Baumeister was born on the 22 January 1889 into a family of Stuttgart craftsmen. After serving an apprenticeship as an interior decorator from 1905 to 1907 and spending a year in the army in 1908, he began his studies at the Stuttgart Academy, where he joined Adolf Hölzel’s class (of which Oscar Schlemmer and Otto Meyer-Amden were also members) and was admitted to his master class. After living in Paris in 1911 and at Amden in Switzerland in 1912, he was called up for military service in 1914 and served until 1918. Whereas during his student years he had been largely influenced by neo-impressionism and a preoccupation with Cezanne, in 1919 he entered upon the first independent phase of his work. The Wall Pictures of 1919 to 1923 incorporate Constructivist elements with a relief like application of a mixture of sand and putty, thus establishing a link between painting and architecture.
Toward the mid-twenties his work became more figurative as in the Machine Pictures and Sport Pictures. This won him great acclaim in Paris, where he got to know Léger, Le Corbusier and Ozenfant. Important exhibitions in Germany were followed in 1927 by his first French exhibition at the Gallerie d’Art Contemporain. Though by now a successful and respectted artist, Baumeister, who also worked as a typographer, made common cause with Schwitters, Vordemberger-Gildewart, Tschichold and Domela in 1927 to form the ‘Ring neuer Werbegestalter’ (‘circle of new commercial designers) and when he was offered a professorship at the Städel School it was as a professor of typography. In 1939 he joined the ‘Cercle et Carre’ and in 1931 ‘Abstraction-Creation’, which reflected his move towards abandoning figurative elements in his paintings in favour of abstraction. At this period his lifelong interest in ancient pictorial imagery, especially that of the Middle-East and Africa, was already relevant to his own imagery.
In 1933 he was deprived of his Frankfurt professorship by the Nazis and retired to Stuttgart where he supported himself and his family by working as a typographer and he was able to organise exhibitions abroad – in Milan in 1935 and in Paris in 1939 to mark his fiftieth birthday. Four of his works were shown in the exhibition ‘Degenerate Art’ in 1937, and in 1941 he was banned from exhibiting his work. With his friend Schlemmer he became a prominent figure of the ‘Inner Emigration’. From 1938 onward pictures like Ideogramme and Eidosbilder demonstrate his growing interest in archaic picture formulae and Asiatic calligraphy. The relief pictures which he produced from 1942 signal, even in their titles, the exotic and archaic references derived from Baumeister’s precise study of this field, especially as he envisaged the possibility that they would invest abstract imagery with an anthropological character of a kind which had been postulated, though in a highly subjective way, by Kandinsky. Like Schlemmer, Baumeister was protected and supported during the war by commissions from the lacquer manufacturers Herberts of Wuppertal, and before the war ended he was already working on his book On the Unknown in Art, which was first published in 1947. This book was highly esteemed in post-war years as an apologia for abstract art, taking its place beside Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Its impact coincided with that of another study which was also begun during the war, Hans Sedlmayr’s Verlust der Mitte, which propagated a critical approach to modern art. The Darmstadt Conversation of 1950, one of the last great art debates to take place in West Germany brought the two opponents face to face. The speech which Baumeister made on this occasion was included in later editions of his book. It is a curious instance of conservative avant-gardism. From 1946 until his death in 1955 Baumeister was professor at the Stuttgart Academy. His late work retains the familiar archaic features, which now merge into an informal, almost light-hearted choice of forms and colours.
Biography compiled by Walter Grasskamp in German Art in the 20th Century – Painting and Sculpture 1905-1985.
– Willi Baumeister, Das Unbekannte in der Kunst [Stuttgart, 1947], Cologne, 1968.
– Will Grohmann, Willi Baumeister – Leben und Werk, Cologne 1963.
– Peter Beye, Baumeister, Felicitas: Willi Baumeister. Werkkatalog der Gemälde. 2 Volumes. Ostfildern, 2002.
– Gerd Presler, Baumeister, Felicitas: Willi Baumeister – Werkverzeichnis der Skizzenbücher (dt./engl.). Schriften des Archiv Baumeister im Kunstmuseum Stuttgart, Band 2. Berlin und München: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2010.
Works by the artist also featured in recent years in the two landmark exhibitions in the UK of German art:
German Art in the 20th Century: Painting and Sculpture 1905-1985 (Royal Academy, London, 1985, catalogue edited by Christos M. Joachimides, Norman Rosenthal and Wieland Schmied.
The Romantic Spirit in German Art: 1790-1990 Hayward Gallery, London, 1994, catalogue by Keith Hartley, Henry Meyric Hughes, Peter-Klaus Schuster and others.
The Willi Baumeister Stiftung (Foundation) has a website dedicated to the artist’s life and works:
Works by Willi Baumeister are held in a number of international museums. These include:
The Tate Gallery, London http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/willi-baumeister-705
The Kunstmuseum Stuttgart http://www.kunstmuseum-stuttgart.de/index.php?site=Archivbaumeister
The Staatsgalerie Stuttgart http://www.staatsgalerie.de/graphischesammlung_e/20j_rundg.php?id=6
The Staedel Museum, Frankfurt http://www.staedelmuseum.de/sm/index.php?StoryID=1102&ArtistID=96
The Museum of Modern Art, New York http://www.moma.org/search/collection?query=willi+baumeister
The Museo Thyssen – Bornemisza, Madrid http://www.museothyssen.org/en/thyssen/ficha_obra/891
Press: Daily Telegraph
‘The first show in London for some 50 years by modern German artist Willi Baumeister is being held at Simon Theobald Ltd in Albemarle Street, central London. Constituting works on paper from 1923 to 1954 direct from the artist’s estate, they have never been shown before in public, and are priced from £10,000 to £80,000 each’.
Further information on the artist is available on wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willi_Baumeister