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Konstruktive Bilderwelten
Red Square and Little Yellow

Text: Jörg Stürzebecher

When we speak of picture books, we usually mean children’s books. And we think of elephants, rabbits, moles, and caterpillars, of the sun, the moon, and the stars, and the wild things, of red tractors, jackhammers, and marvellous machines, of boats and stuff that girls like, of many things, exciting things, and almost always not so dangerous things, of solutions and happy ends.

The final point applies to the works introduced here, which are otherwise different: of insights into a world of images in which depicting illustration is replaced by non-representational construction and graphic organisation.


First of all, some possibilities are introduced below to illustrate the visual organisation of image elements, but this does not mean that these examples are in any way superior in comparison to representational techniques. I know, that Maurice Sendak also operates with varying image sizes and I appreciate the cryptic and startling alienation he achieves, in particular how the time levels are shifted back into place with his closing sentence about the food in “Where the Wild Things Are” – “and it was still hot”. I marvel at Reiner Zimnik’s perspectives and his linkages between image and text when, for instance, on closer inspection an ornate frame turns out to consist of repetitions of the word “gold”. I delight in the changes in direction and colour of the baselines in Wiebke Oeser’s “Bertas Boote” [Berta’s Boats] and the hidden allusions to the book’s development timeline in Klaus Ensikat’s “The Bremen Town Musicians”, where, for instance, the glazier’s telephone number reveals the date “19.1.[19]94”. I am familiar with Jean de Brunhoff’s influence on the ligne claire comics and laugh about Babar’s upbringing as a good foreigner due to the French colonialism. I enjoy Tomi Ungerer’s placement of taps in impossible positions, his ironisation of orphan kitsch in “The Three Robbers”, and the way that this book plays with cinematic camera shots. I love discoveries, not only in the hidden object pictures of Ali Mitgutsch or Rotraut Susanne Berner, but also in the almost photorealist books of Jörg Müller, where change in the landscape claims for not only houses but also a cat, and changes in the city are accompanied by allusions to Le Corbusier and the much appreciated Berne-based Atelier 5, which I hold in high esteem. I recall, like Hendrik Dorgathen in “Space Dog”, experiencing the Märklin model train with the Santa Fe diesel locomotive as an early encounter with the product world of the US. I marvel at how Leo Lionni tells the story of paradise without the expulsion in the book “In the Rabbitgarden” and turns fleas into adventurers in “A Flea Story”, thus giving a voice to animals with limited appeal, very similar to what Gerhard Oberländer previously did with “Schnake Schnack” [Crane Fly Chat], which is oriented on Joan Miró in colour and form. I am glad that I happen to recall Warja Lavater’s leporello picture books in order to at least somewhat soften the focus on males in this series and I am already looking forward to the conclusion of this text containing a reference to Pija Lindenbaum. It annoys me how little treatment the picture book, which is so excellently suited for dealing with image-text relationships, is given in the history of graphic design at universities in comparison to, say, posters, and it annoys me even more how uninformed publications almost always are, at least those in German known to me. Ultimately, I could go on listing all these books indefinitely, but then, I would have failed to address my topic. Which is why the list of things not reported on ends here.


The Soviet Contribution

In the beginning was El Lissitzky and “About Two Squares”, sparking a revolution in children’s playrooms. It was 1922, the USSR had just been established, when in Berlin a story was published in which a red and a black square come to an earth on which everything is in a state of chaos. Afterwards, the red square begins rebuilding, with the black square literally forming the basis of the new construction, but later shifting aside. The book is mainly intended for children, who are encouraged to recreate and change the story using blocks or other materials. The images show geometric elements in different proximities – there is even a switch to a kind of subjective camera shot, when the view is of what the squares see rather than of the squares themselves. It is not difficult to initially see the story as a representation of the Bolshevik revolution – the old order topples and the new world is red. But that is merely the simplest interpretation. Because over and above this, it is, of course, also a critique of the suprematism of Kazimir Malevich, under whose influence Lissitzky initially stood and whose stylistic means he transformed, after a brief examination of Jewish folk art, into a politically left-wing graphic language. Lissitzky’s model is thus no longer “the non-representational world” but the construction of a new (social) order. However, in this way of reading, the two square protagonists are no longer equals, as suggested by the title. The red square dominates, not only on the cover, but also on the title page, where the static character of the black square stands in contrast to the dynamic character of the red one. Although ostensibly propaganda for children, at the time they were unlikely to have benefited from this guide to the revolution, and not only because of the fine paper. A signed special edition was advertised – thus in reality it was an art book that mainly had its effect in Germany and, as the result of a reprint, also in the Netherlands, but it was practically unavailable in the country of its creation. It should also be noted that the design, which is indeed revolutionary in its pictorial concept, nonetheless traditionally divides image and text, something that the early comics of the time had long since overcome.

