London

Gerd Arntz, Fabrik (Factory), 1927, woodcut on card, 17 x 12 7/8". From the series “12 Häuser der Zeit” (12 Houses of the Time), 1927.

Gerd Arntz, Fabrik (Factory), 1927, woodcut on card, 17 x 12 7/8". From the series “12 Häuser der Zeit” (12 Houses of the Time), 1927.

Gerd Arntz

Between Bridges

Gerd Arntz, Fabrik (Factory), 1927, woodcut on card, 17 x 12 7/8". From the series “12 Häuser der Zeit” (12 Houses of the Time), 1927.

The subject of this show was, as the press release said, “one of the more unusual, if less well-known, artists of the Weimar Era.” So “Gerd Arntz (1900–1988) and Isotype” was exactly the kind of quirky, unexpected exhibition that has made Between Bridges, the tiny exhibition space run by Wolfgang Tillmans, one of my favorite London art destinations. The twenty-eight works shown here ranged in date from 1924 to 1969 and were mostly black-and-white woodcuts, though there were also a couple of black-and-white linocuts as well as eight of the one hundred color plates from the portfolio Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft (Society and Economy), published in 1930 as an exemplification of Isotype (an acronym for International System of Typographic Picture Education). This method was devised by the philosopher and sociologist Otto Neurath—a logical positivist but also (like Arntz, who lived in Moscow for a time) a Marxist—“to represent social facts pictorially” as a way of assisting in the self-education of the proletariat, and it was executed by Arntz, who created some four thousand pictographs to be used to present quantitative data on social processes: demographic, economic, and political.

There has lately been something of a revival of interest in Isotype. In 2007 there was an exhibition on Neurath at Stroom Den Haag in The Hague, where Arntz lived from 1934 until his death, so if Arntz’s name rings any bells at all, it’s likely to be through the Neurath connection, but the fact is that the visual presentation of statistics is unlikely to result in anything of great artistic interest. This rule of thumb was confirmed by plates seen here—the charts of, say, Handelsmarinen der Erde (Merchant Fleets of the World), which demonstrate the vast increase in shipping, and in the number of nations engaged in it, between 1850 and 1929—despite the clarity and elegance of their presentation.

Where the exhibition really succeeded was in showing how much more there is to Arntz’s oeuvre than Isotype. The difference between the statistical illustrations and his black-and-white works is the difference between information and propaganda—and propaganda turns out to have a lot more artistic potential, at least where it promotes reflection rather than reaction. The incisive clarity of Arntz’s graphic style, geometrically frontal and rectilinear but enlivened by sophisticated interchanges between positive and negative (white line/black ground vs. black line/white ground), is perfect for simultaneously bringing out the unambiguous dichotomies implied by the very phrase “black and white” while at the same time allowing them all the dialectical complexity they need, so that Erschossen um nichts (Shot for Nothing), 1924, easily pays off its debt to Goya’s Third of May, 1808 by updating it for the Machine Age. The exhibition was at its best in the ten prints from the 1927 portfolio “12 Häuser der Zeit” (12 Houses of the Time), with their geometrical analysis of prototypical modern buildings—a bar, a barracks, a brothel, and so on—and their inhabitants. Just as equivalences and oppositions are laid out within each image—in a bank, say, between the clerks working behind the scenes in an office and the crowd lined up at the tellers’ windows—so comparisons and contrasts are constructed from image to image: between department store and theater, say, or between prison and factory. Arntz’s style embodies not so much a systematic way of representing, as in the Isotype pictographs, as a systematic way of seeing.

Barry Schwabsky