Advertising becomes art

The National Museum in Zurich is showing the exhibition "Good to Print. Art and Advertising at Wolfensberger". The objects come from the holdings of the J. E. Wolfensberger print shop. Curator Felix Graf explains the background to this donation.  


WW: How did the exhibition "Good to Print: Art and Advertising" come about?

Felix Graf: The exhibition was triggered by a donation from the Wolfensberger family to the Swiss National Museum. The donation was arranged for us by the Swiss Graphic Design Foundation. One of the Foundation's board members is Ruedi Külling, the former CD and co-owner of Advico. As a designer, he created, for example, Cementit, the famous poster for Bic ballpoint pens as well as the Sinalco campaign and much more. In his era, Ruedi Külling did a lot of printing in the offset print shop at Wolfensberger. A family relationship and friendship developed from this. Külling even appeared in Wolfsberg as "Samichlaus" for the little wolves Benni and Thomi. The two great-grandchildren of the company founder and current managing directors of the print shops in Zurich and Birmensdorf only found out about this during the interview that I did with them and Ruedi Külling for the publication accompanying the exhibition. Well, with all these "divisions of inheritance" in the Wolfensberger family - there have been many children over the generations - original graphics and pictures have always ended up in other hands. Finally, the family also sold their Wolfsberg in order to be able to continue the print shops at a more suitable location with the new capital. When Benni and Thomi Wolfensberger realized that fewer and fewer of the documents from the print shop's history remained, the two had an idea: It would be good if a suitable institution could take over the valuable stock.
How big is this Wolfensberger collection?
This stock is still relatively large, about 400 sheets of every kind, advertising leaflets, posters, brochures, books, archival documents, contracts, quite great historical photographs. For example, a photo of the lithographer Oscar Haag, who is transferring Hodler's Tell onto the stone. Wolfensberger wanted to use it to make the Landi poster in 1938. But the jury refused, and so Alois Carigiet finally designed the Landi poster. But it was also printed by Wolfensberger. The photo with the side-inverted Tell on the stone, for example, was not yet known to Hodler researchers. And there is much more material in this quality in the donation.
What have you taken on for the exhibition?
I once inventoried everything and consulted with Ruedi Külling. He then had the idea of making an exhibition out of it. And because I'm a curator of prints and very interested in the history of media, I was of course immediately interested. Then I was also able to get our director Andreas Spillmann excited about the project. A print shop with a history dating back over 100 years that is still in business today - that has to be worth an exhibition for us.
According to which concept do you exhibit?
A first idea sketch was developed together with the Swiss Graphic Design Foundation. Its president, Christian Jaquet, board member Ruedi Külling and I roughly drafted the concept, then I took over. I'm not only a curator of prints, but also a cultural historian. Political history and media history interest me, as well as the history of mentalities and, of course, art history. We have built up the exhibition from this perspective, and so the artist Otto Dix, who exhibited and printed at the Wolfsberg, has also been given great weight - and General Wille is also present with a photograph. We are the historical museum of Switzerland and less specialized than others. We go the whole hog, so to speak. The concept is thus a journey through time, through worlds of images from advertising and art, most of which were printed on the lithographic high-speed press built in 1905 at the J. E. Wolfensberger graphic institute. Historically, we also pass the moment when lithography was replaced by offset printing.
How did you incorporate all the anecdotes?
That comes into play during the tours. You can't write all that on blackboards. But we have produced an accompanying publication in the form of essays. Where we have really broken new ground and can present our own research results, we want to publish them in the Christmas number of the Zeitschrift für Schweizerische Archäologie und Kunstgeschichte, our in-house journal. And on the day of the finissage, I would very much like to put the entire exhibition integrally on the web, as the first electronic exhibition of the National Museum. But of course not parallel to the exhibition, but after the exhibition. So that it can be viewed from all over the world. We have never done that before. I'm excited about this idea because it would allow us to expand the theme. If we get new objects, we can add to the exhibition on the web. We can also make a link to our electronic object catalog. That would be something between an electronic exhibition catalog and a partial inventory catalog, so it would actually be a new genre of museum publication.
There is the ZB, the poster collection of the Museum of Decorative Arts and the posters in the National Museum. How are the competencies distributed?
There is no distribution of roles at all. The Museum für Gestaltung has a poster collection and collects posters. There are around 300,000 posters in the collection. We have about 400 posters in world format in the collection, which we are now expanding together with the Swiss Graphic Design Foundation to perhaps 1,200. For us, it is an expository collection. So we don't aim for completeness, for example by graphic artist, product or decade, but with a view to our exhibitions.
What criteria does the National Museum use to collect posters?
Our collecting serves to supplement our three-dimensional holdings. It is important that we can show any advertising and a poster for objects that we exhibit. Swiss commercial art of the 20th century enjoys an international reputation, which is part of our cultural heritage. I mean: We must have about two good tourism posters for each decade. And we want to show the original, the contemporary witness that breathes the spirit of the time that has penetrated the paper. A criterion is also the threshold product. When something important is produced in series for the first time: the first buckled ski boot Henke, the first sunscreen Hamol, the first cheap Bic ballpoint pen, the first cell phone or snowboard - we collect such things from everyday life, consumption, industrial society, leisure society. And if there are printed advertising materials, including posters, then of course we take them as a supplement.
When does a commercial graphic become art?
I would say: The moment a good advertising print is suitable as wall decoration, when it is hung up, when the change of function takes place and works. That can't be programmed. It just happens. And then the advertising graphic is most likely also good art. One example is the Landi picture by Hans Erni. It is 100 meters long and 4 meters high and shows Switzerland as the vacation destination of the nations on more than 140 panels. We were able to take over the object from a shed years ago. This mural is art, self-portrayal of Switzerland and political advertising in the sense of self-strengthening in 1939. Our Hodler frescoes are of course also political advertising. Then we have oil paintings by great artists in the exhibition by Otto Dix, by Adolf Dietrich, Cuno Amiet. They didn't actually do commercial art, but they created posters for their exhibitions. The artists themselves then transferred these to the stone at Wolfensberger. These "advertising posters" are numbered and signed and have a commercial value.
Interview: Andreas Panzeri


