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Art for Everyday Life

In eastern Germany one could literally encounter Bertram's work at every turn over several decades.

art-for-everyday-life


He was probably the most influential commercial artist in the GDR. Axel Bertram didn't want to work for the museum, but for everyday life. With the opulent volume “Graphic Design in Five Decades”, the singular oeuvre of the now 76-year-old has been honored long overdue.

In the world of graphic design, loud drumming is part of business. Anyone who has a say in the appearance of magazines and even entire corporations today will soon become a star themselves - and sooner or later even suitable for museums. It was different with Axel Bertram, probably the most influential commercial artist in the GDR. The now 76-year-old is a phenomenon: in eastern Germany you could literally come across his work at every turn for several decades: in bookstores, at the newspaper kiosk, on advertising pillars and envelopes, when you drop a coin in the telephone booth, on television. Who designed all the books, magazines, posters, programs, signets, coins and stamps was often only known to insiders. Bertram himself could live with it. He saw himself as an artist who was not for the museum, but wanted to work for everyday life. He cared little about developing a personal style.

“My image has always been that we, or at least I compare myself with the actor ... Because he has to play the bad guy once in a while. And the good guys next time. And one time he has to scream, and the other time very carefully ... It's actually the same thing. Nobody can do everything! Neither do I, for God's sake! But I have always tried - and have always been challenged - to find means to solve the task. "

For this purpose, Bertram had a wealth of artistic expressions available. At the East Berlin art college in Weißensee, he learned from 1955 with the greats of his time - Arno Mohr, Ernst Vogenauer, Klaus Wittkugel and Werner Klemke. The city was not yet divided, and so an inquisitive spirit could experience Edward Steichen's epoch-making photo exhibition “The Family of Men” in the west during the day and a Brecht production in the “Berliner Ensemble” in the evening for 50 pfennigs. The self-confident Bertram, who comes from a merchant family in Freital in Saxony, almost wasn't admitted to the course.

“Not because of my work that I have delivered. But my nonchalance. I said: I'm sorry, I can't wait any longer for you to make up your mind. I have to finish my high school, don't. And that was also the pure truth! But I may have said that a little flippantly. Afterwards, much later, when I was at school myself, I only found out how it came about. But: I hardly would have applied a second time. Because my pride was (laughs a lot) a little hurt. And only my dear mother, who knew me well, pushed and pushed me over and over again and said: Go on again. "

Bertram started his professional life with three fellow students; Works such as the new appearance of the Berlin Metropol Theater quickly made the group 4 studio community known, which was founded in 1960. The fact that Bertram was able to redesign some of the most important and popular magazines in the GDR as a freelance graphic artist with “Sybille”, “NBI” and “Wochenpost” is due to his bustle, tactical skills and innovative ideas. Like Willy Fleckhaus, who shaped the look of “Suhrkamp culture” and, as art director, mixed up the magazine landscape in Germany with magazines like “Twen”, Bertram did not limit himself to the mere presentation of finished material; he influenced the concepts of the sheets, stimulated image and text contributions; he even wrote his own articles on this, to sensitize readers to good everyday design. The tin plates in the politicians' villas in Wandlitz suggest that some projects, such as a news magazine based on the model of the “Spiegel”, which was designed during the brief thaw after the building of the wall, failed not only because of ideological obstinacy, but also because of the bad taste of the SED leaders . The zero number was crushed at Ulbricht's orders. Together with his colleagues, Bertram, who considered the ailments of GDR socialism to be curable, dreamed of a new visual culture that was not determined by the market and advertising. Although the international magazine market was certainly a source of inspiration. which was conceived in the brief period of thaw after the wall was built, failed not only because of ideological stubbornness, but also because of the bad taste of the SED superiors. The zero number was crushed at Ulbricht's orders. Together with his colleagues, Bertram, who considered the ailments of GDR socialism to be curable, dreamed of a new visual culture that was not determined by the market and advertising. Although the international magazine market was certainly a source of inspiration. which was conceived in the brief period of thaw after the wall was built, failed not only because of ideological stubbornness, but also because of the bad taste of the SED superiors. The zero number was crushed at Ulbricht's orders. Together with his colleagues, Bertram, who considered the ailments of GDR socialism to be curable, dreamed of a new visual culture that was not determined by the market and advertising. Although the international magazine market was certainly a source of inspiration. which is not determined by the market and advertising. Although the international magazine market was certainly a source of inspiration. which is not determined by the market and advertising. Although the international magazine market was certainly a source of inspiration.

“But we also knew that it wasn't going to work like it was in Vogue. Or like in 'Harper's Bazar'. We didn't want that. We wanted something completely different. And measured against the GDR. We had one - just an ideal of what the GDR could be. Although we knew that it is still a long way from being. ”

Fleckhaus' aesthetics had to appear too loud, too egomaniacal to one like Bertram. The fact that “Sybille”, which under his aegis changed from the staid fashion paper to the legendary “magazine for fashion and culture”, was often compared with “Twen” makes him uncomfortable today:

“Well, 'Twen' was the really big thing! But that didn't suit me. And I didn't like that key. I had nothing against the girls, for God's sake! But: simply leaving an entire three-quarter page white - just so that a narrow picture makes more impact? Nope. "

Bertram never only relied on what he already could. On the contrary: he kept dealing with new media and new techniques. For the design of commemorative and circulation coins on behalf of the GDR State Bank, he learns how to cut plaster reliefs - the 20-pfennig piece that replaced the proverbial "aluminum chips" in 1969, with an estimated mintage of 50 million become the most widespread work. At the beginning of the eighties Bertram wrote with a broad pen in Gothic script word for word "The Song of Solomon" in Luther's translation, a bibliophile event that became a best seller. At almost the same time, inspired by Otl Aicher's work for ZDF, he designed a new television font, pixel by pixel, in the Adlershof TV studios, the “Videtur” - on the most modern type computer in the world at the time.

“How did they get that across? About Switzerland, it was said ... But basically it wasn't allowed to be there. And that was what attracted me! That I can get together with the latest news as early as possible (laughs strongly). ”

The long-standing occupation with type formed the basis for Bertram's own teaching activities as professor of typography in Weissensee. While most of his colleagues incorporated photomechanically reproduced fonts into their designs until the triumph of computer fonts, Bertram mostly drew the fonts required for posters or book covers himself.

“In fact, type was one of the strongest reasons I chose commercial art in the first place ... What can you say? Type is a part of our lives. And what perhaps touches us most about design - without giving us much thought. "

"Axel Bertram. Graphic design in five decades ”presents a cosmos of work whose versatility is simply breathtaking. The volume was designed and edited by Bertram's son Matthias; he explains the creation and production conditions of the works, comments on drafts, contributes a bibliography and an introductory essay. The family closeness is not a disadvantage here: Matthias Bertram soberly and critically misses the steep career of his father, who was able to work in a privileged position as a university lecturer, SED member and functionary in the artists' association for over 30 years - and whom the collapse of the GDR almost inevitably plunged into a crisis. But Bertram remained curious: He began to enter the world of desktop publishing, created new, digital fonts and took the opportunity to

With the lavishly furnished volume, it is not only the singular oeuvre of Axel Bertram that receives the long-due recognition. It also grants exciting insights into the development of visual culture in eastern Germany. "If our cars were built like our books, the streets would be full of dead," said typographer Hans-Peter Willberg, a famous colleague from the West. That was in 1983, and the new digital competition did not change much of the findings. Seen in this way, Bertram's work can certainly be seen as a statement: good commercial graphics, art that you “need” is more necessary than ever.