Bauhaus master with speared heart
BY Jochen Stöckmann | Dec 29, 2013
Herbert Bayer sketched a “perfect Bauhaus member” in 1923: a jointed doll in tails, a question mark in its head and a jousting lance in its right hand running through a heart. This refined scorn had a touch of self-irony, as the illustrator was himself the master instructor for the newly established Bauhaus class of “Typography and Advertising”. However, in 1928 he bid farewell to Dessau and Bauhaus. Herbert Bayer headed back to Berlin and went freelance – successfully. The Bauhaus artist soon emerged as one of the best-paid graphic artists in the ad world.
Bayer’s “Berlin Years – Ad Graphics 1928 – 1938” are outlined in a show at the Berlin Bauhaus Archive that displays new finds, including material on his time as head of the Dorland agency. And most importantly curator Patrick Rössler has come up with far more than just a catalog: His Bayer biography highlights the many sides to the problems and controversies surrounding a designer who not only embarked on a commercial career with highfalutin artistic ambitions, but also vacillated, had to vacillate between Bauhaus ideals and the Nazis.
Bayer was forever combining at least all the applied arts, and for a photographic self-portrait in 1928 he superbly used montage and multiple superimposed exposures. Now Bayer is not easy to pigeonhole, did not opt for one personal style. His designs for billboard posters or book covers, exhibition pavilions and print ads did not obey some “Bayer Style” but changed depending on the client’s intentions. The cover he did for “Bauhaus”, the design journal, in 1928 is still in the consistent vein of the Dessau design doctrine: The combination of photography, typography and collage engenders a powerful collaged image. The restriction in style to the basic pattern of rectangle and square, to monochrome bars, contrasting colors and the Bayer font developed for the Berthold type foundry spawns simple ad motifs that are therefore all the more persuasive.
Indeed, in the somewhat more conventional advert for “Modell Gropius”, the new Adler limousine, we can discern how strongly the former Bauhaus member relied on a network and fundamental ideas from his Dessau days. Private photos of time spent with Ise Gropius, the wife of the Bauhaus director and a close friend of Bayer, with Xanti Schawinsky and Marcel Breuer all attest to these affinities. They are likewise apparent in the functionalist aesthetics of the poster for “Section Allemand” at the 1930 Werkbund show in Paris.On the other hand, incidental jobs done for the money, such as the column “Aus dem optischen Notizbuch” for “Das illustrierte Blatt” in 1929, with photos snapped of everyday big city life, and a banal layout of what was certainly no longer a “roaring” decade. Or tourism ads for the “Teutoburger Wald”, “Das schöne Extertal” and “Ganz Lippe eine Sommerfrische”, with expansive countryside behind the figure of a lonely wanderer – who is none other than Herbert Bayer himself.
Bayer’s narcissistic streak is evidenced at the very start of the show by two photo panels with the well-known collage themes of a shop window dummy taking itself apart and eyes gazing at us from wide-open hands – against a backdrop of Berlin buildings. Between these two Surrealist pieces our attention is drawn to the far end of the exhibition, where we see a crown of oak leaves on a blue background, the poster for the “Deutsches Volk Deutsche Arbeit” exhibition of 1934.
After 1933, when the Nazis came to power, Herbert Bayer was to oscillate between these twin poles. On the one hand, the former Bauhaus artist complained in December 1937 to Ise Gropius, in a private letter with his typical insistence on a radical and exclusive use of lower-case letters: “my painting has come to a complete halt, it would be the only sincere pursuit for my barren soul.” On the other, the commercial graphic artist who described himself as deeply “unpolitical” considered everyday routine not only as arduous: “what I do could be worse but is too little to be good. I don’t want to decry this as there are a few nice jobs in the offing.”
During the Third Reich, he produced printed matter for the major propaganda exhibitions such as “Das Wunder des Lebens” (1935) and “Deutschland” (1936). And there is no immediate indication in his adverts for “Michels Stoffparadies”, for furniture such as “Das federnde Alu-Möbel”, rainproof clothing by Adefa Regnol or the Cinzano cup that they were produced under a dictatorship. It would seem that the Nazi bureaucrats did not forbid all elements of “New Objectivity” out of hand but rather wanted to see them used for their own cause.
It is as if he wanted to keep everyone happy when, in 1936, he designed a double page for the catalog for the propaganda show “Deutschland”. (Bayer thought other Bauhaus members were also involved, or so a letter in 1935 to Ise Gropius reveals: “Mies is supposed to be in charge overall of the ‘deutschland’ show during the olympics. thankfully.”) Three prototypical “Arian” faces – a farmer, a worker and a soldier – are emphasized from among the mass of heads in the photomontage – alongside the Reich eagle and the swastika, along with a text caption saying “The Fuehrer speaks, millions listen”. After emigrating to the States he was questioned on this and claimed merely to have addressed the theme formally, praised this piece of clear propaganda as “very interesting” as it “was designed exclusively using photography and photocollage and was printed in duotone.”
The quotation from a letter chosen as the exhibition title “mein reklame-fegefeuer” “my ad purgatory” (1937) should not be read overly politically. Indeed Bayer himself did not shy away from having athletic figures march in Riefenstahl manner for an essentially harmless product ad for “Gesunde Haut mit Vasenol”. Once he had moved to the USA, alongside the advertising he did for money he was able to devote a lot of time to his art: As early as 1938 Herbert Bayer was at the helm for the first and comprehensive Bauhaus retrospective held in the Museum of Modern Arts in New York.