Saturday, January 10, 2015

Émigrés, The Transformation of Art Publishing in Britain

Anna Nyburg. Émigrés: The Transformation of Art Publishing in Britain. London: Phaidon Press, 2014. ISBN 0714867020. 288 pages.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Morris

Drawing upon her previous publication, From Leipzig to London: The Life and Work of the Émigré Artist Hellmuth Weissenborn, Anna Nyburg presents a broader view of the impact of émigré publishers, artists, and art historians upon the cultural landscape of Britain in Émigrés: The Transformation of Art Publishing in Britain. Although Émigrés contains a good deal of interesting information about the cultural background of émigrés, as well as deeply personal characterizations of these important figures, it should not be viewed as a thorough and scholarly publication.

The main purpose of the text serves to highlight the role of three publishing houses with Viennese roots, Phaidon, Adprint, and Thames & Hudson, and the paths of their founders through personal accounts and portrayals, with a heavy emphasis on the personal lives of Phaidon’s Béla Horovitz and Ludwig Goldscheider. While the first half of the text focuses on providing biographical information of noteworthy individuals in publishing from the first half of the 20th century, the latter half explores the outcome of publishing houses Phaidon and Thames & Hudson post-1950, with a brief chapter on Adprint, founded by Wolfgang Foges, and the concept of ‘book packaging.’

Interspersed within the first chapter of character ‘portraits’, the reader will find fundamental  information about the developmental elements and genius of émigré book design and production; however, the sparseness and organization of this material is such that it might easily be missed. Even when Nyburg makes key points about book design, the reader is left without an image to illustrate an example of these transformative interior layouts. For example, Nyburg writes “He was particularly skilled at choosing details: selecting and highlighting a corner from a painting or sculpture and cropping the photograph, producing a fresh and different image with a technique that was unusual at the time” (p.15), but fails to provide an example and does not give a date or time-frame for when this ‘new’ approach was employed.

Moving onwards, Nyburg provides some cultural background for the émigrés of Mitteleurope, and how their education and immersion in the Classics, Literature, and Art aided in their natural abilities for design and publishing; the emphasis is again placed on Phaidon’s Horovitz and Goldscheider, along with Walter and Eva Neurath of Thames & Hudson. Additionally, there is more contextual information of what life as a Jewish person in Nazi Germany was like through personal accounts of the countless difficult decisions and hardships that were encountered during the late 1930s.

Chapters 4 and 5, ‘Arrival and War: Publishing Émigrés in Britain’ and ‘A New Start: Phaidon and Art Publishing after the War’ add value and necessary context as the book becomes more descriptive and focused on the specific elements for the arrival of émigrés in Britain: how they were able to assimilate into British culture, the processes in place for registering as aliens and the tribunals, and the creative relationships that arose from being placed within internment camps, such as the Isle of Man. There were also personal anecdotes from émigrés on the discrimination they encountered from British citizens who were unemployed or unsure of their alliance to Germany, but also how they were able to assist in war efforts from creating ‘black’ propaganda to fire-watching duties.

Nyburg also discusses the influence and guidance that was provided by Zwemmer’s Bookshop and Gallery in London to both émigré and British publishers and citizens, as they created a physical and intellectual place for art education and connoisseurship. She also discusses the role of Teddy Schüller, who moved to London in 1932 and was a lifelong Anglophile, and his work in creating the Oxford Companion to Art, published by Oxford University Press. He relied on his network of German-speaking art historians, including E.H. Gombrich (The Story of Art published by Phaidon), to complete this work that was realized in the 1930s and finally published by 1970. The text, however, begins to take a more negative approach to discussing the difficulties in the relationship between Phaidon’s Horovitz and Sir Stanley Unwin, when Phaidon moved to independent ownership, resulting in severed ties between the two parties. Continuous personal instances of uncited and biased information detract greatly from the main mission of the book in providing a narrative of this much underrepresented topic.

Moving on to Chapter 6, ‘Between the Pages: Typography, Design and Illustration’, the reader is able to find the necessary and much-needed historical context of the publishing and book arts landscape pre-WWI that illuminates the cooperative and collaborative relationships between English and German publishers and artists. Nyburg describes the influential relationships of great artists and typographers such as William Morris, Eric Gill, Stanley Morison and Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson on key German artists and publishers like Anton Kippenberg, Rudolf Koch, and Karl Ernst Poeschel. Although this chapter illustrates key elements in the transformation of British publishing, Nyburg writes with a biased voice about how German contributions to the book arts outweigh those of the British. In doing so, Nyburg presents contradictory information, as British publishers did in fact work for and employ German typographers and designers before WWII, and continued to do so throughout the 20th century (p.109). She also notes several British publishers that were knowledgeable and trained in German book production and design, such as Oliver Simon, Sir Francis Meynell, Stanley Morison and Abram Games, despite also noting the lack of professional training in publishing and exposure to fine art for British culture; additionally, British publishing giant Penguin Books, headed by Allen Lane, is briefly discussed.

Nyburg writes that typography and overall book design became ever increasingly important and ‘essential’ for all German publishers and book designers throughout the first three decades of the 20th century, but that it was only bibliophiles and collectors who were concerned with these aspects in Britain; however, earlier in the same chapter (Chapter 6) Nyburg discusses the start and influence of art nouveau movements in each country at the end of the 19th century that led into the early 20th century, which drew upon the exchange of education and influence between key British figures with German counterparts, such as Anton Kippenberg, owner of Insel Verlag. In 1905, Kippenberg “was so determined to keep his books free from the over-the-top Germanic style that he employed English book designers and typographers such as Eric Gill” (p.102). Such contradictory statements, confused further by jumping continuously across periods of time, create an unclear narrative that leaves the reader with more questions than answers.

