Thursday, January 20, 2011

Notes on Typography und das Buchstabenmuseum

This morning when I set back into the issues of Die Dame of 1920-21, I had trouble going through them quickly. Though the top reasons included the interesting pictures, the funny ads, etc. one of the most striking differences between this Zeitschrift and its modern (and I mean modern as in present-day) counterparts is its typeface. Die Dame, as of 1920, still used old German typography, i.e. Fraktur, Gothic-style blackletter.

This typeface stands out because my main fascination with Weimar visual culture is the phenomenon of Modernism. Before I came to Germany I went through a series of discoveries on typeface, including the film Helvetica about the modernist sans-serif developed in the 1950s and Jan Tschichold's 1928 declaration of modernist typographic standards, Die neue Typographie. Finding it in the original German is #1 on my to-do list for tomorrow. So, I came into this adventure with the partial purpose of observing typefaces and how they correspond to the content, message, and general aesthetic purpose of the text in question. In the case of Die Dame in the early Weimar period, I would tentatively state that the Fraktur typeface (which I will discuss more in a moment) corresponds with still relatively old-fashioned styles and content geared toward women. By this I mean that androgynous fashions, bobbed haircuts, and cigarette ads were not yet prevalent in the magazine. Whether or not typeface changes correspond with fashion changes I still don't know. But, it is safe to say that as of 1920-21 the modernist movement in graphic design was not yet in full swing and had not reached one of the major women's fashion magazines.

Anyway, after lunch I decided to stretch my legs, ditch the library, and go check out the Buchstabenmuseum. Best idea ever. This place is awesome. A postcard is in the mail on the way to you lucky ones in the Colbs German department, and I'll go back to take pictures to post very soon. The Buchstabenmuseum is a tiny exhibit in a space in a weird mall across from Alexanderplatz. The American intern working there called the building "DDR-tastic." I think it's being torn down pretty soon. The museum itself is basically a bunch of torn-down letters from various institutions and businesses that sit jumbled around in the little space. Huge letters with neon lightbulbs are just lying around, leaning against walls and stacked on each other. It sort of looks like a letter junkyard.

The best ones are the DDR relics. Most notably are the letters RUNDFUNK from the old DDR radio station and the H-A-U-P from the old DDR Hauptbahnhof. When the wall fell, they changed the name to Ostbahnhof, replacing only the HAUP. You can go to the Buchstabenmuseum to see the old letters. So cool. And, the intern also told me that the head of the museum was the main adviser to the makers of Helvetica for the part of the film in Germany. Even cooler.

We're not done yet. Alex, the intern, pointed me to the Kulturforum, where there is currently an exhibit called "Schrift als Bild" about medieval and early modern typography. There were some cool old choir books and bibles with ornamental scripts. But, the best part was the woodcuts from the 16th century. Albrecht Dürer and his helpers created during the reign of Kaiser Maximilian I some humongous woodcuts that were on display. Most notably, a woodcut titled Triumphwagen für Kaiser Maximilian I, 1522. The woodcut features a large caption created by typesetters Hieronymus Andreae and Johann Neudörffer. The description of the piece mentions the typeface and concludes: "Bald etablierte sie sich als typisch "deutsche Schrift" in der Typographiegeschichte." !!!! That was the original typeset that would become the standart Fraktur used in almost all German publications up until the 20th century.

So, my original pondering on the typeface in Die Dame led me from one place to another, to the Buchstabenmuseum, and eventually to the original piece that ever used that very typeface. I love Berlin.


  1. sounds as if you need to start thinking about typeface vis-a-vis ekphrasis.

  2. I just read the entire Wikipedia entry on that word and I still don't know what you mean. Doesn't surprise me; I'll work on it.

  3. Sorry, I heard the word 'ekphrasis' and couldn't help but butt in.

    If you were to write an ekphrasis about a typeface, you could write about how the evolving visual nature of the typeface reflects some change in the real world - women's fashions or what have you. I've always heard the term in the context of Greek and Roman classics, where a character will come across some object with visual art on it - a shield, a coverlet, etc. - and tell a story through the description of the image he sees. Aeneas' shield in the Aeneid, for example, was painted with a series of images reflecting his eventual destiny as the founder of Rome.

    I also wrote a note about a more modern ekphrasis I encountered here:

    Have fun in Germany!

  4. Cool. I think Herr Dr. Shahan might have been indicating that I should look into what typefaces are used in ekphrasis itself. But, if you consider typeface as art I suppose you could write an ekphrasis about the typeface...using some typeface, presumably. Perhaps a standard serif?

  5. I think either approach would be informative. It would depend on your interests in extra- or inter-textuality and/or in the socio-cultural implications (and particularly economic stigma [cf. your most recent post]). What kind of story can be read from Die Dame as a Gesamtkunstwerk (a la or what does is mean to shift fonts? What kind of discourse might the magazine be reacting to by changing its fonts (in relation to Bauhaus, Blaue Reiter, Neue Sachlichkeit, usw. usf.)? Attentiveness to the relevance of such "high" cultural forms for "low" ones like Die Dame might give you a more complete image of who the readers of Die Dame might have been, or at least whether they liked Nerlinger. And as to economics and technology of print...I'll post those thoughts above.