Spring 1997

The modernist body

Jeremy Aynsley
Body politics 2

Images of the human form receive little analysis. An exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert museum explores approaches to the body in early German design.

The modernist body

Images of the human form receive little analysis. An exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert museum explores approaches to the body in early German design.

By Jeremy Aynsley

When human figures are incorporated into the graphic design, questions immediately arise: are they there as representative of everyone, or as particular groups or individuals? Are they commodified or natural, and where do they fall on the axis from nature to culture? Do they seem to be fetishised or are they presented as integral subjects? Finally, are they there for introspection, as in self-portraiture, or for the viewer’s own observation? If such questions are not straightforward when applied to examples of contemporary graphic design, it is all the more likely that enquiry into historical examples will be complicated.

Preparation for an exhibition of German graphic design in the first half of the twentieth century made this particularly clear. Sifting through all manner of graphic objects and selecting categories for display, it became apparent that recognition of content is necessary. Along with sections which deal with traditions of typography and its professionalisation, the first teaching of graphic design and contests between the moderns and the archaicists in style and ideology, one overriding feature is the diversity of depictions of human form. These range from the apparently idealised lithographic certainty of mainstream posters to discrete and private interrogations of identity which also take graphic form. In such a process, the curator or writer confronts the question of whether it is possible to retrieve attitudes encoded in representations by poster artists, graphic designers and photographers from an earlier time. It seemed necessary to engage with what Erwing Goffman at a later stage called the “presentation of self in everyday life.” If Goffman’s suggestion that we learn socially, enacting and watching other’s enactment, is correct, can the codes and nuances be retrieved, intuitively or explicitly? [1].

Problems with the human figure

In the West, design flourished in the first years of this century and nowhere more than in the central European capitals of printed culture, where moves towards modernisation meant rapid changes in approach to advertising, print and publication design. For some, the emergence of graphic design has become synonymous with this development of Modernism [2]. Part of the story is well known, for these were the years of Bauhaus experiment; the formation of the Ring Neuer Werbegestalter (Circle of New Advertising Designers) in 1927; and of Jan Tschichold’s neue typographie a year later [3]. All have entered the history of modern graphic design.

The tradition of figuration, however, has received relatively little attention in the histories of graphic design. As we know, the figure presented a problem for Modernist designers. Following principles of abstraction in painting, typographic composition was re-ordered through a neo-plastic recognition of the formal elements, usually understood in terms of geometry and the structural counterbalance of grids and blocks. Figurative content was included at times in such designs, but the preferred approach was to try not to distinguish human form from any other part of the design. Such a formalist set of principles overlooked imagery and its potential to disrupt or subvert the rational intentions of the designs. It was left to the Surrealists to problematise the figure and, in Andreas Huyssen’s words, “dismantle false notions of identity and artistic creativity” [4].

The avant-garde Weimar figures who have received most attention in commentaries on graphic design aligned themselves with left-wing politics and productivist ideals of aesthetics, largely in association with Soviet Constructivists. As such, their work was suited to architectural and design publications as well as experimental cultural activities. Figuration in this sphere could be justified for its political intentions. If transferred to the recovered economy of capitalism in the late Weimar years, in the form of commissions from advertisers and publishers, however, there were potential conflicts. Arguably, depictions of the figure lay at the heart of this problem. When not formalist, the alternative approach seemed to be explicitly to support Tendenzkunst (tendentious art) as in the well-known work of John Heartfield and George Grosz and other political graphic artists. The less comfortable position was to supply the mass media with new advertising techniques borrowed from avant-garde experimentation, and thereby renew from within a position criticised by the Left as contributing to commodity aesthetics. According to this view, depictions of the human form in such a context were considered exploitative and could only be heavily criticised or completely disregarded. The celebrated case of the magazine designer and photomontagiste, Hannah Höch, reveals how one female artist dealt with the possible contradictions of self-representation at the time. Höch worked in Berlin for Ullstein, the largest European publishing house of its day, producing craft patterns by day. By night, she constructed photomontages which offered a critique of mainstream representations of the female body [5].

The return of pleasure

Graphic design history has in many ways side-stepped the issue of pleasure in figurative representation and the place of the reader/consumer [6]. The tendency to remain with the secure notion of authorship has meant many commentaries are bound by the relationship between designer and intention. By contrast art, film and photographic histories have incorporated approaches from cultural studies, offering a more sophisticated relationship which allows for negotiation, subversion and humour. The emphasis then shifts from a consideration of graphic design as “good” or “bad,” either formally or morally, to seeing it as part of a signifying practice. The process of reading and negotiation of meaning is considered to be part of rendering identity and, consequently, representation of human form becomes central. Far from being an unwanted element, the figure becomes a focus for empathy and is potentially life-enhancing. Much recent work has been grounded in Roland Barthes’s notion of jouissance, a term which attempted to separate the pleasurable from the ideological in the literary and visual.

Equally, fashion theory in recent years has opened up the possibilities for, among other things, a theory for women looking at women which acknowledges how the workings of the fashion-graphics nexus encourage space in which to define a feminine modernity rather than exclude it [7]. Such approaches could be useful to anyone interested in avoiding a narrative which focuses on the type/technology/style of an image or publication at the expense of the fuller cultural meaning of the original designs [8].

This must be couched in a guarded proviso. Unless there is the possibility of researching the consumption of graphic design in an empirical way or of analysing a viewer’s interest in engaging or distancing themselves from the objects of their attention, such a study remains conjectural. A further lesson might be that graphic design history needs to take notice more frequently of other subject areas if it is not to repeat the mistake and appear to have re-constructed a world of technical utopias.

“Signs of Art and Commerce: German Graphic Design, 1900-1950” is at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London SW7 until 24 May.


1. In the book of this title, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 1959, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.

2. Richard Hollis, Graphic Design: A Concise History, London: Thames and Hudson, 1994.

3. Gerd Fleischmann, bauhaus typographie – drucksachen, typografie, reklame, Düsseldorf: Edition Marzona, 1984; catalogue, Landesmuseum Museum, three volumes, Typografie kann unter Umständen Kunst Sein, Wiesbaden, 1990; Jan Tschichold, The New Typography: a handbook for modern designers, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, translated by Ruari McLean, introductory essay by Robin Kinross.

4. Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture and Postmodernism, London: Macmillan, 1988.

5. Maud Lavin, Cut with the Kitchen Knife: The Weimar Photomontages of Hannah Höch, New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 1994.

6. Even within post-modern critique, the pleasure of the text over the figure or image has been evident even among design writers. See Andrew Blauvelt, ed. Visible Language, “New Perspectives: Critical Histories of Graphic Design,” 1994-95.

7. Jennifer Craik, The Face of Fashion: Cultural Studies in Fashion, London: Routledge, 1994. This has recently been extended to ideas of masculinity. See Sean Nixon, Hard Looks, London: University College Press, 1996.

8. Although social science, cultural studies, film theory and market research have each developed methods for assessing or quantifying the process of reading and consuming images which are part of a graphic design system. See Susan Strasser, Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass-Market, New York: Pantheon, 1989, and William Leiss, Stephen Kline and Sut Jhally, Social Communication in Advertising: Persons, Products and Images of Well-Being, London: Methuen, 1986.


The body, and specifically feminine bodies, were used in early advertising as a subject of posters and packaging. During the first proliferation of lithographic posters, their depiction formed a major strategy, at once signalling the increased visibility and the potential exploitation of women. The early 1900s saw modern objects defined further, entering the field of representation as pristine, exactly repeatable commodities available to every consumer, their perfection reflected in surface appearances.

The work of the Berlin-based poster artists of the Jugendstil generation, among them Bernhard, Gipkens and Erdt, applied a new hard, commercial style of representation to industrial goods before the new “objective” body was rendered for graphic consumption. By the 1920s, an extension of this objectivity was in many ways applied to the identity of feminine form based on an adaptation of the shop mannequin that coincided with great interest in new approaches to window display. The proliferation of mannequins, luxurious and self-regarding, largely occurred in the press and in prestigious advertisements for perfumes, cosmetics and fashion. Coded as French and derived from the source of fashion and style, their surface could be seen as the ultimate reification.

Can an image be democratic?

The Weimer years witnessed an enthusiasm for social change brought about by technology. Many depictions of the human form were presented in the 1920s as new possibilities emerged after the damage of World War I. New ideals of health were offered: hygiene was promoted to combat disease, especially tuberculosis; and sport and dancing were perceived as healing activities. It is difficult to recapture the changed awareness of the body in this social context which manifested itself in the shocking flapper girls, the “new woman,” the garçon look, a preoccupation with androgyny, and the exposed body in swimming or athletics. Commentators in the magazines and the consumers of the new films were inspired by ideals of a newly industrialised and technological future that would be classless. All around there seemed to be an impetus to depict these changes through new cultural forms.

In the field of design, Moholy-Nagy described photography as the “hygiene of the optical,” and photography and collectivism were often linked as equivalents – the one used to configure the other [9]. In 1928, Johannes Molzahn, Professor of Graphic Design at Magdeburg declared: “The photograph will be one of the most effective weapons against intellectualisation, against mechanisation of the spirit. Forget Reading, See! That will be the motto of education. Forget Reading, See! That will be the essential policy of newspapers!” [10].

Like the 1929 project of Cologne-based photographer August Sander, Anlitz der Zeit (Face of our Time), organised in the format of a book, successive issues of the illustrated presses revealed a fascination with stratifying people according to physical appearance, physiognomy and occupation [11]. Most striking is the way that technology and the body were interpreted in harmony.


9. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, originally published as Malerei Fotografie Film, 1925, Bauhaus book no. 8, reprinted in an English edition Painting Photography Film, London: Lund Humphries, 1969.

10. Quoted in “When Words Fail,” October, no. 22, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1982.

11. Ed. G. Sander, August Sander, Citizens of the Twentieth Century: Portrait Photographs 1892-1952, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1986.

Against expressionism

Although also a form of poetry, music and architecture, Expressionism was perhaps most coherently defined according to the autographic ideal of a print portfolio or artist’s book. Its strategy of exaggeration was associated with the pre-1914 years and therefore reacted against by many after World War I. Expressionism was identified as the first and strongest specifically German-language graphic tradition. The anxiety of the artist’s alienation and apocalyptic mood was intended to be read from the surface and gesture inscribed in imagery [12]. A generic, primitivised head suggested a correlation between what was seen and the mood of the artist or the sitter. Perhaps most significantly for the next generation, technology was seen as oppressive and destructive. Interesting but infrequent attempts were made to apply the approach in a commercial context in the 1920s.


12. German Expressionist Prints and Drawings, catalogue, two volumes, los Angeles Museum of Art, Munich: Prestel Verlag, 1989.

After Cubism

Cubism allowed the decomposition of human form, its breaking up into facets, rendering the figure as an experience rather than as a singularly registered entity. At first hard to reconcile with the immediacy needed for the advertising hoarding, Cubism and modern advertising were arguably born from the same discoveries. The first theoretical texts on advertising stressed the need to capture the distracted gaze faced with all the competing attractions and fragmentation of modern visual experience, while in 1913 Fernand Léger wrote of the attraction of popular culture and visual realism [13]. Léger’s reassertion of identifiable elements in the picture was crucial for the next generation of photographers and designers, among them Herbert Matter, who studied with him at the Académie des Beaux Arts in Paris between 1923 and 1925. From the early 1930s, Matter evolved what he called “Foto-Graphik” and applied it in striking designs for the Swiss National Tourist Office. In these, Switzerland was personified as a young, smiling, modern woman. The exact connotations of the head need further exploration: she was glamorous but not narcissistic, being outward-looking and exchanging pleasure. The process of photography and reproduction produced a media effect that was not as extreme as contemporary Hollywood publicity. Matter found other icons for the country: woollen ski gloves, photographs or cartographic mountains, edelweiss and the national flag were all used as signifiers of “Switzerland.” Another route from Cubism, which Virginia Smith has identified in her book The Funny Little Man: The Biography of a Graphic Image, was towards the schematised head, perhaps applied most famously in Schlemmer’s Bauhaus signet, but also to be found in many designs for graphic exhibition posters as well [14].


13. Fernand Léger, “The Origins of Painting and its Representational Value,” in Functions of Painting, ed. Edward Fry, London: Thames and Hudson, 1973.

14. Virginia Smith, The Funny Little Man: The Biography of a Graphic Image, New York: Van Nostrand, 1994.

Prosthesis: hands and eyes

In 1930, Sigmund Freud wrote in Civilisation and its Discontents: “By means of all his tools, man makes his own organs more perfect – both the motor and the sensory – or else removes all obstacles in the way of their activity… with spectacles he corrects the defect of the lens in his own eyes; with telescopes he looks at far distances; with the microscope he overcomes his own limitations in visibility due to the structure of the retina” [15].

In his self-portrait – a manifesto of the new artist-designer – El Lissitzky superimposed a portrait with a hand holding a compass over graph paper with stencilled lettering. Like Freud, this indicates the preference for tools to aid the designer. A repertoire of hands holding pencils, compasses, dividers, air brushes and other pieces of technical equipment abounds in graphic design of the late 1920s. Similarly, the photographic lens or human eye look out from many posters invoked in a self-reflexive metaphor as “foto-auge” (photo-eye). Paul Schuitema, a member of the Ring, summarised this approach, also in 1930. “The designer is not a draughtsman,” he wrote, “but rather an organiser of optical and technical factors. The work should not be handcraft, but it should be confined to making notes, grouping and organising technically” [16].

Yet such optimism in new techniques was not matched in the wider design press. Gustav Hartlaub, a sympathetic critic who, in 1924, had coined the term “new objectivity,” said this about the new typography: “In fact, the modern, objective, Constructivist style affects the senses only in advertising for the products of the machine industry, the manufacture of instruments and so forth, especially by technical means, and on the other hand by neon-light advertisements; it is by no means to be used for old fashioned categories of products, such as containers for pipe tobacco or cigars, where the users’ conservative taste requires archaic forms and where the chilly objectivity of the new style would only irritate the user group” [17].

His words would prove prophetic for the return to more seamless compositions in colour lithography which became dominant in the 1930s.


15. Civilisation and its Discontents, London: Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1930.

16. Statement in Gefesselter Blick, eds. Heinz and Bodo Rasch, Stuttgart: Dr Zaugg, 1930.

17. Gustav Hartlaub, “Art As Advertising,” in Das Kunstblatt, Berlin, 1928.

First published in Eye no. 24 vol. 6, 1997

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