Information in time and place

Eric Kindel (7 September 2017)

Editorial note. These remarks were delivered to the opening of Bildfabriken. Infografik 1920-1945, Fritz Kahn, Otto Neurath et al, an exhibition held at the German National Library, Leipzig, 7 September 2017 to 8 April 2018, curated by Helena Doudova.


Guten Abend, meine Damen und Herren.

It is an honour and a pleasure for me to address the opening of this exhibition dedicated to work directed by two major figures of 20th-century graphic communication, Fritz Kahn and Otto Neurath. I offer my congratulations to those who have realised the exhibition - never an easy task, when all the intellectual, creative, technical, and logistical aspects of such a undertaking are accounted for.

So, to Dr Stephanie Jacobs, Professor Patrick Rössler and Fraulein Helena Doudova, to Herr Direktor Michael Fernau and Dr Marie Haff, and to the many others who have supported your vision, your programme, and your hard work, please accept my congratulations. I hope the exhibition will receive all the attention and credit it deserves, here in Leipzig, throughout Germany, and indeed internationally, which would be a fitting tribute to the exhibition's two protagonists, who were nothing if not international in many ways.

When Fraulein Doudova asked if I would offer a few remarks to this opening, I asked her in reply what themes she thought I might address. She mentioned two in particular: migration, and the notion of an international visual language as a cultural and linguistic bridge. Both themes are appropriate to an exhibition like this one, and I will attempt to say a few words about both and how they are connected.

But in doing so, my remarks will deal almost wholly with Otto Neurath, since I have spent a considerable amount of time studying his work and that of his colleagues, and the Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics they developed, later known as Isotype. By contrast, I have admittedly only recently come to know Fritz Kahn's work through the lavishly illustrated books and articles that have been published in the past few years.

If one considers the theme of migration in the case of Kahn and Neurath, their biographies are defined in large part by movements across borders, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently. Given the circumstances of their moves - the force of political developments that threatened them personally - one might describe them as exiles, compelled to leave, uncertain of return.

However one describes them, as exiles or migrants, movement and relocation surely brought opportunity. We often describe exiles and migrants as bringing fresh ideas and vitality to those places that welcome the new arrivals. But it is also true that exile and migration can equally bring fresh ideas and vitality to those who are doing the moving, as they attempt to adjust themselves to new circumstances while at the same time remaining true to whatever underlying principles inform their work. This transition is not always successful, but in the case of Otto Neurath, it most certainly was.

When we consider the notion of migration in the context of Otto Neurath, we can consider how relocation affected the work he pursued, and how it affected those who made it and indeed what they made. For Neurath, the method of making visual work, and the interdependent roles of the colleagues and collaborators who contributed to it, was of fundamental importance. At the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum in Vienna, from 1925 until 1934, the Vienna Method and the process of team-working Neurath led went through its most intensive phase of definition and development. It was there that Neurath's team grew to its largest size and the roles in the team became clearly defined.

But already in the early 1930s, we see relocation of these circumstances outward from Vienna, initially to the Soviet Union, as the Vienna Method was taken to another - international - site where it would be deployed. Through choice or by force, further relocations recurred over the next decade as Neurath and various members of his team moved out of Vienna for good and onto several other countries.

In considering these relocations, it is possible to see how new circumstances shifted the work in various ways by posing challenges to processes and roles that had been well established in Vienna. Thus in Moscow, the work of making pictorial statistics was confronted by the need to assemble and train a large local team, some of whom were already aligned to an existing tradition of pictorial statistics. Or there was the larger matter of working under Soviet state control, where the reliability of data and the uses it might be put to when making pictorial statistics raised concerns about the integrity of the work. The observation here is of changes in the circumstances of making that were locally determined, and which may seem to operate against efforts to impose consistency and rigour in the application of visual and statistical principles.

The next, forced, relocation of Neurath and a core of his team to the Netherlands in 1934, while at first appearance a catastrophic event, was in fact foreseen and planned for. When it happened, it brought both stresses and an opening up of possibilities. No longer located in Vienna or subsidised by its municipal government, the Vienna Method was inevitably redefined to reflect the 'not-Vienna' circumstances that now applied, and the growing international ambitions of the work Neurath directed. He and his team began operating under the auspices of a new organization, the International Foundation for Visual Education, and renamed - or 'rebranded' - their work as 'Isotype', an acronym whose first letter encodes the word 'international'. The field of work shifted from German-speaking central Europe to western Europe and then to points further west, most significantly the USA.

Thus in migrating from Vienna to The Hague, Neurath and his now much diminished team experienced changes in working processes, and in the sources, application and financing of work. They had to contend with the loss of working materials and expertise they left behind. But at the same time they encountered new local influences, subjects and spheres of activity in the Netherlands, new organizational arrangements, and new collaborators even further afield.

Neurath's final and again forced migration in 1940, now to Britain, accompanied only by Marie Reidemeister - later Marie Neurath - involved leaving behind in The Hague all Isotype working materials and what few colleagues remained from Vienna. While this move would later demand of Neurath the most comprehensive reconstitution yet of working arrangements in a new location, the move once more refreshed the work, as it entailed the establishment of yet another organization, the Isotype Institute, and the start of an immensely productive long-term collaboration with the book packager Adprint. This collaboration involved the Neuraths in important government projects to explain aspects of the British war effort, to support soft propaganda through visual explanation, and to deploy visual methods to set out historic changes in social policy, planning, provision, welfare, employment and much else that would define in Britain in the post-war period.

