By 1949, John Heartfield was quickly running out of options. He had written letters and filed documents that made it clear he desperately wanted to remain in London for his health and his work. He wanted to be able to view material in the British Museum.
The allies recognized him as a famous and effective anti-fascist anti-Nazi artist activist during the war. His early images were a blow-by-blow warning of the rise of fascism in Germany, Italy, and Spain. The messages in his art were a roadmap for what was coming. They literally saved lives. During World War II, his Photomontages Of The Nazi Period
made him a target for Nazi assassination. Heartfield rose to number-five on the Gestapo’s Most-Wanted List.
However, once the war was over, countries that should have honored him denied him sanctuary. The Czech Refugee Fund denied his request to remain in England. They rejected all efforts on his behalf. It was an era when western politicians appeared to view those idealists who embraced communism in their youth as an even greater threat than Adolf Hitler’s Army.
Heartfield’s brother, Wieland Herzfelde, was doing well in Berlin. He wanted his brother to join him. He could arrange for Heartfield to return to Berlin through Czechoslovakia. Wieland assured John that East Germany would honor the courageous artist’s achievements.
By 1950, Heartfield had no choice. He couldn’t support himself with work as an artist and attempted to become a welding supervisor. West Germany barred him from the country where he was born. Heartfield had to return to East Germany. His creative mode of language was German. He knew the language and the culture of East Germany. Or so he thought. He trusted his brother. Powerful allies such as Bertolt Brecht and Stefan Heym would protect him.
However, Heartfield’s youthful support of utopian communism ran directly into the reality of East German persecution. Betrayal came from both the East German Akademie der Küste and the GDR (East German Government). He came under suspicion by the Stasi because of his requests to remain in England and the fact his dentist was under suspicion. The Stasi interrogated him. He refused to name names.
The GDR considered him a traitor to the state. He narrowly escaped a trial for treason.
From 1950 to 1956, the communist party denied him membership. The East German Akademie der Künste denied him membership. He didn’t receive proper healthcare when he suffered multiple heart attacks because of these actions. His ability to work as an artist was severely limited. Heartfield was finally admitted to the Akademie der Künste in 1956, six years after his arrival in East Germany, only because of the efforts of Bertolt Brecht and Stefan Heym.
It is the height of irony that the great majority of Heartfield’s surviving original art came into the possession of the East German Akademie der Künste according of a three page will he signed with Gertrud Heartfield days before his death in 1968. After the unification, Heartfield’s surviving art was absorbed into the Akademie der Künste of West Germany after the unification of East Germany and West Germany. West Germany had betrayed him. The East German persecution was worse. The result was East German ownership of Heartfield’s legacy. East German Akademie der Künste repression, and later, German Akademie der Künste policies regarding ownership of John Heartfield’s art kept his original work from major museums and public view for decades. These policies have effected not only Heartfield’s own recognition but also the recognition of powerful political artists everywhere. The Official John Heartfield Exhibition
is dedicated to change this massive injustice.
Find out more by visiting the John Heartfield Chronology individual year pages.
Professor John J Heartfield is John Heartfield’s paternal grandson. He gives live interactive presentations around the world that focus on his grandfather’s life and work and modern political art. Please write to him
to request his presence at your event or ask any question. He is always pleased to hear from exhibition visitors.