“John Heartfield is one of the most important European artists. He works in a field that he created himself, the field of photomontage. Through this new form of art he exercises social criticism. steadfastly on the side of the working class, he unmasked the forces of the Weimar Republic driving toward war.” said he writer, Bertolt Brecht.
John Heartfield was a pioneer of modern photomontage. Working in Germany and Czechoslovakia between the two world wars, he developed a unique method of appropriating and reusing photographs to powerful political effect.
At a time of great uncertainty, Heartfield’s agitated images forecasted and reflected the chaos Germany experienced in the 1920s and ’30s as it slipped toward social and political catastrophe. In this climate, communists, Nazis, and other partisans clashed in the press, at the ballot box, and on the streets. The impact of Heartfield’s images was so great that they helped transform photomontage into a powerful form of mass communication.
Heartfield devised photo-based symbols for the Communist Party of Germany, allowing the organization to compete with the Nazis’ swastika. His images of clenched fists, open palms, and raised arms all implied bold action and determination.
Photomontage allowed Heartfield to create loaded and politically contentious images. To compose his works, he chose recognizable press photographs of politicians or events from the mainstream illustrated press. He then disassembled and rearranged these images to radically alter their meaning.
Heartfield’s strongest work used variations of scale and stark juxtapositions to activate his already gruesome photo-fragments. The result could have a frightening visual impact.
In the 1930s the Nazis were gaining ground in Europe. Many chose to ignore or had a laissez faire attitude to the National Socialist policy of expansionism, known as Lebensraum or the threat of war that Germany now posed to the world. Heartfield had always been a radical when it came to German nationalism. Born in 1891 as Helmut Herzfeld he saw the horrors of the First World War first hand. Although propaganda was rife and rabid on both sides he made the extraordinary move of anglicizing his name in 1916, in the middle of the war, to protest against such nationalism.
The real motive for Hitler’s stranglehold on political power in the thirties was something that was utterly transparent to Heartfield. Here, he gives Hitler the Emperor’s old clothes and upturned moustache to reveal that power had simply changed hands and nothing had changed in democratic terms. As a left wing socialist, Heartfield was diametrically opposed to the extreme right wing National Socialism (Nazism) that swept Germany (although it borrowed policies from both left and right wing). It was after founding a satirical magazine, Die Pleite, that he met Brecht. Later he would work for the weekly AIZ (published in exile, of course, this sort of thing would never have been allowed inside The Fatherland). It was for AIZ that he produced most of his photomontage work.
After the defeat of Hitler and Nazism, Heartfield returned to Germany and lived out the rest of his days in East Berlin. His life and works were commemorated on a postage stamp. During the later years he worked closely with a variety of theater directors and in 1967 he visited London to prepare for a retrospective of his work. Unfortunately he died before this happened, but his widow completed the work for the exhibition and it was shown at the ICA in 1969. Although the Tate Modern in London did a retrospective of his work a few years ago, he remains a little known artist. Perhaps this short piece will help to put that right. Although a blue plaque in London is something, something more permanent would be much better.