In the narrative of Otto Neurath and Isotype, then, migration or relocation or exile of people and work is a constant that brought challenges to the work itself, its content and application, its visual configurations, and the ability to make it consistently and efficiently under controlled conditions of team-working. But in meeting these challenges, the international ambitions of the work was repeatedly tested in different places and for different audiences, and this helped build experience of the stresses and strains it could undergo in particular circumstances while still retaining its underlying principles of formation and international comprehensibility.

Migration, relocation, and exile can be linked to the other theme I wanted to briefly comment on, the notion of an international visual language, since it is through the lens of migration and relocation that the international features Isotype work can be seen for what they are.

There is sometimes a confusion in describing Isotype not as an international visual language or method, but as a 'universal' one. 'Universal' was a term rarely used by those involved with Isotype, perhaps because it suggested an abstract, singular, and idealized concept - one size fits all regardless of mitigating or local circumstances. The term also lacks sufficient reference to people; it is located instead in a philosophical realm, or perhaps a mathematical or technological one. To instead describe Isotype as 'international', as the acronym compels us to do, is to affirm its place in the world, a system that could be applied across the national, cultural, and linguistic boundaries that people create.

Within this international scenario there are the specifics of application that are subject to local conditions, since the work had to be made in a particular time and place, by a particular team of people, attempting to solve particular problems of visual explanation. To this end, Isotype was a flexible and open-ended system: it could be adjusted and varied according to particular contexts and tasks. Where the social, cultural, technological, and linguistic circumstances of particular times and places required it, adjustments could be made to the Isotype approach and its iconography so that it could be understood by the people who lived there. 

So I find it of interest to observe how migration, relocation, or exile, and the notion of an international visual language or method, converge in Isotype. When the work is studied under these themes, it is possible to observe how biographical and historical facts and the aims of a principled visual method weave together to always define a particularity of the work, alongside the implication that its international features transcend such particularity, even if in practice, as Isotype works migrates from one context to another, the localness of its making cannot be ignored, and indeed makes it all the richer and more varied than something divorced from time and place. I can't help but think that the notion of 'international' is in practice the sum many local places, that it involves a sympathy for their common features but also a realistic acceptance of their differences. I think the international work of Otto Neurath and his colleagues, in its different times and places, can be seen in a similar way.

As I said, my brief and rather general remarks on these themes are tilted entirely towards Otto Neurath and Isotype. But I hope they will in any case offer some grounds for also exploring how the themes reveal themselves in the work and biography of Fritz Kahn, with which even a passing acquaintance suggests they also play an important role in his career and the particularities of the work he made, or directed to be made.

I look forward to the opportunity afforded by this exhibition to compare these two figures, not least because their respective approaches to presenting information seem so distinctive - Kahn, on the one hand, whose visual explanations are often dramatic, theatrical, built on analogy or fantasy, and apparently created through a process of one individual's direction of numerous visualisers; and Neurath, on the other, whose visual explanations are impressive and unemotional, depend on the concrete and quantitative representation of things in the world, and are arrived at through intensively defined teamwork. That these differences in approach and process appear so strong make me eager to try to locate similarities and shared aims. As an admitted partisan of Neurath, for me it is important to study at close range the abundant conceptual inventions of Kahn that were also so clearly a success in conveying information by visual means to general audiences.

Finally, if I may say just a few words from my perspective as curator of the Otto and Marie Neurath Isotype Collection at the University of Reading. It is immensely gratifying to see items from the Isotype Collection on display here in Leipzig. The Isotype Collection was given to the University of Reading in 1971 by Marie Neurath, and since 1975 it has provided material for exhibitions first in the United Kingdom and then abroad, and in particular in those locations in continental Europe where Isotype work was originally made, namely Vienna and The Hague. It is therefore fitting that material from the collection should also come here to Leipzig, where Otto Neurath began that part of his career associated with museums, exhibitions, and visual education when serving as director of the Kriegswirtschaftsmuseum. In several important ways, plans for that museum formed the basis of what Neurath later realised at the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum in Vienna, where he pursued the methods of visual education for which he and his colleagues are now rightly celebrated.

Thus the work of Neurath and his colleagues has migrated to locations where previously the particularity of its making has now become a particularity of its interpretation. The continued exchange and dissemination of ideas, interpretation and meaning realised through this exhibition are of great value, and I am heartened that the work of Fritz Kahn and Otto Neurath, and their collaborators, should be exhibited, discussed and disseminated publicly and without undue constraint. One only needs to glimpse briefly the activities of Kahn and Neurath to see just how important exhibiting and publishing were to spreading their work and achieving their aims, and what a close interest they took in the successful realisation of both activities. Where the Otto and Marie Neurath Isotype Collection is concerned, exhibition, discussion and dissemination are part of its mission, too, and we are pleased and honoured to support the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek and the Deutsches Buch- und Schriftmuseum in these activities. Therefore let me end by again congratulating everyone involved in this impressive exhibition.

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Remarks to Bildfabriken exhibition opening

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