Despite these objections, it is a milestone in typography – Lissitzky’s work did not so much influence illustrative books as it did modern typography. Thus, the production of Soviet children’s books oriented itself more towards spray techniques and the surface ornamentation of art deco, which was sharing more similarities with the contemporary picture books in the US and France at the time. Only the book project “Do-it-yourself Animals” by Alexander Rodchenko picked up on Lissitzky in some respects, such as colour selection and activation, but this book remained only a project, not being published in an interpretive design until 1980. Lissitzky’s second plan for a typographic children’s book, “The Four Arithmetical Functions” (designed in 1928 and printed in 1976), also remained contemporaneously unrealised. Similar to the squares, it contains unusual weightings. Thus, different ethnic groups of the USSR are characterised by their national costumes, with only the Russians appearing as typical workers, reflecting Stalin’s nationality policy, which was not so far removed from the colonialism known from “Babar”.


Schwitters and the Consequences

Nonetheless, Lissitzky still had an impact – in Hanover, where he met his wife Sophie Küppers. Like the Dutch Two Squares publisher and De Stijl founder Theo van Doesburg and the journalist Käte Steinitz, Merz artist Kurt Schwitters was enthusiastic about Lissitzky’s typographical work. They adjusted his concept towards unity of text and image by initially integrating image and text, but also beginning to generate images with the help of typographical letters and material. And then there is the joy of language play, when for instance in “Die Scheuche” [The Scarecrow] (1925), Mosjö le Coq (that is Mr Rooster) is set to rhyme with the “hic haec hoc” of Latin lessons. This provided important impulses for concrete and sound poetry and led to another picture book “Billy” (around 1936) by Kate (Käte) Steinitz, published as a draft reprint. Like El Lissitzky’s renowned Mayakovsky poetry anthology “For the Voice”, “Billy” was intended to be illustrated exclusively with typographical content, for instance with buildings being constructed from brass lines and the title figure having a belly based on the letter “b”. This lay in trend with typesetting of the 1920s, as reflected, for instance, in the Berlin “Bolle” signet. Unfortunately, “Billy” only exists so far as a facsimile edition of the drawn original. To date, it has not been realised in a graphically interpreted form with a sans serif that underlines the geometric. More followed in the playful constructions of the 1920s, in educational game books such as “Hurra wir rechnen” [Hooray, We’re Doing Arithmetic] (1931) by Tom Seidmann-Freud, for example, or in the early applications of Viennese pictorial statistics in “Die bunte Welt” [The Colourful World] (1929). Now, serial graphical structures became more prominent everywhere. Nonetheless, the application of religious combinatorics in “Die bunte Welt” required some getting used to, and not just for religious believers.


The 1930s put a stop to this development for a while. There are stylistic reasons for this – the harsh contrasts of elementary typography gave way to more colour differentiation – and there are, of course, political reasons, because war is more about practical maps than innovative picture books. Shortly after the end of the war and the racist annihilations, something astonishing happened in central Europe. Photomontage, which had been the means of pictorial enlightenment since the 1920s, is embraced as a technique for picture books in Czechoslovakia, expanding the few older examples of the photographic picture book, for example by Edward Steichen or Emmanuel Sougez. “Svezte se s nám” [Travel with Us] is the name of a leporello published in 1946 in Ostrava and Prague showing depictions by the graphic designer Zdenka Valentová of different means of transport, ranging from the stagecoach to the streamlined railcar, combined with drawings and poems by educator Josef Hons – it even includes the school tram. A flash of modernism sparks up once again before the Stalinist doctrine of forced optimism takes hold of graphic art in Eastern Europe and large parts of central Europe.


Constructive design finds other places, for example in Italy, where Bruno Munari has been decorating his partly illegible books and booklets with various types of paper, notches, and perforations since the 1950s. But even more so Switzerland becomes the starting point for new, playful ways of dealing with books, for example when Dieter Roth, on the occasion of the birth of the son of Claus Bremer – a former resident of the Halen Estate formed by the aforementioned Atelier 5 architectural group – makes a present of a colour play book that can be used on all sides, which is initially returned to him with the explanation that it would be a shame to let something like this get ruined. Well, it is common knowledge that only toys and play books that are used, become well-loved objects, but if Bremer hadn’t returned the gift, Roth’s picture books would perhaps have remained just a legend. But as it is, a small print run of the book was published in 1957 by Roth’s own publishing house, which published another constructive picture book in 1960, the coloured foil book by the artist, advertiser, and product designer Paul Talman. Here, too, the picture book remains an art book, even if it was conceived with a different purpose. And yet it significantly changed the world for children, as perforations later appeared in one of the most influential, long-selling picture books of recent decades, in which author Eric Carle tells the story of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” (1969) as it eats its way from page to page growing bigger and bigger as it goes.


In the post-war period, the US, the country of origin of pragmatism, also achieved essential things, de-ideologised the rigid forms of constructive book design, and brought more fun into education. Worth particular mention here are two designers who are important for communication design: Saul Bass, celebrated for his film opening credits, and Paul Rand, the pioneer of corporate design. Here, too, text becomes image, for instance, when in “I Know a Lot of Things” (1956) by Ann and Paul Rand, growing up is visualised through wanting to know more. The Rands effortlessly combine simple forms with historical fonts, make letters dance and surfaces glitter, as in “Sparkle and Spin” (1957). This may bring them dangerously close to the saccharine sweetness of Fisher-Price and Barbie, but at the same time lends proximity to the construction kits and collages that at the latest with Ray and Charles Eames became the leitmotif of post-war modernism. A third US American commercial artist then helped the non-representational picture book to gain broad acceptance. This was Leo Lionni – known among other things as the designer for the high-profile business magazine Fortune – who replaced the precisely cut geometries of the 1920s with torn pieces of coloured paper in “Little Blue and Little Yellow” (1959). And while Lissitzky praised the aesthetic and political revolutions, for Lionni it was a matter of equality and difference, of prejudice, of how unimportant the exterior is, a highly political topic in the US in view of the racism that continued to exist even after 1945. Yet, this does not come across as propaganda but is conveyed through a story that inspires us to do some recreating, in a picture book that has been in circulation in many languages for more than half a century. For Lionni – and this is also a pragmatic approach – this made the colour field picture book disengaged. Other things followed and received acclaim, such as his remarkable portrayal of Plato’s cave analogy in “Fish Is Fish” (1972), before he turned to a sweet, commercial, but enormously successful path with his stories on the field mouse “Frederick”.


Torn paper and shapes now appear increasingly alongside traditional drawings, as in “In the Rabbitgarden”, or two-dimensional illustrations. But too much simplicity can also become dangerous, and the step from Rand, to “Shapes” (1970) by Janet Williams, to Dick Bruna’s ideograms is not very far. A similar thing applies to “I Saw” (1967) by Alan Fletcher, the co-founder of Pentagram. One can also ask whether Anton Stankowski’s “Look!” (1979) – certainly a wonderful example of visualisation using simple means – really is suitable as a picture book. Then in 1991, the illustrator Manfred Bofinger transformed Lissitzky’s graphic art into the genuinely practical picture book “Graf Tüpo” [Count Typo], complete with handicraft sheets – returning language play to the word joke, and constructivism to the object. And it is with the representational that this article will close, with reference to the IKEA children’s stool Mammut that appears in Pija Lindenbaum’s “Bridget and the Moose Brothers” (2004). Although it isn’t a generally recognised design, it is something that children like. Just like the constructive Lego bricks on the one hand and the pink princess castle on the shelf on the other. After all, children have nothing against design, but they also want kitsch, like rabbit-shaped slippers. And geometries and splotches can be stimulating, but it is also fantastic how good Charlotta is at drawing horses.

Jörg Stürzebecher grew up in the company of Gute Form with Lego bricks and Babar. The subjects of his previous writings for form have included Dieter Roth and Paul Rand. He acquired the leporello by Zdenka Valentová in September 2018 at a flea market in Frankfurt/Main. Stürzebecher last wrote for form 278 on the 1958 Brussels Expo.


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