Interned German artists (1): John Heartfield and Kurt Schwitters

Cover of 1940 edition (1941.7.3074)

British wartime internment of foreign nationals seems to have been a recurring theme for me this year. I already knew about World War Two internment camps on the Isle of Man (see my earlier blog post on Franz Hildebrandt) but was not aware that this had also happened during World War One until, on a visit to Liverpool, I came across the story of Carl Bartels, designer of the famous Liver Birds on the Royal Liver Building. Shortly afterwards I read a review of Simon Parkin’s new book The Island of Extraordinary Captives (e-Legal Deposit) about the interned artist Peter Midgley. Then I happened to unearth a cutting from the Observer that I had been sent in September 1988 in which Neal Ascherson wrote engagingly about a reissue (539:1.c.805.63) of François Lafitte’s 1940 book The internment of aliens, a contemporary criticism of government policy (the article can be viewed online if you have Raven access). And as the current government’s Rwanda deportation plan was announced it was easy to be reminded of wartime deportations and the tragedy of the Arandora Star

In this blog post I will look in more detail at two German artists who share the internment experience, both of whom I have mentioned before in previous blog posts: John Heartfield (see German theatre premières in 1922) and Kurt Schwitters (see On the fringes of Dada in Berlin). A later post will consider some less well-known German artists who also endured internment.

John Heartfield (born Helmut Herzfeld, adopting the English name during World War One to show his hatred of Prussian militarism) worked on set designs in 1920s Berlin while also creating innovative book-jackets for Malik Verlag, the publishing house set up by his brother Wieland. He is best remembered though for his political photomontage artwork: two books in the UL are John Heartfield: laughter is a devastating weapon (S950.a.201.3351) and John Heartfield and the agitated image: photography, persuasion and the rise of avant-garde photomontage (S950.b.201.1024 or onlineboth of which deal mostly with his earlier work).

As a Communist he was a target for arrest after the Nazis seized power in 1933 but when the SS came for him he managed to flee his studio, hide in a dustbin for seven hours, while they ransacked the place, before escaping to Prague. The threat of Nazi occupation in 1938 led to him fleeing again, this time to England where he found lodging in the home of Fred Uhlman*, a fellow German refugee and founding member of the Free German League of Culture (FGLC), a cultural, social and political association of German anti-Nazi exiles (see Politics by other means: the Free German League of Culture in London 1939-1946 by Charmian Brinson and Richard Dove – 2020.9.1229).

In Uhlman’s memoir, The making of an Englishman (9400.c.1165) we gain some insight into Heartfield’s character:

He stayed with us for five years…As I only knew his savage photo-montages, I had expected to meet somebody aggressive; instead we found a charming, modest, meek and mild little man who only got excitable and fanatical when it came to politics. When at last he left us and went to live in Highgate I gave him a present of a couple of rabbits, but as Johnny could neither kill nor get rid of them they multiplied rapidly, and he had to spend hours every day gathering food for them on Hampstead Heath.

Heartfield’s work on the cover of Sept 9 1939 issue of Picture Post

Heartfield threw himself into the work of the FGLC, giving lectures on art history, working on theatrical productions and music and putting on an exhibition. His work also featured on the cover of the new Picture Post magazine, set up by fellow emigré Stefan Lorant.

When the British internment policy was introduced in 1940 John Heartfield was inevitably among the internees but actually only spent about six weeks in three different camps including Huyton near Liverpool. He had a rare form of epilepsy and the camp conditions made him seriously ill. After calls for his release by friends and politicians (including Ellen Wilkinson and Eleanor Rathbone) he was let out in August 1940 on medical grounds but spent the next few months fearing reinternment.

The UL has a copy of a 1940 song called The Refugees (in M280.b.90.62written by fellow Communist and FGLC member Ernst Hermann Meyer under the pen name Peter Baker for which Heartfield wrote the words including the rousing:

the army of the downtrodden who soon will rise to be released and united in triumph when the father land shall be free

For the rest of the war Heartfield was under constant surveillance by MI5 and was unable to pursue his photomontage work because of a decree banning refugees from engaging in political activity. He continued his FGLC activity, organising the 1942 London exhibition Allies inside Germany which aimed to draw attention to the resistance of anti-fascists in Germany. This then became a travelling exhibition entitled We accuse: 10 years of Hitler’s fascism. In 1943 he was granted a work permit as a freelance cartoonist and he also found work designing covers for the new Lindsay Drummond publishing house.

The FGLC produced a monthly newssheet, Freie Deutsche Kultur (L539.b.24), during World War Two, and in January 1943 the UL received under Legal Deposit a handful of issues from 1941 and 1942. From these we can see further evidence of Heartfield’s activities: a lecture on photomontage, an article on Daumier, artwork used on the front cover as well as recognition by others: his brother Wieland exiled in America, news of an exhibition to celebrate his 50th birthday and a piece about him by the editor, Max Zimmering. Click on the images below to see full size:

In 1950 Heartfield left England for East Germany (the circumstances of his departure are not clear) where he remained until his death in 1968.

