World as Words, Exhibition

13 Oct

On September 22, 2010 opened the exhibition “Welt aus Schrift [World as Words]” in the special exhibition halls of Berlin’s Kulturforum. For Berlin, it is the first big exhibition featuring the designing of letters and designing with letters in years. This autumn promises to be very exciting. Website of Staatliche Museen Berlin.

It is a unique endeavor mounted by the head of Kunstbiblothek’s graphic design collection, Anita Kühnel. For the first time in the institutions 140 years of existence it presents a big show devoted entirely to its collections in script, lettering and type matters. “World as Words” provides us with an excellent overview of the design of letters and the ways to work with them in Germany, Europe and the US in a period spanning bewteen 1890 and 2010.

The exhibition will be open through January 16, 2011 and is accompanied by lectures of exquisite a choice of speakers. Paralelling “World as Words” are the students of Leipzig’s Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst showing type-related works under the title “Einfach realitätsnäher! [Simply closer to reality!]” in the rooms of Kunstbibliothek. To top it all off, a third exhibition “Schrift als Bild [Script as Image]” will open just next door in the Kupferstichkabinett’s halls on October 29, 2010 and be on display through January 23, 2011. These three letter-oriented exhibitions combine into an event that the city’s type scene has not seen in years.

The title “Welt aus Schrift” refers to the the exhibition “Welt aus Sprache” held by West-Berlin’s Akademie der Künste in 1972. In opposition to this earlier precursor, the current exhibition focuses on the Western writing system, Latin script. It traces its formal and historical transformations, points to the various ways letter forms were charged with ideology during the twentieth century and establishes links between the manifold different fields of working with letters.

Especially in this last point the exhibit is outstanding and future-oriented. The times seem to be over when book art was presented apart from poster art, when job printing and store front lettering were excluded. “World as Words” underlines the dialogue of script, lettering and typography, emphasizing the existence of a wider “Letter culture of the West.”

Central in this exhibition are the German speaking countries, as most of the pieces are from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. But the view on culture or geography bound charateristics has been set in relation to developments in other countries, in each of the chronological sections. Works from England, the US, France, Italy and the Netherlands highlight multilayered international references, some times as influences, some times as international movements.

This conceptual openness is also featured in the way that, at certain points the narrow field of letter work is extended to those of litterature and fine arts.

Despite this openness, though, one has to state that at its core “World as Words” presents the canon of graphic design and typography that young designers should familiarize themselves with. How much this is due to the pieces available in the collection that are, only in rare cases,  completed by third party loans, remains unclear.

In her introductory note in the catalog, Anita Kühnel writes: “Laying out the collection is a unique chance to give access to the public to mostly hidden things, but on the other hand the collection politic is put to the test by the limitations [of an exhibition] and by the question which developments in fact show to be exemplarily pointing forward or outstanding.”

But it certainly doesn’t mean a disadvantage to present a wider public with the pearls of the collection. William Morris alongside George Auriol alongside Henry van de Velde alongside Peter Behrens alongside Koloman Moser at the start of the first hall. Uwe Lösch alongside Neville Brody alongside Ruedi Baur alongside David Carson alongside Mevis and van Deursen in the second hall. The extensive list is too long for inclusion within this article.

Two aspects of which I would have liked to see more are Eastern European graphic designers, poster artists and type designers that are painfully underrepresented, as much as the more revolutionary changes and upswings of type design after 1984, particularly works of Dutch pioneers such as Just van Rossum, Erik van Blokland and Petr van Blokland. This way, at the end of the circuit you don’t feel like you have come full circle.

At the end of the day, the only really anoying thing is the fact that the website of Staatliche Museen, in its narrow-minded design, doesn’t allow for making this special exhibition really big. It deserves it.

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