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A new exhibition of revolutionary artist John Heartfield's prints testifies to a lifetime of political commitment and the enduring resonance of his art for those seeking change, writes Katherine Connelly

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The Hand Has Five Fingers, John Heartfield, 1928

It’s something of a miracle that we can even see John Heartfield’s revolutionary art today. In the dead of night, on 14 April 1933, he was hastily packing up his artwork when he heard the Nazi SS breaking into his studio.

They had come to destroy the artist and his art. Heartfield was a prominent and powerful opponent of fascism. His artwork, which exposed the brutalities and mocked the pretensions of the Nazis, appeared on the front covers of the Worker’s Illustrated Journal (Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung). It was a popular publication, with a weekly print run of 500,000. 

Heartfield had no time to lose. He opened the windows, jumped off his balcony (spraining his ankle) and hid in a bin that, according to David King, ‘displayed some enamel signs, the sort that advertise motor oil, or soap, or an aperitif’. It’s an absurd image that recalls Heartfield’s own concern with juxtaposition.

The Nazis destroyed the art in the studio, but Heartfield, who hid inside that bin for seven hours, escaped. He made it to Czechoslovakia where he immediately commenced his onslaught on the Nazis. He was now number 5 on the Gestapo’s most-wanted list. 

War and revolution

John Heartfield developed his art and politics in response to the horror of the First World War. Born Helmut Herzfeld, he adopted the English-sounding ‘John Heartfield’ as a reaction to the xenophobia stirred up by the German ruling elite during the war. He also got out of serving in the army by feigning mental illness.

The intolerable experience of the First World War produced revolutionary conclusions. There were strikes, mutinies, and uprisings across Europe as working people realised that it was only by taking action against their own ruling class that they could stop the slaughter. 

Most spectacularly, in 1917 a revolution in Russia overthrew the arch-reactionary Tsar followed by a second revolution, this time led by communists, which dragged that country out of the war and began to construct a new kind of society.

Not long after, in January 1918, Heartfield joined the German Communist Party. He supported the communist Spartacist uprising in 1919 which was brutally crushed by the proto-fascist Freikorps who murdered leading revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Heartfield defended the communists through a powerful new visual medium born out of the brutality of war and capitalism. 

Art and War

Heartfield had witnessed the nations that prided themselves on being the most developed economies and civilisations in the world prosecuting a seemingly never-ending war over tiny stretches of crater-pocked mud. The short, glorious war, as it had been sold in 1914, was nothing like the reality. 

But how could that reality be conveyed? Millions of people never returned. Millions more returned maimed and mangled, traumatised, some unable to speak, others incoherent with shell shock. 

In the midst of the war, a group of radical artists created ‘Dada’. It was an assault on everything the establishment held sacred. They were subversive, deliberately shocking and irreverent, distorting words and images – a reflection and critique of the grotesque distortions of bourgeois society. 

Heartfield was among the first German adherents. He was in the forefront of a radical, artistic avant-garde, working alongside artists including George Grosz, producing stage sets for Bertolt Brecht's plays (he formed friendships with both men), and designing book covers for socialist authors - there's a cover for a novel by Upton Sinclair in the exhibition. Heartfield pioneered photomontage: cutting up photographs and pasting apparently unconnected images together to reveal a deeper reality. 

It was a revolutionary technique that still has the power to shock. The first image in the exhibition is Heartfield’s Ten Years Later: Fathers and Sons (1924) in which a military parade of young cadets is juxtaposed with the skeletons of those who had been conscripted to fight in the war ten years earlier. When this image was displayed, it drew huge crowds that were dispersed by the police.

In another photomontage, War and Corpses – the Last Hope of the Rich (1932), an attack dog, in the bourgeois trappings of top hat and légion d’honneur medal (doctored to read ‘for profit’ instead of ‘for honour’), bears its teeth over the corpses on a First World War battlefield.

Anti-fascism

In 1916, Rosa Luxemburg argued that bourgeois society would transform into ‘a great cemetery’ of barbarism if socialism did not triumph over it. Heartfield, who had lived through the First World War and then seen the Social Democratic-led German republic unleash fascistic paramilitary forces to murder Luxemburg, knew first-hand what the capitalist elites would resort to if their system was under threat. 

