“The mysterious power of a work of art lies in its formal-abstract component and the relation of the representational to its artistic deformation. In all eras, art proceeded and gave the canon the purified view for the eye of humanity.”
Willi Baumeister (22 January 1889 – 31 August 1955) was a German painter, scenic designer, art professor, and typographer. His works used specific lines and geometric figures, as well as free-floating forms to create playful abstract paintings. The artist was influenced by Fernand Leger, Paul Klee and Joan Miro, but created his own bright and joyful style of colorful paintings.
The artist has been born in Germany, in Stuttgart, where he met the painter Oskar Schlemmer that influenced him greatly while studying in the Stuttgart art academy. It was due to the collaboration with Schlemmer, when Baumeister first earned acclaim on a mural for the Cologne Werkbund exhibition of 1914. As Baumeister focused increasingly on abstraction, he was alienated from the artistic program of the Third Reich, which was focused mainly on promoting heroic ideals of Germany’s past, showing some representational works influenced by classical art.
Later on, the two painters made an exhibition named “Degenerate Art", that was quite remarkable for his time and lead to a ban on their art. During the same period, the artist studied Asian and prehistoric art and was influenced by the themes of both, thus becoming interested in pictographs and some techniques found in primitive art. Such elements can be seen in his artworks named “The Eidos Pictures”, where he used some visual codes and symbols.
One of the interesting facts of his life is that while studying in the art school, he was dismissed by his teacher Poetzelberger due to lack of talent, and he switched into the composition class of Adolf Hölzel, with whom he studied until 1912, where he met his lifelong friend art partner Schlemmer. During the war, while in Vienna, Baumeister also met the painter Oskar Kokoschka who also influenced his art, as well as the architect Adolf Loos. During the start of his art career, as well as later on during his artistic life, Baumeister visited Paris, where he participated with great success in gallery exhibitions.
Another interesting fact about Baumeister is that he took up the initiative with Schlemmer and other artists to found the artist group in his city of birth Stuttgart, the group being named Üecht (Alemannic: genuine, true), which he left in 1921.
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.
Willli Baumeister, Composition, 1925
Willi Baumeister, Machine, 1925
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.
Willi Baumeister, Läufer, 1934
Baumeister’s artistic development was not interrupted when he lost his professorship at the Städel 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 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 of 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.
As an indefatigable researcher and collector, Baumeister also owned examples of African sculpture, in which he, as in the case of the prehistorical artifacts, saw universal images for life, development, and human existence. Correspondingly, their formal language entered Baumeister’s work in the early 1940s—highly abstracted, at first chromatically restrained (African Tale, 1942), and with time, became increasingly colorful and in part very complex in their formal design (Owambo 1944–1948). Both the titles and formal language reveal Baumeister’s preoccupation with other old (Latin American) cultures (Peruvian Wall, 1946, and Aztec Couple, 1948).
Willi Baumeister, African Tale, 1942
Willi Baumeister, Peruvian Wall, 1947
Willi Baumeister, Owambo, 1948
During the same period, the artist was also engaged in producing stage designs, making about seventeen all together. His popularity and recognition abroad became evident in a joint exhibition with Fernand Léger in the Berlin gallery Der Sturm in 1922. During these years, Baumeister developed professional relationships with artists such as Paul Klee, Léger, Amédée Ozenfant, and Michel Seuphor. In 1924 several of his works were shown at the Erste Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung (First General German Art Exhibition) in Moscow and, in 1925, he participated in the Paris exhibition L’Art d’aujourd’hui (Art Today). It is interesting to know that the artist was engaged in commercial activities besides his artistic work. He designed several advertisements for numerous companies, such as Bosch and DLW (Deutsche Linoleumwerke).
In his artistic career, Baumeister successfully developed a very personal and impressive visual language that was and still is unique in German art immediately after 1945. The national and international recognition that Willi Baumeister received in the postwar period was correspondingly high, although it is clear that while working in "domestic emigration" during the Nazi dictatorship, he had no influence on the vital artistic environment. But his artistic development did not stop there. The artist developed his paintings style further in a virtuosic manner and, what is more, combined the variety of his formation phases in many other pictures—in part into "overalls structures" that nonetheless still possessed a fundamental that was reminiscent of landscape imageries (Blue Movement, 1950)
After 1945 Willi Baumeister played an important role in the development of German and European art. Among the German painters who remained in the country despite the persecution by the National Socialists from 1933 to 1945, only a few succeeded in achieving such pioneering strides toward new contents and forms. Following World War II, he became a spokesman in the debate on Modernism. Regarded as an advocate of "abstract" painting, he was highly regarded by some, while strongly criticized by others.
Willi Baumeister, Allegro, 1954
Willi Baumeister, Bluxao, 1955
Today, his art can be found in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Gallery in London, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. On August 31, 1955, Baumeister died while working at his easel in Stuttgart, Germany.
Willi Baumeister, Composition, No Date