The magpie

Edward McKNight Kauffer looked to the avant-garde for inspiration in his commercial practice. A new exhibition celebrates his heady blend of advertising and art

Edward McKnight Kauffer is something of a paradox. He belongs to that category of artist whose works are widely appreciated, yet whose name is almost entirely unknown to the general public. Equally contradictory is the instantly recognisable nature of his work, for Kauffer was an inveterate artistic magpie who drew on a vast range of influences from Japanese art to Fauvism, Constructivism and Surrealism in creating his celebrated posters for clients like Shell and London Underground during the inter-war years.

However much his imagery may evoke that of his artistic peers there always remains something indefinably singular about his work, something unmistakably ‘Kauffer-esque’. It was undoubtedly this skill for borrowing the most daring elements of contemporary avant-garde aesthetics and making them entirely his own, as well as accessible – literally – to the man on the street, that brought this extraordinary artist such success in his lifetime, and to which his enduring appeal is owed. His work in the field of graphic design ranks alongside the achievements of fellow avant-garde figures such as TS Eliot, Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis – all of whom, like Kauffer himself, had roots in the United States yet established their careers in London.
An exhibition of this London-based American’s work may appear somewhat out of place at the Estorick Collection, given the museum’s focus on Italian Modernism. In part, the decision to award Kauffer his own show may be accounted for in terms of the artist’s affiliation with Vorticism – England’s antagonistic response to FT Marinetti’s Futurist movement. In this respect, the exhibition offers a closer consideration of the work of an artist whose iconic 1916 woodcut image Flight was an undoubted highlight of an earlier show entitled Blasting the Future! and which appears again in the present selection of works on display in a commercial guise, following its adoption by the Daily Herald newspaper in 1919.

This work is emblematic of the ease with which Kauffer moved between the worlds of ‘high’ art and advertising. His conviction that the two were not mutually exclusive dovetails neatly with the Italian Futurist concern for bringing art out of the museums and into the real world, as does the manner in which his practice challenged the stereotypical image of the artist as a misunderstood, tortured outsider, and pointed instead to a figure fully engaged with society and with ambitions to change it for the better, artistically speaking.

Born in Montana in 1890, Edward Kauffer revealed a precocious talent for drawing that perhaps provided a sense of escape from the austerity of his early life, when he was placed in an orphanage for two years following the divorce of his parents. By the age of 17 Kauffer had established himself as a painter, initially working on backdrops for the opera house in his hometown of Evansville. In 1907 he was employed by a travelling repertory theatre, where he was taken under the wing of one of the actors, Frank Bacon. It was Bacon who subsequently found Kauffer a position at a San Francisco bookshop in 1910 – thereby being indirectly responsible for what was undoubtedly the single most important encounter of his early life. A regular customer at the shop was Professor Joseph E McKnight of the University of Utah, who recognised the young man’s talent and, in 1912, offered to fund his studies in Paris. The depth of Kauffer’s gratitude to McKnight was revealed by the incorporation of his benefactor’s surname into his own.

En route to France, Kauffer studied in Chicago, where in 1913 he visited the epoch-making Armory Show – a vast exhibition showcasing work by the leading representatives of Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Expressionism and Cubism. Even more formative was his discovery of Ludwig Hohlwein’s poster art during a visit to Munich, his vibrantly-coloured yet elegant imagery typifying the German ‘plakatstil’ that made the country a leader in the sphere of commercial art at this time, and proving that this relatively new medium could constitute a vehicle for the very highest artistic aspirations.

The outbreak of the First World War forced Kauffer to move to England where, after initially struggling to find work, he achieved a major breakthrough in 1915 when he was taken on by London Underground’s publicity manager, Frank Pick. As the Vorticist Wyndham Lewis stated: “the tunnels of the ‘Tube’ became thenceforth his subterranean picture galleries”. At this time Kauffer’s influences were Van Gogh and Fauvism, as revealed in two early posters promoting visits to Oxhey Woods and Watford, in which trees with blue or black foliage fringed with gold cast shadows across sulphur-yellow paths.

