In the late 1990s British artist Julian Opie started to work with pictograms. Adopting the flat colours, strong outlines and reduced lexicon of public signage systems, Opie offered a perspective on the banality of celebrity culture during the height of the ‘Cool Britannia’ hoopla. His subjects were models, strippers, sports stars and pop musicians. He lent his trademark style to Blur, for instance, when he created portraits of the band’s members for the cover of their The Best Of album in 2000. Relishing ambiguity, Opie’s art drew its effects from the way he made subtle modifications to ‘standard’ pictographic systems.
One of Opie’s key reference points was Isotype, the International System of Typographic Picture Education developed by Otto Neurath and Marie Reidemeister, his future wife, under the name of The Vienna Method (Wiener Methode der Bildstatistik) in the 1920s. Neurath’s aim was to communicate accurate and incontrovertible statistics about the modern world. He saw information as the ally of progress. Eschewing the nationalist and imperialist politics which had marched Europe into war in 1914, he believed that visual symbols could transcend national and linguistic boundaries. The exchange of accurate information across borders and to non-expert readers would make the world a better, more rational place. “We cannot hope to democratise… life,” wrote Otto Neurath in his 1939 book Modern Man in the Making, “without many new ways of conveying information.”
To create this new visual language, Neurath needed a talented art director. German printmaker and painter Gerd Arntz – whose works Neurath had first encountered in 1926 – was persuaded to take up this role, moving to Vienna two years later to join a team of statisticians, artists and cartographers at work on the project. One of the Arntz’s first tasks was to begin work on linocuts for a symbol dictionary. These signs featured in Neurath’s atlas Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft (1930), 100 charts mapping the progress of industry, the growth of cities and the political conflicts in the world. This was a systematic map of modernity.
Neurath was a great promoter of the Vienna Method, speaking at international conferences of social reformers and Modern Movement architects across Europe. The success of the atlas led to new commissions. Neurath, Reidemeister and Arntz were invited to work with Isostat, the state statistical institute in Moscow in 1931. Coinciding with the triumphant and artificially accelerated conclusion of the first Five Year Plan, the Institute’s work was propaganda for Stalinism. Their adventures in the land of the Soviets turned sour when in 1934 their bills were not paid and associates in the Isostat started to ‘disappear’. Neurath looked for opportunities elsewhere and within a couple of years had secured commissions to provide visual statistics for books and exhibitions in the United Kingdom and the United States.
Signs of class
What Neurath saw in Arntz’s prints in the mid 1920s was both a catalogue of social ‘types’ including workers, soldiers, bankers, prostitutes and prisoners, as well as a schematic graphic style. Long before Opie turned his attention to infographics, Arntz was interested in the way in which class and social attitudes could be suggested in simple signs. With close connections to communist groups and working for trade union newspapers such as Die Proletarische Revolution, Arntz’s woodcuts and linocuts provided sharp commentaries on the social divisions prevalent in Weimar Germany after the First World War. Hyperinflation, mass unemployment and homelessness turned the country into a social tinderbox.
In his print entitled Unemployed of 1931 – cut when the Great Depression was at its height – Arntz commented on the injustices of the era. The unemployed are kept out of the factory at gunpoint whilst the idle rich entertain themselves like merchant bankers with a bonus to blow. By portraying his subjects as types rather than as individuals, Arntz wanted to show that poverty was not the product of some weakness of character but a matter of power and class. Like Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, the world is organised by Arntz’s images in hierarchical layers: the decadent ruling classes enjoy luxury and leisure from the commanding heights of their penthouses whilst the faceless working classes toil in factories below.
Despite their visual economy, Arntz’s images could be remarkably expressive. The cut of a moustache under a bowler hat signalled membership of an unofficial militia whilst the tilt of a cigar indicated arrogance. In Crisis, a woodcut from 1931, Arntz crystalises selfishness in the outline of a dress and head in profile: a glamorous woman turns her head, indifferent to the plight of poor in the street below.
Seeing Arntz’s political prints and paintings in Ed Annink and Max Bruinsma’s new book on the designer (010 Publishers) makes one think a little differently about the thousands of charts, pictograms and visual signs that he produced between 1928 and 1965, at first for Neurath in Vienna and later for the Central Bureau of Statistics in The Netherlands. Critics have long pointed out the problems of designing a common visual language which could be ‘read’ by all people in all places. Just like the statistics which Neurath gathered so assiduously, images are selective and partial. The use of a small black cross to signal death, for instance, was not a universal sign but a product of Christian rituals. Moreover, Neurath’s insistence on simple and consistent pictograms was undermined by changes in the real world: what a car looked like and how it might be rendered as a sign in 1928 was much changed in 1958 (though this limitation was turned to advantage when a diagram was needed to show changing patterns of car ownership over time).
The appeal of Arntz’s designs often lies not in their order but in their idiosyncrasies. It is the marginal details which capture attention. A ‘traveller’ may be signified by the large suitcase in his hand but the detail which stands out in Arntz’s pictogram is the way in which his collar is turned up against the weather. This figure seems more likely to be a migrant worker than a tourist about to board the first class compartment of a train.
Otto Neurath set some principles for quick assimilation of visual information on the page. Each pictogram would stand for a precise number of events, people or things. In this way, the reader could make accurate comparisons. Some of Arntz’s most engaging designs do not, however, snap to Neurath’s grid. His timeline of animal life expectancy for Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia of 1939 swells like a bellows to accommodate the loosely proportioned silhouettes of the birds and animals which feature. Arntz also introduced ‘superfluous’ details on the pages of the statistical books designed by the Institute. One chart in the 1930 Atlas comparing the number of strikes in England, France and Germany is decorated with a monumental profile of a factory. Whilst such devices served the intellect, they probably did as much to fire the imagination.
Mankind is in the details
If, on close inspection, Arntz’s Isotype designs contain so many idiosyncratic details, can we see any traces of his life and experiences in them?
When communist and social democratic organisations were banned in Austria in 1934, time was up for Neurath in Vienna. The pioneer of the Vienna Method left Austria for The Hague, together with a small group of collaborators including Arntz. They built a highly influential practice there. When the Germans invaded The Netherlands in 1940, Neurath and Reidemeister fled across the North Sea in a small boat to the UK where they founded the Isotype Institute.
Remaining in The Netherlands, Arntz’s fate was – as a German citizen – to be conscripted into the Wehrmacht to fight the Allies in Northern France and then to be interned as a prisoner of war. A former communist who had first-hand experience of the Soviet and Nazi systems, Arntz’s growing interest in the small details which define everyday humanity seem all the more meaningful in light of this turn of events. Producing visual statistics for the Central Bureau for Statistics in The Netherlands in peaceful years after the Second World War, Arntz’s signs seem to hint at ordinary pleasures in an impersonal world of statistics. His post-war traveller, for instance, strides forward with a suitcase decorated with the labels that mark international tourism. And his intertwined dancers – symbols of leisure – seem loving. These are ‘unnecessary’ but compelling details. Viewed in this way, Arntz’s pictograms are rather more full of character than the manipulators of infographics like Opie have given credit.
David Crowley is head of the department of critical writing in art and design at the Royal College of Art in London