Appreciating the exceptional brutality of Nazism, he refused to treat it as an aberration or a national peculiarity. Instead, he understood that this was the solution favoured by a threatened ruling class. The Meaning of the Hitler Salute (1932), in which Hitler’s claim that ‘millions stand behind me’ is juxtaposed with Hitler receiving a backhander of millions in banknotes, starkly underlines the alliance between the industrialists and the Nazis. 

A member of the Communist Party, Heartfield's message generally adhered to the party-line propounded by Stalin, which in the early 1930s disastrously condemned the socialists as 'social fascists', thereby obstructing united action against the Nazis. The examples of Heartfield’s promotion of Stalin’s pronouncements are the weakest and least convincing of the art on display. The poster celebrating the enormous numbers of tractors manufactured in the Soviet Union as the realisation of 'Lenin's Dream' hardly does justice to the man who dedicated his life to working-class liberation.

The anti-fascist images for which Heartfield is rightly most famous, however, are hauntingly eloquent: the Hitler salute made of exhaust trails from bombing planes over ruined cities, the swastika made of blood-soaked axes, the medieval torture wheel transformed into a swastika crucifixion scene. 

When Nazi Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938, Heartfield had once more to hurriedly seek refuge. Arriving in Britain, where the government had pursued a policy of appeasement (that had, in fact, enabled the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia), he found it hard to find an audience for his uncompromising images.

When Britain declared war on Nazi Germany in September 1939, the well-known Picture Post published Heartfield's 'Hitler: Man Against Europe' on its front cover. Then, horrifically, the following year, Heartfield was interned as an 'enemy alien' and only released after his health broke down.

Initially forbidden from working, this was revoked in 1943 allowing him to produce covers for books on nature. He was nevertheless involved in the radical artistic exile community, having helped found the Free German League of Culture.

Lost and found

After the Second World War, the leading anti-fascist artist's application for residency was rejected by the British government.

Moving to East Germany, which was under Soviet control, he also found himself rather unwanted there. Some of his former comrades had fallen foul of Stalin's purges, while Heartfield's satirical montages hardly conformed to the simplistic, one-dimensional 'socialist realism' favoured by the Soviet state. Brecht's personal intervention on his behalf, however, ensured a modicum of security.

In 1967, a year before he died, Heartfield received an invitation to speak to the students at Liverpool School of Art and Design. He was planning a future retrospective in Britain when he died.  Heartfield's widow Gertrud later gifted 33 prints, to form a ready-made travelling exhibition, to the Liverpool School of Art and Design in memory of his time there and in appreciation of the students' enthusiastic reception.

These are the prints that Professor John Hyatt rediscovered and has brought to light again. The gallery has supplemented these prints with specially commissioned wall text and a beautiful accompanying booklet, which are historically informative and politically inspiring. The prints are displayed in the Four Corners gallery in the order they were intended, allowing an exciting insight into the way Heartfield's art related to the politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Heartfield was well aware that his images still resonated in the Cold War. On display are a number of prints, originally created to expose fascist atrocities, that Heartfield recaptioned to warn of the barbarism of nuclear war.

The enthusiasm of the Liverpool art students in 1967 foreshadowed an increasing and renewed interest in Heartfield's work. The exhibition highlights a number of radical artists who have looked to Heartfield for inspiration, from artists involved in the 1968 protests to Peter Kennard's attacks on Thatcherism in the 1980s. The curation ensures that this is not only a retrospective but a call to arms.

The exhibition tells the story of one man's war. It is a war that is yet to be won.

'Heartfield: One Man's War' is on at the Four Corners Gallery, 121 Roman Road, London E2 0QN from 1 November 2019 - 1 February 2020. It forms a part of the Insiders/Outsiders Festival which celebrates the contributions of refugees from Nazism to British culture. The exhibition is curated by Four Corners and John Hyatt, Director of The Institute of Art and Technology, Liverpool John Moores University.

Katherine Connelly

Katherine Connelly

Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.

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