John Heartfield…Abandoned in a field by his parents as a child…

by Kim Steele

Nascido Helmut Herzfeld

Nascido Helmut Herzfeld


“I lost my parents in 1899 and thereafter lived as an orphan with different families.”


John Heartfield managed to rise to a distinguished career as a graphic designer after a very challenging childhood, founding a publishing house, Malik-Verlag in 1917, with the renowned artist George Grosz, one of this publisher’s favorite artists.  Both resisted the anti-British sentiment bubbling in Germany before WWI, by Anglicizing their names.  In 1908, he studied art in Munich at the Royal Bavarian Arts and Crafts School.  Heartfield joined the German Communist Party (KPD) shortly thereafter.

In 1917, Heartfield became a member of Berlin Club Dada.  He later became active in the Dada movement, which informed much of his artwork, helping to organize the Erste Internationale Dada-Messe (First International Dada Fair) in Berlin in 1920. Dadaists were the young lions of the German art scene, provocateurs who disrupted public art gatherings and ridiculed the participants. In an interview with an English historian, Francis Klingender, Heartfield described Dada “as an effort to disturb the higher impulses of the intellect – the spiritual, mystical, and subjective – but only in order to get at the truth behind them.”


Dadaism - Art and Anti Art, Edited by Raoul Hausmann, John Heartfield, and George Grosz

Dadaism – Art and Anti Art, Edited by Raoul Hausmann, John Heartfield, and George Grosz


The Dada labeled traditional art ‘trivial and bourgeois.’ Heartfield was a member of a circle of German artistic titans that included Erwin PiscatorBertolt BrechtHannah Höch, and a host of others. Heartfield began his artistic career as a set designer. “Using Heartfield’s minimal props and stark stages, Brecht interrupted his plays at key junctures to have the audience to be part of the action and not to lose themselves in it.”


John Heartfield Stage Set Projection for Bertolt Brecht, 1951

John Heartfield Stage Set Production for Bertolt Brecht, 1951


Heartfield was dismissed from the Reichswehr Film Service for his political stridency, and founded Die Pleite, a satirical magazine with George Grosz. In the New York MoMa hangs a telling portrait by Grosz of Heartfield, entitled The Engineer Heartfield. (see below–last image)  He then met the pivotal playwright Bertolt Brecht in 1924, for whom he built many theatrical sets. Brecht became involved in the Weimar Republic Berlin, while his publication Die Pleite was critical of the movement up until the Third Reich, because the Reich ignored the constitutional requirements in 1933. Although the Republic had many positive accomplishments, improving the railway, reform the currency and tax policies, it blocked German war reparations and created unwanted borders.

Brecht produced many radical plays based on characters from Charlie Chaplin to G.B. Shaw, and collaborated with Kurt Weill, among others.  The “masterpiece” of the Brecht/Weill collaborations, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny), caused an uproar when it premiered in 1930 in Leipzig, with Nazis in the audience protesting. The Brecht/Weill association was very influential to Heartfield.

Heartfield was prolific in his production of set-designs and book jackets.  His medium was photomontage, very political in nature and expressing criticism of the growing Nazi movement and particularly Hitler, about whom several of his most pointed montages were directed.  On Good Friday 1933, the SS broke into his apartment, Heartfield escaped by jumping from his balcony. He left Germany by walking over the Sudeten Mountains to Czechoslovakia, ultimately creating his most revered image to raise awareness of the Reich’s motto, Blood and Iron.


Poster by John Heartfield, Blut und Eisen

Poster by John Heartfield, Blut und Eisen (Blood and Iron)


Heartfield’s artistic output was abundant. His works appeared as covers for the Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ, Workers’ Illustrated Newspaper) from 1929 to 1933. AIZ was a popular weekly with circulation that rivaled any magazine in Germany during the early 1930’s. During 1931, Heartfield’s photomontages were featured monthly on the AIZ cover, an important point, because most copies of the AIZ were sold at newsstands.




It was through rotogravure, an engraving process whereby pictures, designs, and words are engraved into the printing plate or printing cylinder – that Heartfield’s montages, in the form of posters, were distributed in the streets of Berlin in 1932 and 1933, gaining him wide exposure.




His photomontages satirizing Adolf Hitler and the Nazis employing subverted Nazi symbols, such as the swastika, in order to undermine their propaganda message. The term “Swastika” was originally the name for a hooked cross in Sanskrit, and swastikas have been found on artifacts, such as coins and pottery, from the ancient city of Troy.




With reference to the medieval torture instrument, the wheel, Heartfield skillfully adapted the swastika (often misused by the Nazis) to picture what was happening to the German people under the ‘guidance’ of Adolf Hitler and his cronies. Some might say that this image of suffering is somewhat generous to the German people, portraying them as the victims of Nazism but once Hitler had secured absolute power for himself and with no method of democratically – or governmentally – relieving him of his position (as was the case with Mussolini in Italy), then victims is exactly what they were.  Parenthetically, Putin is now removing all the references to Swastikas for upcoming commemoration of the victory over Germany in WWII.  Heartfield’s work was so graphic that it needed no translations.  “In his repeated uses of skulls, skeletons, swords and cannons, Heartfield can seem to belong to a peculiarly Germanic Visual tradition that starts with Dürer and Grunewald – a vein of realism so vehemently precise that it becomes macabre.” In addition, “except for Mussolini, many of the political figures pictured are obscure.” (source: The New York Times, May 3, 1991)

Mussolini was a detractor as well:

We have rejected the theory of the economic man, the Liberal theory, and we are, at the same time, emancipated from what we have heard said about work being a business. The economic man does not exist; the integral man, who is political, who is economic, who is religious, who is holy, who is combative, does exist. Fascism HAS BECOME formidable and needs only a Duce, a Fuehrer, an organizer, and a loosening of the purse strings of those who gain materially by its victory, to become the most powerful force threatening the Republic. (source: George Seldes; Sawdust Caesar, 1935)

This is what Heartfield strove against.




Once again, in 1938, Heartfield had to flee the Nazis in Czechoslovakia to England where he was interned as an enemy alien, and where his health deteriorated. He was released and allowed to remain, unlike his brother who had to flee to the United States. This led to scrutiny by the East German Secret Police (Stasi) upon his return to Berlin after the war, due to his length of time in England. He was unable to work as an artist and was denied health benefits. At the intervention of Bertolt Brecht, Heartfield was finally admitted to the Academy of the Arts in 1956. Although he subsequently produced some montages warning of the threat of nuclear war, he was never again as prolific as in his youth.


The Engineer Heartfield

The Engineer Heartfield, by George Grosz


On July 27, 1914 Mussolini wrote the decisive editorial of the time, under the startling headline, “Our Neutrality Must Be Absolute.”  It was more than an abrogation of Italy’s contract to fight with Germany and Austro-Hungary; it was a threat of revolution at home.  Again, the very issues Heartfield fought against.

Although the Tate Modern in London did a Heartfield retrospective in 2005, he remains a little known artist. Perhaps this Boulevardiers piece will help to put that right. Although a “blue plaque” commemorates Heartfield in London, something more substantive would be much appropriate for an artist of his stature.




Following his third wife Gertrud Heartfield’s death, Heartfield was buried in Berlin, and the East German Academy of the Arts took possession of all of Heartfield’s surviving works. When the West German Academy of the Arts absorbed the East German Academy, the Heartfield Archive was transferred with it.


More art, history, and personal ephemera can be found online at The Official John Heartfield Exhibition & Archive built and curated by John Heartfield’s grandson, John J. Heartfield. Note: updated information & images from the collection can be viewed here.


Previous post:

Next post: