Of the Berlin group, John Heartfield remains the best known and revered as a result of his single-minded devotion to anti-Nazi political activism. However, his early montages were collaborative efforts that resemble the work of all the other Dadaists. He and George Grosz experimented with cut-up pieces of newspaper and photos of their fellow artists, and produced many of the early designs for Dada posters and manifestos.
He had never been afraid to express his views, even to the point of anglicising his German name in response to the horrors of the First World War. Heartfield and his brother Wieland Herzfelde founded a publishing house Malik-Verlag, which provided an outlet for his highly provocative propaganda. Much of Heartfield’s best work was for the front cover of the newspaper AIZ (Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung) which continued to publish in Germany until 1933, when artist and newspaper moved to Prague to escape Nazi persecution.
Whereas all the other Dada exponents of montages produced art, for Heartfield the message was always primary, and most of his output has the appearance of newspaper photographs. He avidly collected thousands of photos of all the leading political figures of the age, and conveyed his messages with the minimum of artistry, but with great technical precision. In many ways he acted more as an originator of ideas, and as film director, since he employed professional photographers to carry out his detailed darkroom instructions.
For Heartfield the definition of “photomontage” was wider than for most, insisting that it should include the single photo with caption, since text and image interacted with each other in a similar way to multiple images. Heartfield’s use of captions was, and perhaps still is, unsurpassed. Many of his best works utilise famous quotes of leading Nazis, and subtly undermine the intended message by quite ingenious visual puns. So, when Hitler said, “millions stand behind me”, he was boasting of his popular support, whilst Heartfield used this to reveal the fact that the Nazis were being bankrolled by leading German industrialists.