Helmut Harzfeld born in 1891, changed his name in 1917 to John Heartfield . This proved to be a brave, defiant action for the German born artist. His name change occurred in period of fervent nationalism and anti British feeling as WW 1 raged and was a response to what he felt to be an anti- foreigner attitude throughout Germany. This was seen as a particularly unpatriotic thing to do (Vallen). This outspokenness and defiant attitude characterized his art. Heartfield was both a pacifist and Marxist. He joined the Communist Party in 1920 and was an ‘early and ferocious enemy of Hitler and the Nazi movement’ (Facing History) Heartfield’s work continuously satirized the ‘madman who seized control of his country’(Vallen). This outspokenness and prolific outpouring of his photomantges for the AIZ( workers’ magazine) ultimately made him a target of the Nazi Party who sought to silence him.
Heartfield used photomontage, a process where he used existing images, rearranged them, juxtaposing images and symbols to create powerful statements that warned about the rise of Hitler and showed the effects of the Nazi social policies on the ordinary citizen . Heartfield’s biting satirical images used ‘laughter as a devastating weapon’ to expose the violence of Hitler and his Nazi regime’. Heartfield satirized the ‘cult of the leader’ sending up his posture ,gestures and symbols’ to expose the absurdity of the Hitler’s regime.
Hitler attempted to silence Heartfield and his criticisms with an issue for his arrest in 1933. Heartfield escaped to Prague and settled there until Germany invaded Czechoslavakia in 1938. He then fled to Britain. Even the British were uncertain about supporting his art and for a while he was placed in an interment camp for “enemy aliens” (Paul Getty Museum)
His technique of photomontage was new and an effective way to respond to the political tension of the of Weimar republic. He said:
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…”
Bertolt Brecht, a famous German playwright said of Heartfield:
‘John Heartfield is one of the most important European artists. He works in a field that he created himself, the field of photomontage. Through this new form of art he exercises social criticism. Steadfastly on the side of the working class, the unmasked the forces of the Weimar Republic driving toward war; driven into exile he fought against Hitler. The works of this great artist, which mainly appeared in the workers’ press , are regarded as classics by many, including the author.
View more of Heartfield’s images below:
Part 1-3 of a documentary Zygosis about John Heartfield
Choose an image that you find arresting and analyze this. Share your thoughts and reactions on your blog.
Read more about Heartfield here:
Wikipedia article: John Heartfield