John Heartfield

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John Heartfield by Alexander Rodchenko, 1931.
Born June 19, 1891(1891-06-19)
Berlin, Germany
Died April 26, 1968(1968-04-26) (aged 76)
Berlin, East Germany
Web Dada Companion, Wikipedia

John Heartfield (born Helmut Herzfeld; 1891–1968) was an artist and a pioneer in the use of art as a political weapon. Most of his photomontages were pro-Communist, anti-Nazi and anti-fascist statements. Heartfield also created book jackets for his brother's Malik Verlag which published authors such as Upton Sinclair, as well as stage sets for such playwrights as Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator.

Life and work[edit]

John Heartfield was born on 19 June 1891, as Helmut Franz Josef Herzfeld in Berlin-Schmargendorf. He was the first son of the socialist writer Franz Herzfeld, who wrote under the pseudonym Franz Held, and Alice Herzfeld, née Stolzenberg, a textile worker and political activist. In 1895, convicted of blasphemy and fleeing a prison sentence, Franz Herzfeld and family eventually took up residence in an abandoned hut in the woods in Aigen, near Salzburg, Austria. One day in 1899, the four Herzfeld children woke up to find their parents missing. The mayor of Aigen took the children into his foster care, a situation that proved extremely difficult for the young, quick-tempered Helmut.

In 1905, after having finished school, Herzfeld began an apprenticeship in a bookshop in Wiesbaden, Germany. Three years later, in 1908, Herzfeld went to study at the Royal Bavarian School of Applied Arts in Munich, which at the time was Germany's center of art. Herzfeld's role models were influenced by art nouveau commercial design, including work by Albert Weisgerber, Ludwig Hohlwein, and Koloman Moser, thus nourishing Herzfeld's inclination toward a functional art for a mass audience. In 1912 he worked as packaging designer in a printing company in Mannheim. He also designed his first book jacket, for the selected works of his father.

In 1913 Herzfeld moved to Berlin, where he continued his art education at the Arts and Crafts School in Berlin-Charlottenburg, under Ernst Neumann. In 1914, the same year that Herzfeld won first prize in the Werkbund Exhibit in Cologne for the design of a wall mural, he was conscripted into military service in World War I. Herzfeld served as a guard in Berlin for most of 1915, until he provoked a discharge by simulating mental illness. In his subsequent civil service as a postal carrier in Berlin-Grunewald, Herzfeld tossed the mail into a gully as an act of antiwar sabotage, in the hopes that the inhabitants of this wealthy suburb would get angry at the unsatisfactory conditions on the home front.

In 1916, in the midst of the war, Helmut Herzfeld anglicized his name to "John Heartfield," a protest against the anglophobia that took hold of Germany shortly after the English entered the war on 4 August 1914. "God Punish England!" rang a popular street greeting. (Georg Gross changed his name to George Grosz in the same year.) In July 1916, Wieland Herzfelde and John Heartfield published the journal Neue Jugend [New Youth], a vehicle for antiwar and pacifist views. In 1917 Heartfield helped his brother establish the Malik Verlag publishing group and oversaw all typographical projects. During this time, he also worked as a film set designer for the Grünbaum brothers and produced propaganda films and later animated films in collaboration with George Grosz in the Military Educational Film Service (later renamed UFA).

Heartfield, his brother, Grosz, and Erwin Piscator signed up with the fledgling German Communist Party at, or just after, the First Party Congress, 30 December 1918-1 January 1919. In Heartfield's involvement with Berlin Dada, he was known as Monteurdada, not only because his preferred artistic medium was photomontage, but also because he took to wearing blue overalls (a Monteuranzug in German) in alliance with the industrial laborer. In German, the connection of montage to industrial assembly-line production is linguistically explicit, for montieren means "to assemble" while a Monteur is a mechanic or engineer.

Heartfield was dismissed from his position at UFA in 1919 because he called for a strike after the murders of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. He coedited the satirical periodical Jedermann sein eigner Fussball [Everyone His Own Soccer Ball], which was banned after the first edition because of its inflammatory content. Together with Herzfelde and Grosz, Heartfield founded the satirical political magazine Die Pleite [Bankruptcy], a combination of socially critical reportage and caricature (usually the hand of Grosz). In 1919 Heartfield also befriended Otto Dix. In April 1920 Heartfield and Grosz published an article called "Der Kunstlump" [Art Rogue] in Der Gegner [The Opponent], which triggered heated discussions about the roles of fine art and proletarian art. Heartfield helped organize the First International Dada Fair with Grosz and Raoul Hausmann that opened on 1 July 1920, for which Heartfield designed a four-page catalogue.

After his involvement with Berlin Dada, Heartfield designed book jackets, typography, and layouts for left-wing publishers and worked for the German Communist Party as an editor and designer. He also collaborated on a volume with the satirical writer Kurt Tucholsky called Deutschland Deutschland über alles .

In 1930 he began to produce political photomontages regularly for the popular procommunist journal Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (Workers' Illustrated Journal), continuing to generate his anti-Nazi montages in exile in Prague after 1933. This montages differed from his Dada work in that they were highly produced and carefully manufactured holistic montages characterized by a unity of surface and pictorial totality rather than the disjunctive aesthetic of Dada. He produced 237 anti-fascist, pro-communist photomontages for the AIZ in total and they remain his most celebrated work. These montages were also produced in miniature and smuggled into Nazi Germany. In 1934, his photomontages sparked the first diplomatic incident between the democratic Czechoslovakia and the new Nazi Germany when they were exhibited in the display window at the Manés art gallery. They were eventually moved indoors, but the press attention increased the viewership and the exhibition of international caricature was extended twice to accommodate demand. Gestapo surveillance on Heartfield and his brother Wieland Herzfelde, who also fled to Prague, increased.

When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938, Heartfield fled to England in a plane with the help of journalist Martha Gellhorn. In English exile, he continued to produce photomontages for publishers though he did not enjoy the same renown nor were his pictures as politically trenchant. He was also interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man and suffered poor health, though he met his future wife Gertrude (Tutti) in England as well.

Heartfield eventually joined his brother in the German Democratic Republic in 1951, though his membership to the Communist Party was denied as he was suspected of being a Western spy. Only in 1956, precipitated by the death of Stalin in 1953, was his Party membership reinstated and with the help of Bertolt Brecht, he was admitted to the Academy of Arts, thus allowing him to continue to produce his photomontages, largely for the theatre.

John Heartfield died on 26 April 1968 in Berlin, East Germany. (Based on source)


  • John Heartfield 1891-1968: Fotomontages, Eindhoven: Van Abbemuseum, 1975, 47 pp. (Dutch)
  • David Evans, John Heartfield AIZ/VI 1930-38: Catalogue Raisonné of the Photomontages Published in Arbeiter Zeitung and Volks Illustriete, New York: Kent Fine Art, 1992, 524 pp. Excerpt.


  • Sabine T. Kriebel, Revolutionary Beauty: The Radical Photomontages of John Heartfield, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2014. [2] (English)
  • Sabine T. Kriebel, "Montage as Meme: Learning from the Radical Avant-Gardes", in Art and Resistance in Germany, eds. Deborah Ascher Barnstone and Elizabeth Otto, Bloomsbury, 2018, pp 135-150. (English)