Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Rehabilitating Blackletter

Bastard – Even Fatter, Jonathan Barnbrook,1995

The contemporary use of Blackletter [aka broken script or gothic] is far from ubiquitous, it nevertheless occupies a prominent and important place in the post WWII British counter-cultural landscape.

Blackletter is a visual identifier of the ‘outsider’ status of many counter-cultural groups – it has been adopted by ‘anti-capitalist’ protest groups and ‘alternative’ musicians from punks, metalheads and rappers, and by the ‘street’ sports of skateboarding and BMX as well as ‘Hells Angels’ motorcycle clubs in multiple visual forms like tattoos, logos, artwork and apparel. It has also been co-opted by more mainstream associative, consumer brands from Nike to Paco Rabanne in their attempts to appeal to alternative sub-cultural consumers.

The use of Blackletter in counter-cultural visual matter symbolises an anti-establishment sentiment that has a peculiar resonance in Britain – one that is inextricably linked to Britain’s war with Germany.  For a short time, the Nazi regime in Germany promoted Blackletter forms as the true German typeface. At the time of their rise to power, half of all German books were still printed using Blackletter – and it was the only country left that still used it for continuous reading text [1].
By the time war broke, the Nazi propaganda machine seized on this cultural anomoly with customary zeal, as was evident in an early piece of Fascist print communication; ‘Feel German / think German / speak German / be German / even in your script’. The idea that Blackletter is particularly Germanic seems to have some historical credibility.

Johannes Gutenberg’s 42-line Mazarin Bible, [c. 1454-55]

Blackletter was immortalised in print by Johannes Gutenberg’s 42-line Mazarin Bible [c. 1454-55] that used the Blackletter typeface, Textus Quadratus [or Gothic Textura] throughout. Bible’s printed thereafter would use Roman letterforms. Nicholas Jenson’s Veneta in Urbe [1470] and Aldus Manutius’s De Aetna [1495] were set in Jenson-Eusebius and Bembo respectively.

The spread of roman letterforms in print throughout fifteenth and sixteenth century Renaissance Europe marked the demise of Blackletter [2]. Although some exceptions, such as Martin Luther’s New Testament [1522], set in Schwabacher Blackletter, would serve to cement the association of Blackletter and Germanic-speaking countries. By the end of the eighteenth century Blackletter was perceived as a German provincialism [3]. Germany’s cultural association with Blackletter was more a case of historical accident rather than Blackletter possessing inherently Germanic characteristics. The emergence of a modern, and increasinly connected, Europe cemented Blackletter’s decline.

But for all the Nazi regime’s rhetoric around Blackletter their reading of its history was as selective as their support was pragmatic. When it served propagandistic purposes, Blackletter was used to evoked the spirit of the German people or ‘volk’. But when more important national needs demanded it, Blackletter would find itself consigned to the dustbin of history. In 1941, Blackletter was outlawed by decree as a ‘Jewish’ typeface. As Hitler’s armies invaded and occupied European countries their need to communicate clearly superseded notions of cultural histories [4].

For post-medieval Europe, the story of Blackletter has been one of contestation and demise. The needs of modern European countries had cast aside a letterform that was of the past and had found new letterforms more suited to its expanding economic, cultural and technological challenges [5].

So with its recent history apparently conspiring against it, it is somewhat surprising that Blackletter would have anything other than a negative cultural significance in Britain today. Irrespective of the Nazi Party’s abandonment of Blackletter it would become synonymous with Germany and with Adolf Hitler and fascism. As Nazi propaganda used Blackletter against Jewish people, so Britain would in turn use it against Germany. These conditions would persist as long as the moral and ideological imperatives, formed through the collective experience of WWII, remained intact.

By the 1970’s, Britain’s post-war political and cultural landscape began to unravel and found its cultural expression, most visibly at least, through punk rock. Punk embodied a wider social malaise that was fearful of the future and contemptuous of Britain’s post-WWII past [6]. It was a visual expression of a new cultural elite that would go on to cohere around the theory of postmodernism. An elite that had lost faith in the enlightenment project of continuous human progress and scientific reason, as expressed in modernism [7]. In its form it was anti-establishment, anti-royalist and anti-future. It was an aesthetic that mirrored the collapse of relative economic stability and post-war Victorian values. It set its sights on the last British taboo – fascism [read Germany], and subverted it by utilising its symbols, in particular the use of the swastika and Blackletter type.

Past historical type revivals of the late nineteenth century – by the Arts & Crafts movement in England led by William Morris and in Germany by Rudolf Koch – were marginal in their influence of political life [8]. What distinguishes them from contemporary postmodern revivals is best measured by their ideological influence. The rise of modern industrial Europe meant a Europe in political and economic flux. The expansion of markets and technological innovation found a conservative cultural reaction in the Arts & Crafts movement. Its influence was, however, largely ineffectual and limited to the margins of the cultural sphere in Europe. Today their template has been adapted for new times but has a broader mainstream appeal.

Where the rehabilitation of Blackletter is concerned, the postmodern cultural reaction is a degenerate, backward-looking one. It possesses little of previous revivalists concern for ‘higher quality … [and] aesthetic standards’ [9]. The Postmodernist plunder of Blackletter in Britain serves only to regurgitate propaganda and myth and further discredits the very thing it seeks to rehabilitate, by perpetuating its bastardised, outsider status.


[1] Burke C, Paul Renner: the Art of Typography, Hyphen Press, London, 1998
[2] Bain P & Shaw P, Blackletter: Type & National Identity, London, 1998
[3] Burke C, Paul Renner: the Art of Typography, Hyphen Press, London, 1998
[4] Garfield S, Just My Type, Profile Books, London, 2010
[5] Spiekermann E  & Ginger E, Stop Stealing Sheep and find out how type works, Adobe Press, 2003
[6] Savage J, Ehgland’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock (second edition), Faber, 2005
[7] Poynor R, No More Rules: Graphic Design and Postmodernism, Yale, USA, 2003
[8] + [9] Heller S & Fili L, Typology: Type Design from the Victorian Age to the Digital Age, Chronicle Books, USA, 1999

No comments:

Post a Comment