One of the more interesting portions of the book comes from Chapter 8, ‘The Rise and Fall of Adprint’ since it discusses the extremely innovative practice of ‘book packaging’ as it transformed the practice of art book publishing in Europe. Further, it explores advances in publishing with color images, collaborative work with Penguin Books, the significant Britain in Picture series, the diminishing power of Adprint, and in particular on the personal career of Wolfgang Foges and the bitter rivalry between Foges and Neurath. The final chapters move on to discuss the Neuraths of Thames & Hudson and touches upon many others of importance for image reproduction such as Jarrold of Norwich Printers. However, there is some confusion to be found within the personal narratives of second, third, and even fourth generational émigré family members from publishing giants on their cultural background and training. While some individuals, including Eva Neurath, believe that the advancements of the émigré publishers would have achieved notoriety regardless of geographical location, Nyburg argues that the success of Phaidon and Thames & Hudson in the latter half of the 20th century is due largely to the cultural values passed on from the émigrés as second, third and fourth generations acquired, operated and continued in the world of art book publishing in Britain. Richard Schlagman, who acquired Phaidon books, is described as saying, “…he questioned any notion of Phaidon’s Jewishness, saying that the tradition of culture often attributed to the Jews of ‘Mitteleuropa’ was more likely a product of central Europe itself’ (p. 187).

The most confusing aspects of the book lie within Nyburg’s negative stance on British culture, education and artistic efforts, as well as with the complete lack of design elements that are noted as being the transformational elements of art publishing (note: this book is published by Phaidon). Nyburg makes a series of criticisms of British culture and art, such as on p. 37, “In the visual arts, the only modernists who made their mark were Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson, in sculpture and painting respectively,” and education on p.211, ‘…the English working-class teenagers. Not only were they technically incompetent, unable to use a pencil or a brush correctly, but they were also embarrassed by the very notion of art other than as a form of technical reproduction.” Furthermore, she gives a disparaging portrayal of Sir Stanley Unwin throughout the latter portion of the book, who assisted Horovitz and Goldscheider in their personal and professional migration to England, despite Unwin taking on the responsibility for the personal safety and well-being of the émigrés for at least a decade (p.61-62).

What's more, the book is written in a manner that suggests the reader should have some prior knowledge of the subject, as well as with key figures of émigré publishing, writing and book design. Herman Ullstein, Jan Tschichold, Dr. Franz Leppmann, Ruth Rosenberg, Fritz Landshoff, Walter Landauer, Henrich Hauser, Bermann Fischer, and Peter Suhrkamp… are all mentioned within two pages (p.52-53) without any clarification as to how these individuals fit within the overall narrative, a common approach found throughout the text.  Although they may provide singular, tangible examples of a point Nyburg is trying to convey, it only adds further confusion as to whom they are and the role they played within the transformation of British art publishing. Short biographical information as an added appendix would have been particularly helpful for readers to refer to as they navigate and conceptualize the turbulence of these times and events.

In terms of book design, the text is extremely limited in images and illustrative examples of the transformation of art publishing; the majority of color images included are of book covers and very few page spreads. Other images interspersed within the text are black and white photographic reproductions of the émigrés and their family members, serving more as an archival exploration of the families instead of art publishing. Nyburg ironically groups together the core color illustrations of art books in the middle of the text using color plates, a common practice in art books before the evolutionary practices of Phaidon, Adprint, and Thames and Hudson (p.151). What Nyburg praises for the transformation of art book publishing by the émigrés is completely contradicted by the design and layout of this text, which is meant to detail and explore this specific topic. One highlight of the text is the appendices, which provide published books by Phaidon by year from 1932-55 and a list of books published by Thames & Hudson from 1950-1959. Additionally, the book boasts a rich bibliography of resources that will aid anyone in further research on this topic.

Ultimately, there is not enough information on the actual transformation of publishing in technical terms, particularly for image and photographic reproduction which played an immense role in the art publishing landscape, and an overabundance of information about the personal lives of the émigrés, including that of second and third generational émigré family members. The book would have been a richer resource had the technical processes and design elements been described in greater detail, and if Nyburg would have defined what constitutes an ‘art book’ in the transformation of the publishing landscape from the onset, the overall goal of the text may have been more clearly elucidated to the reader.

It could be argued that rather than the émigré publishers transforming the landscape of British publishing for art books, that the transformation lies within the collaborative relationships and exchanges between émigré and British art historians, publishers, artists and designers that were in place pre-WWI, and continue to the present day. Due to the Anschluss, many citizens of Central Europe were forced to leave their homes and find refuge in other countries, Britain being one of the most central. It was these circumstances which have led to the creation and foundation of British art publishing in the 20th century, and the ability for these relationships to prosper for over a century should be applauded.

Beth Morris is Assistant Librarian at the Yale Center for British Art, Reference Library and Archives, where she started a preservation program with in-house book repairs for the collection. She holds an MLIS from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she completed her thesis on artists' book collections. Additionally she holds a BA in Fine Art from Elon University.