Sometime ago we had the opportunity to visit the former summer refuge of John Heartfield (1891-1968). During the Third Reich this German political artist (graphic artist, stage designer and cartoonist) used to be no. 5 on Gestapo’s most wanted list.

This is the “happiness” that they bring! (from: AIZ, June 1938)

John Heartfield is considered the inventor of political photo montage, collages of text and imagery found in mass-produced media, revolutionary when viewed in terms of technique and aesthetics. His powerful and satirical works in the late 1920s und 1930s became real icons in the struggle against the Nazis.

The real meaning of the Hitler salute. The little man asks for big gifts.
I’ve got millions standing behind me. 
(from: AIZ, October 1932)

John Heartfield was also a pacifist, and he was deeply disgusted by the fierce and unrestrained nationalism leading finally to World War I.  Therefore in 1916 he anglizised his original German name Helmut Herzfeld as a sign of protest.  In order to escape the imminent military service, he feigned a mental illness and subsequently had to stay in a lunatic asylum for several weeks. By this unusual proceeding he avoided to be drafted to the man-eating frontlines of World War I.

War and corpses. The last hope of the rich. (from: AIZ, June 1932)

Heartfield himself has repeatedly referred to the key experience of World War I, above all to the unprecedented role of image propaganda in the war riot: it would have given impetus how people were lied to with photos. As a result, he was brought into internal opposition to these visual worlds and was tempted to use the corrupted propaganda instrument photography as an educational tool; also, of course, because the trivial mass medium of photography was not considered an artistic medium of expression at the time.

Self-portrait with police commissioner Zörgiebel, 1929

In 1916, on a May day, early in the morning at 5 o’clock, the photo montage is said to have been born as an artistic technique. Well that’s how George Grosz, who claims to have been there, later remembered when John Heartfield, the “Chief Johnny” from the Berlin Dada circles, invented it.

Advertisement design for George Grosz’ “Little Art Folder”

It was at least partly due to his relationship with George Grosz that John Heartfield arrived at the conclusion that the only art worth creating was that which depicted and commented on social and political issues. Hence he destroyed all of the art that he had created before World War I.  He joined the German Communist Party in 1918, in that same year he and George Grosz became founding members of the Berlin Dada Club. His engagement in this anti-art movement inspired him to working with new materials and an innovative approach concerning photography. 

Cover design for Kurt Tucholsky’s book
“Germany, Germany above all”

During the Weimar Republic after World War I, John Heartfield’s work was gaining a lot of exposure in Germany as he was a regular contributor to diverse journals and newspapers. His brother, author and companion Wieland Herzfelde founded and run Malik Verlag, a publishing house for books and satirical periodicals as well. Here he served as the in-house designer and advanced his skills as a book designer. During the 1920s John Heartfield worked also together with Erwin Piscator (founder and director of the Proletarian Theatre in Berlin), for him he designed diverse sets for plays in collaboration with playwright Bertold Brecht who became a real friend.

Cover design for Harry Sinclair Lewis’ book
“How you make dollars”

“If I were not Peter Panter, I would like to be a book cover at Malik publishing house. This John Heartfield is really a little wonder of the world. What enchanting things he does!” (Kurt Tucholsky, 1932)


Göring, hangman of the Third Reich (from: AIZ, September 1933)

His best-known works comprise the combative photomontages created for AIZ, Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (Workers’ Illustrated Newspaper), a widely circulated left-wing German weekly that he worked for from 1927 to 1938. During this time he created more than 230 images with strong pointed political messages, often to be seen on the front or back cover.

His commentary was chiefly reserved for Nazi actions and party leaders. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Heartfield and his anti-Nazi imagery were immediately targeted. With the Nazis on his heels,  he left Berlin on foot for Prague, where he continued to work for AIZ. In 1938, when the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia was imminent, he was forced to flee again, this time to London.

Reservations – Jews driven like cattle (December 1939)

While he succeeded in escaping the Gestapo (Nazi secret police) when in London the British secret service MI5 began to monitor him as a possible Soviet spy and communist. However, he continued to produce his biting photomontages on current political events being published in various British newspapers. Reservations (showing the ghettoisation of Jews in Poland) means his last published political work in the United Kingdom shortly before he got interned as an enemy alien in December 1939. After internment and long illness, he then primarily designed the covers of generally apolitical books for the Lindsay Drummond and Penguin Books publishing houses.

Stage set projection for Bertold Brecht’s “Mother Courage”, 1951

In 1950 after 17 years in exile he returned to his now communist homeland in East-Germany. Here he met his brother Wieland Herzfelde again who survived the Nazis in US American exile. After staying the first time in Leipzig, John Heartfield settled finally in East-Berlin, his hometown. His long years in London raised suspicions of treason among the East-German secret police named  Stasi. Renowned artists and friends like playwright Bertold Brecht and author Stephan Heym supported him and advocated for his kind of art. But only after Stalin’s death he got fully rehabilitated in 1956 by election to the East-German Academy of the Arts. In 1960 he became a professor there. 

The summer house of John Heartfield in Waldsieversdorf

The summer house was erected in 1957 from demolition wood of Strausberg Airport, a small forestial idyll with direct access to a beautiful lake. His friend Bertold Brecht urged him to this step for improving his poor health. As of 2009 the premises serves as a small museum, memorial and meeting  place visitable on weekends.

John Heartfield in the early 1950s

Since his death his work has been exhibited regularly throughout the United States and Europe, a current and comprehensive exhibition named Fotografie plus Dynamit can actually be seen at Academy of the Arts (Akademie der Künste) in Berlin (afterwards moving to London and Zwolle as well).

In light of strengthened right-wing radicalism and uprising chauvinist hatred, Heartfield’s work remains up to date till today.


Published by

Suburban Tracker

Please be so kind to respect that all texts, graphics or photos in this blog are protected by copyright. Unless otherwise mentioned by naming the individuali author, creator, designer or photographer all copyrights hold by Ulli Kattenstroth ### email contact: ################################## COMMENTS WELCOMED IN GERMAN, FRENCH OR ENGLISH.