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BOOK REVIEW: JUDGING BOOKS AND THEIR COVERS

 

By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 2 FEBRUARY 2016 — From 1919, when the Weimar Republic was formed, until 1933, when the Nazis remade Germany as the base for their brutal empire, the German public enjoyed a period of political and artistic freedom not previously available to them. It would all come again, an estimated 20 million victims later, following the end of the Second World War and the formation of a workable German republic — first for the western portions, and then for all the nation.

Weimar freedoms came amid strikes and paramilitary thuggery, with republicans caught between increasingly vocal and ever-violent communists and fascists. The interwar era started with loss of ancestral territory, and then brought hyperinflation, and then the Great Depression — and then things really got bad. At least you could finally read whatever you wished. Imperial Germany had ended governmental pre-publication censorship back in 1874, but during the First World War, the military took over censorship in an officious way, often with capricious results. The Weimar constitution eliminated the censorship of books. Within months of coming to power in 1933, the Nazis were publically burning the many books they did not like, kindling angry bonfires throughout the land.


Ignatz Straßnoff. Ich, der Hochstapler Ignatz Strassnoff
Berlin: Verlag Die Schmiede, 1926.
Cover by Georg Salter.
© TASCHEN

Left alone during that short period in between, German authors and illustrators created distinctive bodies of work, and in great quantity. By the late 1920s, there were 929 publishers and one hundred newspapers in Berlin alone. The era, from an illustrator’s point of view of its literary output, is chronicled in Buchumschläge in der Weimarer Republik (The Book Cover in the Weimar Republic), a dual English/German-language coffee-table book published by Taschen (Jürgen Holstein, editor; 451 pages; hardbound). The core of the book is the collection of covers from about one thousand books from the era collected by Jürgen and Waltraud Holstein.

The subject being the covers and not the books themselves, the tour is not necessarily of the best literature — good writing and good presentation not always being things that go hand in hand in publishing. And, as noted in the introduction to this capacious assembly, only about one quarter to one fifth all German books published during the era even had book covers (sometimes called dust jackets). Those that have survived are not always in the best state of conservation. Just putting the collection together was clearly an exercise of love and patience — and documenting it in a massive book in two languages must have been a formidable undertaking for all involved.


Jürgen Holstein: The Book Cover in the Weimar Republic 
© TASCHEN

The book demonstrates that illustration, like fashion and hairstyling, is a product of its era. It is not merely the pictures used, as a long essay on typefaces, contributed by Peter Nils Dorén, reminds us. There is a certain look to Western works of an era that, in the USA — which was just feeling its ascendant international economic strength as Germany was sacrificing its own — was known as the Roaring Twenties or, with somewhat more finesse, as the Jazz Age.

There is often a certain artifice, interlaced on occasion with visual bombast, in a book cover which, after all, plays goalie for the team of advertisers of the book it envelops. On these German dust jackets, typefaces tended to be large, the illustrations stark and often dramatic. The authors within may have written with poise, muted voices and even, on occasion, in literary whispers, but many of these covers shout for attention. There was considerable use of photomontage, then quite the vogue. When it came to political books (the left wing, which was on the losing side of Weimar history, is particularly well represented in this collection), the covers are frequently the visual equivalent of a street action. Mindful that Weimar Germany was nothing if not a study in extremes, it is no surprise that many covers are starkly lettered and bear simple illustrations or none at all, giving the appearance of having been designed and typeset on Victorian mourning paper.

What is perhaps the book’s best chapter is devoted to one of the most influential German artists of the time, George Grosz. His caricatures and grotesques worked powerfully well as book covers. The most graphic of those presented here is an image of a bald bourgeois licking a fascist riding boot for a collection of the artist’s political drawings entitled Abrechnung Folgt (The Day of Reckoning).

Many Upton Sinclair books in translation are represented, as are works by Erich Maria Remarque, Thomas Mann and Eric Kästner, the author of Emil und die Detektive (Emil and the Detectives), with its famous narrative-supporting cover drawing by Walter Trier. Most of the period’s authors will be unfamiliar to readers of the Holstein book — and that is part of the exercise. This is not a coffee table book in the sense that it is about pictures supported by words; it is more like a reference work presented as a coffee table book. It is meant less to be read than to be used in research.


 
Erich Kästner. Emil und die Detektive. Ein Roman für Kinder
Berlin: Williams & Co. (1931). 
Cover illustration by Walter Trier
© TASCHEN

Among them all, I recognize one book from the small library I inherited from my family: Der rote Kampfflieger (literally, The Red Combat Pilot, but more recognizably, The Red Baron), the memoir of the fighter pilot Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen, composed during convalescent leave months before he died in action, in 1918, at the age of twenty-five. I can imagine my father, as a teenager in a small farm town in the Pfalz (Palatinate), savoring the life story of the First World War’s greatest aerial ace, dreaming a boy’s fantasies of glory. By the time I had taken possession, our copy, in black hardcover, had lost its jacket, which, as the Holstein book shows us, was a montage of a portrait of the hero, looking appropriately dashing, and the Fokker triplane that was his signature aircraft. The title is in the Gothic typeface in which many German books formerly were composed — a typeface that was begrudgingly still taught in German classes when I took the course and that hardly anyone yet living claims capable of reading with fluidity. This simple but necessary addition to the work — the illustrator’s coda to the pilot’s brief life story — shows that, although it is true that you cannot judge a book by its cover, the cover, if done correctly, will invite you to open and judge the book.

The Book Cover in the Weimar Republic 
by Jürgen Holstein

Hardcover: 452 pages
Taschen; Bilingual edition (August 2015)
ISBN-10: 3836549808
ISBN-13: 978-3836549806
$69.99


A dual US-German national, Alan Behr is an art, publishing and fashion lawyer.  He is a member of the Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art and the American Society of Media Photographers.

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