Willi Baumeister

“From 1905 to 1907 Willi Baumeister completed a training in painting and decorating, which was likely the source of his lifelong sense of a fitting use of materials, and his enjoyment of experiment. Admitted in 1906 to the drawing class at the Akademie der bilden den Kunste, Stuttgart, he became a student in Adolf H?1zel’s composition class there in 1910. “In 1919-1920,” Baumeister noted, “I made paintings conceived for an architecture that did not yet exist at the time. In contrast to Archipenko, I strove not for an isolated, colored relief but began with a component of architecture, the wall. The result was paintings with actual, raised surfaces, which, as it were, hesitatingly grew out of the wall, without controverting its laws… I called these pictures ‘wall paintings,’ to emphasize the contrast with ‘easel paintings’.” Many of Baumeister’s wall paintings contain rough-textured passages obtained by adding sand to the paint, a technique he would continue to use a11 the way down to the late Monturi pictures. Color and form were treated in accordance with the law of perfect harmony and clarity, for Baumeister’s intent was to expunge all subjectivity from his art. In the early 1930s he recurred to archaic configurations, which lent his style reminiscences of neolithic cave painting.
“Monturi Discus I A, from the Monturi sequence, is a work from the artist’s final years. Focus of the composition is the circular, white form in the center – the discus of the title – surrounded and intersected by multicolored arabesques, which seems to converge on an expansive, rock-like shape. According to Baumeister’s statements, images of this kind address the fundamental issues of life, through symbols of the female principle and the forces at work in nature.”

Willi Baumeister’s Work

Baumeister took part in his first exhibition in 1910, showing figurative works inspired by impressionism. His chief interest was even at this time already in cubism and Paul C?zanne, whose work remained important to him throughout his life. These influences of impressionism and cubism that shaped Baumeister’s early paintings played an essential role in his work until the end of the 1920s. On the one hand, his representational painting was increasingly reduced (abstracting and geometric) as it gained form and lost depth. Parallel to the paintings of his friend Oskar Schlemmer, Baumeister’s independent exploration of form and color emerged. Already around 1919, his teacher Adolf H?lzel wrote to him: “Out of all of us, you will be the one who will achieve the most.” Also worth noticing is that the idiosyncratic German path into modernism, expressionism, barely resonates at all in Baumeister’s work, even though he had met, for instance, Franz Marc earlier on, and was certainly acquainted with the works of the Br?cke (Bridge) artists and those of the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider).

After his return from the First World War, Baumeister rigorously developed his work further. Although one still finds figurative elements in his paintings, the forms grew increasingly geometric and took on a dynamic of their own, and Baumeister broke the traditional connection between form and color. Various work groups emerged at this time, including the relief-like wall pictures, and paintings with sports theme (as a symbol for modernity). In his painting, the grappling with shapes and material of the painting as well as the relationship between reality and representation became visible. Parallel to this development, nonrepresentational painting began to gain a foothold in works that centered on geometric shapes and their relationships to one another in the picture (e.g. Planar Relation of 1920). Baumeister’s lively exchange with other German and foreign artists must also be seen as vitally important in the consequent development of his work. Indeed, as it was for many of his fellow artists, posing such questions was part of the agenda of the modern age (for example, El Lissitzky, Kazimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky, Fernand L?ger, Am?d?e Ozenfant, Le Corbusier, Paul Klee).

Towards the end of the 1920s, the shapes in Baumeister’s pictures grew softer. His paintings moved away from being oriented by the elementary shapes of the circle, triangle, and square towards organic forms. Although this development could also be observed concurrently in the work of other artists of his time, in Baumeister’s case, it was tied to his fascination for the prehistoric and archaic paintings. Baumeister intensely explored artifacts of early paintings and integrated this pictorial experience into his own painting. He identified the symbols, signs, and figures of cave painting as components of a valid archaic pictorial language that he used in his works. These included his increasing number of paintings in “oil on sand on canvas” that, in their materials, also approached the cave painting that Baumeister so admired (beg. ca. 1933). He himself collected examples of prehistoric findings, small sculptures, and tools, and occupied himself with cliff drawings that had been discovered in Rhodesia. This experience was undoubtedly important for Baumeister’s artistic disposition since he, evidently inspired by this rich store of prehistoric works, ultimately used extraordinarily reduced organic shapes for his “ideograms” (beg. ca. 1937). In these works he used a unique world of signs, which he saw as symbols for the laws of nature, their evolution, and human existence.

Baumeister’s artistic development was not interrupted when he lost his professorship at the St?del in Frankfurt in 1933. He continued to paint despite political persecution and economic difficulties. His work and its development are correspondingly diverse, even for the period after 1941, when he banned from exhibiting. He was the employed by the Dr. Kurt Herberts & Co. varnish factory in Wuppertal to research antique and modern painting techniques. This protected him politically and also gave him the opportunity to explore the fundamentals of painting. In this way he furthered his knowledge on prehistoric cave painting techniques. At the same time, he looked into Goethe’s theory of plant morphology. Out of this study this “eidos pictures” (eidos: idea) emerged: paintings that, unlike Baumeister’s ideograms, are rich in their variety and coloration. Moreover, these forms are organic, but seem rather than being symbols or signs, are images of simple plantlike and animal life forms. The pictures bear titles such as Rock Garden, Eidos, or Primordial Vegetable.

Selected Monographs:

– Will Grohmann, Willi Baumeister – Leben und Werk, Cologne 1963.
– Peter Beye, Baumeister, Felicitas: Willi Baumeister. Werkkatalog der Gem?lde. 2 Volumes. Ostfildern, 2002.
– Gerd Presler, Baumeister, Felicitas: Willi Baumeister – Werkverzeichnis der Skizzenb?cher (dt./engl.). Schriften des Archiv Baumeister im Kunstmuseum Stuttgart, Band 2. Berlin und M?nchen: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2010.

Works by the artist also featured in recent years in the two landmark exhibitions in the UK of German art:
German Art in the 20th Century: Painting and Sculpture 1905-1985 (Royal Academy, London, 1985, catalogue edited by Christos M. Joachimides, Norman Rosenthal and Wieland Schmied.
The Romantic Spirit in German Art: 1790-1990 Hayward Gallery, London, 1994, catalogue by Keith Hartley, Henry Meyric Hughes, Peter-Klaus Schuster and others.