Friday, November 5, 2010

Willi Baumeister

Oskar Schlemmer (left) and Willi Baumeister, Frankfurt 1929

Willi Baumeister (1889-1955) was born in Stuttgart, Germany. His father was a chimney-sweeper; his mother was the artistically talented daughter of a decorative painter. From her family Willi received his first artistic impulses. Already as a child his most prized toys were paper and pencil. Around age 16 he decided to study at the art academy but at his father's request first trained as a decorative painter from 1905 to 1907. Already during this apprenticeship he was admitted to the Königliche Akademie (Royal Academy Stuttgart). There he met Oskar Schlemmer with whom he cultivated a lifelong friendship.

Willi Baumeister, Self-Portrait in the Studio, 1911

In 1912, Baumeister studied for three months at the Cercle International des Beaux-Arts in Paris. After his return he moved into his first studio in Stuttgart. The next year he participated for the first time in an exhibition at the Gallery Der Sturm in Berlin, and in 1914 produced four wall pictures for the Cologne Werkbund Exhibition. From November 1914 to December 1918 Baumeister served in the First World War, which took him to the Balkan, Ukraine, and the Caucasus. Nonetheless, he also participated in exhibitions during the war years. In 1915 he met Oskar Kokoschka and the architect Adolf Loos in Vienna.

  Willi Baumeister, Readers under the Lamp, 1913

After the end of the war Baumeister resumed his studies at the Stuttgart Art Academy and completed them in 1922. In 1919, Baumeister joined the radical Artist Association Novembergruppe. At this time he began sketching stage and costume designs for performances at Stuttgart theaters and also turned to commercial graphics. Contacts in France - especially with Fernand Léger, with whom he exhibited in Berlin in 1922, and with Le Corbusier - made him known beyond German borders.

 Willi Baumeister, Female Runner II, 1925

In 1923, Baumeister met the artist Margarete Oehm whom he married in 1926. In 1924, his work was shown at a large exhibition of modern German art in Leningrad and Moscow. In 1926, he participated in an exhibition in New York and again traveled to Paris, which led to a large exhibition at the Galérie d'Art Contemporain in 1927. In addition, he produced the stage design for Händel's opera Ariodante for the Landestheater Stuttgart. Baumeister was also well received in 1927 at the Große Berliner Kunstausstellung (Great Berlin Art Exhibition) where he met Kasimir Malewitsch.

Willi Baumeister, Tennisspieler liegend, 1929

As a convinced representative of applied art, Baumeister joined the ring neue werbegestalter (circle of new commercial designers) in 1927 whose members included Kurt Schwitters and other famous German typographers. But the most important event for him - as for the entire European avant-garde - was the large 1927 Werkbund exhibition in Stuttgart with the famous Weissenhofsiedlung (Weissenhof Housing Settlement). Here, he not only designed numerous printed materials, but also furnished a number of rooms with his works. Through these activities Baumeister was called to the Municipal Applied Arts School (Städelschule) in Frankfurt am Main, where he had a professorship from 1928 to 1933. Initially hired as a lecturer for commercial graphics and typography he certainly would have welcomed taking on the painting class as well. This, however, was taught by Max Beckmann.

Willi Baumeister, Rope-Jumper, 1928

In 1930, Baumeister received the Württemberg State Prize for the painting Linienfigur (Line Figure). His December 1932 exhibition at Galerie Cassirer in Berlin would be his last exhibition in Germany until 1945. At the beginning of 1933 Hitler came into power, and he received notice without further explanation that his future teaching activity would be terminated. Following the dismissal, Baumeister returned to Stuttgart where he initially earned his living mainly with commercial graphics. Even though he was not subject to a work prohibition, public activity as an artist would be unthinkable. The situation right now has no prospects for us but I am solidly convinced that we will be needed one day and not the shallow canvas-knackers who bow to the authoritative opinion of the whole rabble, Baumeister wrote in a 1934 letter.

Willi Baumeister, Swimmers on the Ladder, 1929

In 1936, Willi Baumeister met the owner of the Wuppertal lacquer Factory, Dr. Kurt Herberts, and took a job at his company. There he worked alongside with other artists defamed by the National Socialist regime: Franz Krause, Alfred Lörcher, Georg Muche, and Oskar Schlemmer as well as art historian Hans Hildebrandt. In Herberts' firm it was necessary to research ancient and modern painting techniques. Between 1933 and 1944 five publications grew out of these investigations, which were published under Dr. Kurt Herberts's name - including 10,000 Years of Painting and its Materials. From 1943 to 1944 Baumeister wrote his manuscript Das Unbekannte in der Kunst (The Unknown in Art), which was first published in 1947.

Willi Baumeister, Painter with Palette, 1933

In 1937, Baumeister participated in a show of constructivist art in Basel. The same year, four of his pictures were displayed at the notorious Munich exhibition Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art). Concurrent to this Nazi propaganda show, he exhibited under the title Unabhängige Kunst (Independent Art) in Paris where he met his friends Fernand Léger and Le Corbusier. In 1938, Baumeister deposited a large number of pictures in the Kunsthalle Basel (to keep them out of reach from the National Socialists), and participated in the London exile exhibition Twentieth Century German Art.

Willi Baumeister, Book Cover: Modulation and Patina, 1944

In June of 1940, Paul Klee, whom Baumeister had greatly admired and whose art had strongly inspired him to the end, died. In 1941, Baumeister was prohibited to paint and exhibit. "It isn't easy to withstand the depressions of this time. This for seven years now. Presumably I can no longer show my pictures in exhibitions. I thus work exclusively for myself alone.", he wrote in his diary. Then, in April 1943, the death of Oskar Schlemmer hit him very hard: "While the bombs fell and the gunfire roared, I still especially remembered the late friend." (Diary).

Willi Baumeister, Chumbaba, 1954

In 1943 - the factory in Wuppertal and Baumeister's Stuttgart house were partially destroyed by bombs - he moved with his family to Urach in the Swabian Alp. In April 1945 he fled with his wife and daughters to the house of artist-friend Max Ackermann on Lake Constance to evade obligatory service in the Volkssturm (People's Storm) and a possible court martial. Already a few weeks after the war's end, Baumeister was engaged as director and teacher at the Stuttgart Art Academy. His reputation grew steadily. He exhibited throughout Europe, wrote numerous articles, taught, and participated on art juries.

Willi Baumeister with his daughters Felicitas and Krista, Stuttgart 1955

In 1950, the first so-called Darmstadt Dialogue took place. Baumeister participated in a discussion titled The Human Image of Our Time, along with well-known art historians such as Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub and Hans Sedlmayr, psychoanalyst Alexander Mitscherlich, and philosopher Theodor Adorno. In 1954 Baumeister withdrew in protest from the German Artist Union, after belonging to its executive board since its new founding in 1950. Baumeister found that in an interview on non-representational painting, Karl Hofer had expressed a disparaging view. This was preceded by a polemic public debate between Hofer and art critic (and Baumeister biographer) Will Grohmann, a vehement advocate and promoter of abstract art.

Willi Baumeister, Deutscher Künstler Bund, Exhibition Poster, 1951

On August 31, 1955 Willi Baumeister died while at work on a painting. His death came unexpectedly - he was found sitting at the easel. You should visit his excellent official website.


  1. Thank you for this first class blog. Your work is infinitely valuable to spread the talent of many unknown or forgotten painters and artists of that time. I learn a lot.

    Best regards.

    François Appas

  2. Willi Baumeister is not one of the forgotten or unknown, dear Francois Appass. By the way, some years ago his work was co-exhibited with Paul Klee's in Lenbachhaus in Munchen.