How German artist John Heartfield pioneered the use of art as a political weapon and took on Hitler

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The story of artist John Heartfield, born Helmut Franz Josef Herzfeld in Berlin in 1891, begins like a German fairy tale. In 1899, his parents, sick and destitute, abandoned Helmut and his three brothers and sisters in a mountain cabin in Aigen, near Salzburg. The starving children were discovered four days later by the town’s mayor and his wife, who picked them up and fed them. Meanwhile, their uncle, a lawyer, appeared with a trust from their wealthy grandfather’s estate to fund their education.

Helmut trained at several art schools in Germany, before arriving at the School of Arts and Crafts in 1910s bohemian Berlin, where he abandoned his dream of becoming a painter and instead invented an art of extremely effective anti-war propaganda during the First World War and the rise of the Nazis. As The Canvas video above explains, Heartfield’s work clearly encapsulates the “anti-bourgeois, anti-capitalist, anti-fascist” attitudes of Berlin’s radical Dadaists. He was “one of Hitler’s most creative critics”.

Herzfeld began his anti-war art campaign by anglicizing his name to counter rising anti-British sentiment at the start of World War I. As John Heartfield, he collaborated with his brother, Weiland, and satirical artist George Grosz on the leftist journal. New Youth and the revolutionary publishing house, Malik Verlag. After the war, they joined the German Communist Party. (Heartfield “received his party book”, writes Sybille Fuchs, “from KPD leader Rosa Luxemburg herself”), and they became “founding members of the Berlin Dadaists”, developing the style of photomontage that Heartfield has used throughout his career as a graphic designer.

John Heartfield, War and Corpses, The Last Hope of the Rich

“Photomontage allowed Heartfield to create charged and politically controversial images,” writes the Getty. “To compose his works, he chose recognizable press photographs of politicians or events from the mainstream illustrated press…. Heartfield’s strongest work used variations of scale and stark juxtapositions to activate his already gruesome photo fragments. The result could have a chilling visual impact. They also had widespread influence, becoming an almost standard style of radical protest art throughout Europe by the start of the 20th century.

On rare occasions, Heartfield has included photographs of himself, as in the self-portrait below with scissors cutting off the head of the Berlin Police Commissioner; or he used his own photograph, as in an unglamorous shot of a pregnant young woman behind whose head Heartfield places what appears to be the body of a dead young man. The 1930 work protested Weimar’s anti-abortion laws with the title “Forced supplier of human material, take heart!” The state needs unemployed people and soldiers! But most of his work dismantled and repurposed the popular press.

John Heartfield, Self-Portrait with Police Commissioner Zörgiebel

Heartfield’s direct attacks on state power were allied with his support for labor movements. “In 1929, after decades of activity in photomontage and publishing,” writes the Art Institute of Chicago, “John Heartfield began working for the leftist periodical Illustrated Workers’ Magazine (Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung [AIZ]).” This weekly publication “served from the beginning as a major organ of opposition to the burgeoning National Socialist Party”. Heartfield’s provocative covers poked fun at Hitler and depicted the power of organized labor against the fascist threat. He traveled to the Soviet Union in 1931 under the auspices of the magazine and taught photomontage to the Red Army. His style spread internationally until the lifeless propaganda painting of socialist realism purged modernist art of party style.

Unfortunately for Heartfield and for Europe, the German left failed to present a unified front against Nazism as the KPD also became increasingly dogmatic and Stalinist. The artist and the publishers of AIZ were forced to flee to Prague when Hitler took power in 1933. (Heartfield is said to have escaped a “band of Nazi thugs,” writes Fuchs, by jumping from his balcony in Berlin). In Czechoslovakia, he continued his counter-propaganda campaign against Hitler through the covers of the AIZ. When the Nazis occupied Prague in 1938, he again fled to London but never stopped working during the war. He eventually returned to Berlin in the early 1950s and began a career as a literature teacher.

Heartfield is a complicated figure – an overlooked but key member of the German avant-garde who, along with his brother Weiland and artists like George Grosz, revolutionized the media of photography, typography and printing in order to s vehemently oppose war, oppression and Nazism, despite the dangers to their livelihoods and lives. You can read more about the artist’s life and work on the official John Heartfield exhibition website, which features many of the collages featured in the Canvas video up top. (See especially the article on Heartfield’s relevance to our current moment.) Also, don’t miss this interactive online exhibition from the Akademie Der Künste in Berlin, which controls the artist’s estate and has uploaded a number of rare photos and documents.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him on @jdmagness

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