from Newsgrist, via Crooked Timber

Back to the Futura by John Holbo on July 26, 2008

So, about that Obama-in-Berlin poster.

No, I’m not going to make fun of the small handful of right-wing blogs that got fake-alarmist about it, hinting that it kinda sorta looked Fascist. My question is related, however. Being a sensible and knowledgeable sort of person, as opposed to some sort of crazed wingnut, when I look at the poster I see not Fascist art but an homage to German modernist styles of the 1910’s and 20’s. Being the sort of person who futzes with fonts, I also see an example of art that would have been actually illegal under the Nazis. Quoting from German Modern, by Steven Heller and Louise Fili [amazon]:

After the Nazi’s rise to power in 1933, however, when the Dessau Bauhaus was closed (the school had moved from its original home in Weimar in 1925), it was forbidden to use modern design or sans-serif typefaces such as Futura, which Goebbels called a “Jewish invention.” Rigid, central balanced composition returned and traditional (and often illegible) Fraktur type was touted as symbolic of the glories of the nation. (17)

The Bauhaus was birthplace to New Typography, by Jan Tschichold, father of Futura. [UPDATE: No, sorry, it was Paul Renner. But the font was associated with the Bauhaus.] I’ve long been curious about how this whole ‘forbidden to use modern design or sans-serif typefaces such a Futura’ was enforced in practice. (I like the idea that maybe the Germans lost the war because of a font gap. They were all going blind, trying to read the Führer’s orders in Fraktur.) But I’ve never actually read a full discussion of this, and I’ve read inconsistent brief mentions.

Example: the wikipedia entry for Art of the Third Reich has this to say. “The poster became an important medium for propaganda during this period. Combining text and bold graphics, posters were extensively deployed both in Germany and in the areas occupied. Their typography reflected the Nazis’ preference for Fraktur over modern sans-serif typefaces, which were condemned as cultural Bolshevism (although Futura continued to be used owing to its practicality). The use of Fraktur was prevalent in advertising–which was a state monopoly–and books published during the Third Reich.”

So were they allowed to use Futura or weren’t they? Obviously they wouldn’t have been allowed to use Gotham, which is the Futura-resembling but definitely American typeface Obama uses. It doesn’t look German. But exactly how did the Nazis set about stamping out serifs? “Lost Serifs Sink Ships!” I’d be curious to read about the minor craziness that must have ensued.

The source for this section of the wikipedia article is Graphic Design: A Concise History, by Richard Hollis [amazon]. Which I’ve not seen. But I can’t imagine such a title has much room for extended discussion. It makes sense, on reflection, that advertising would be a state monopoly, because it’s such a potential source of subversion. Sticking big letters on everything. It also makes sense that you can’t oblige everyone to advertise using Fraktur. You can’t read that stuff on a moving bus or train. The wikipedia article also discusses the rather well-known fact that there was a serious schism in Nazi art promotion/censorship circles between those who that wanted to champion suitably Nazi-fied aspects of expressionism as dynamic and modern (Goebbels was one of these, until the Führer put his foot down) and the rest. So it isn’t wrong to think that some Nazi art looks like German expressionism. Although it is certainly wrong to think that all German modernism looks like Nazi art.

I found a review by Heller of Art of the Third Reich, by Peter Adam: Disappointingly, Adam gives short shrift given to graphic design. The Nazis are often credited with the most successful national “identity,” ever designed; and its visual propaganda was among the most effective in the modern world. Adam allows that the ideals behind the other arts were manifest in applied art, but does not give the same exacting detail into creation of, say, posters and advertisements as he does the other arts. Given the totality of Nazi control, it would have been fascinating to know why Goebbels brought back German Fraktur to replace sans-serif, which he was reputed to have called a Jewish invention. Or why some years later the more legible sans-serifs do make their way back into German typefoundries replacing Fraktur as a dominant typeface.

Maybe the typeface wars of the Nazi era are unwritten history. I’ll just conclude with a few final thoughts.

The art for the cover of the Adam book is interesting because it looks – to me, anyway – like more tasteful 20’s-style expressionism/Russian constructivism than the Nazis actually produced for their war posters. I can understand why book designers would do this. It’s a way of saying: don’t worry, this isn’t actually a Nazi book. It’s a book about the Nazis. But eventually the effect of this sort of thing is to make 20’s-style expressionism look more Fascist, to our eyes.


And here are a couple of relevant images from the Heller book. First, a poster that looks sorta like the Obama poster, compositionally:

It’s from 1919.

Then, a couple of examples of how expressionism really has trouble not looking irrelevantly sinister, in light of subsequent developments. The evil Jew is going to steal our awesome magnet! No, I take it you are supposed to identify with the sinister, hook-nosed devil-motorist. I want more power!

Here’s another weird one. Our metal package fasterers are so great that you could use them to handcuff someone to a cement block and, presumably, throw him in the river to drown? (You’ll sleep easier, knowing your customers are sleeping with the fishes?) Is it supposed to be a joke? Is it just a somewhat badly designed ad, because it’s too morbid? I dunno.

These posters are from 1915 and 1919, respectively.

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