OBITUARIES / Max Bill

The Swiss artist Max Bill spent only two years as a student at the Bauhaus in Dessau, but they were the most formative of his long and enormously productive life.

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.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Business Support - Banking - Halifax - £250 pd

£150 - £250 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - HR - Halifax - £150 - £250...

Geography Teacher

£24000 - £33600 per annum + pre 12 week AWR : Randstad Education Manchester Se...

Marketing Executive

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Charter Selection: A professional services company ...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game