Born Helmut Herzfeld on 19 June, 1891, he anglicized his name to John Heartfield to protest the growing anti-British sentiment and rampant German nationalism during the First World War. Heartfield was a pioneer in the use of art as a political weapon in the 1920's and 1930's particularly against the rise of Hitler and the Nazis.
Heartfield was a photomontage artist. Heartfield would create his photomontages by cutting and pasting parts from several photographs (either ones he took himself, commissioned, or found), and then re-photographed the result to produce a single seamless image.
Heartfield was declared unfit for duty during the First World War by feigning mental illness. In 1917 he founded Berlin Club Dada, which quickly became the most politically engaged Dada chapter in the movement. In 1918 Heartfield joined the German Communist Party. During the 1920's , Heartfield came to conclusion that the only art worth producing was to be of a political nature, and he destroyed all of his earlier work.
Together with fellow artist George Grosz, Heartfield founded the satirical magazine Die Pleite (The Bankrupt). Heartfield also produced images for the daily paper Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), and the weekly paper Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (AIZ, Worker's Illustrated Newspaper). AIZ was particularly supportive of Heartfield's work, publishing some 230 of his images, with more than half of them appearing on the front or back cover.
Heartfield's work was also reproduced on many dust jackets for books, including Upton Sinclair's The Millennium, and on the many political posters that plastered the streets of Berlin at the time. Heartfield also designed and built theatrical sets for Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht.
John Heartfield lived in Berlin until April 1933, when the Nazis took power. On Good Friday, the SS broke into his apartment, and Heartfield escaped by jumping from his balcony. He fled Germany by walking over the Sudeten Mountains into Czechoslovakia, where he continued making work denouncing the Nazis. In 1938, he was forced to flee the Nazis again, during the occupation of Czechoslovakia, this time taking refuge in London, England.
Following the war, Heartfield settled in East Berlin, East Germany. He was looking for his Communist paradise, but did not find it. Instead, the Stasi (East German Secret Police) treated Heartfield with suspicion, due to his lengthy stay in London and the fact that his dentist was being investigated for “collaboration.” Heartfield could not find work as an artist, was denied admission into the Academy of Arts, and was denied health benefits. Eventually, with the assistance of Bertolt Brecht and Stefan Heym, he was finally accepted into the East German art community. Heartfield produced some art warning of the threat of nuclear war, but he was never as prolific as he was during the 1920's and 1930's.
Some Notes on Dada and Anti-Art
Dada and anti-art are often thought to be the same thing, and while they are thickly entwined, they are really two different things. Dada was an art movement in the early 20th century, anti-art is an art process and product used and found in many different art movements, up to our present day post-modern art production.
Dada was born with the outbreak of the First World War. For many of the artists, particularly in Berlin, Dada was a protest against the war, and against the bourgeois, nationalist, and colonialist interests responsible for it. Dada was viewed as a revolt against cultural and intellectual conformity in art and society at large. `
While some artists interpreted Dada as a celebration of meaninglessness and nihilism (Duchamp and his anti-art), many, like John Heartfield, used Dada to promote political change. Dada does not mean an abandoning of all culture and aesthetics, only traditional culture and aesthetics. If traditional art and culture was meant to appeal to our sensibilities, Dada was intended to offend. But offensive art can be a useful tool to reshape our cultural landscape. Anti-art, however, rejects even usefulness.
Anti-art rejects everything and abandons all aesthetic considerations. Anti-art practitioners believe that bourgeois and capitalist “reason' and “logic” is the root cause of society's ills, and so they champion nihilist attitudes, embrace chaos, chance, and irrationality, destroying all culture and civilization in the process. Dada nihilist artist Tristan Tzara once said, “I am against systems; the most acceptable system is on principle to have none.”
Nihilism, at best, is a sign of resignation, apathy, or giving up. At worst it is a barbarian's approach, wantonly destroying all aesthetic and cultural view points in its path. I believe a lot things need to be dismantled and destroyed, but not everything. Nihilists are usually poor students of history. I believe there is much to be mined from the past, things that can guide us in terms of what we can reuse and reinterpret, but also things that we can avoid. Nihilists usually have tunnel vision as well, and fail to see that some things in our present culture are also worth saving. Instead of being selective and focusing on the small problems, individually, they would rather burn down the whole house and start from the beginning.
Dada has always been a love/hate affair for me, as so many of its practitioners were nihilist anti-artists, like Duchamp. I can not support the nihilist position nor can I support the production of anti-art. I do not believe that everything is meaningless. I have not lost my ideals and believe with hard work and cooperation, there is a small chance that we might just be able to make the world a better place.
John Heartfield was a Dada artist, but not an anti-artist. He believed in something and had ideals, something he thought so highly of that he risked his life defying Hitler for it. Marcel Duchamp the anti-artist did not. John Heartfield, while he may have abandoned traditional aesthetics, he did not abandon aesthetics completely. This is why Heartfield's art could so effectively carry his strong anti-Nazi message, why his work was deemed worth saving and not thrown away like a makeshift protest sign constructed out of poster-board and magic-marker, and why we are able to appreciate his work in museums today.