Indeed, in these years Kauffer primarily considered himself a painter rather than a graphic designer, as his involvement with the London Group of artists from 1916 illustrates. A poster advertising an exhibition of this association reflects the savage primitivism characterising the work of its artists, epitomised by the carved amulets of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Jacob Epstein’s sinister sculpture The Rock Drill. Around this time, Kauffer came into contact with the Vorticists, and the painterly language of his early imagery was increasingly invaded by the hard-edged, abstract vocabulary favoured by the movement. The failure of Lewis’s attempt to relaunch the group in the post-war period coincided with – and perhaps inspired – Kauffer’s decision to concentrate on graphic design from then on.

What is so striking about early graphic design and commercial imagery such as this is its ‘human’ element: this was not work generated remotely, with sophisticated technology, but by eminently physical, handmade means, employing scissors, glue, paintbrushes and gouache. As such, it was prone to the foibles and imperfections such a method implies – elements most evident in the spacing of Kauffer’s typographical characters, generally considered the weakest aspect of the artist’s repertoire. In the preparatory design for Near Waltham Cross by Tram, for instance, not only is the text incorrectly centred, but Kauffer clearly began the middle section too far to the right, being forced not only to compress and progressively shrink his lettering, but also to reduce the space separating the words ‘Waltham’ and ‘Cross’, which consequently merged to become ‘Walthamcross’. One wonders what previous mistakes lie concealed beneath the glued-down strip of paper on which this text appears. Interestingly, the lithographic artist faithfully reproduced all these errors in the finished poster.

A similar problem would appear to have occurred in two of the artist’s celebrated Winter Sales images for London Underground, Kauffer apparently being constrained to add triangular motifs at the far right of the text to correct the compositional imbalance. However, far from appearing as flaws, detracting from otherwise perfect images, features such as these and the over-long cross bars of Kauffer’s ‘T’s endow them with a quality habitually referred to as ‘charm’ – but to which I prefer ‘character’ or ‘idiosyncrasy’.

A celebrity in his day, Kauffer was given extraordinarily free rein by his clients, never being constrained to adhere to a house style, and having his judgement trusted implicitly. In 1925 he was honoured with a retrospective exhibition presenting book jackets, drawings, newspaper advertisements and posters – proof that the latter represented only one strand of his artistic activity. Kauffer’s sensitive and sympathetic illustrations for books led to commissions from publishing houses such as Francis Meynell’s Nonesuch Press, as well as to enduring friendships with writers such as TS Eliot, John Betjeman and Aldous Huxley. Between 1927 and 1929 he worked for Crawford’s advertising agency, based in a cutting-edge office block at 233 High Holborn designed by the erstwhile Vorticist artist Frederick Etchells. Here, Kauffer’s style became marked by the economic geometry and dynamism of Constructivism. Elements of photomontage began to figure in his work, which became marked by a more complete integration of text and image (no longer in separate zones, as in his early pieces) and the adoption of diagonal compositional structures.

During the 1930s Kauffer’s main patron was Shell-Mex BP Ltd – the combined publicity arm of both Shell and British Petroleum. Often drawing on Surrealist influences and iconography, the works of these years also saw him return to a more painterly style, as in a poster for London Underground of 1938 entitled Autumn Woods. Although Kauffer was by now an important part of the British artistic establishment, joining the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Advisory Council in 1935, he found work increasingly difficult to come by as the nation slid towards war, and in 1940 he returned to America with his second wife, Marion Dorn. There he worked for clients such as the publishers Random House and American Airlines. A fresh, breezy image of sailing boats dating from 1950, advertising flights to Chicago, is typical of Kauffer’s late work.

However, his final years were marked by personal sadness and a sense of disorientation that arose from feelings of being torn between his status as an American citizen and his love for England. Kauffer spoke of feeling “part instead of a whole” and bitterly regretted his decision to leave his adoptive home. Focusing particularly on his time in England, the Estorick Collection’s exhibition, The Poster King, is a celebration of the ways in which the work of this remarkable artistic émigré enriched the visual culture of Britain – and of a ‘local’ hero of Modernism. 

Christopher Adams is assistant curator at the Estorick Collection in London. The Poster King: Edward McKnight Kauffer is on show until December 18,

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