John Heartfield (1891–1968) was a German-born political artist and illustrator best known for his surrealist, anti-fascist photomontages. During the 1920s and ’30s, Heartfield created—at great personal risk—dozens of instantly classic collages, many of which appeared in the popular German leftist weekly AIZ (Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung, or Workers’ Illustrated Magazine). His work ridiculed everyone from Hermann Göring to Adolf Hitler, as well as the financial and societal backers who supported their agenda. (At one point, Heartfield was number five on the Gestapo’s most-wanted list.)
Called “the greatest political artist and graphic designer of the 20th century” by the late British art collector, historian, and graphic designer David King, Heartfield’s photomontages were not just reactions to fascism, but warnings—“road maps,” says his grandson, John J. Heartfield. “My grandfather understood that one of the strongest tools of fascism was propaganda, the unchallenged ability to distribute nonsense in the media to discredit facts.” (The younger Heartfield built and maintains an online exhibition devoted to the work of his grandfather.)
For our November issue, Topic joined forces with artist Michael Tunk (the artist behind this story’s lead image, which he titled “Well Done”) and asked 11 other contemporary creators to submit political collages commenting on the current political climate in the United States. Though some used Heartfield’s works as direct inspiration for their own pieces, all were influenced by his flair for marrying the tragic, comic, and bracingly uncomfortable.
“Commander & Thief”
World War I-era newspaper, vintage books, and glue
The Bay Area-based Adams says her piece takes inspiration from John Heartfield’s collage Kaiser Hitler and is partially built around the idea of little boys playing cowboys-and-Indians. “[Trump] may have the title of ‘president,’ but he is just a child playing dress-up,” she says.
“Make America Great Again”Vintage books, foamcore, and archival dry glue
Kroll decided to base her piece on Heartfield’s famous Blood and Iron photomontage, in which the artist depicted four axes dripping with blood, crossed in the shape of a swastika. Her contemporary update, she says, is “inspired by neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and other white supremacists marching with impunity, wielding guns, and shouting racist slurs through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia ... Our current administration has opened the door to the normalization of these far-right groups and has increased the divisiveness in this country to levels we have not seen in decades.”
Vintage books, magazines, ephemera, and glue
“This piece uses a theme often depicted by Heartfield: the invisible forces at work behind the scenes in the rise of a dictator,” explains Madden, whose submission specifically alludes to an alleged incident in a hotel room in Moscow, during which the Russian secret service claims to have collected compromising video of Trump. “Humor was used by Heartfield a tool for ridicule ... [this] piece not only mocks Trump for his poor judgment, misogyny, and general low intelligence—all conveyed with one of his now all-too-familiar grimaces—it also lampoons the Russians,” says Madden, who incorporated a piece of anti-Soviet, Cold War-era ephemera into the work. “Along with the archaic 1980s computer, there is a nod to our ongoing, patronizing, and inaccurate perception of a pervasive obsolescence in eastern Europe. In the end, though, it appears the joke is on us.”
“Rotten Peach”Laser print and spray adhesive
Brooklyn-based Jilly Ballistic went so far as to wheat-paste a nearly three-foot-wide version of her collage in a highly trafficked area of Manhattan: the 1/2/3 subway platform in New York’s Pennsylvania Station, which she chose because of its narrative relationship to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. “‘Rotten Peach,’” she explains, is a “humorous yet sad reflection of the continual decay of our leadership, government, and civil rights. A peach was chosen as a play on ‘impeachment’—but, also, this very easily bruised fruit represents a man whose ego is easily offended.”