John Heartfield: satirist, anti-fascist and fearless communist
Monday, 20 August 2018 19:09

John Heartfield: satirist, anti-fascist and fearless communist

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell salutes John Heartfield, the creator of political photomontage, who died fifty years ago.

John Heartfield is one of the most important European artists. He works in a field which 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, he unmasked the forces of the Weimar Republic driving towards war; driven into exile he fought against Hitler. The works of this great satirist, which mainly appeared in the workers’ press, are regarded as classics by many, including the author of these lines. - Bertolt Brecht

John Heartfield died fifty years ago, on 26 April 1968. He is the founder of political photomontage and a fearless communist and activist, who lived through two world wars.

Helmut Herzfeld was born on 19 June 1891 in Berlin. His parents abandoned Herzfeld, his brother and two sisters, at a very young age, in 1899. The children lived with relatives after that. After finishing school in 1905, the brothers moved first to Wiesbaden, and from there to Munich, in 1909, where Heartfield studied art. Initially, he worked as a commercial artist and later continued his studies in Berlin. In protest against chauvinist war propaganda and the greeting “May God Punish England”, Herzfeld translated his surname into English, calling himself John Heartfield thenceforth.

Heartfield’s brother Wieland and he worked closely together throughout their lives. Together they published the magazine “Neue Jugend” in Berlin in 1917-18, where John Heartfield pioneered a new typography. They founded the Malik-Verlag publishing house in 1917. When the Communist Party of Germany was founded, at the end of December 1918, Heartfield joined immediately. He produced stage sets for proletarian theatres, posters for the Communist Party, and contributed artwork for magazines and pamphlets.

Over the following years, he began experimenting with new ways of working with photographs. These photomontages were used for the book covers of the Malik-Verlag and other progressive publishing houses. Heartfield also collaborated with other anti-fascist artists, such as George Grosz, especially in creating collages in the early post-war years.

JF Fathers and Sons 

Fathers and Sons, 1924

Photomontage became Heartfield’s specific artistic weapon. He made photomontages commenting on contemporary politics, starting with the famous image “Fathers and Sons” in 1924. After 1930, he contributed frequently to the weeklies “Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung” (AIZ) and “Volks-Illustrierte” (VI), often collaborating with Wieland in creating montages. Heartfield’s photomontages on the covers of the widely sold AIZ, appeared at newsstands across Germany. He used Rotogravure, engraving pictures, words and designs, into the printing plate, to design montages on posters, which were distributed in the streets of Berlin in 1932 and 1933.

The spirit of class struggle and in particular of the October Revolution imbues the book covers he created for the works of revolutionary German, American, and Soviet writers, for the collected editions of Tolstoy, Gorky, Ehrenburg and Sinclair. He responded directly to world events: the British general strike in 1926; the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927; the planned frame-up of the eight Scottsboro boys in Alabama, USA, in 1931.

JF This is the god that they bring 1938

This is the God they they bring, 1938

When fascism took over in Germany, the Nazis targeted him immediately. A dramatic flight brought him to Prague, where he resumed his work for the emigrated AIZ and the Malik-Verlag. An entire series of photomontages was dedicated to the trial of Dimitrov in 1933, later, in 1936-37, to the battles of the Spanish Republic and the International Brigades.

JF the meaning of the hitler salute

The meaning of the Hitler salute, 1932

In 1938, Hitler demanded the extradition of Heartfield and other anti-fascists. This demand was rejected by the Czechoslovak government. He fled to London shortly before the Nazis marched into Prague in December 1938, where he was initially interned as an enemy alien. Following his release, he received permission to stay in Britain, whilst Wieland did not and had to flee to the United States. In London, Heartfield co-founded the active “Free German League of Culture” and earned his living as typographer and designer for British publishing houses.

Returning from Britain in 1950, he settled in the German Democratic Republic, initially in Leipzig and then in Berlin. Despite serious heart trouble, he continued working, creating stage settings and theatre posters for the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, and for the Berliner Ensemble, as well as political posters for the state.

John Heartfield wrote the following passage for the catalogue of the last two exhibitions held during his lifetime:

Since we are living in the nuclear age a Third World War would mean a catastrophe for the whole of humanity, a catastrophe the full extent of which eludes our imagination. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, on 13 October 1937, I made a photomontage entitled Warning. A cinema audience was shown watching scenes of horror caused by a Japanese air raid on Manchuria in the Far East. The caption read: 'today you will see a film from other lands. But know that if you do not resist unitedly today, it will kill you tomorrow.’ The campaign of extermination against the Vietnamese people, fighting heroically for their existence, caused me to change the first line of the caption. Now it reads: '... You will see a film from far-off Vietnam.’

“Now the war has reached the Near East. A short while earlier the monarcho-fascist putsch in Greece smothered every democratic political movement. The fire is at the gates!

“Today the people of peace of all countries must work together even more closely, and mobilise all resources to strengthen and save world peace, since warlike rulers are rallying for war. The Civil War in Spain was the fascist manoeuvre field for the Second World War; in the same way today’s wars endanger world peace.