From lithography to offset

Background information on the just opened exhibition "Good to Print. Art and Advertising at Wolfensberger" at the Zurich National Museum.
The exhibition "Good to Print" at the National Museum reflects a journey through time in the worlds of images from advertising and art. All exhibits shown for the first time in such complexity were printed at J. E. Wolfensberger. In 1902, the company was founded by Johann Edwin Wolfensberger (1873-1944) in Zurich. The patron set new standards in the graphic arts industry and gave modern Swiss art a fresh platform. In 1911, the trained lithographer moved into an imposing Art Nouveau building at Bederstrasse 109 in Zurich, where he combined business and residential premises, a print shop, lithographic studio and art gallery under one roof. Swiss and foreign artists, including Ferdinand Hodler, Cuno Amiet and Oskar Kokoschka, designed the posters for their exhibitions in the Wolfsberg directly on the stone themselves. Otto Baumberger, Emil Cardinaux and Burkhard Mangold and other pioneers of Swiss commercial art are among the first collaborators. In 1956, Wolfensberger begins offset printing. In 1985, part of the production is relocated to a newly purchased building in Birmensdorf. This second location is successively expanded until finally in 2006 the company is completely relocated to Birmensdorf. Here the company today offers all services of the "black art" up to digital printing. Only lithography finds a new domicile on Eglistrasse in Zurich West. Today, this craft is still cultivated by the Wolfensberger family business. Their lithographic print shop enjoys an excellent reputation among the only 30 suppliers still active worldwide today. The cultivation of this tradition is led by Thomi Wolfensberger. Benni Wolfensberger is responsible for the offset printing plant in Birmensdorf. The two brothers are great-grandchildren of the company founder.

Everything that has rank and name

The twelve-color printing with the litho stones and state prints serves as the most important exhibit in the exhibition at the National Museum. During the era of lithographic printing at Wolfensberger, which lasted until the 1950s, the company had around 30 employees. These included graphic artists, hand lithographers, proof printers, press masters, and numerous auxiliary printers and stone grinders. The boundary between reproduction graphics and artists' lithography was fluid in the "Wolfsberg" during the first decades. The "Kunstsalon" housed in the same building on Bederstrasse is considered the first private Swiss gallery for modern art. Until the 1920s, twelve exhibitions were held here each year - with their own posters and brochures. The company's first sales catalog, printed in 1927, offered both artist lithographs and art reproductions. Unique documentation and photos of this can also be found in the "Good to Print" exhibition. Later, famous artists such as Otto Dix, Hans Sturzenegger and Cuno Amiet portrayed their gallery owner. Advertising on their own behalf was considered the company's most important "business card.
Andreas Panzeri.

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