Strong contrasts. Ludwig Hohlwein

Patrick Rössler

Among the commercial artists working in Germany in the first half of the 20th century, he was without doubt a star: Ludwig Hohlwein of Munich. Even before World War One his expansive and decorative style featured on poster columns throughout the country. Gebrauchsgraphik devoted two special issues to Hohlwein, but there was more to come: In 1926 editor Hermann Karl Frenzel brought out an opulent illustrated volume of his colour lithographs and poster reproductions – the first large »coffee-table book« ever to be dedicated to the work of a commercial artist.

Still today his style is immediately recognisable: you always know if it’s »a Hohlwein«. If not for its characteristic imagery, then always for his distinctive logo placed prominently in the space. For the client, a Hohlwein poster was an image boost, and for the author his signature was self-confident proof of his authorship – Ludwig Hohlwein understood early on how to turn his work into a brand.

His genre illustrations cater to the tastes of a broad, educated audience; nothing disturbs or confuses in his images, powerful and expressive is the overriding impression. This clear, naturalistic style was also popular later in the Third Reich, when Hohlwein was more than happy to serve the Fascist rulers. Party member no. 2945937 readily depicted stormtroopers and SS officers, Hitler and Göring, as well as girls from the »Bund Deutscher Mädel« and athletes from the 1936 Olympic Games. From today’s perspective we might describe this as assimilation, or as Volker Duvigneau aptly put it, Hohlwein »made himself culpable because of the adroit way he gained advantage for himself under the regime«.

140 years ago, on 26 July 1874 Ludwig Hohlwein was born into a privileged, old-style conservative family in the spa town of Wiesbaden in Germany. Although he left home early, to train as an architect in the cities of Munich and Dresden, he remained true to his conservative roots throughout his life. That explains why he never had much to do with the design avantgarde, his posters remained untouched by contemporary trends such as constructivism and the principles of the »New Typography«. And yet – or perhaps because of this – Gebrauchsgraphik celebrated him in 1924 as »a gifted maestro [...] who has laid the foundations for the worldwide fame of German poster art«, describing his works as »an inexhaustible fount of freshness and youth«.

At around the turn of the century, Hohlwein, a keen hunter, was producing watercolours of animal motifs (indeed, these remained a constant in his work) and trying his hand at all kinds of jobbing graphics. In 1909, however, he celebrated his breakthrough as a poster designer, the field to which he henceforth dedicated his talents. As early as 1913 Das Plakat, the forerunner to Gebrauchsgraphik, featured a lengthy article on Ludwig Hohlwein. Its front cover sports a picture of a society lady with a colour treatment typical of Hohlwein – the »realist who ran away from Jugendstil« (Duvigneau 1970) presented himself here with a draft design for a poster that was at the very forefront of his era, anticipating much of international Art Deco and the Streamline Modern of the coming years. Inside the magazine, the graphic design community was duly impressed, in particular with the lithographed small posters and the advertising for Munich Zoo, one of his most well known motifs. The »gifted autodidact« Hohlwein was at the zenith of his creativity.

With due consequence, Gebrauchsgraphik devoted further issues to Hohlwein’s work, one every ten years, for his 50th and 60th birthdays. Hohlwein’s achievements had already been mentioned in the trial issue of 1924 (and in the second issue on »Tobacco and Liquor«, two of his designs were featured). No doubt the friendship between the editor and the artist had much to do with this, as Frenzel, coming from a similar generation, would have had more points of contact with Hohlwein’s painterly and playful style than with the impetuousness of the young Neue Sachlichkeit designers with Bauhaus leanings.

The first issue of Gebrauchsgraphik dedicated to Hohlwein came early: it was only the third in the whole series, and featured a 32-page special section referred to on the cover illustration, an example of Hohlwein’s riding motifs. In Walter E. Schubert’s accompanying text, we read: »His element was the broad expanse of space, the freedom and the grand style of the poster.« Again the illustrations focus on his poster work, in particular the motifs on fashion and sport, consumer goods and industry. Schubert continued: »We have the exquisite China and Nigger boys for Blooker’s cocoa and above all for Riquet, the exotic Indian tribes, the cowboys and other coloured inhabitants of this earth for Sprengel chocolate, Wolff cigarettes, Marco Polo tea [...], reproduced here in blackand-white or colour on the pages of this magazine courtesy of the generosity of the editor of Gebrauchsgraphik.« The text section is supplemented by 19 lithographed small posters, each as separate plate, among them, for example, a dynamic moment from a game of »motorcycle soccer football« for a poster about a sporting competition held in Germany for the first time, »under English rules«.

This special on Hohlwein prompted Frenzel to publish a monograph of the popular artist in the publishing house that brought out Gebrauchsgraphik, Phönix Illustrationsdruck und Verlag. There was certainly no lack of material, and what was delivered to subscribers two years later was a sumptuous volume that far surpassed any other publication of the time dedicated to a commercial artist. Presented on 432 pages in magazine format, with a bilingual text (German/English), were all the facets of Hohlwein’s activities in commercial graphics. Admittedly the bulk of it focuses on the posters, but nevertheless his smaller graphics, for book covers, calendars, packaging, brochures and small ads, is at least touched upon. Schubert’s text is illustrated with no less than »226 full-page plates in best rotogravure and 64 full-colour art reproductions« as colour lithographs, among them also his less well known film posters and more daring motifs for the market abroad. Producing this opulent retrospective must have brought the publisher close to its technical and financial limits: It was offered for 32 marks each, or 80 marks for a numbered limited-edition copy (of 100) bound in calf leather. It is difficult to say, from today’s perspective, if this was a good investment, but remaining copies of the monograph were still on sale in the mid 1930s, the price later being reduced significantly to 12 Reichsmarks.

In the following years, too, Gebrauchsgraphik regularly reproduced samples of Hohlwein’s work when it fitted in with the featured theme or when the magazine reported on what was happening in poster design. The next concentrated look at his oeuvre came for Hohlwein’s 60th birthday, in 1934. For the cover of this issue, the commercial artist Julius Ussy Engelhard of Munich drew a portrait of Hohlwein, very much in the style of the man himself. The changes taking place in the political arena were now evident in the selection of images: reports on the Olympic Games, coming up two years later are featured as well as his poster for the Nazi Party in the Reichstag elections of 1932 and his war-like stormtrooper, all superbly fulfilling the propaganda purposes of the new rulers.

Ludwig Hohlwein died in 1949, twelve years after Frenzel, the publisher who did so much to promote his work. In 1974, the 100th anniversary of Hohlwein’s birth, Gebrauchsgraphik devoted a commemorative article to him. Irrespective of Hohlweins questionable political orientation, what still today is worthy of recognition was his talent for distilling a commercial message down to a core visual statement, and the way in which he maintained a consistent, characteristic and signature style over a period of many decades. This recognition is justified even though the always nationalist-conservative-leaning Hohlwein ended up in his later years using those talents for producing propaganda for a terrorist regime and its inhuman goals.