Exhibition Review: “Otto Neurath & Fritz Kahn 1920-1945” (Leipzig)

The interwar period in Europe was marked by a whirlwind of contradicting social influences and political turmoil. Revolutionary and socialist policies faced early fascist raids, modern mass media were published with unprecedented speed, and the general atmosphere of complexity was accompanied by a delusory enthusiasm for new technologies. It was in this social context that two of the most influential impresarios of modern infographics set out to create their oeuvre—Otto Neurath, national economist from Vienna, and Fritz Kahn, a physician from Berlin.

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Otto Neurath and team: page from “Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft. Bildstatistisches Elementarwerk.” (Leipzig, 1930) © German National Library/Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum Vienna

An exhibition currently on view in Leipzig presents their lifework in a concentrated setting, showing not just the well known infographic masterpieces, but also preliminary sketches, models and story boards as well as rare animation films from the 1940s. As a consequence of both Neurath’s and Kahn’s lot as immigrants during the Third Reich, many of these originals were hidden in British, American and Dutch archives. It is a major achievement of the German Museum of Books and Writing (and the curator Helena Doudova) to have digged out this fascinating wealth of unknown material.

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Fritz Kahn, Fritz Schüler: “Man as industrial palace”, 1926 © Kosmos/von Debschitz

There are two particularly interesting things that the exhibition shows: First, the collection of original material sheds light on the interdisciplinary team work in which both oeuvres originated. Neither Kahn nor Neurath were visual designers, but scientists. However, they both were clearly talented creative directors with a strong vision about the graphics they were aiming at. Both hired gifted designers and illustrators to work on their respective visual strategies.

The other interesting aspect is that—although Neurath and Kahn originated from the same generation and they are both considered important proponents of modern infographics—their work actually bears only few similarities. Neurath searched for an abstract, emotionally neutral graphic language, and his “ISOTYPE” would later be strongly influential in regards to standardized graphic guidance systems. Kahn did much the opposite—he sought to create strong, emotional visuals which often explained physiological details by comparing them to technical devices. In my recent article for Sueddeutsche Zeitung I looked at these contradictory styles.

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Fritz Kahn: The smell of roast (1926) © Kosmos/von Debschitz

The exhibition is on view at German Museum of Books and Writing in Leipzig until January 7, 2018. The catalogue (available also in an English edition for € 24.00) is due out in the fall by Spector Books. For an advance notification about its release contact dbsm-info@dnb.de.