From Posada to Isotype, from Kollwitz to Catlett

Exchanges of Political Print Culture. Germany - Mexico 1900-1968

23 March – 29 August 2022 /
Sabatini Building, Floor 3

The exhibition From Posada to Isotype, from Kollwitz to Catlett centres its research on the development and exchange between different purportedly obsolete and anti-technology print media — woodcuts, wood engravings, linocut and lithography — and its role and means of distribution in divergent geopolitical and social contexts. The show, curated by Benjamin H.D. Buchloh and Michelle Harewood, is articulated around four major areas, starting with early examples by Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada and German artist Käthe Kollwitz, two major figures in printmaking at the end of the 19th century, moving on to German Expressionism and the Taller de Gráfica Popular (The People’s Print Workshop) from Mexico, and ending with the project Isotype (International System of Typographic Picture Education) by Otto Neurath and Marie Reidemeister-Neurath, from Austria, and German artist Gerd Arntz.    

The first section compares and contrasts the work of José Guadalupe Posada and Käthe Kollwitz, situated in opposite ends of the geopolitical and artistic scale: on one side is Posada’s practice, which drew from French printmakers Honoré Daumier and Paul Gavarni and their acerbic political caricatures, adverts and vignettes; and on the other, the socialist and feminist tenor of Kollwitz’s work, based initially on the great European tradition of etching and lithography, ranging from Rembrandt to Goya, and then abandoned in pursuit of the woodcut, a medium through which she connected to the poor and working classes. Both would subsequently become frames of reference for political printmakers from Mexico, the USA, the Soviet Union and China. Posada’s work, represented via an array of political pamphlets, posters and newspapers, reference points of Mexican national identity for decades, engages in dialogue in the show with the portfolios Kollwitz created to reflect the social upheavals of the German Empire and the First World War: Ein Weberaufstand (March of the Weavers, 1893–1897), Bauernkrieg (Peasants’ War, 1903–1908) and Krieg (War, 1922–1923).           

The second section is devoted to the reappearance of the graphic art tradition in the first decade of German Expressionism. After the impact of discovering Paul Gauguin’s woodblock prints, and other sources, different members of Die Brücke such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff disseminated, from 1905, woodcuts and prints both as a specific medium of German artistic tradition and, paradoxically, as a way to present a primitive globalism. It was through the figure of German historian, critic and editor Paul Westheim, and in particular his book The Wood Engraving (1921), that the medieval engraving was understood as a language specific to the modern German nation in the wake of the First World War, and in contrast to the languages of French Cubism and Italian Futurism. Westheim’s exile to Mexico in 1937 resulted in him creating a link between Mexican printmaking and German Expressionism, and in the second edition of his book (1954) he included Posada and various members of the Taller de Gráfica Popular. A decade on from the foundation of Die Brücke, graphic art production in Germany underwent a radical shift, leaving behind woodcuts and their associations with the regressive ambitions of new German nationalism to experiment with new channels of graphic art-making, as evinced in works such as Max Beckmann’s Die Hölle (Hell, 1919), Gott mit Uns (God with Us, 1919) by George Grosz and Otto Dix’s Der Krieg (The War, 1924).          

The third and broadest section of the exhibition centres on the Taller de Gráfica Popular. Post-revolutionary Mexico also entered into the debate on the use of print media as a communication and education tool for working and rural classes, a debate which took place initially in journals such as Frente a Frente and El Machete. In these publications, doubts were harboured over whether the mural paintings promoted by the State actually corresponded to the needs of these social classes and they highlighted the effectiveness of print media for such ends. Founded in 1937 by Raúl Anguiano, Luis Arenal, Leopoldo Méndez and Pablo O´Higgins at the heart of the Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios (League of Revolutionary Writers and Artists), the Taller de Gráfica Popular comprised numerous artists/activists who produced a wide array of flyers, posters, pamphlets and prints which contributed to strengthening progressive political parties and to defending causes such as the nationalisation of mining and petrol resources and the land rights of indigenous peoples. Furthermore, the Taller became increasingly committed to the fight against fascism, particularly after Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War, with a significant number of exiled artists and writers, particularly Spanish and German anti-fascists assembled around associations such as the Pro-German Culture League in Mexico, playing a pivotal role. Worthy of mention, among others, is the architect and second director of the Bauhaus, Dessau Hannes Meyer, and his second wife, Léna Bergner, also a member of the Bauhaus, where she worked on textile and graphic design workshops. Invited by Lázaro Cárdenas’s government as urban planners, they would soon come into contact with the Taller de Gráfica Popular: Meyer as the financial director of the Taller’s publishing house, La Estampa Mexicana, Bergner as a graphic designer in numerous portfolios released by the same publisher, among them Estampas de la Revolución mexicana (Prints of the Mexican Revolution, 1947) and the first major publication to document the activity of the Taller: TGP México. El Taller de Gráfica Popular. Doce años de obra artística colectiva (TGP Mexico. El Taller de Gráfica Popular. Twelve Years of Collective Art Work, 1949).

Members of the Taller also included exiled US writers and artists such as photographer Mariana Yampolsky, painter Charles White, and sculptor and print-maker Elizabeth Catlett, who would adapt Kollwitz’s printmaking technique in her prints and posters backing the feminist cause and the civil rights movement in the USA. 

As a dialectic and historical conclusion to the exhibition, the fourth section is developed via wide-ranging documentation from the Isotype project, conceived by Otto Neurath, Marie Reidemeister-Neurath and Gerd Arntz at different stages and in different places: Düsseldorf, Vienna, Moscow, The Hague and London. The project rapidly gained international recognition, both in practical applications for a new and emerging information society and in terms of a theoretical debate on the suitable roles of the pictorial. Viennese sociologist Otto Neurath, in collaboration with his wife Marie Reidemeister, discovered the pictorial and print work of Gerd Arntz, acknowledging it as the ideal medium to formulate a language of truly international, functional and universally legible signs. The principles of the Isotype project were designed in a collaboration between Arntz and Neurath to transmit sociological, economic and political information which was key for the working classes in traditional nation States, and for post-colonial States emerging in the interwar period and out of the Second World War.