Why Was Airbrush Decoration Between 1927 and 1933 So Successful?
By Volker Zelinsky
There may be several reasons why airbrushed patterns, which fanned the whole surface into geometric partial areas with hard contours, were so successful at the end of the 1920s. Though the technique of airbrushing had been in use for applying glazes to ceramics since the end of the 19th century, it was the years immediately after the First World War when a change of the "visual image" brought a broad consumer base in personal contact with new abstraction to the visual arts, especially painting and sculpture, then into popular arts, crafts and industrial design.
The new abstraction showed a fracturing of objects into what could easily be identified by the general public as crystalline and geometric forms such as triangles, circles, squares and rectangles. Fracturing of forms had begun in the fine arts a few years before the onset of the First World War in Paris with Cubism as well as in Munich in the "Blaue Reiter,” and surged later under various names among the Russian/Soviet avant-garde and at the Bauhaus in Dessau. It encompassed, abstract photography, and in architecture became the concept of "new building."
How these developments of the visual arts influenced the consumer's new seeing and how the popularization of the fragmented "visual image" prepared the massive success of the airbrushed decors can be shown as having developed out of the following:
George Braque and Pablo Picasso French Cubism introduced the rhythmic, simultaneous view of an object through a change of the visual standpoint. This change of visual stance created a space cloud in which it was possible to see the "object per se," independently of the viewer's own space and time. The works of early Cubism are usually kept in a uniform hue, which varies on the individually used geometrical elements (Fig.1).
Their borders are often contoured with darker shades, in some cases with black lines. Thus, the geometric surfaces are clearly recognizable and are textured with shadowing, so that their flatness comes to the fore. Cubism’s effort to find a new form of truth by breaking forms and by their fragmentation prevailed after the First World War in several artistic disciplines and more broadly in the arts and design industry generally.
In Germany, the images of the “Blaue Reiter,” as painted and drawn, for example, by Franz Marc, Paul Klee and Lyonel Feininger, employed a cubist, crystal-oriented style. Franz Marc used cubist form language in such paintings as "Fate of Animals”, 1913 (Fig.2), and "Tyrolia”, 1913 - 1914. In searching for the "spiritual truth under the surface of nature," Marc showed the animal suffering in nature ("And all being is suffering") or the struggle with elemental forces. Feininger's early paintings such as "The Bridge I”, 1913, the "Church in Großkromsdorf”, 1914, or "Head in Architecture”, 1917, work with a crystalline like composition whose color is usually strongest at the edge and decreasing across the surface. Feininger's paintings, influenced by Cubism, seem to represent less the physicality of his churches and cities, but rather their spiritual character, their inner self. Already in 1912 Klee pointed out the "crystallizations in the ‘cubist form’". At the time, crystals as "metaphors of art" cut through architecture and the visual arts. Even though Cubism was only to play a brief role in Klee's work, he uses the segmentation for the context of his themes, such as in "Crystallizations" and "The Pauken Organ", both 1930, and more rarely for individual objects such as the picture "Mountains in Winter", 1925.
Even the Russian avant-garde bookending the First World War consistently implemented fragmentation and shading of objects, as in Cubism. Lubov Sergeiewna Popova, in her series "Picturesque Architects" (1915 - 1920), splits her objects into geometrical fragments in the sense of the Cubists. The edges are generally dark-black on one side, in order to diminish the basic color brown or blue- gray to its opposite limit in their intensity (Fig. 3, left). Often these painted color transitions from deep dark shades to brighter tones or white appear as if they were airbrushed. The forms are only applied in one color; their surfaces are no longer rendered by a painted texture or shadow. Popova also employs this style in her designs for a cup and saucer, though their physical production has not yet been determined (Fig.3, right).
Similar effects of a sharp contouring of fragmented surfaces, whose color density gradually dissolves from the dark edges into the interior of the geometrical figures are found in works by Alexander Michailowitsch Rodchenko in paintings such as "Dance", 1915, "Two Circles", 1917, "Composition", 1918, and "Composition", around 1919. Similar applications can be seen in some works by Warwara Stepanova, wife of Rodchenko, such as "A Figure (Half-Figure)", 1920, and "Two Figurines", 1920.
Rodchenko's designs for a teapot or a reconstructed tea set from 1922 (fig. 4) show, in addition to the hard geometric contours on the central circular shape on the corpus of the teapot’s colored surfaces in red or black which fray outwards and thus anticipate the optical effect of airbrushed decoration.