“With his famous painting ‘Guernica’ Picasso supported the heroic anti-fascist writers in Spain. He succeeded his compatriot Goya in the struggle against war. He also created the wonderful lithograph of the world-famous flying dove of peace. That the dove shall never again be impaled upon a bayonet (as shown in one of my photomontages), all advocates of peace, whatever their political opinions, must close the ranks in the fight to maintain peace.

My brother Wieland Herzfelde, my trusted helper and co-combatant against exploitation and war, wrote a poem entitled ‘The Soldiers of Peace’. It begins with these words:

We are the soldiers of peace.
No nation
And no race is our enemy

And it ends:
Peoples, may your children
All be saved from war.
Preventing war
Shall be your triumph.

And to work for this great triumph has been the aim of his and my artistic work since our earliest youth.” - Berlin, 9 June 1967.

JF If you want armament deals finance peace conferences

The Trouble with Monsters
Monday, 20 August 2018 19:09

The Trouble with Monsters

Published in Poetry

The Trouble with Monsters

by Chris Norris

Quick way with monsters: send a hero out
For mortal combat: sometimes he'll prevail
And kill the beast, while other times he'll fail
And it will be his death that ends the bout.

The point is, those old poets had it right,
Those Greeks, and Romans, and the guy (or guys)
Of Anglo-Saxon stock whose epic vies
With theirs as Beowulf goes forth to fight

First Grendel, then his mother, she whose sheer
Brute strength and monstrous bulk he hacks to death
But only to yield up his dying breath
In the last act of his renowned career.

cn beowulf

We have our modern monsters, but they tend
More often to emerge from some bad place
Within our home-domain, not some wild space
Beyond it where all codes and kinships end.

From every source these modern monsters spring:
From corporate culture, from the daily trade
In weapons of mass-murder, from the made-
To-measure ranks of lying hacks who bring

Our daily news, from the assorted fools
And rogues lined up for a safe Tory seat
Post-Oxbridge, or from teachers keen to beat
The kids just like in their old public schools.

CN bj 20145 Boris Johnson wins seat MP

But now we have new monsters of a kind
Unknown in earlier times because their lair
Is deep within a psychic space they share
With fifty million others of a mind

To have their worldview, politics, and sense
Of right and wrong conditioned daily by
The sorts of TV show that amplify
Bad vibes long quelled in reason's self-defence.

It's monstrous emanations such as these,
Rough beasts that slouch from all our TV screens,
Whose aspect takes us closest to those scenes
Of epic strife and somehow holds the keys

To all our deep-commingled dreads and fears,
As well as savage impulses that drive
The moguls and press-barons to connive
At each assault on decency's frontiers.

CN adolf hitler reichskanzler 1933

Our last real monster turned up nine decades
Back and did all the usual monster-stuff -
Killed millions out of some long-rankling huff,
Laid countries waste, recruited his brigades

Of street-thugs early on from folk bereft
Of money, life-hopes, pride, or self-respect,
And so, like Grendel, carried on unchecked
Till desperate remedies alone were left.

Now we've another monster on the loose,
One just as bad in many ways and worse
In some, since we've now further cause to curse
The advent of a president obtuse

And infantile enough to blow us all
To kingdom come if goaded by some stray
Remark, or say 'Just weather!’ come what may
Of hurricanes by way of wake-up call.

CN dt

We think 'if only', and routinely hold
Them in the highest honour, those who tried
But failed to stem the rising fascist tide
By monster-slaying, some of them extolled,

Like Bonhoeffer, as heroes with a claim
To sainthood while so many others, known
Or unknown to us, left their safety-zone
To venture on a last and lethal game.

Our current monster preys on all the ills
Of ignorance, stupidity, and greed
That fed his viewing-figures and his need
To see that every whim directly spills

Into the Twitter-sphere no matter if
It's sub-moronic, apt to spark a war,
Designed to show a hapless aide the door,
Or his last shot in some crass ‘fake news’ tiff.

Yet it's a case borne out by monsters down
From Roman times that they're no less a threat
To humankind for being apt to get
Their kicks in imbecilic ways, or clown

It up at just those times when all depends,
If not on their appearing wise or shrewd,
Then on their not indulging some wild mood-
Swing prone to make new enemies of old friends.

That Mark One monster might have been dispatched
At any time from nineteen-thirty-three
To forty-four, a fine thing – you'll agree –
Since who’d blame plotters for a game-plan hatched

To rid the world of one who, as things went
In brutal truth, survived to leave his mark,
As will this monster if left to embark
On half the crimes that seem his fixed intent?

That's why they got it right, those epic bards,
About what's best to do when monsters strike
And why perhaps, in special cases like
The present, it's the role of bodyguards,

Not some resurgent Beowulf, to show
The highest civic virtue and the sort
Of courage that inspired those long-ago
Folk-heroes to cut monster-stories short.

CN Karl Theodor von Piloty Murder of Caesar 1865