Max Bill – the master's vision

(Max Bill – das absolute Augenmass)

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Erich Schmid

The political Bill


Politically speaking, Max Bill was anything but harmless. Indeed he was under continuous observation by the Swiss authorities for more than fifty years. With the benefit of hindsight, we can take comfort from the fact that history has judged Bill to have always been on the right side, starting with the militant antifascism of his boyhood. During World War II he worked on Germany's future reconstruction (intellectual and otherwise); during the Cold War he immediately protested against nuclear stockpiling; he was the first signatory of the most prominent appeal against the Vietnam war in the New York Times in 1965; and back in the 1950s he campaigned for environmental management, paving the way for today's environmentalism. Max Bill always regarded his life and his artistry in a political light. Whenever he painted a picture, he did so for the general public and entrusted it to society. Social responsibility was for him a duty indeed incumbent upon everyone.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. The police first began observing Bill in October 1936 after he had concealed a German fugitive in his home. Alfred Thomas was a journalist who had been persecuted in Nazi Germany and gone into hiding in Switzerland. He had worked for an antifascist news agency and built up a network of contacts in and around the main theatre in Zurich, which had become a place of sanctuary for prominent refugees such as Therese Giese, Leopold Lindtberg, Teo Otto, Kurt Hirschfeld and Karl Paryla. Alfred Thomas had been denounced as an illegal émigré in an anonymous tip-off to the police in Zurich and arrested at the home of the actor couple Karl Paryla and Hortense Raky. When interrogated, he remained silent. But when the police threatened to expel Paryla and Raky from Switzerland unless they disclosed where Alfred Thomas had been hiding, it became known that he had spent more than half a year in the guest room in Max Bill's home and studio in Höngg in north-west Zurich. Alfred Thomas was deported by government order in May 1936 - and his fate remained unknown. Bill, who had regularly hidden victims of persecution from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy without registering them with the authorities, received a "hefty fine", according to the files. (Ironically, if he had registered them, they would have been deported anyway.)

Others to have stayed with Max Bill and his wife Binia two years beforehand included the artists Friedrich and Lena Vordemberge-Gildewart (Lena was Jewish) as well as Roman Clemens (an architect and former Bauhaus student). Another was Max Ernst, who stayed with Max Bill in 1934 while he was painting the famous mural in the Corso Theatre in Zurich. The mural was later moved to the Kunsthaus Zürich, one of Switzerland's most important art museums.

In summer 1934 the two Maxes - Bill and Ernst - went to Comologno in Ticino, where the Jewish lawyer Wladimir Rosenbaum (1) from Zurich owned a magnificent villa named 'La Barca'. Rosenbaum had financed the publication of the broadsheet Information, which had been designed by Bill and edited by Ignazio Silone, an Italian author in exile. While staying in the villa, Bill and Ernst planned a political assault on the Nazi religious scholar Wolfgang Hauer (1881-1962), who had just taken part in a conference in Ascona in which psychiatrist C. G. Jung had been involved. In their Biblical allegory, the two men planned to tar and feather their victim and then have photographs of the attack published in the New York Times. In the end, however, it never took place.

Max Bill said hardly anything in private (and not a word in public) about his antifascist activities in the underground, in which other prestigious Swiss artists had also been involved. Nevertheless, he made a considerable typographical contribution during the intellectual resistance in the 1930s in Switzerland. He worked mainly as a designer for Emil Oprecht's publishing house in Zurich, which published most of the literature written by authors in exile as well as catalogues and books. When designing the covers of books about the concentration camps destined to be smuggled into Nazi Germany, Bill used rune-like fonts to make them less conspicuous. The typography (2) employed by Die Nation (3), at that time the most famous Swiss weekly paper, had also been created by Bill, along with posters and leaflets for republican campaigns to help victims of the Spanish Civil War.

It was therefore no wonder that following World War II, Bill devoted himself to reconstruction in Germany. As part of the Marshall plan, the United States had appointed him to compile a survey of the conditions at German colleges and universities. This resulted in Max Bill coming into contact with the family of Hans and Sophie Scholl, both members of the White Rose resistance movement, who had been murdered in Munich. They came from Ulm, where their sister Inge had started running an adult education centre shortly after the end of the war with Otl Aicher. Using the meagre funds available, they set up the legendary Ulm School of Design, in a building that is now listed. In his position as rector Max Bill intended to continue the ideas of the Bauhaus, where he had studied between 1927 and 1929, as though it had never been closed down by the Nazis. However, this experimental college, to which Walter Gropius had lent his full backing, was to survive only 13 years. The Ulm School of Design was closed down in 1968 by Hans Filbinger, then prime minister of Baden-Württemberg, with the words: "In order to build something new, the old must first be liquidated." This statement aroused memories of darker times, especially as Filbinger had been a judge during the Nazi era. (Current Baden-Württemberg prime minister Günther Oettinger's recent attempt to present Filbinger as an opponent of the Nazis was thwarted by public protests that did not go unnoticed abroad.)

