John Heartfield. Photography plus Dynamite Exhibition

Dec. 2, 2021 until April 24, 2022

About the exhibition

John Heartfield (1891–1968) was one of the twentieth century’s most innovative artists. His political photomontages became icons in the resistance to National Socialism. Even today they have lost none of their explosive power and they have served as a source of inspiration for scathing collages and memes. Heartfield used polarizing motifs assembled out of existing press photos, propaganda images, and staged photographs combined with ironic quotations and his own commentaries to denounce war, social injustice, and Nazism. His manipulated images reveal the truth behind the lies in unique ways.  

The exhibition shows many facets of John Heartfield’s art: from his political photomontages to his book and poster designs. The selected sheets demonstrate Heartfield’s complex artistic frame of reference, from Dada to Bertolt Brecht, as well as his fragmented biography ruptured by the political upheavals of the twentieth century. Juxtaposed with the historical documentation supplied by the exhibition Munich and National Socialism, the complexity and power of his work is particularly poignant. The exhibition includes Marcel Odenbach’s video installation Wer Leidet der Schneidet (2019), a complex homage to the artist John Heartfield and a reflection on the montage as a modernist art form.


December 2, 2021 to April 24, 2022

Social Media
#PhotoPlusDynamite | @nsdoku

Anke Hoffsten and Rosa von der Schulenburg

The exhibition was the result of a cooperation with the Berlin Academy of Arts, which houses Heartfield’s estate and has carried out extensive research on him. With the support of the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung it has been digitalized and posted

View of the exhibition

© The Heartfield Community of Heirs / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021, NS-Dokumentationszentrum München, photo: Connolly Weber Photography

© The Heartfield Community of Heirs / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021, NS-Dokumentationszentrum München, photo: Connolly Weber Photography

Marcel Odenbach, Wer leidet der schneidet (2019/20) | © Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Köln / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021, photo: Connolly Weber Photography

© The Heartfield Community of Heirs / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021, NS-Dokumentationszentrum München, photo: Connolly Weber Photography

John Heartfield: montage artist, communist, and pacifist

The political upheavals of the twentieth century caused major disruptions in John Heartfield’s life and work. He was repeatedly forced to adapt to new working conditions and different political and ideological systems.

John Heartfield was born Hellmuth Franz Joseph Stolzenberg in Schmargendorf, near Berlin, on June 19, 1891. His mother was a textiles worker; his father, a socialist writer who went by the name of Franz Held (b. Herzfeld), came from a bourgeois Jewish family. John Heartfield grew up under difficult circumstances and his childhood was marked by displacement and loss. 

In 1895 the family moved to Munich. His father was sent to prison for committing “blasphemy.” The family then moved to Switzerland. For reasons that are unclear, his parents abandoned their children in summer 1899. From then on, they grew up in different families in Austria and Germany.

In 1905 Heartfield began an apprenticeship as a bookseller in Wiesbaden and took painting and drawing lessons with Hermann Bouffier. He then studied at the Königliche Kunstgewerbeschule Munich. After completing his studies, Heartfield worked for the Gebrüder Bauer printers in Mannheim, producing advertising graphics. It was here that he designed his first book cover, for his father’s Selected Works

In 1914 Heartfield entered military service but was discharged a year later on account of a simulated nervous condition. The same year he met George Grosz in Berlin. This marked the beginning of an intense friendship between the two artists. In response to the inflammatory call to go war “May God punish England!” Hellmuth Herzfeld changed his name to John Heartfield.

In 1917 his brother Wieland Herzfelde founded the Malik publishing house in Berlin. Together with George Grosz, Heartfield designed Malik’s corporate image as well as magazines and book covers. A year later he joined the German Communist Party (KPD), for which he designed posters, leaflets, and agitation material as well as the emblem of the Roter Frontkämpferbund—a far-left paramilitary organization.

In addition, Heartfield became one of the main protagonists of the Berlin Dada movement and participated in the First International Dada Fair in Berlin in 1920. During the 1920s he produced a variety of works for theaters and exhibitions. In 1930 he joined the staff of the Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ) newspaper. After an SA raid on his apartment, Heartfield fled to Prague in 1933 and continued his work for the AIZ and Malik. His time in Prague was one of the most fruitful in his creative life, but in 1938, faced with the threat of a German invasion, he was forced to flee again. He ended up in England where he spent twelve difficult years. Initially he was interned in camps as an “enemy alien” and not allowed to work or to be politically active. In the 1940s he was able to earn a regular income as a book designer for Lindsay Drummond publishers. In 1950, he returned to Germany—to the newly founded GDR—relatively late. There he was initially regarded with suspicion as an immigrant from the West and was denied membership of both the SED (Socialist Unity Party) and the East German Academy of Arts. Only when the political and cultural climate in the GDR changed following the death of Stalin was Heartfield rehabilitated by the Central Party Control Committee of the SED and elected a full member of the German Academy of Arts. In 1957 Heartfield moved to Berlin and subsequently had many exhibitions in East Berlin, Warsaw, Prague, Budapest, Rome, West Berlin, Münster, Frankfurt am Main, and Stockholm. He died on April 26, 1968.

John Heartfield at work, arounf 1924 | © Akademie der Künste, Belin

Online program

Jan. 25, 2022 | The Art of Anti-Nazi Propaganda: Willi Münzenberg and the Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung

This talk with Kasper Braskén and Andrés Zervigón examined the pictorial goals of the politically radical Workers’ Illustrated Magazine (Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung), and the unique interpretation of Marx’s writing on which these objectives relied.  We also talked about its editor Willi Münzenberg and its most famous artist John Heartfield.

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Kosmos Heartfield


Kosmos Heartfield is a virtual exhibition put together by the Academy of Arts, Berlin, featuring photos, documents, and audiovisual testimony from the life and work of John Heartfield. The presentation also illustrates Heartfield’s artistic network, to which leading contemporaries such as Bertolt Brecht, George Grosz, Wieland Herzfelde, and Erwin Piscator belonged.

Go to Kosmos Heartfield