John Heartfield was a pioneer of photomontage, the technique of cutting up photographs and combining different elements to make a new image. The term incorporates ‘monteur’, German for mechanic, giving it a deliberately modern and industrial sound, far removed from the artiness of the painter’s studio. Heartfield used news photographs as well as images taken specially for his work.
During the First World War, he changed his name from Helmut Herzfeld to the English-sounding John Heartfield as a protest against rampant wartime nationalism. From 1920, when he joined the German Communist Party, Heartfield’s work was focused on mocking the hypocrisy and cruelty of far-right politics. His most powerful work was made for the Communist weekly AIZ (Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung, Workers’ Illustrated Newspaper). Although he showed his original photomontages in exhibitions, he always included copies of the mass reproduced magazine to show how his work addressed a wide public.
Between 1930 and 1938 Heartfield contributed 237 photomontages to AIZ. The Nazis rapidly became his main target as he made ‘laughter a devastating weapon’ to expose their violence and fanaticism. His attacks became more urgent when Hitler became Chancellor in early 1933 and imposed anti-Communist censorship. Heartfield escaped to Prague where AIZ (and its successor Die Volks-Illustrierte, ‘People’s Illustrated’) continued publication until 1938. His cut-and-paste visual language remains fresh and immediate today, just as his challenge to Nazi propaganda still seems powerful and courageous.
Curated by Matthew Gale.