Gerd Arntz, Street, 1924
Gerd Arntz (1900-1988) was born in the industrial town of Remscheid, Germany, into a family of business and factory owners. Prior to the First World War (where he served with the Prussian field artillery), his contact with art involved little more than fleeting visits to exhibitions and lectures. After the war, Arntz entered one of the family businesses, the Eisenfabrik Greb & Co., as a common factory worker. These experiences would inspire his later woodcuts. In 1919, Arntz enrolled in the Düsseldorf Art School and quickly became part of a revolutionary circle of young artists centered in Cologne and Düsseldorf who called themselves Das Junge Rheinland. Opposing the conservative instruction at the school, Arntz derived his own knowledge of art mainly from contemporary publications such as Der Sturm and Die Aktion.
August Sander, Proletarian Intellectuals [Else Schuler, Tristan Rèmy, Franz Seiwert, Gerd Arntz], ca. 1925
In 1920, Arntz joined a movement of artists who wanted to turn Germany into a radically socialist state based on direct popular democracy. He created woodcuts for the anarcho-syndicalist Allgemeine Arbeiter Union (General Labor Union) as well as the Communist Intenationale Arbeiterhilfe (Workers International Relief). In 1923, Arntz married Agnes Thubeauville, and, two years later, took over Otto Dix's studio in Düsseldorf.
As a revolutionary artist, Arntz made the acquaintance of the painter Jankel Adler, and, through him, joined the Cologne based Gruppe progressiver Künstler Köln (Group of Progressive Cologne Artists). With his comrades, the Cologne artists Franz Seiwert and Heinrich Hoerle, he read Marxist and anarchist literature and developed his own style of portraying society as segregated in classes and depicted the life of workers and the class struggle in abstracted figures on woodcuts.
Published in leftist magazines, his work was noticed around 1926 by the multi-talented Otto Neurath, who is today perhaps best known as the main author of the Vienna Circle manifesto and his contributions to Logical Positivism. Neurath had joined the German Social Democratic Party in 1918, and ran the office for central economic planning for the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic . After its defeat, Neurath was imprisoned in Munich but could return to Vienna after an intervention of the Austrian government. There, he opened in 1925 the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum, (Social and Economic Museum), which led him to work on graphic design and visual education.
Neurath had developed a method to communicate complex information on society, economy and politics in simple images. For his "Vienna method of visual statistics", he needed a designer who could make elementary signs, pictograms that could summarize a subject at a glance. Arntz's clear-cut style suited Neurath's goals perfectly, and so he invited him to come to Vienna in 1928, and work on further developing his method, later known as ISOTYPE, International System Of TYpographic Picture Education. Arntz moved to Vienna in 1929 and took up a full-time position there.
This chart from Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft is titled "Numbers of motor vehicles in the world" (USA and rest of the world). Even if one cannot read German, the subject reveals itself through the speaking signs of the automobiles, each of which represents 2.5 million vehicles.
During his career, Arntz designed around 4000 different pictograms and abstracted illustrations for this system. His simplified graphic style benefited the design of repeatable pictograms that were integral to Isotype. The influence of these pictograms on today's information graphics is immediately apparent, although perhaps not yet fully recognized. Produced under Arntz’s creative guidance, a collection of 100 visual statistics (see above example), Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft (Society and Economy), was published in 1930. The success of this collection lead to an invitation to come to the Soviet Union and set up an institute for visual statistics, Isostat, in Moscow. So, in the early 1930s, Neurath and Arntz regularly traveled to Moscow (where they met, amongst others, with Tatlin and El Lissitzky).
The image shows the cover of the book Pictorial statistics and the Vienna Method, published in 1932. It was the work of Ivan Petrovich Ivanitskii, a Russian employee of IZOSTAT who worked with Neurath and Arntz.
In 1934, under the new Austrofascist regime in Austria, the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum was closed, and Neurath and Arntz fled to the Netherlands, where they set up the International Foundation for Visual Education in The Hague. During the 1930s, significant commissions were received from the USA, including a series of mass-produced charts for the National Tuberculosis Association as well as Otto Neurath’s book Modern man in the making (1939), a high point of Isotype on which he and Arntz worked in close collaboration.
After his emigration to the Netherlands, Arntz also published a series of prints warning against the danger of Nazism. His concise and biting depiction of the build-up of the Third Reich (above), published in a Dutch communist magazine in 1936, was removed from an exhibition in Amsterdam after complaints by the German embassy that it insulted a "friendly head of state". In 1943, while living in The Hague, Arntz was conscripted into German military service, but deserted to the French Resistance in 1944. After the war, Arntz stayed in The Hague, and worked on Neurath’s legacy in the Foundation for Statistics. Between 1951 and 1961, he also worked as a graphic designer for the UNESCO.
Image from Nader Vossoughain's book Otto Neurath - The Language of the Global Polis: "Neurath felt that cut-outs allowed the masses to feel as though they were participating in the production of knowledge, which was central to his philosophy of reform in general."
Arntz continued cutting his social and political critique into linoleum until he was seventy years old. He died in The Hagues on December 4, 1980. In an interview recorded in 1980, he remarked that his intention was to produce "educational pictures", directing the viewer to the next tasks: "occupation of military caserns, factories, and such things." Who would have thought that our daily icons had a revolutionary past? You can read more on Gerd Arntz on this excellent website.