John Heartfield

         “USE PHOTOGRAPHY AS A WEAPON!,”1  John Heartfield exclaimed above his photomontage, Heartfield and Police Commissioner Zorgiebel (Cat. 22), displayed in AIZ depicting himself slicing the head of an elderly Social Democratic Party (SPD) police president with scissors in 1929.  Though the quote especially holds true to his later works such as this, it also becomes relevant to many of his works during and following World War I.  During this time, John Heartfield emerged as an artist of the Berlin Dada, and along with George Grosz, developed photomontage.  Photomontage is the integration of photographic elements not concerned with art history or academic paintings, but rather, with reconfiguring reality.  Heartfield took advantage of such a medium as the most effective vehicle to bridge the gulf between representation and revelation. In this manner, he was capable of shedding light on politics and the state of Germany post World War I. 

          The hatred Heartfield retained towards the war and the SPD stemmed from his short military stint as a volunteer for the medical corps in 1915.  After witnessing the violence and results of combat, Heartfield rebelled against his superiors and was thus sent home.3  Upon returning from war, he anglicized his name from Helmut Herzefeld to John Heartfield to challenge the German military slogan, “May God Punish England!”.  In the same year, he collaborated with his brother, Wieland Herzefeld, in creating the arts journal, “Neue Jugend,” to encourage popular opposition to the war.  He also commenced his close working relationship with George Grosz in the development of photomontages.4  In 1917, “Neue Jugend” disguised itself as the Prospectus for the Little Grosz Portfolio to avoid charges from the government for being anti-war (Cat. 23). Prospectus for the Little Grosz Portfolio, is an early example of Heartfield’s work but fails in being anything more than an advertisement for the portfolio.5  With rubber stamps and type blazoned across the frame, the image appears distracting, as type and photo are not working together cohesively.  It is not until Heartfield joins the Berlin Dada movement that his images become more refined to successfully convey his political propaganda. 

           In 1918, Heartfield joined the Berlin Dada and the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).  That same year, World War I concludes and Germany is left in turmoil as the SPD continues to rule.  Upset with how the SPD was handling the state of post-war Germany, Heartfield targeted SPD officials as subjects for his photomontages. He wanted to reveal the ugly truth of these men hidden behind their well-tailored suits, to show society who they really were.  Heartfield’s  Jedermann Eigner Fussball, or Everyman his Own Football (Cat. 24), presents this message.  As his first coherent employment of photomontage, the use of graphic design proved to be crucial in capturing the attention of the viewer and elliciting a reaction to the message portrayed.6  The photomontage presents Wieland spliced into a soccerball, while tilting his hat and saying “Everyman his own football”--a sarcastic version of “a chicken in every pot,” to comment on the members of the ruling Ebert-Scheidemann group, whose busts are pasted onto the open fan.7  The image was well received by the lower-middle and working class of north and east Berlin, as it entered the Berlin language as an expression of contempt for authority and humbug.  As Wieland stated, it was the first time “photography was used consciously in the service of political agitation,”8 as the idea of appropriating images to create new juxtapositions became well suited towards sociopolitical critique.9


            Heartfield, along with other Dadaists such as Grosz, continued on this political rant to expose the SPD.  In 1919, the Dadaists teamed up with Schall und Rauch Cabaret (Sound and Smoke), since the cabaret, like the Dadaists, satirized politics and sought to expose Friedrich Ebert, the SPD ruler.10  The puppet play, Simply Classical! (Cat. 25), designed by Grosz and executed by Heartfield, combined high quality cabaret with Dada to generate the greatest publicity to expose the Communist party goal of taking down the SPD.11  In the year to follow, the Dada message became more prominent through “Der Dada” (Cat. 26, Cat. 27), a periodical like “Neue Jugend,” which contained art against the war and SPD.  Additionally, the First International Dada Fair’s poster containing Heartfield’s Life and Activity in the Universal City at 12:05 in the Afternoon (Cat. 28), brought Dada art to the forefront as a means of representing Germany’s turbulent state post-war.12  Both images reflect Heartfield’s mastery of photomontage design, as text and image come together to create a new whole.13     

         Though the Dada movement dissolved in 1923, Heartfield continued to create political propaganda well through the Second World War, with Hitler as his main subject.  Heartfield sought to condemn Hitler with the upcoming national elections, as Adolf, the Superman,   Swallows Gold and Spouts Junk (Cat. 29), became the leftists political poster to bring light to Hitler’s contradictory ways.  A chest x-ray is overlaid on Hitler’s torso, exposing gold coins pouring from his mouth into his stomach, to comment on the contradictions between Hitler’s financial support and workingman rhetoric.14  By his use of a bizarre interplay of elements, presented in a graphic format and incorporating slogans, Heartfield succeeded in psychological shock value as well as esthetic impact.15  With his military experience serving as the basis for his hatred of war and the SPD, John Heartfield, with the assistance of the Dada, was able to perfect his photomontages to transmit his message to society.

1 John Willet,  John Heartfield vs. Hitler,  Paris:  Éditions Hazan, 1997, 50.
2 Helen A. Harrison, "Photomontage Explored," New York Times (1923-Current File), Nov 27, 1988,; (accessed October 23, 2012).
3 Douglas Kahn, John Heartfield: Art and Mass Media, New York: Tanam Press, 1985, 21.
4 Kahn, John Heartfield, 25, 21.
5 Ibid., 29.
6 Ibid, 32.
7 Kahn, John Heartfield, 32.
8 Ibid., 32.
9 Harrison, “Photomontage Explored.”
10 Mel Gordon,  “Dada Berlin:  A History of Performance (1918-1920),”  The Drama Review:  TDR vol. 18, no. 2, (1974):  122, Accessed October 22, 2012.
11 Gordon, “Dada Berlin,” 121.
12 "Agitated Images (Getty Center Exhibitions)," The Getty. (accessed October 22, 2012).