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John Heartfield Photo

John Heartfield

German Graphic Designer and Photomonteur

Born: June 19, 1891 - Berlin, Germany
Died: April 26, 1968 - Berlin, former East Germany
"The important man is not the artist, but the businessman who, in the marketplace and on the battlefield, holds the reins in his hands."
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John Heartfield
"There are a lot of things that got me into working with photos. The main thing is that I saw both what was being said and not being said with photos in the newspapers... I found out how you can fool people with photos, really fool them... You can lie and tell the truth by putting the wrong title or wrong captions under them, and that's roughly what was being done..."
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John Heartfield
"More than films with hidden, political-propagandistic ideas, such as those that the English produce particularly well .. is the effect of a thoroughly objective film of quality. Quality can never be bypassed. Even though America is our enemy, we praise American films, their quality must be recognized. They accomplish a propagandistic effect. Those who hate Germany are not easily persuaded with political resourcefulness .. Quality [by contrast] will always conquer, convince, carry one along, provoke one to think, and persuade, and it is therefore the best propaganda."
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John Heartfield

Summary of John Heartfield

Only recently has John Heartfield's work been studied on its own terms, as progressive graphic design. Heartfield's formative training in advertising and experiences with Dada theatricality provided him with the visual tools to affect and persuade viewers to action and critical thinking. Heartfield's pro-communist, anti-capitalist photomontages emerge in a moment of war and revolution, and in dialogue with the late Weimar Republic's commodity culture. His provocative photomontages aroused both critical acclaim as well as controversy at the time - especially famous are his anti-fascist montages, for which he was persecuted by the Nazis and spied on by Gestapo agents. The capacity of Heartfield's photomontages to provide a technique through which to conceive alternative views of reality is his contribution to artistic practice across the media arts.


  • Heartfield caused the times to speak for themselves through cut-out fragments from everyday materials, such as advertisements, newspapers, and illustrations. He provoked reality to snap its own picture through excerpts taken from popular mass media products, as a variation on a cameraless photographic process.
  • Heartfield's name is synonymous with his 1930s antifascist photomontages. He became known for his one-man battle against Hitler due to his concentrated critique of this dictator as a liar, backed by the big industrialists.
  • Montage, for Heartfield, was a vernacular art form, readily used for propaganda and commercial purposes. The Berlin Dadaists used photomontage to rupture the commercialized media's view of reality by dismantling it into fragmented parts. Cubism dismantled the mimetic representation in art. Similarly, Heartfield's violently cut and pasted fragments with their rough edges exposed the media's realistic description of the world as a mimetic illusion. To call the authenticity of reality into question was to show the masses how they had traded in their own perception of reality for the media's view. Regrettably, these Dadaists lacked a popular audience.
  • Heartfield's agitational method, equated with the worker photography movement's notion of "photo as weapon," aimed to visualize the realities that lay behind the agitation for war or whatever cause the government persuaded the citizens to back. Heartfield's seamlessly sutured photomontages show how the photographic medium was mere artifice. The montaged interplay of animal and human, animate and inanimate, technological and "natural" are revealed as the hidden structure in mechanical reproductions under industrial capitalism.

Biography of John Heartfield

John Heartfield Photo

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.

Important Art by John Heartfield

Progression of Art
Cover for Der Dada, "The Tire Travels the World" (1920)

Cover for Der Dada, "The Tire Travels the World"

This photomontage suggests the dynamic movement of the Republic automotive tire that runs over, crashes against, moves around emphatic slogans, ads, world news, and various Dada nonsense. The cut-out words and images drawn from newspapers, advertisements, and magazines are used to spell non-words, such as "DADA," and project the Dadaist outrage at the status quo (its rational norms and values), as seen in the shouting face of the dandy Raoul Hausmann in the bottom left corner of the montage. This Dada montage intended to playfully jolt the viewer to confront the contemporary moment of social and political crisis.

