June 19 – Happy Birthday, John Heartfield

Posted on June 19, 2015

Seeing a name like “John Heartfield,” I would think of an English-speaking country. Britain? Canada, the U.S., maybe New Zealand?

I would not think, “Ah! I bet he's a German!”

But today's famous birthday was born on this date in 1891 in Berlin, Germany, to German parents.

Actually, he was born as Helmut Herzfeld.

The Herzfeld parents were political activists and writers – and they faced persecution for their ideas. The family fled Berlin, moved to Switzerland, and then had to move again. The result of all this fleeing was horrible:

When he was just 7 years old, little Helmut Herzfeld and his one brother and two sisters were abandoned in the woods by their parents.

It's really hard to find verified info about what happened next – like, you know, if they all survived, and how – but from what I can see, the Herzfeld kids seemed to have ended up with their uncle. Eventually Helmut grew up to become a bit like his parents – interested in politics and social justice, an activist, someone who protests about the way things are and pushes for the way things ought to be.

Helmut studied art in Munich, and he and his brother started a publishing house in 1917.

An anti-British movement was gaining force in Germany. People were chanting, “Gott strafe England!” in the streets – meaning “May God punish England!” – and getting really pro-German / nationalistic / crazy. It was in protest to this that Helmut Herzfield changed his name to its English equivalent: John Heartfield.

Heartfield began to use his art as a way of protesting about political shenanigans and fascism. Along with fellow artist George Grosz, he pretty much invented photomontages – which are pieces created by cutting out and pasting together various photos. (They are a type of collage, but basically only using photos.)

Heartfield became active in the Dada art movement, which ridiculed traditional art as unimportant, even shallow. Heartfield built theater sets and produced book jackets. He helped start a satirical magazine, and his political photomontages were often published.

I guess that you can imagine that Heartfield's anti-fascism art was not popular with fascist Nazis – so when the Nazi Power gained power, Heartfield had to flee. Like, quickly: the SS broke into his apartment, and Heartfield had to escape by jumping off of his balcony and then running and walking over some mountains to Czechoslovakia.

Heartfield kept making photomontages. He kept criticizing the Nazis. He kept fighting back with his political artwork.

Eventually the Nazis took over Czechoslovakia, and Heartfield had to run again—this time to England.

After the war, Heartfield returned to live in Berlin – but of course, now Germany and Berlin were divided by the so-called Iron Curtain, into Communist East Germany and East Berlin and democratic West German and West Berlin. Heartfield chose to move to East Berlin, although he met with a lot of mistrust because of the number of years he lived in England. Finally, about a decade after the war, he was formally admitted to the Academy of Arts.

  • Check out some of Heartfield's work here

Here you can see the 2000 album cover by
rock group System of a Down (above)
and a World War II art piece by
Heartfield (below). Heartfield's piece also
inspired some of System's lyrics!

  • Find some photomontages you like. Here are some that I like:

  • Michael Owens has created a checklist of sorts for how to make art about political ideas. 

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