There is a very good digital exhibition currently available online: John Heartfield – Fotografie Plus Dynamit. In Germany Heartfield is well-known for his satirical photomontages from the 1930s mocking Hitler and the Nazis. The virtual exhibition provides the opportunity to learn more about the person behind these photomontages and his further work.
The virtual exhibition is made up of:
- Scrollytelling article about John Heartfield’s life
- 360° view of the exhibition in the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, where the displayed media are linked to the digital catalog
- Digital catalog Heartfield Online of John Heartfield’s work
- Video tours through the exhibition (in German only)
I recommend to read the scrollytelling article in full to learn about John Heartfield as a person and then browse the other formats for interesting works. In the following article I summarize the main points I learned from this exhibition.
John Heartfield’s original name was Helmut Herzfeld. He was a German communist and dadaist. When the Nazis seized power in 1933 he fled into exile to Prague in the Czech Republic and later London in the U.K. After the war he returned into the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany). Even though he took a very clear stand against the Nazis, he was met with scepticism both in the U.K. and the GDR. Heartfield thus never again reached the creativity and productivity of his work of the 1920s–1930s.
The main stations of his life are:
- 1891: John Heartfield (originally Helmut Herzfeld) is born as the son of the socialist writer Franz Herzfeld and the textile worker and political activist Alice Herzfeld.
- 1899: His parents disappear under unexplained circumstances. The children grow up with an uncle.
- 1905: Heartfield begins an apprenticeship as a book dealer in Wiesbaden.
- 1909-1911: He studies applied art at the Kunstgewerbeschule München.
- 1912: Heartfield works as a graphic designer in advertising.
- 1914: At the beginning of the First World War he is drafted into the army. He attains his dismissal by simulating a nervous disease.
- 1916: He changes his name from Helmut Herzfeld to John Heartfield to protest against German nationalism and anti-British sentiments.
- 1917: Together with his brother Wieland Herzfelde, he founds the Malik publishing house. In the following years, Heartfield designs book covers with photomontages with increasing acclaim.
- 1918: Heartfield joins the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) on it’s founding day.
- 1920: Together with George Grosz and Raoul Hausmann he organizes the First International Dada congress in Berlin.
- 1924: Heartfield’s first political photomontage appears which criticizes Paul von Hindenburg (see below).
- 1930: He becomes a regular contributor to the socialist magazine Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung. His political photomontages mocking Hitler and the Nazis appear in the magazine.
- 1933: After the Nazis seize power, SS men storm Heartfield’s apartment. He escapes and flees to Prague in the Czech Republic. He continues to create political photomontages for magazines and exhibitions.
- 1938: The Nazis occupy the Czech Republic. Heartfield flees to London in the U.K. He continues to design book covers and political photmontages.
- 1950: Heartfield returns into the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany). The East German government denies him membership to the Socialist Unity Party (SED) and the Academy of Arts (Akademie der Künste) due to his stay in England and his contacts. His work is criticized as formalistic. To make a living Heartfield designs theater scenery.
- 1956: Due to the intervention of Berthold Brecht and Stefan Heym, John Heartfield is admitted to the Academy of Arts
- 1968: John Heartfield dies in East Berlin.
As already mentioned, John Heartfield is well-known in Germany for his political photomontages His earliest work of this genre is the one below from 1924, criticizing Paul von Hindenburg.
John Heartfield’s photomontages mocking Hitler and the Nazis are widely known. The picture below shows several examples.
A further important part of his work is the political propaganda he created for the communist party. Below some examples:
The works shown above are interesting as historical documents from the 1920s–40s. From a pure graphic design perspective however, I find some of his apolitical works more interesting. John Heartfield designed some very good book covers with photomontages in the new typography style. Here a few outstanding examples:
John Heartfield’s graphic designs are part of the new typography movement and share many commonalities with Bauhaus typography. Recurring stylistic elements in his graphic designs are:
- Photomontage of black and white photography. Often the pasted objects are fully integrated with each other to form a new motive, not just juxtaposed or used as a background. He preferred using cutouts instead of full rectangular photographs. The color of these photographs seems somewhat dark from today’s perspective.
- Use of symbols and objects with symbolic meanings
- Sparse use of a single highlight color, in the majority of cases red
- Often large areas of whitespace
- A preference for diagonal ascending lines
One main takeaway from this exhibition for me is also the discrepancy between an artist’s publicly known artworks and his full body of work. Heartfield is known today for a dozen of political photomontages. But during his lifetime he also produced thousands of book covers, magazine covers, and posters. But without these thousands of artworks those few that are interesting to today’s audience would never have come into existence.
Further used sources: