Spring 1997

Multiple meanings

Uwe Loesch’s posters have the linguistic subtlety and precision of conceptual art. They demand attention, then release their significance bit by bit.

The meaningless manipulation of images is now the small change of graphic design. Twentieth-century German history has made European designers of an older generation more sensitive to the role of the image, more suspicious of its relation to state power and bourgeois ideology. Under Nazism, signs identified the killers (swastikas and eagles) and the victims (Stars of David and triangular coloured patches). Images of Nordic demigods were an aspiration; photographic images are the evidence (Auschwitz or the devastated Dresden). For Uwe Loesch, even standardised paper sizes are a disturbing assertion of bureaucratic arrogance.

Loesch is one of the older stars of European graphic design, with awards and medals and solo exhibitions in Germany and abroad. He is represented in museum collections and interviewed in magazines. He lectures in China, belongs to the elite AGI (Alliance Graphique Internationale) and is a professor to boot. Loesch’s posters began to appear in annuals and poster biennales in the early 1980s. In 1983, he won international recognition when he received first prize at the Lahti poster Biennale for the billboard poster "Punktum." He attracted attention by his mastery of graphic skills – typographic and photographic – and by his flamboyant eccentricity. For the logo of the Ruhr Regional museum he proposed a sugar cube, rather than a graphic representation. "There aren’t many logos you can crumble into your coffee," he said.

More than the usual accolades offered to a graphic celebrity, Loesch invites the type of critical response commonly given to artists, but not often to designers. His work repays scrutiny not only for its deployment of scrupulous imagery but also for his use of words – not as exercises in typographical form, but as language. He uses graphic design, as he says, not "to decorate the world," but to communicate. Loesch is successful as a commercial designer, but he has a great deal in common with contemporary conceptual artists such as Victor Burgin, Hans Haacke, Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, who have chosen to parade typographic political messages stripped of aesthetic content. With none of Loesch’s sophistication or expertise, their work has won conscientious critical support.

Loesch’s primary medium is the poster, the most elementary carrier of word and image and at one time synonymous with "commercial art." Much reproduced, and easily exhibited (unlike typographic work), posters provide popular means to illustrate aesthetic change and social and political history.

This is particularly true in Germany, aesthetically, from Jugendstil to post-modernism; and politically, through two world wars – with the Weimar republic and Nazism in between – to the cold war and re-unification. The poster artist Ludwig Hohlwein embodied this history in his career: as a hero of the Sachplakat early in the century, as a designer of patriotic posters in World War I and then as a propagandist for National Socialism, he worked until his Munich studio was destroyed by bombing in 1944. Hohlwein preceded graphic design. His posters were inimitable in their painterly style.

There is no style with Loesch; only an unexpected way of communicating each message. Loesch’s early posters follow his expressed aims – to "captivate, fascinate, liberate." The informal simplicity of their concepts and execution instantly triggers a unique meaning. In a series of posters for the 1985 "Health and Safety at Work" conference and exhibition, each poster was a coloured rectangle on which a black drawing identified a hazard or its prevention. Physical accidents from machinery were represented by the drawn outline of a hand, torn through the fingers. On another, a featureless head was scrawled across with the word "alkohohl," its misspelling (instead of alkohol) introducing "hohl," meaning empty or vacant in German, and the idea of the empty-headedness that comes through drunkenness. Yet another is printed with three black circles: two represent the precaution of wearing safety goggles, the third refers to the symbol worn in Germany on armbands by the blind to denote their disability. The viewer’s interpretation is enhanced by the hand-written, oddly-spaced caption "ei-ther or."

Uwe Loesch’s studio, the Co-Partnership for Visual and Verbal Communication, occupies the ground floor of a large nineteenth-century building that faces the Rhine in Düsseldorf, where he studied at the Werkkunstschule. The practice’s workspace is divided into four: three studios with assistants, and his own office. The tall, bearded Loesch, now in his early fifties, is at one moment wildly expansive and humorous, at the next reflective, adopting the demeanour appropriate to his role as a professor. He spends each Friday at the Department of Visual Communication at the University of Wuppertal, 25 miles to the east, where he took the place once occupied by Twen magazine art director Willy Fleckhaus. Loesch’s work can be categorised by type of client and audience. He has produced posters over several years for companies in the printing and paper trades, for a small cabaret theatre, for design schools, for museums and for the local social services, and he has designed posters which are in some way "consciousness-raising."

He is fortunate in his location: Düsseldorf is the fashion capital of Germany and a venue for trade exhibitions. Düsseldorfer Messe, the city’s trade fair organisation, has given him opportunities to work on huge poster sites. He has used them imaginatively and taken advantage of briefs that rarely extend beyond providing an effective image for the current fair. Often at billboard scale, they demonstrate Loesch’s proposition that the poster is part of the event that it is promoting.

The effectiveness of a Loesch poster depends not on either word or image independently, but on the meaning, or often multiple meanings, that derive from their interaction. Loesch’s famous "Punktum" was produced in A0 size, and as a billboard poster, for two clients – the first a printer, the second a reproduction company that had introduced a means of producing large-scale colour half-tones in a single scan. Enlarged half-tone screens are a visual cliché, but Loesch uses them not only to demonstrate the process of reproduction that the poster is advertising but also to comment on our process of perception which allows us to fuse the "points" into an image. Members of the print trade would instantly identify with the imagery and recognise themselves as the target audience.

The multiple meanings in this poster are elaborate. "Punktum" means full stop (or period), and it carries an overtone of finality, implying "enough said." Loesch draws attention to this extra meaning by following this single-word headline with a full stop. The word "Punktum" can also be read as a caption to the image, the focus of which is a beauty spot, made up, like the rest of the surface, of spots (the German for spot is Punkt). This ambiguous use of the headline that appears to be a label or caption identifying the image is a device typical of Loesch. His way is not that of post-modern ambiguity; not "either this or this," but rather, "this and this and this and this."

Loesch used the same technique for a similar audience of visitors to the 1990 DRUPA printing trades exhibition. The billboard carried overprinted rectangles of half-tone dots, skewed to clash in a pattern, and the word "Grußfläche." Loesch’s wordplay is again crucial – and inevitably, once translated to English, some of its wit and elegance are lost. "Eine Großfläche" means "a hoarding." But Loesch, by changing the "o" to a "u," invents the word "Grußfläche," or "greeting space" – a billboard that welcomes visitors. Such a typical play on words is often accompanied by a play on images, or includes meanings that are waiting to be discovered. While they attract the eye, Loesch’s posters take some time to deliver their full charge of meanings. The reward for looking is the revelation of references as varied as those found in a medieval painting. For a packaging trade fair in 1990, Loesch used a plan of Düsseldorf that emphasised the blue of the Rhine with its curves suggesting the profile of a face. Across this is spread the word "Wirtschaftswunder" (economic miracle). Like "Punktum," the poster’s huge sheets were folded, trimmed and bound as a 256-page A4 book, titled "Wirtschaftsplan" (economic plan), and there is wordplay at work. "Wunder" and "plan" refer to Düsseldorf’s other attractions. Loesch also uses an unexpected alternative meaning of Wirtschaft, as the word for "pub" or "restaurant," and the map shows Düsseldorf’s range of bars, restaurants and discotheques.

The astonishing aspect of this design is how we can read the blue outline of the Rhine as the profile of a head. The angular lines around the "mouth," made by the docks where barges are loaded and unloaded, have the staccato line of Picasso’s "Crying Women" associated with his Guernica painting. More surprisingly, it is even possible to see a ranting Hitler. As soon as the viewer begins to read further meanings, it is difficult to stop. But it is disturbing, as though the designer is evoking responses far beyond the ostensible message.

After trade fairs, the second important category of Loesch’s output of posters has been for cultural events. For the Ruhrland museum in Essen he has created a series in which the past is called up by different means. The excavations at Troy are presented in fragmented shards of gold, the words distributed on the background as though pulled from the ground, lying just where they had been put down by the archaeologist. For an exhibition of photographs of the mining industry, lumps of coal are dropped on to a photograph of sky, while its title – "Ausbeute" – is set with a full stop. "Ausbeute" means “output," but could also convey the idea of exploitation, in this case of natural resources.

The stylistic repetitions in Loesch’s oeuvre are of basic graphic forms. His regular return to "the point" and the plane surface, rectangular or square, suggest Bauhaus academicism, and betray his essentially Modernist attitudes. His posters can extend the flat plane into a rectangle or a horizontal band (to obscure identity), and can become an L-shape or a diagonal cross (to negate).

The square as an image in two posters exemplifies not only this use of geometrical forms but also Loesch’s idea of creating visual "disappointment," disturbing the graphic poise of his work, letting the viewer down by making things "the wrong size and in the wrong place." An early poster – for a gallery exhibiting sculpture at the Basel Art Fair in 1982 – consists of a flat, grey vertical plane. The viewer expects a rectangle, but is confronted by a non-rectangle whose base is out of square. Because it is concretely there, the viewer has to adjust to the idea of an implied depth, a perspective. A square is also the sole image in a poster for the Cologne Academy of Media Arts, placed exactly half-way up the height of the sheet – a "disappointment." Conventionally, it would be placed higher on the background to make it optically centred. The square, sharp on two edges, soft on the other two, is a plane transforming itself, by tone, into a three-dimensional spatial illusion.

Loesch has described this form as "the sum of all images." It is both flat and monotone, yet at the same time tonal and three-dimensional. He says that he discovered this "fuzzy logic" working on the Apple Macintosh, which he began using for graphics, particularly logos that were almost impossible to produce by drawing. But there is nothing obviously "digital" in his designs. Mostly, Loesch’s poster images are photographic, done in his own studio. He has an additional reputation as a photographer.

If there is repetition of basic geometric forms in Loesch’s work, the graphic technique is diverse. In the series of posters produced over many years for a cabaret theatre in Düsseldorf, the Kom(m)ödchen, he developed dramatic composite images, some crude, some elegant, with no explicit meaning. The theatre’s name already supplied its own wordplay – Kommödchen means, literally, a small chest of drawers, but with one "m" it means a little comedy. Loesch’s images have provided a unique, memorable context for each production by their interaction with the title.

In one Kom(m)ödchen poster Loesch includes the pointing finger from the famous "Uncle Sam" recruiting poster from 1917. Such extra meanings are important for Loesch. "Design makes sense only if you enjoy the process of communicating and speaking about things that are not on the surface," he says.

Of course, recognising the reference is not an absolutely essential part of the communication, but it remains a part of its tone. The deliberate roughness of the cut-out fist, its half-tone dots exposing it as a re-reproduction, and the crudely-spaced lettering, all hint at improvisation. While the process itself is transparent, the poster gains a further dimension of meaning through the absence of technical sophistication. It is close to kitsch, which he has used "as a provocation." Equally provocatively, he has suggested that "the majority of colleagues do not know (or recognise) that nearly every graphic design is kitsch."

Far from kitsch in their sophistication, Loesch’s combined skills are those found in an advertising agency: art direction, copywriting and photography. An early Loesch "Don’t drink and drive" poster for the local social services, adopts and adapts commercial publicity’s visual language. It uses the headline as sound, to carry the idea of cause and effect: the friendly amber glass of beer is associated with the "Trallali Trallala" of singing, which is contrasted with the cold blue light of the police car and the "Tatüüü Tataaa" of its siren. The typeface, a bland sans serif, offers no distraction from the verbal message. In more recent posters, developing his "disappointment" strategy, lines are often placed at a slight angle to the edge of the sheet, whereas conventional "good design" would place the lettering either obviously straight or markedly diagonal.

Raw and processed imagery is frequently contrasted. A poster for the German Society for the Protection of Children bears the slogan "Hilfe statt Gewalt" (Help, not violence). Loesch evokes the tension between a (literally) negative image of the anxious child and the jagged torn-paper shapes that make up white eyes, black nose and yellow mouth pointing to the gap before the final word. The implied punctuation after the word Hilfe is expressed by the slight shift of the word’s baseline. Further "disappointments," almost Loesch mannerisms, are the use of lines of type that are out of square, not quite parallel to the edge of the paper, and posters trimmed to irregular shapes.

In a design made for the bicentenary of the French Revolution, Loesch, by trimming the bottom of the paper at an angle, has transformed the poster into a guillotine blade and the poster’s background becomes its image. Commissioned to be sold as a poster, it is one of Loesch’s most surprising but least successful inventions. The guillotine may represent the abuse of power, the elimination of human rights, but it is linked with the convoluted headline that reads "Help take the edge off the reduction of HUMAN RIGHTS," with the bottom edge of its large type lopped off. In this example it is difficult to connect the graphic conceits with any historical or contemporary reality.

In recent years there has been a proliferation of poster campaigns that aim to raise public awareness of international problems – global warming, over-population, torture – and social issues. Such posters, which are often sponsored by international competitions, have sometimes drawn less attention to their subject matter than to their designer or to their sponsor, as with Benetton’s billboards.

Loesch insists that design is a political profession; that we have to change our world and that designers have a responsibility. He has extended his belief that posters are part of the event they promote: his most radical statement on the environment was to place unprinted sheets of green paper on 250 trees. For an exhibition of his work in Frankfurt he hung banners that read "Culture is imposed from above" from the top of the building. Below them flew hundreds of German national flags.

In 1985, Loesch produced a "computer art" poster for the magazine Inhalt captioned "Multiple Warhead: Reagan, Thatcher, Mitterrand and Deng Xiaoping – the heads of the leading atomic powers – with a computer image (devised by Nancy Burson). The amount of original image fed into the computer is in proportion to the number of nuclear warheads in each country." This is just one of his posters inveighing against power and bureaucracy.

His most remarkable poster of this type is the "‘Little Boy’ –" peace poster, produced 50 years after the use of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima. Its most interesting feature is the equation of word and image: the source of violence and its victim. "Little Boy" is both the cynical code name given to the bomb by the US Air Force and, at the same time, a banal, literal label to the image. Loesch explains that the hyphen-like dash after the word "boy" is known as a "Gedankenstrich" (thoughts-line) and that he has put space before it as a further pause for thought. The boy served to represent "every human being – the victim of every bomb." After many attempts to capture on film the sort of facial expression Loesch wanted, it was achieved by making the child hold his breath. The use of infra-red film frighteningly suggests radiation. "Now he looks like a Buddha," says Loesch.

None of Loesch’s images and none of his words are gratuitous. Last year he provided the poster for an exhibition, in Hamburg, of 1990s graphic design. It had the title "Gefühlsecht" (Real feeling). Loesch’s idea was a finger "feeling" through the photographic image of an "old hat." It is explicitly graphic, an image of an image. The focus of meaning is exact.

The Hamburg exhibition’s catalogue alludes to the evolution of a profession: first as commercial art, then as graphic design, now as communication design. Ludwig Hohlwein’s recognisable style can be securely located in the period of commercial art. Meanwhile, graphic design can be seen to have replaced commercial art as the purveyor of kitsch. Loesch, "not interested in decorating the world, but with communicating," is one of the pioneers of the new phase of communication design. As he juggles dazzlingly with images and words, he never lets us lose sight of their meanings.

First published in Eye no. 24 vol. 6 1997

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