Modernity vs. avant-garde II: What about the Bauhaus?

Publisher Frenzel always sought to satisfy both the traditionalists and the innovators: He had to take each seriously without offending the other, which fitted in very well with his own views: In 2005 Roland Jaeger described the editorial profile of Gebrauchsgraphik in the early days as »pluralistic and modern, although with a notable leaning towards modernistic and commercial design rather than the avantgarde«. With its critical and objective stance, Gebrauchsgraphik never saw itself as a forum for the avantgarde, even though the commitment to diversity (»our programme should remain open to all sides« announced the trial issue in 1924) inevitably meant that the magazine would radiate a certain modernity in the respective eras.

The tensions involved in living up to this stance are evident also in the individual issues: For example, in the January issue of 1934, one year after Hitler came to power, there was a look back at the good old days of poster design, twenty years previously, in the work of Gipkens, Scheurich, Schnackenberg, Bernhard and others. Following on immediately from this, the magazine presented the advertising photography of Man Ray, at the time a highly sought-after, international avantgarde artist and early Dadaist, working in Paris and New York. (See novum 07.14 for a report on the photography in Gebrauchsgraphik)

Perhaps it would be informative here, before turning to individual articles that Gebrauchsgraphik did publish about the avantgarde, to consider the important movements at the time that the magazine deliberately disregarded: No real mention is made of the epoch-making Werkbund touring exhibition »Film und Foto« (1929 ff.) – a report would most certainly have been expected, given the response of the trade press at the time – nor of the thematically much more related exhibitions of the »Ring Neuer Werbegestalter« between 1928 and 1931.

In fact, Kurt Schwitters, one of the main initiators of this association of commercial artists, is simply ignored (even in the Hannover issue of 1926!), along with his fellow Ring members, Piet Zwart, Paul Schuitema and the Dutch scene, which was so influential in the further development of functional typography. László Moholy-Nagy, the pioneer of the latter, is equally notable for his absence from the pages of Gebrauchsgraphik, along with the advertising workshop of the Bauhaus in Dessau which broke new ground, especially in Germany. Hermann Karl Frenzel neglected therefore, and consciously so, to document the more radical developments, even when these were commercially successful.

Nevertheless, a few portfolios of representatives of the international avantgarde are to be found in Gebrauchsgraphik, people that made not an insignificant contribution to popularising these positions. The Bauhaus, for example, does at least get an implicit mention in the person of Herbert Bayer, who had studied at the Bauhaus in Weimar from 1921, and who later, in Dessau, set up the advertising workshop, of which he later became head. As early as 1925, his Assuh poster was presented in the special issue on posters; in the February 1926 issue, we see Bayer’s experimental designs for advertising structures. But, revealingly, Bayer only attracted Frenzel’s interest after he had left the Bauhaus and, in Berlin, devoted himself to advertising design, as artistic director of the Dorland Studio, the creative department of the international agency. No less than four portfolios of Bayer’s work are presented – in 1930, 1931, 1936 and 1938 – documenting the inimitable imagery of probably the most creative German graphic designer of the 1930s. His was an innovative style that those in power eagerly exploited for their own purposes (thereby tacitly accepting what was to them Bayer’s uncomfortable Bauhaus past).

Perhaps the design that is the most consistent with avantgarde principles is the cover Bayer did for the October 1938 issue of Gebrauchsgraphik: an allegory of his profession on the one hand, but so unrelentingly modern in its execution that it is hard to reconcile the design with the political background at the time of the annexation of Austria, on the eve of a world war and the Holocaust. His distinctive imagery, frequently blending classical, historical ideal profiles in airbrush technique with photographic elements, soon found imitators: Toni Zepf of Saarbrücken, one of his epigones, shamelessly copied Bayer’s style on the back cover of the June 1933 issue [fig. 01] – yet nevertheless (or perhaps because of this) later became Bayer’s successor as head of Dorland Studio.

As regards the covers, it was never automatic with Gebrauchsgraphik for the designers behind them to also be featured in the magazine. In fact there are frequent examples of cover designs by avantgarde exponents who are then not mentioned in the articles within: For the covers – the calling card of every magazine – Frenzel hired, for example, the ex-Bauhaus designer Walter Peterhans [fig. 02] and Herbert Matter of Switzerland, the latter not being honoured with a portfolio feature until January 1936 [fig. 03]. His groundbreaking designs for the Gebr. Fretz AG printing works in Zurich had previously appeared anonymously, i.e. without crediting the designer. 

The fact that again and again, even after 1933, internationally successful graphic designers like the Czech Ladislav Sutnar [fig. 04], A. M. Cassandre of Paris, Joseph Binder (Vienna, later USA) [fig. 05] or London-based E. McKnight Kauffer (whose portfolio was presented as early as May 1929) were given prominence [fig. 06], not only demonstrates once more the international scope of Gebrauchsgraphik; rather this fact puts into perspective the debate about the line between the modern and the avantgarde in view of a key target market, the US, which was still not familiar at all with this fresh new wind from Europe. And even right into the war years surprising covers were being produced, one such being the rasterised portrait of a woman, in November 1941 [fig. 07].