The Art of War

Twelve collage artists respond to an American state of emergency, with inspiration from master political artist John Heartfield.

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.

Try our new streaming service for free.
No algorithms. Just the best television + film hand-picked from around the globe.


“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.” 


“Johnny Got His Garter.” LIFE magazine images and glue sticks

Known by the alias Human Wreckage, this artist says that he attempted to address the currently bleak political climate by mirroring “the absurdity of our state, much like John Heartfield did in the 1930s.” He continues, “The artist has a responsibility to question control. We, as thinkers and artists, cannot remain silent or compliant while the very ideal we seek, Freedom, is being imprisoned, degraded, and corrupted.”



“The Butterfly Effect of Tiny Hands Conjuring” Collage and flashe on watercolor paper

Weston says that he took visual cues for his piece from Heartfield's book-jacket photomontage for Kurt Tucholsky's 1929 book Deutschland, Deutschland über alles. “I attempted to convey what is inherently terrifying and ridiculous about 45 and his young presidency,” he explains. “Cultural activism might only go so far, but we can look to Heartfield as a prompt to create work that continues to expose this administration's compassion deficit and the damages it continues to inflict.”



“War Machine” Vintage books and magazines, glue, and adhesive tape roller

Tunk, whose previous work for Topic includes the hilarious “Baby Boy Trump's First 100 Days: A Scrapbook,” says that his piece, inspired by Heartfield’s Everywhere in the country where Death passes, he harvests hunger, war, and fire, depicts “death overflowing with bombs, rockets, and missiles, while drowning in a sea of the American flag ... to represent America not learning from the past, and just going forward to Armageddon.” Depressing, yes; but as Tunk points out, the United States has only been at peace for 21 years total since its birth. “We have become a nation that supports and creates war on a global scale, with our hand in almost every war since WWII,” says the artist.



“Kompromat” 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.”


“It Moves Around Me” Source images and glue

Young took inspiration from Heartfield’s photomontage An Insane Ape on Top of the World. Yet It Moves!, which depicts Hitler as an ape squatting on a spinning globe, sword in hand. “My piece depicts President Trump as Donald McRonald, an oafish man-clown who juggles missiles while dancing atop a globe, devastation whirling around his feet in the form of a hurricane of his own making,” says Young. “A halo of gold stars circles his head, calling to mind the religious fanaticism of his supporters as well as the stars on the American flag.”



“Some Very Fine People” Digital

The creative process around the piece yielded a few surprises, says Goodman, including her use of some of the same kinds of imagery that Heartfield used in his work. “When I set out to make a collage expressing my feelings about the current political climate, I had no idea just how relevant Heartfield’s work would be,” she says. “KKK marchers are back, and Trump thinks they are some ‘very fine people.’ Our Capitol is starting to resemble a pointed hood. Our leader is more evil, greedy, and graceless than I could have imagined possible in this day and age.”



“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.”


“Humanity Hanging on a Cross of Iron” Vintage books and magazines, glue

Smith is perhaps the most legendary of 20th- and 21st-century American collage artists, and for good reason: his work has adorned the covers of magazines such as the New Yorker, as well as albums for artists such as Green Day and George Carlin. For this collaboration, Smith took inspiration from one of his own most famous pieces, the 1981 album cover of the Dead Kennedys’ In God We Trust, Inc. “This image serves to remind us that humanity is being crucified daily throughout the world—at fast-food joints in Southern California, at children’s schools, at office buildings, in shopping-center parking lots, at suburban cinemas near Denver, at rock shows in Paris, at country-music festivals in Las Vegas, and on, and on, and on. There is no end to it,” says Smith. “The ‘American dream’ does not include wreaking violence with weapons of mass destruction upon our neighbors. It is only those who are asleep who let this happen over and over. Wake up, America. Wake up before it’s too late and you have dreamt your way into oblivion.”



“Window Into the Past” Paper, glue, and vinyl letters on gessoed paper

“Any effort by the American public to ‘make America great again’ must, it would seem, first analyze the economic and social determinants that have caused the nation to falter,” says Morison. “Yet the appeal of endowing the past with greatness is primarily emotional, and the imaginative power of that endowment rhetorical ... Greatness becomes a reverie, an empty projection of the future. Meanwhile, the conversation concerning how to properly distribute our society’s wealth and resources stagnates. The rich keep the money. The rest of us suffer, and hope.”



“A Kind of American Carnage” Paper and glue

Gerace says that Heartfield’s work always appealed to him more in the abstract than the specific—”I liked what he represented, rather than how he represented it,” he explains. But the London-based artist says that post-November 8, 2016, it’s been more difficult to “have the luxury of abstractly liking something.” “At the best of times, I aspire toward a kind of detached historicity more concerned with how objects and images, rendered in paper or in the physical world, engage with history and are tested by it; how their veracity is upended by the democratizing effects of time,” he says. “Sadly, these aren’t the best of times—and art that doesn’t aspire to the political in some ways feels useless. Rather than take direct influence from [Heartfield], though, I’m choosing, in the piece that I’ve made, to try and synthesize his attitude, rather than duplicate his approach.”

Share this story