John Heartfield

John Heartfield: Hurrah, Die Butter Ist Alle! (1935)John Heartfield: 5 fingers make a hand! With these 5 grab the enemy! (1928)John Heartfield: Justice and the Executioner The Dada painters and poets aren’t exactly on the tip of people’s tongues these days. Styles and tastes change, and what seemed fresh and shocking in 1920 doesn’t have the same impact now that it did then. Hell, things done more recently than that don’t shock like they used to, either. Just ask Damien Hirst.

But as I was saying. John Heartfield (1891-1968) has faded into obscurity, known mostly to art history students, artists, and a handful of other people. It’s a shame, really, because Heartfield presaged some of the methods, and the esthetic, of Pop art, influenced his contemporaries, and helped–whether he either realized it, wanted it, or not–to usher in a breed of contemporary artists (Cindy Sherman comes to mind) who would mine the same vein that Heartfield did, but without his insight or mordant humor.

Heartfield was born Helmut Herzfelde, anglicizing his name as a gesture of solidarity with, and to protest the demonization of, the English during the First World War. He soon fell in with other expatriate artists who congregated in Zurich, including Georg Grosz. The period between wars saw him engaged as an illustrator and photomonteur, designing book covers (especially for his brother Wieland Herzfelde’s Malik Verlag publishing house) and magazine covers, the latter most memorably for the Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (AIZ). When Hitler came to power in 1933, he fled Germany for Czechoslovakia, fleeing there in turn for England when it became clear that country would be taken over. After the Second World War, he returned to the GDR, continuing to work both in print and in theater (the artist also had a long friendship with Bertolt Brecht).

Heartfield was nothing if not a skilled propagandist. Hurrah, Die Butter ist Alle! (Hooray, the Butter’s Gone!), for instance, picks apart Nazi propaganda techniques while being itself a masterful work of propaganda. He also produced pieces on the Reichstag fire, Hitler’s oratory, and the dictator’s financiers, as well as propaganda for the German Communist Party. If fault can be found in Heartfield’s works, it’s not so much in their construction, which was innovative, or in their subject matter, which was incendiary. It was, rather, in their timing. Like so many in Germany, and especially on the German left, Heartfield didn’t take Hitler nearly seriously enough. His bile, and his art, wouldn’t be focused on the Austrian corporal ’til it was too late to have much effect.

To find out more on Heartfield, probably the single best monograph I’ve read is John Willett’s Heartfield Versus Hitler, which is amply illustrated and provides intelligent commentary on the artist’s works and life. Mention can also be found in two anthologies of the Dada artists in general, Robert Motherwell’s seminal The Dada Painters and Poets, and the more recent Dada: Zurich, Berlin, Hanover, Cologne, New York, Paris, edited by Leah Dickermann, which is an exhaustive, well-balanced, and well-researched survey.

On the web, probably the single best place to find out more on Heartfield and his works is the Heartfield Archive on the Towson University website. The Wikipedia entry on the artist isn’t half bad either. Whether your interest is in the Weimar Republic, Dada, Pop Art, collage, or any number of other things, the artist and his work bear further exploration.

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