As their contribution to the Berlin theme year “Zerstörte Vielfalt – Destroyed Diversity” the Bauhaus Archiv Berlin are currently presenting an exhibition devoted to the Austrian photographer, artist, typographer, and if you will archetypal commercial graphic designer, Herbert Bayer.
Focussing on Herbert Bayer’s graphic and advertising work in the decade from his leaving Bauhaus Dessau in 1928 to emigrating to America in 1938, “Mein Reklame-Fegefeuer” has been conceived as much as an exploration of the limits/freedom of the applied arts in Nazi Germany as an exploration of Bayer’s canon.
Something which means that the exhibition has also been conceived as an exploration of Herbert Bayer’s own role in assisting disseminate Nazi propaganda.
And sadly here is the exhibition at its weakest.
Yes examples of Bayer’s works realised on behalf of the Nazis such as his graphic design for exhibitions such as “Das Wunder des Lebens” and “Deutsches Volk, deutsche Arbeit” in Berlin and his 1936 book cover for the Hitler Youth movement are displayed, but within the exhibition there is no discussion of in how far the choice of motives was influenced by the party. Or if it all came from Bayer alone. And if it came from Bayer, why.
Similarly when one sees Bayer’s advertising work for Vasenol talcum powder or Venus swimwear resplendent with their Nazi friendly images of youthful Körperkulter, the question of why such imagery has been used isn’t approached.
Which is a shame.
Because as an exhibition being presented in the context of the destruction of diversity in Nazi Germany it would have been interesting to have had a more in-depth discourse on the role creative talents such as Herbert Bayer played in the process.
Not least because he was Bauhaus alumni, and his Alma Mater suffered as much as any institution under the Nazi regime.
What one is left with is the most exquisite exhibition of the early years of commercial graphic design. Graphic design before it became the ubiquitous monster that it is today. When it was still fresh and challenging.
Switching effortlessly between Bayer’s advertising works for clients as varied as Pneusano tyre protection, Lange Radios or Michels Stoffparadies Berlin, his numerous editorial and book design projects and exhibition projects including, for example, “Das Wunder des Lebens”, “Deutsches Volk, deutsche Arbeit” or the “section allemande” at the 1930 Werkbund exhibition in Paris, Mein Reklame-Fegefeuer provides a wonderful overview of not only Herbert Bayer’s talent and approach to his work but also of how the modern graphic design industry has developed.
Or indeed hasn’t. For when one looks, for example, at his 1934 work for the clothing label “Sporting Stepper” one really does have to question what today’s advertising designers do that is so new or original.
We’re not saying that the genuine pleasure of viewing Mein Reklame-Fegefeuer as a documentation of Herbert Bayer’s creative output completely makes up for the lack of discourse on his cooperations with the Nazi machinery, it doesn’t. But if approached with the correct, healthy scepticism the exhibition does provide an excellent starting point for exploring the unanswered questions yourselves.
Not least because it wonderfully defines the political, social and personal context in which Herbert Bayer’s work developed.
Mein Reklame-Fegefeuer. Herbert Bayer. Werbegrafik 1928 – 1938 runs at the Bauhaus Archiv Berlin, Klingelhöferstraße 14, 10785 Berlin until Monday February 24th 2014.
In addition to the exhibition itself the Bauhaus Archiv have organised a varied accompanying programme. Full details can be found at www.bauhaus.de