John Heartfield: One Man’s War

John Heartfield: One Man’s War

Exhibition at Four Corners, London, November 1, 2019 – February 1, 2020

Gracia Ramirez
John Heartfield; Britain; Weimar Germany; photomontage; political art; refugees.

Little is known about the relationship between the famous German Dadaist and leftist political photomonteur John Heartfield (born Helmut Herzfeld in Berlin in 1891) and Great Britain. He fled Germany for Czechoslovakia in 1933; five years later, he was on the move again, this time to Britain, where he spent twelve years before settling in East Berlin in 1950, after having been refused permanent residency in the UK. He would go back to Britain in the late 1960s, touring with an exhibition of his work and invited as a guest lecturer in art colleges. The show at Four Corners gallery in London1 aims to shed light on this history by presenting Heartfield’s work as part of the nationwide festival Insiders / Outsiders, which celebrates the art of refugees from Nazi Europe and their contributions to British culture.

Most of the materials at the Four Corners’ exhibition come from a portfolio of prints donated by Heartfield’s wife, Gertrud, to Liverpool College of Art in 1972 as a gesture of gratitude after he had been invited to give a lecture there shortly before his death in 1968. Presumably, the selection and order of images that we now see result from Gertrud’s collaboration with the Akademie der Künste der DDR, which at that time was establishing the John Heartfield Archiv in East Berlin.

Divided in two rooms, the prints hang from the walls while diverse materials on two tables explore the relationship between Heartfield and Britain. The trajectory starts chronologically with what is supposedly Heartfield’s first political photomontage. A row of giant skeletons watches over a sinister army of kids dressed in military uniform and wearing the Pickelhaube, the pointed helmet of the Prussian army. The text Nach zehn Jahren: Väter und Söhne / Ten Years Later: Father and Sons (1924) occupies the bottom left corner, underscoring the deadly drive toward militarism that carries through German generations. Produced ten years after the start of World War One, when Heartfield was art director at his brother Wieland Herzfelde’s publishing house Malik Verlag, the striking image was installed at Malik’s Bookshop window surrounded by war memorabilia, making this a powerful anti-military statement with its subversion of patriotism and glorification of what was at that time the last war.

Douglas Kahn (1985) notes that Heartfield’s political photomontages are deeply embedded within his time’s mass media processes. Their rich synthesis of photography, mass print journalism, avant-garde art and communist political communication could only be understood if one had access to and knew how to read mass media in the 1920s. At that time, print expanded significantly into illustrated newspapers and magazines, which presented hybrid texts and images and invited readers to scrutinise them in a search for meaning. Heartfield applied his training as a commercial artist to undermine the conventional forms of capitalist media and awaken critical consciousness. He used a plethora of explicit references to newspapers headlines, statistics and popular idioms that the exhibition’s wall labels help to decipher. Thus, present-day audiences can understand the specificity of the moment that Heartfield was responding to and engage with his rich plays on meaning. This movement draws us to inhabit a double position in relation to historical time and experience. One position is placed in the minutely detailed development of events that shook Germany and Europe from the mid-1920s through the 1930s. The other position, more detached but also complex, is set in 2020 and involves the gallery spectator in a search for historical insight and contemporary relevance.

Several works display Heartfield’s communicative ingenuity as he simultaneously draws on simplicity and multiplicity. 5 Finger hat die Hand / The Hand Has 5 Fingers (1928) is a cropped image of an open hand facing the viewer. It was originally produced for the cover of the Communist Party newspaper Die rote Fahne /Red Flag to impel readers to vote in the federal elections for list 5, that of the German Communist Party to which Heartfield belonged. The cropped image of the disembodied hand is rich in ideological symbolism: work, struggle, and political participation. The five fingers are a key reminder for voting list 5. Words and images create mutually reinforcing meanings to deliver an effective message.

Following a similar deceptively simple pattern, Ob schwarz ob weiss – im Kampf vereint! / Black or White – United in the Fight! (1931) shows both black and white muscular arms raised with clenched fists over a white background. Emphasising equality and strength, this is an early invocation of inter-racial worker solidarity that went on to cover an issue of Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (AIZ) committed to reporting on anti-colonialist and anti-racists struggles in Africa and the U.S.

From this period, we can also see the cover art of one of Malik’s popular publications: Upton Sinclair’s Mountain City (1930), a novel denouncing capitalist greed translated as So macht man Dollars / How to Make Dollars (1931). For this, Heartfield’s mordant vision made bankers with top hats appear as if climbing up the vertical stripes of a large golden dollar sign. On the book’s back cover, we see investors, traders and bankers in a maze of bodies, a bunch of fanatics wanting to get closer in order to worship the golden calf inside a dollar bill.

Heartfield acerbically exposed the real intentions of the National Socialist Party in 6 Millionen Naziwähler: Futter für ein großes Maul / 6 Million Nazi Voters: Fodder for a Big Mouth (1930). A shark wearing a top hat stamped with a swastika eats small fish, thus denouncing the synthesises of capitalism and Nazism, and warning workers of feeding the Leviathan against their class interests. A related denunciation of big lies and real reasons appears in Kleiner Mann bittet um grosse Gaben / Little Man Requests Big Donation (1932), which exposes the capitalists behind the rise of the Nazis. The image appeared in AIZ in October 1932, one month before German industrialists and financiers wrote to President Hindenburg asking him to appoint Hitler as Chancellor, a position he eventually occupied in January 1933.

Several other prints deal with one of Heartfield’s gravest concerns, the economic interests behind wars. A vicious hyena with a top hat and iron cross bares its teeth as it advances over a heap of bodies in Krieg und Leichen / War and Corpses (1932). In Alles in schönster Ordnung! / Everything is in Perfect Order (1933), British PM Chamberlain leans against a collapsing column while casually chatting to another politician over a background of rubble and destruction, an image that communicates outrage at the attitude held at the London’s 1932 World Economic Conference.

