OBITUARIES / Max Bill
Thursday 15 December 1994
Educated, like so many of his fellow Bauhausler, to master a variety of artistic disciplines and see each in a scientific or technological context, Bill was remarkably versatile. Equally distinguished as an architect, industrial designer, typographer, painter and sculptor, he was also an influential theorist, teacher, administrator and exhibition organiser. He even dabbled in politics for a time. Having served on Zurich City Council, he was elected to the Swiss National Parliament in 1967 and remained a n active member until 1971.
Max Bill was born at Winterthur in 1908. Trained first as a silversmith at the Zurich School of Arts and Crafts, he transferred from there to the Dessau Bauhaus in 1927, initially intending to become an architect because, as he wrote soon after, "Le Corbusier had turned my head." At just that moment the Bauhaus was experiencing momentous change. An architecture department had recently been introduced at the school, and in 1928 the founder and first director of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, resigned. Hissuccessor was the Swiss architect Hannes Meyer, whose Marxist beliefs made him an uncompromising functionalist and an implacable opponent of individualism and free expression in the fine arts as well as architecture.
Bill shared Meyer's Utopian conviction that architecture and design could create a new society if only informed by science and shaped by technology. Like Meyer, Bill was also unconvinced by the claim, made by several Bauhaus teachers, that the fine arts deserved special status because of their spiritually regenerative properties. Indeed, as he wrote later, he was alarmed to discover that "in spite of all official rejection, painting did go on" at the Bauhaus. He "disapproved of this very much" because he was exclusively interested in achieving "practical results" in the form of "socially useful products". However, Bill soon responded to the charismatic pull of the painters Kandinsky and Klee, and joined their weekly informal painting classes at the Bauhaus.
Although both Kandinsky and Klee impressed him deeply (Bill later produced editions of some of Kandinsky's major theoretical writings), Bill never shared their weakness for metaphysics. In this he was closer to another Bauhaus teacher, the Hungarian Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, who stimulated his interest in industrial design and introduced him to the painting of the De Stijl group and especially that of Mondrian, whom Bill, together with his wife Binia, eventually visited in Paris in 1932. They became friends, not least because of their shared interest in ballroom dancing, although Bill owed more to another De Stijl painter, Georges Vantongerloo, and most of all to the theories of the founder of De Stijl, Theo van Doesburg.
All of Bill's invariably abstract and geometric work is emphatically rational, even cerebral, and, like that of most of the other artists variously described as "Constructivist" or "Concrete", can seem dry and occasionally arid. Bill derived his rigorously geometric forms and meticulously planned and fashioned compositions from mathematical systems, formulae and other relationships, while his use of colour is reminiscent of charts illustrating theories of colour and its perception. Once full y formed, Bill's style changed little. Most of his paintings consist of rectangular or diagonal fields of flat, pure colour, many of them enclosed within grids. His sculpture (to which he turned later), always in hard stone or polished metal, is as highl y finished. Its immaculate surfaces look machine-made and anonymous. It is as seemingly (and misleadingly) straightforward and simple as his paintings.
The temptation to see something quintessentially Swiss in the smooth precision and clipped economy of Bill's work is irresistible. The same can be said of his agreeably straightforward theoretical statements. All of his paintings and sculptures are, in his own words, "realisations of abstract ideas, concrete aesthetic objects which exercise the mind". Perhaps his best-known sculpture (produced like much of his work in series) is Endless Surface which, based on the Mobius Strip, miraculously manages to create a reproduction of the paper loop with its characteristic twist from a solid block of carved granite.
After leaving the Bauhaus in 1929 Bill returned to Zurich, where he worked both as an architect and graphic designer. He continued to paint and, in 1932, became a member of the abstraction-creation group in Paris. Six years late he joined CIAM (Congres International d'Architecture Moderne), the equally celebrated association of architects committed to the so-called International Style.
In 1944 Bill began to teach at the Zurich School of Arts and Crafts. There he developed the approach which guided the rest of his teaching career. Based on what he had learned at the Bauhaus, this was concerned with establishing what Bill described as the "theoretical and practical foundations of an environment in harmony with technological civilisation". In 1948 he founded his own "Institute for Progressive Culture" in Zurich and became a visiting lecturer at the Technical University in Darmstadt. His seminars there established his reputation as a teacher in Germany.
Bill's most active period as a teacher and administrator began in 1950 when he helped plan an Institute for Design, the Hochschule fur Gestaltung, in Ulm, south-west Germany. It was to be a revived Bauhaus with a similar ethos and curriculum. Bill designed the school buildings and accommodation for the teachers and students, devised its programe, and, when the institute opened in 1951, became director and head of the architecture and industrial design department.
In one important respect the Ulm Institute was too much like the Bauhaus. It, too, quickly became plagued by dissent and internal disputes that were as much political as artistic. Bill resigned in 1957 and returned to Zurich, ruefully observing from a distance the decline of a brave, and by then internationally recognised, institution. It managed to survive for only 11 more years. Although disappointed, Bill was not disillusioned. He never ceased to believe in the Bauhaus idea and in its potential for artistic and social renewal. Writing in 1964, he declared: "The Bauhaus broke the ground for many possibilities without itself being in a position to explore them all at the time. I am convinced that those unexplored possibilities still remain largely unexploited today or, far worse, are applied in ways based on a total misunderstanding."
With his rimless spectacles, crew-cut hair and well-pressed, conventional clothes, Bill looked nothing like the popular image of an artist. He lived in some style in the spacious house he had himself designed in a quiet Zurich suburb, and took great delight in driving one of his several expensive motor cars, especially the Rolls Royce in which he would travel to the parliament building in Berne. When he died suddenly of a heart attack while visiting Berlin last week he was within a fortnight of celebrating his 86th birthday. Max Bill was one of the last members of a generation of artists in whose lives the great pioneering age of modernism is linked with our own.
Max Bill, architect, sculptor, painter and politician: born Winterthur, Switzerland 22 December 1908; Director, Institute for Design, Ulm, Germany 1951-56; member, Zurich City Council 1961-68, Swiss Federal Council 1967-71; Professor of Environmental Design, Institute for Fine Arts, Hamburg 1967-74; married 1931 Binia Spoerri (deceased; one son), secondly Angela Thomas; died Berlin 9 December 1994.
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