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The Visual Language of Herbert Matter

by Reto Caduff, Director and Writer
PiXiu Films, Zurich, Switzerland, 2011
DVD. 79 mins. Sales, $29.95
Distributor’s website: http://www.herbertmatter.net/home.htm.

Reviewed by Roy R. Behrens, Professor of Art and Distinguished Scholar
University of Northern Iowa


In 1927, a 25-year old American aviator named Charles Lindbergh successfully crossed the Atlantic in a single-engine monoplane, the Spirit of St. Louis. Flying non-stop from New York to Paris, Lindbergh was met on his arrival by 150,000 spectators. As revealed in this film biography, in the enormous, frenzied crowd that day was a young Swiss graphic designer (five years younger than Lindbergh) named Herbert Matter.

Matter (1907-1984) was born and raised in Engelberg, Switzerland, an Alpine village and mountain resort where his family owned a bakery and tearoom. Initially, he studied art in Geneva, but in 1927 (the year of Lindbergh’s famous flight) he moved to Paris, where he studied with French artists Fernand Leger and Amedee Ozenfant, and worked with architect Le Corbusier (who was Ozenfant’s associate in their quasi-cubist movement called Purism).

Of greater consequence, Matter also worked with graphic designer A.M. Cassandre. It was during those same years in Paris that he was lastingly influenced by Russian Constructivism, De Stijl, the Bauhaus, and Surrealism. To some extent, his later achievements as a designer, illustrator, photographer and filmmaker can be seen as an individualized blend of selected aspects and attitudes from these earlier, once precarious styles.

A turning point in Matter’s life took place in 1932, when he was deported from France for the lack of appropriate papers. Returning to Switzerland, he began to work as an advertising designer. He also embarked on experiments with “photomontage” (in which cut-out shapes from photographs are combined into a new image and then rephotographed), producing a series of Swiss tourism posters that are so striking that they are still aptly considered today as among the most memorable images in design history. Soon this work was widely known, as Matter came to realize when, having moved to New York in 1936, he saw his posters on display when he interviewed at leading design studios.

This film is a spellbinding visual and aural account of Matter’s achievements, including events and accomplishments in the latter decades of his life: His work for art director Alexey Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar. His design for the Swiss National Pavilion for the New York World’s Fair in 1939. His posters for the Container Corporation. His logos and related work for Knoll Associates and the New Haven Railroad. His marriage to Mercedes Carles, the daughter of Philadelphia painter (and World War I ship camoufleur) Arthur B. Carles, and the birth of their son Alex (who is interviewed, as are many others, some of whom were close to him). His friendships with Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Alberto Giacommetti, Alexander Calder (about whose work he made a film), Robert Frank, Charles and Ray Eames, and others. And his 25 years as a teacher at Yale University.

The factual components in this film (narrative, interviews, images) are both informative and interesting. But the thing that really makes it work is the manner in which it’s constructed. Like Herbert Matter’s own finest, more lasting achievements, the film is a montage-like homage to him. The best specific example of that is the handling of the title sequence, which itself is a deft distillation of what Matter was frequently trying to do in his own photomontages (combining fragments of photos with type) or what were sometimes said to be his “photo-graphics.”

Throughout the film, one senses that Matter was considerably more than a skillful early practitioner of photomontage. His death, of course, predated the use of personal computers in design, yet somehow his work was a presage of what was shortly to arrive with the development of Adobe Photoshop and comparable image-editing software. Some artists and DIY followers tend to belittle Photoshop’s capabilities, but if Herbert Matter were designing with that software, the results would be just as astounding (or more) as the things that he made with traditional tools. For that reason alone, this is a good film for students to see.

Last Updated 1 December 2012

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