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Artists John Heartfield
John Heartfield Photo

John Heartfield

German Graphic Designer and Photomonteur

Movement: Dada

Born: June 19, 1891 - Berlin, Germany

Died: April 26, 1968 - Berlin, former East Germany

John Heartfield Timeline

Quotes

"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..."
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.
John Heartfield

"The important man is not the artist, but the businessman who, in the marketplace and on the battlefield, holds the reins in his hands."

Synopsis

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.

Key Ideas

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

John Heartfield Photo

Childhood

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.

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John Heartfield Biography Continues

Important Art by John Heartfield

The below artworks are the most important by John Heartfield - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Cover for Der Dada, "The Tire Travels the World" (1920)
Artwork Images

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

Artwork description & Analysis: 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)
Artwork Images

The Hand Has Five Fingers (1928)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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)
Artwork Images

Self-Portrait with the Police Commissioner Zörgiebel (1929)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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

More John Heartfield Artwork and Analysis:

Cover and illustrations for Kurt Tucholsky, Germany, Germany above All (1929) Book jacket design for Upton Sinclair's book After the Flood (1925) Whoever reads bourgeois newspapers becomes blind and deaf: away with the stultifying bandages! Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ) 9. no. 6 (1930) Adolf the Übermensch: Swallows gold and spouts junk, AIZ 11. no. 29, July 17 (1932) The Meaning of Geneva, where capital lives, peach cannot live! cover of the AIZ, November 27 (1932)


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Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
John Heartfield
Interactive chart with John Heartfield's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
View Influences Chart

Artists

Ernst Neumann
Franz Pfemfert
Honoré DaumierHonoré Daumier

Personal Contacts

George GroszGeorge Grosz
Franz Jung
Bertolt BrechtBertolt Brecht

Movements

ExpressionismExpressionism
PhotojournalismPhotojournalism
Modern PhotographyModern Photography

Influences on Artist
John Heartfield
John Heartfield
Years Worked: 1910s - 1968
Influenced by Artist

Artists

Alexander LibermanAlexander Liberman
Marianus
Josep Renau
Klaus Staeck
László Lakner

Personal Contacts

Aleksandr Zhitomirsky
Gustav Klucis
Sergei Trejakov

Movements

DadaDada
PhotojournalismPhotojournalism

Useful Resources on John Heartfield

Videos

Books

Websites

Articles

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

biography

John Heartfield and the Agitated Image: Photography, Persuasion, and the Rise of Avant-Garde Photomontage (2012) Recomended resource

An investigative look at the art making practices of the artist

John Heartfield: Art and Mass Media (1986)

Images and Essays analyzing the connection between John Heartfield's work and mass media

artworks

John Heartfield: Laughter is a Devastating Weapon (2015) Recomended resource

Index of 150 reproductions of the artist's works

Revolutionary Beauty: The Radical Photomontages of John Heartfield (2014)

Compilation of works by the artist

More Interesting Books about John Heartfield
The Original Meme King Recomended resource

By Jack Doyle
The Daily Dose via OZY
December 2, 2016

John Heartfield: Photomontages Recomended resource

Press release to accompany 1993 MoMA exhibition of the artist's works

Listing of articles about the artist from the official website

John Heartfield's Insects and the "Idea" of Natural History

By Cristina Cuevas-Wolf
Elective Affinities: Testing Word and Image Relationships
Boston: Brill | Rodopi, 2009

Heartfield Recomended resource

Documentary on the artist and his work

Zygosis: John Heartfield and the Political Image (Part 1 of 3)

Documentary about the artist, split into three brief parts

John Heartfield, Fotomonteur by Hellmuth Herbst

Brief video about the artist's practices

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Cristina Cuevas-Wolf

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" 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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