Photomontage enabled the Dadaist Heartfield to allow the news headlines and advertising slogans to speak for themselves in the form of fragmented words and images that conveyed the social turmoil and the cacophony of the urban street of commerce and news. Hannah Höch, like Heartfield, appropriated mass media fragments. Yet, Höch created a cohesive image out of these pieces to critique the patriarchal political establishment. The very use of commodities (e.g. the tire), advertisements, and the very language of photographic mass media demonstrates how the Dadaists mocked and even broke down the conventional means of representation ubiquitous in the visual culture of the Weimar Republic.

Newsprint - The Art Institute of Chicago

The Hand Has Five Fingers (1928)

The Hand Has Five Fingers

An oversized grasping hand energetically confronts the viewer. This popular 1928 election poster equates the five fingers of the laboring hand with the number 5 of the Communist Party's electoral list. On the morning of May 13, 1928, commuters, pedestrians, and all city dwellers would have seen this affective poster plastered throughout the urban areas of Berlin, and even on the front page of the Red Flag (Die Rote Fahne), Sunday issue, as readers opened the folded paper to its length. This image unequivocally urged them to vote the party's electoral list. It demonstrates how Heartfield used advertising techniques for the purpose of political persuasion to great effect. This symbol of the working hand was one among the many political symbols Heartfield produced that resonated with the working classes.

Under the tutelage of Ernst Neumann, a renowned professor of advertising design, Heartfield learned how to attract the attention of potential customers by means of an optical surprise, achieved by pairing two often-oversized figures or objects with an emphasis on simplicity. Here Heartfield pairs the number five with the hand's five fingers. This optical surprise was most effectively delivered in what was called an "object poster" that highlighted a company's trademark or commodity devoid of any decorative flourishes. For this poster, Heartfield deployed this concept to great effect in synthesizing the demands of the workers with the Communist Party's electoral platform.

Gravure - Akademie der Künste, Berlin

Self-Portrait with the Police Commissioner Zörgiebel (1929)

Self-Portrait with the Police Commissioner Zörgiebel

This self-portrait captures Heartfield in the act of "cutting off" with scissors the police commissioner Zörgiebel's head in a printed photograph. It is a literal description of his technique of gathering needed printed and visual material to construct his montaged-images. This is also a mock execution, a satirical critique of this police commissioner's ruthless policies - for example, the unprecedented police violence unleashed against the Communist demonstrators on May Day, 1929 in Berlin. Here in this mock-up of the montage, it is evident how the abutting images of Heartfield with scissors and the head of Zörgiebel are simultaneously hinged together and severed by the scissors. Heartfield intentionally aimed to show his technique and perform his social identity as an artist, as he conceived it in 1929. He designed this violent image for the well-established mass-circulating leftist AIZ. The image insists on being understood in pictorial terms due to the absence of any text. This self-portrait provides an opportunity to see his self-constructed visual utterance about himself and his artistic project to counter social injustice.

This montage-image introduced the readers of the AIZ to the political photomonteur John Heartfield in the magazine's September 1929 issue, as an endorsement for his collaboration with Kurt Tucholsky on the soon to be published book Germany, Germany above All. This endorsement was a practical strategy on the part of the New German Publishing Company (Neuer Deutscher Verlag), the publisher of both the AIZ and the satirical book. This montaged self-portrait of Heartfield showcases his critical art, which boldly fused Dada theatricality with a resolute political stance. Such declarative self-representations were rare, as Heartfield soon became embroiled in internal Communist party politics. His brother Wieland Herzfelde, as the art historian Sabine Kriebel noted, actively participated in the narrative construction and replication of Heartfield's life, but it became more necessary in the thirties for him to adjust facts, simplify the narrative, and emphasize certain details to promote an exemplary account of their lives so they could survive the shifting political climate of the time. For instance, Wieland thought it best for his brother to deny, as of 1936, to have ever worked for Münzenberg, who became a non-person and a renegade in the eyes of the Communist International (Comintern) in 1936.