For his part, Bill never accused Filbinger of being responsible for the closure of Ulm School of Design. He was far too closely embroiled in the contradictions of the experiment and attributed its decline to the incompetence of the deanship committee that had replaced him following his departure in 1957. The committee had distanced itself from the ideas of the Bauhaus that had had such a formative influence on Bill's political and creative outlook. It was at the Bauhaus in Dessau that Bill had sharply experienced the political conflict between left and right, between progress and conservatism at first hand. He was determined never to abandon what the Bauhaus had taught him as a young man: "If you design something for the public, you must assume social responsibility." However, the new generation became increasingly unable to maintain the principle in connection with the product design on which Ulm School of Design focused so strongly. Times were changing - along with general demand. Specifically, against the background of the emerging consumer society, the importance of the social responsibility of design was fading, the new order of the day being simply the marketability of the designed product. In other words, packaging increasingly became more important than what was inside.

Perhaps Bill's greatest achievement is that he never bowed down to this dictate in any of his activities: neither in fine art, in his teaching as a professor of environmental management, in architecture (where he was often out of work for living up to his principles), nor in the many other design tasks he performed. It was only in his pragmatic approach to politics that he was capable of compromise.

It was Bill's experience in Ulm that prompted him to descend into the depths of everyday politics, first by spending a number of terms on Zurich city council and then being elected to the Swiss parliament in Berne from 1967 until 1971. Standing up for his beliefs, he criticised the Vietnam War in the USA at a time when it hardly concerned the European public. He also took part in the anti-nuclear power campaign and environmental protection, which at that time he referred to as environmental management.

Bill was misunderstood by the 1968 movement in Switzerland, which was unaware of his political past. In this year of international student rebellion, he had taken the liberty during a speech of thanks for the Zurich Culture Prize of referring to "contentment in the small state" while outside on the streets the mood was near boiling point. Nevertheless, Bill retained enough radical nonconformismto remain a source of provocation and polarisation, both artistically and politically.

Max Bill thrived in and on contradiction; indeed, he was often a contradiction himself. In 1936 he used his commission to design the Swiss pavilion at the Milan Triennial as an opportunity to display books by Ignazio Silone banned in fascist Italy. In the 1970s, he accepted an invitation from Schah Reza Pahlevi and Farah Diba to Iran, despite the country's dubious record on human rights, hoping that one of his sculptures would contribute to the development of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Teheran - which does indeed live on as a notable collection under the current mullah regime. He was thoroughly rational - anything but religious - and yet he must have been imbued with an unshakeable belief in the future. When the Axis powers had surrounded Switzerland and the situation on all sides was threatening, he was confident that this terror would be short-lived. He was always aware that apart from the loathsome Germany there was another incarnation of the country - most of which, however, had had to emigrate. It was therefore no accident that he came to grips Monumentwith these émigrés and their spirit and lovingly created a memorial for them: when the house in Ulm where Einstein was born lay in ruins and those clearing away the rubble wanted to throw the doorstep onto a heap of debris, he put it in his car and drove to Switzerland, placing the granite memento in his garden. And where the doorstep once lay there now stands a sculpture by Bill - a monument to Albert Einstein made out of red granite.

Bill also built an endless staircase out of granite in Ludwigshafen for the philosopher Ernst Bloch, a German refugee from the same period, while for his predecessors Karl Marx and Georg Büchner he created wonderful models for sculptures that were sadly never commissioned. One of the most impressive architectural sculptures he designed was a memorial to the unknown political prisoner entered for a competition in 1952. The idea was for people to be able to walk up open cubes fashioned like steps leading to a small courtyard with a narrow three-sided column in the middle made out of reflective material in which visitors would have seen themselves - symbolising the fact that anybody could have been caught up in the situation commemorated by the monument. In other words, in this monument dedicated to an unknown person, visitors would have seen themselves - how poetic! But even though the design received an honourable mention, it remained on the drawing board.


Erich Schmid is the author of the film bill - das absolute augenmass ('max bill – the master's vision'), which is scheduled for release in August 2008. The main sources used for the text were his research for the film and the manuscript for the biography of Max Bill by Angela Thomas, to be published in 2008 by Scheidegger & Spiess, Zurich.


1 Peter Kamber: Die Geschichte zweier Leben - Wladimir Rosenbaum und Aline Valangin ('The story of two lives - Wladimir Rosenbaum and Aline Valangin'). Limmat Verlag, Zurich, 1990/2000, pp 175/176. up 
2 Typographic estate of Max Bill in the possession of Angela Thomas Schmid, Zumikon up 
3 Erich Schmid: Er nannte sich Surava. ('He called himself Surava'). Documentary film on the editor in chief of the weekly papers 'Die Nation', 1995; Erich Schmid (ed.): Abschied von Surava ('Farewell to Surava'). Wolfbach Verlag, Zurich, 1996. up 

Zumikon, November 2007


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