Stalin banned Kasimir Severinovich Malewich from painting, but he was allowed to decorate ceramics in Suprematist compositions, as Hans Richter reported in his memoirs: "During my stay in Russia, I visited Malevich in 1932 in Leningrad. Like the painters among the Nazis, he had a ban on his Suprematist works, since they showed no added value for 'the people'. He, (Malewich) was allowed to paint “Suprematist" compositions in subtle colors on cup and saucers, because they were embellishments, and thus could have a social value, albeit a minimal one. He was also asked to paint portraits in order to earn social credibility and a livelihood. And he did."
At the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany, the development of a new geometry-oriented language of forms was part of the institutions artistic goal. For Johannes Itten in particular, who, as a "master of teaching", had created the compulsory pre-course, working with contrasts was considered one of the most potent means of expression, and was a key principle of his art pedagogy. Each perception, according to Itten's understanding, was both relative and context-dependent. The basic importance of the light-dark contrasts was for Itten the student’s path to their discovery of contrasts both in different natural materials and technology, as well as in the works of past. A light-dark study in 1921 by Bauhaus student Rudolf Lutz showed this approach applied to a fragmented view of the world (Fig. 5). This view was continued on the mass market of ceramics by the airbrushed decorations applied from 1927 onwards.
Abstract photography was perhaps the most powerful influence on the development of the new “visual view” of a world of geometrically fragmented, crystalline elements and can be seen as possibly the most vital precursors for its use as decoration.
By 1917, Alvin Langdon Coburn and Francis Bruguière, both Americans, with László Moholy-Nagy in Germany, had produced abstract photo studies entitled "Vortographs" that used prisms (Fig.6), and his "Abstract Studies", circa 1923, "Cut Paper Abstraction ", around 1927, "Abstract Study”, around 1926, and "Violent Intervention", around 1930. Analogous to airbrushed decorations, geometrical surfaces overlap, so that shaded surfaces are formed. Langdon Coburn exhibited his abstract photographic studies in 1928 in Herwarth Walden's gallery, "Der Sturm" in Berlin. In 1929, he exhibited eleven abstract photographs for “Film and Foto” at the Werkbund exhibition in Stuttgart. From 1922 on, László Moholy-Nagy at the Bauhaus produced abstract photograms and his “photokinetic” installation of the "light-space modulator". In 1922/30, his installation even ran as a trailer, a selected short, for “normal”, general admission audience films at some Berlin movie theaters. In his famous photographs "View from the Berlin Radio Tower”, 1928, light and shadow are focused as it was in novel kaleidoscopes. Moholy-Nagy also coined the term Neues Sehen (New Vision) for his photography.
With this general fascination for abstract photographs, it is not surprising that individual artists, such as Man Ray, Paul Klee, Moholy-Nagy and Wassily Kandinsky, used airbrushing techniques as an artistic means in their paintings because they achieved with the “aerograph” effects similar to those of photography.
Even though Cubism was the initiator of the decomposition of forms into geometric elements and shaded surface designs, it is indisputable that at the same time innovations in the physical world promoted a new visual image of it: the use of new materials such as concrete in the "New Building" with new sharp-edged silhouettes, which, by the conjunction of elements, resulted in rectangular forms and plain surfaces; intensification of public lighting through neon advertising with its novel bright colored light and shadow effects; new furniture with wallboards and inlays, which allow carpenter to work with big surfaces; acceptance of our eyes to the beauty of the modern matter-of-fact machines without any superfluous elements and decorations; as well as the broad popularization of photography and cinema. In addition, the expansion of mass consumption led to the consumer's eye becoming accustomed to the new "visual image" of the geometric division of the objects.
So it was only matter of time that the new popular "visual image" in the mass market led to ceramics with decorated airbrushed geometric patterns that then sent them on their triumphal procession from 1928 onwards as modern and as an expression of the "new era". Until airbrushed decoration was defamed in 1933 by the Nazi authorities as "communist," later as degenerate, to be replaced by the new trend of running glazes and the kitschy historicizing racial Nazi Baroque with its overloaded applications and unclear mixing of colors, abstract airbrush decoration had been the most innovative and modern aesthetic treatment of ceramics that was most readily available and most complimented its generation.