, photomontage, was still suspect during the 1950s among the more orthodox advocates of socialist realism." Bertolt Brecht, one of the few who succeeded in starting a project, namely his own theater The Berliner Ensemble, offered Heartfield a job designing his theater posters. However, Heartfield never returned to producing his radical photomontages.
After ten months in Germany, Heartfield suffered a heart attack on May 2, 1951 and a second heart attack a year later. He eventually received an honorary pension from the East German government, starting in 1954. However, Heartfield continued to work tirelessly for the theater, especially Brecht's Berliner Ensemble and for the Deutsche Theater in Berlin. Heartfield passed away at the age of 76 in 1968.
The Legacy of John Heartfield
The admiration for Heartfield's work was evident already during his lifetime, especially in the graphic designs by Alexander Liberman (alias Alexandre), who adopted Heartfield's montage-technique for the front covers of the French illustrated journal Vu, the satires of Marianus in the pages of the communist journal Mariane, the photomontages of Josep Renau, Aleksandr Zhitomirsky, and many instances where his AIZ montages were reprinted in Spanish and French communist daily magazines, such L'Humanité and the anarcho-syndicalist journal Orto.
Artists from across the Eastern bloc, Soviet Russia and the United States found inspiration in Heartfield's photomontages in the late 1960s and 1970s. For artists like Klaus Staeck, László Lakner, and Martha Rosler, among others, his work helped them confront a worn out leftist ideology with a new form of leftist critique, using historical referents and context driven meaning, to reclaim civil society, their artistic independence, and to articulate alternative social, political and cultural viewpoints during the Cold War, in both the East and the West.