Willi Baumeister (* 1889 in Stuttgart; † 1955 ibid.) was a German artist and professor at the Städelschule in Frankfurt and at the Stuttgart Art Academy. He became particularly known for his amorphous formal language, which moves on the edge of abstraction.
Willi Baumeister began studying art at the Stuttgart Art Academy in 1905 while still training as a decorative painter. During his studies, Oskar Schlemmer was his fellow student and became a close friend. The exchange with him is also repeatedly reflected in Baumeister’s oeuvre. His acquaintance with Kasimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Paul Klee, and Hans Arp also found artistic echoes in his work from time to time. Nevertheless, Baumeister found his very own form of expression. Very quickly, he moved away from a purely pictorial style of painting towards abstraction. However, his works of art can by no means be described as non-representational, but rather forms and figurative elements repeatedly appear in his painting that can be associated with objects or people. Although he received a call to the State Bauhaus in 1928, he turned it down and took up a professorship at the Städelschule in Frankfurt instead. Driven out of office by the National Socialists and finally banned from painting in 1941, Baumeister went into internal emigration during the National Socialist regime. Despite the occupational ban, he continued to paint and also reflected on this difficult time in his book Das Unbekannte in der Kunst (The Unknown in Art), which appeared in 1947. In 1946, he continued his work as a university lecturer until he retired from the Stuttgart Art Academy. In 1949, he founded the group ZEN 49, which advocated a new beginning for art after the Second World War. Baumeister’s œuvre achieved great fame in the post-war period, especially as abstraction became the trend. He took part in several biennials and also in the first documenta. 1955, he died in his studio in Stuttgart while working on a painting.
In Willi Baumeister’s early creative period from 1920 onwards, he reduced his pictorial content to geometric forms with an architectural appeal. In doing so, he tectonically assembled the picture elements, supplemented by various materials such as cardboard or metal foil, in such a way that they appeared to be in relief. This group of works is today called the “wall pictures”. On the one hand, this shows Baumeister’s interest in Cubism, and on the other, his closeness to the ideas of the Bauhaus, founded at that time. With the Wall Pictures, he gained his first international reputation. His approach of breaking down the pictorial elements into tectonic language of form and colour also permeates his later creative phases.
Ideograms and Eidos pictures
After his forced dismissal from his professorship in Frankfurt and the National Socialist exhibition “Degenerate Art”, Baumeister began to focus more on Ur-pictures and Ur-types. Throughout his life he collected art of primal peoples and repeatedly took up these in his paintings – sometimes as an ideal landscape, sometimes as a reduction to a purely abstract sign. These so-called “ideograms” are based on the idea that written and pictorial signs can be equated, thus possessing the same symbolic character, and that complete reduction is therefore possible without loss of expressiveness. From the idea of the Ur-Typus, Baumeister developed parallel pictures with an organic formal language, which, in contrast to the ideograms, were more colour-intensive. He called these pictures “Eidos pictures” (Eidos=idea).
The work on myth
The works produced during Baumeister’s period of inner emigration go in a similar direction. Ancient Greek myths, Old Testament stories and the Epic of Gilgamesh found their way into his work as archetypal motifs. This continued in the period after the Second World War, when Baumeister reinterpreted these myths into archetypes of new beginnings.
1905 – Begins art studies at the Stuttgart Art Academy; friendship with Oskar Schlemmer, Franz Marc, and Paul Klee.
1906/1908 – Training as a decorative painter.
1910 – Master student with Adolf Hölzel.
1914/1918 – Military service.
1919/1921 – Founder and member of the Üecht Group.
1922 – Completion of art studies; group exhibition with Fernand Léger in the gallery “Der Sturm”.
1924 – Stay in Paris; acquaintance with Le Corbusier, Amadée Ozenfant, Fernand Léger.
1926 – Marriage to Margarete Oehm; exhibitions in New York and Paris; acquaintance with Piet Mondrian and Kasimir Malevich.
1928/1933 – Professorship at the Frankfurt Städelschule; withdrawal of professorship by the National Socialists.
1935 – Participation in excavations of prehistoric evidence in the greater Stuttgart area.
1937 – Works by Baumeister are shown in the “Degenerate Art” Feme exhibition.
1939 – Solo exhibition for his 50th birthday in Paris; acquaintance with Hans Arp, Joan Miró, Wassily Kandinsky, Sophie Teuber-Arp.
1941 – Painting and exhibition ban.
1946 – Appointment as professor at the Stuttgart Art Academy.
1948 – Participation in the XXIV Venice Biennale.
1949 – Foundation of ZEN 49 (initially “Group of the Non-Objective”).
1954 – Solo exhibition at Württembergischer Kunstverein, Stuttgart.
1955 – Participation in documenta I in Kassel; solo exhibition at Galerie Ferdinand Möller, Cologne.