Importantly, this exhibition looks at the reception of Heartfield in Britain. This can be found in two tables at the centre of each room. The first one details his years in London and environs through his involvement with the Free German League of Culture, a group based in Hampstead promoting solidarity with German-speaking refugees. The League put on political cabarets when these were uncommon in London’s arts scene. Some interesting materials document Heartfield’s participation in the revue 4&20 Black Sheep, performed in 1939. For this, he designed the flyers, wrote a text and devised a stage set based on his well-known photomontage of a German family eating munition at the dinner table, Hurrah, die Butter ist alle! / Hurrah, the Butter is Finished! (1935).

Heartfield’s images appeared in two important British publications founded by the Hungarian émigré Stefan Lourant: the small format Lilliput and the influential Picture Post, an illustrated magazine with a clear anti-fascist, anti-Nazi and pro-social democracy stance. The latter printed a non-credited photomontage of winged elephants flying above the ground, a sceptical statement on the Munich Agreements published in October 1938. In September 1939 it also printed a cover where Hitler, wearing the Kaiser’s uniform, became an emblem of stern imperial ambition hovering above the map of Europe. Heartfield’s contributions to Lourant’s clandestine pamphlets Inside Nazi Germany during the war are also on display, along with examples of his work as a book cover artist, mostly for nature and science books. These later jobs, where he gracefully integrated text and image, demonstrate how the skills developed at Malik Verlag gave him a more stable source of income in Britain years after the war until his return to Germany in 1950. It is significant, nevertheless, that Heartfield’s return was motivated by the British authorities rejecting his appeal to stay, which is not openly stated in the narrative of the exhibition nor in the accompanying booklet. The episode evidences the complex political realignments of the early Cold War and acknowledges it could have brought more light into the not so straightforward life of Communist refugees in Britain after the war.

The last part of the exhibition provides insight into how Heartfield saw his works not as finished art objects, but changeable pieces set out to comment and raise awareness about different political moments. In Niemals wieder! / Never Again! (1960), the pacifist motif of a dove impaled by a bayonet appears over a black background, making the exclamative slogan acquire universal resonance. Nevertheless, he had created the dove motif in 1932 in response to the death of fifteen anti-fascist demonstrators by machine gun fire in Geneva. Back then, the dove appeared over the background of the League of Nations building. This reuse of templates, similar to what we see today in meme’s ‘image macros’ evidence that Heartfield’s approach to political photomontage is relevant for understanding current political satire and criticism in memes and ‘remix’ culture. The richness of montage, then and now, lies in that the tensions it creates work not only internally, within the composite text, but also externally with reference to the forms of cultural production it engages with. Nevertheless, assessing the cultural and political significance of these forms of political commentary requires, both now and then, understanding the character of the networks of communication in which they are embedded.

Britain rediscovered Heartfield at the end of the 1960s, a time of political, cultural, and social activism. His work spoke to a younger generation with its own concerns on class, gender, race, and nuclear armament. His approach also coalesced in various ways with the interests and techniques of Situationism and pop art. Four Corners, which holds the archive of the arts and photography magazine Camerawork, presents here Heartfield’s legacy through some of the artists associated with the magazine. Peter Dunn and Lorraine Leeson were concerned with equality and the public, which in The Changing Picture of the Docklands (1982-86) are called attention to with stacks of coins making up the luxury skyscrapers that will populate the redeveloped area at expense of public housing. In Passing the Buck (1979) hospitals made of pills are the result of big pharma money passing hands. Both images resonate strongly with Heartfield’s adjacent image of a church made of munition and topped by dollar, pound and swastika signs.

Heartfield’s Spitzenprodukte des Kapitalismus / Top Products of Capitalism (1932), compares the price of a bourgeois wedding dress with the number of unemployed during the Depression years. This was cleverly reinterpreted by Jo Spence to make a feminist statement about unpaid domestic labour in The Highest Product of Capitalism (After John Heartfield) in 1979. Crowning the display is Peter Kennard’s wonderful composite Maggie Regina (1983), where British PM Margaret Thatcher sits regally as Queen Victoria on the cover of The New Statesman. Overall, this is a compact yet rich presentation which not only whets the appetite for the larger exhibition that will take place in Berlin and will travel across different countries through 2020, it also points to the important mark left by Heartfield among other European refugees in British arts and culture.

The exhibition was also accompanied by a series of talks which opened themes such as his journey from commercial artist to political photomonteur or the relevance of his approach to mass circulation of images to understand today’s meme culture. This show made evident the visual poetry and eloquence of Heartfield’s photomontage, powerful features capable of all sorts of emotional and political elevations, discoveries and challenges. Looking at these in 2020, when humanitarian, political and ecological crises sweep across an increasingly fractured and uncertain world, Heartfield’s (1969: 21) 1968 statement about his work being “unfortunately still timely” unfortunately still applies.

Gracia Ramírez
University of the Arts London


Gracia Ramirez is an independent scholar who also lectures on media and culture at London College of Communication, University of Arts London. Her research on film and visual arts focuses on the historical intersection between politics and aesthetics, with a particular focus on experimental, independent and documentary film practice. She also writes art criticism and keeps a creative practice.


Heartfield, John. 1969. “For the Swedish Catalogue.” In John Heartfield Photomontages 1891-1968, edited by Johanna Drew, 61. London.
Kahn, Douglas. 1985. John Heartfield: Art and Mass Media. New York.

Suggested Citation

Ramirez, Gracia. 2020. Review: “John Heartfield: One Man’s War”. Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 10. DOI:


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