Mock-up - Akademie der Künste, Berlin

Cover and illustrations for Kurt Tucholsky, Germany, Germany above All (1929)

Cover and illustrations for Kurt Tucholsky, Germany, Germany above All

Heartfield personifies Germany in the cover image of the book Germany, Germany above All, as a composite figure: judicial and military costumes define his body, his face is statesman, nationalist, military, and bourgeois combined - as indicated by the loose joule below the chin and mustache, the red and white colors of the German Socialist Democratic Party, the military hat, and bourgeois top hat. Additionally, the words "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles," written in fraktur script, spill out of the figure's mouth, suggesting he is merrily singing the national anthem. The back cover reinforces the alliance between social and military order by juxtaposing the police's baton and the military sword. This montaged-cover together with the montaged images inside this picture book aptly characterizes how Heartfield's work was deeply immersed in a dialogue with the cultural crisis of the late Weimar Republic.

Kurt Tucholsky authored the book Germany, Germany above All, and Heartfield designed its cover in 1929. This picture book trenchantly criticized right-wing nationalism, the military, the democratic system, and capitalism. The book is considered to be just as much about the role of photography in society as it is about the political situation in the Weimar Republic. It deftly captures the so-called optimism of Weimar visual culture as well as its abrupt interruption by fascism in the 1930s. Tucholsky's and even Heartfield's ambivalence towards photography mirrors the dilemma of the times: the critique and frustration with photojournalism and its association with urban modernity, and at the same time, the critical tool it had become in the hands of such artists as John Heartfield.

Letterpress inset on canvas - The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago

Book jacket design for Upton Sinclair's book After the Flood (1925)

Book jacket design for Upton Sinclair's book After the Flood

Heartfield's book jacket design for Upton Sinclair's book After the Great Flood: A Novel from the year 2000 (1925) visualizes a great wave swallowing a city. Heartfield effectively uses a montaged image of a tsunami-size wave and a skyscraper in the form of a single photograph across the front and back covers. It is simply framed at the top and bottom by a band of red, on which the author's name, the book's title, and Malik Verlag logo are printed. This singular image not only powerfully conveyed Sinclair's core message: the inevitable destruction of humankind by its own scientific experiments, but also Heartfield's clever use of a single image.

Upton Sinclair unwittingly shared the progressive avant-garde's sensing of an impending disaster, here expressed in prophetic terms of a biblical deluge. The critique of rationality during the Weimar Republic expressed dissatisfaction with science and concern about the psychological and social consequences of the mechanized and standardized experience of the individual. Such images of a doomed social and economic order with the specter of utter political disintegration seemed commonplace at the time. More pointedly, Heartfield's montage juxtaposes fantasy and reality, illusion and disillusionment to engage the viewer visually and sensorily.

Whoever reads bourgeois newspapers becomes blind and deaf: away with the stultifying bandages! Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ) 9. no. 6 (1930)

Whoever reads bourgeois newspapers becomes blind and deaf: away with the stultifying bandages! Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ) 9. no. 6

By wrapping this young man's head in the pages of the German Social Democratic Party's newspaper Onward (Vorwärts), this photomontage suggests that he has become blinded and even deaf to the reality that surrounds him. The caption reads: "I am a cabbage head. Do you know my leaves (which means both newspapers and cabbage leaves in German)? Whoever reads bourgeois newspapers becomes blind and deaf." Visually the body sits in undisturbed repose, expressing the person's frightful complacency with what he reads. This is suggested by allowing the text across his head to speak for him. As the art historian Sabine Kriebel noted, Heartfield plays on features of earlier studio photographs, such as the aureole that surrounds the body contours, while surface details stand out in sharp relief, to suggest long exposure (associated with such studio photographs) and the instantaneity of photojournalism (its snapshots of world events).

Heartfield's montage aims to critique commercial photomontage; its easy manufacture and reproduction. It confronts the ethos of speed and excess in the market of mass-illustrated magazines and the continuous barrage of visual stimuli that had the effect of numbing the readers' senses. By comparison, the qualities of Heartfield's photomontages assert a diligent, revolutionary staying power that defined his scrupulously crafted montages, which secured the viewer's attention through their perceptual and psychological, yet humorous affective devices.