Kurt Schwitters, four years older than Heartfield, gained international recognition from the 1920s onwards for his individual and varied avant-garde artwork. In 1937 some of his works were included in the Nazi degenerate art exhibition but he had already fled the country earlier that year, following his son to Norway. The following year two of his works were included in the major London exhibition Twentieth century German art which was conceived as a response to the Nazi exhibition (interestingly none of Heartfield’s work was included as the exhibition organisers were keen to keep it apolitical, concentrating on artistic freedom rather than political comment). When Norway was invaded by the Nazis in 1940 Schwitters managed to get out and fled to Britain, arriving in June 1940 just as the internment policy was being introduced. He passed through a series of transit camps before arriving in July at the Hutchinson camp in Douglas on the Isle of Man where he remained until his release in November 1941, one of the last artists to be freed.

In August 1940 Schwitters was one of seventeen interned artists putting his name to a letter published in the New Statesman and Nation magazine (NPR.C.622) in which they intimated that their situation was preventing all work and creative thought. The letter included the eye-catching phrase “Art cannot live behind barbed wire.”  However, although supplies were limited and had to be improvised, Schwitters did actually produce over 200 works during his internment and was involved in an exhibition organised in the camp in autumn 1940.

In his A bespattered page?: the internment of His Majesty’s ‘most loyal enemy aliens’ (539:1.c.800.65) Ronald Stent, also an internee, wrote affectionately of Schwitters (he also importantly highlighted that in early 1940 the popular press aroused anti-alien sentiments with a propaganda campaign based purely on insinuation rather than fact, reminding me very much of 21st century tabloid tactics): 

In the camp he had a captive audience, he was in his element and could give full rein to his ebullience and joie de vivre. He was not only full of talents, but also full of quirks. His socks were so full of holes that they hardly existed. For reasons unknown he preferred to sleep on the floor in a makeshift dog basket into which he crawled at night; he always barked before he went to sleep…. His pièces de resistance, beyond doubt, were sculptures fashioned out of stale remnants of porridge, which he assiduously collected from breakfast tables. They had the colour of Danish blue cheese and exuded a faintly sickly smell. Alas, they did not survive long; the mice soon got at them.

Fred Uhlman was interned in Hutchinson camp too and wrote in his memoir of Schwitters. The socks, the porridge statues and the barking were all prominent memories for him. He also considered Schwitters to be a most accomplished raconteur and described his collages:

On the walls hung his collages, made of cigarette packets, seaweed, shells, pieces of cork, string, wire, glass, and nails.

After his release Schwitters spent the rest of the war in London but had little success and suffered ill-health. In 1944 he learned of the death of his wife who had stayed behind in Germany. In summer 1945 he moved with his new partner to the Lake District where he died in early 1948, one day after hearing that he had been granted British citizenship.

Much has been published on Schwitters including a weighty three-volume catalogue raisonné (S405:3.a.200.6-8) in German and English. The third volume covers 1937-1948 and features portraits he made of fellow internees including several other artists as well as scenes of Douglas, and collages. In 2013 Schwitters was the subject of a major exhibition at Tate Britain (and then in his home city of Hanover) entitled Schwitters in Britain. The accompanying catalogue (2013.10.237) contains a chapter called Schwitters interned with friends.

Katharine Dicks

Further reading

    • John Heartfield: photography plus dynamite (S950.b.202.660), a recent exhibition catalogue 
    • ‘Totally un-English’?: Britain’s Internment of ‘Enemy Aliens’ in Two World Wars edited by Richard Dove (online access)
    • ‘Collar the lot!’: how Britain interned and expelled its wartime refugees by Peter and Leni Gillman (539:1.c.805.51)
        • Cultural heritage and prisoners of war: creativity behind barbed wire edited by Gilly Carr and Harold Mytum (online access)
  • Cover of S950.a.201.6858 featuring Refugees by Josef Herman

    The internment of aliens in twentieth century Britain edited by David Cesarani and Tony Kushner (236.c.99.222), which contains papers from a 1990 conference to mark the 50th anniversary of alien detentions, including one on visual art by Klaus Hinrichsen, art historian, who was himself interned.

  • Insiders outsiders: refugees from Nazi Europe and their contribution to British visual culture edited by Monica Bohm-Duchen (S950.a.201.6858), includes a portrait of Hinrichsen by Schwitters.
  • Exiles + emigrés: the flight of European artists from Hitler  by Stephanie Barron (S400:3.b.9.89).

*In another curious coincidence I just read the obituary of his daughter, Caroline Compton

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