Offset print - Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

Adolf the Übermensch: Swallows gold and spouts junk, AIZ 11. no. 29, July 17 (1932)

Adolf the Übermensch: Swallows gold and spouts junk, AIZ 11. no. 29, July 17

This photomontage reveals Adolf Hitler, the leader of the National Socialists, as orator, who speaks mere rhetoric or rather junk. Heartfield playfully integrates an authentic likeness of Hitler with an x-ray image of a torso, which exposes the ribs and esophagus, to show how Adolf, a gluttonous swallower of big industry's money, spouts meaningless words. Monetary exchange is made physically real and at once repulsive as it is presented in the abstract form of a digestive body, which symbolizes a system of ingestion and suggested regurgitation. Heartfield's montage, published in the AIZ, preceded an article that examined the distinction between the anticapitalist rhetoric of the Nazis and their pro-capitalistic practices. It showcases Heartfield's play with fantasy and reality to provoke critical thinking.

The precedent for this photomontage is French artist Honoré Daumier's scandalous Gargantua, a political cartoon, inspired by Rabelais's gluttonous tale about the giant Gargantua and his son Pantagruel, which places the bulbous body of French King Louis-Philippe I at the center of monetary digestion. Exhausted, gaunt workers and tired mothers gather at the bottom of a plank to drop their coins into baskets, which the king's ministers carry up to the his pear-shaped head and deposit them into his gaping mouth with assembly-line efficiency. Heartfield's montage like Daumier's, according to the art historian Sabine Kriebel, is an allegory for the consumption and production of capital, power, and subjugation. Heartfield inherits Daumier's legacy and continues this leftist tradition of mass media caricature, which is evident in this montage about Hitler, who campaigned as the candidate for the NSDAP (German National Socialist Party) in the presidential election in 1932, but lost. Heartfield, like Daumier, used modern media (lithographic reproduction in Daumier's case) adapted to emergent mass media forms to poke fun at power. A Daumier lithograph hung in Heartfield's Berlin apartment and the collector Eduard Fuchs, whom Heartfield credits with making Daumier known in Germany, was a close friend of his and of his father's.

Offset - Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

The Meaning of Geneva, Peace Cannot Live Where Greed Capital Exists! (1932)

The Meaning of Geneva, Peace Cannot Live Where Greed Capital Exists!

This photomontage focuses on a white dove, a symbol of peace, impaled by a bayonet, symbol of modern warfare. The simplicity of this composition recalls the qualities of the "object poster" and draws attention to how Heartfield deployed advertising techniques to create an affective critical, yet emotional reading of this historical event. Published on the cover of the November 27th issue of the AIZ, Heartfield reacts to the Geneva disarmament conference that took place on November 9, 1932, as well as comments on the police's violent reaction against protesters who demonstrated against fascism in front of the palace of the United Nations. The conference's outcome revealed itself three days later in Geneva, when England, France, and Italy granted Germany equal military rights. Heartfield's montage simultaneously grasps the implications of the present action and anticipates the future in the form of a Socialist Surrealism grounded in the imagery of the 1930s.

Heartfield was inspired by two contemporary images that were produced on the occasion of the Geneva conference: the Swiss stamp issued on the occasion of the disarmament conference, showing a dove freely hovering over a broken sword, and the caricature of a dove impaled by a sword, published in the Moscow newspaper Pravda. In this photomontage, Heartfield subtracts the sword and added the bayonet; he disassembles conventional representations of the Geneva conference and reassembles the pieces to make visible the underlying meaning of this conference that granted Germany permission to rearm.

Heartfield's original AIZ photomontage was reworked and used as the front cover of the December 1939 issue of the progressive journal Direction, a legendary progressive journal that chronicled the troubles of the thirties through fiction, photography, music, art, drama, and humor. William Gropper edited the magazine out of Darien, Connecticut.

Offset - Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

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Content compiled and written by Cristina Cuevas-Wolf

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"John Heartfield Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Cristina Cuevas-Wolf
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 26 Nov 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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