A face, masked by confetti. A line of type, pulling your eye into focus. A photograph, cropped in exactly the right way. The film posters designed by German designer Isolde Monson-Baumgart during the ’60s are emphatic and resourceful, powerful in their simplicity, and exciting because of their unexpected twists.
The designer and artist passed away in 2011 at the age of 76. She was one of the chief image makers under the great, revered Hans Hillmann, design director of an important German art house film distribution company called Neue Filmkunst, founded in 1953. Baumgart’s design sensibility focused on boldly juxtaposing the micro and the macro: a mix of type, photograph, and energetic flourish are staples across her portfolio.
Baumgart’s designs find their context in post-war Western Germany, during a time when there was a definite lack of cinema across the country. In response, a handful of distribution companies appeared with the aim of bringing art house films home. Three important companies formed, namely Atlas Film, Constantin Film, and Neue Filmkunst. Each brought a witty, resourceful design sensibility to its poster campaigns, using unique advertising methods to ignite the interest of a ravenous cinephile audience.
Neue Filmkunst generated some of the period’s most memorable designs for cinema. The company’s founder, Walter Kirchner, originally approached modernist Hans Leistikow for design advice, the latter of whom was a professor at the Staatliche Werkakademie in the nearby city of Kassel. In leu of accepting the commission, Leistikow organized a competition among his students: the winner would be awarded a contract with the distributor. The prize went to Hillmann.
Meanwhile, after Baumgart graduated from former West Berlin’s University of the Arts, she moved to Kassel to continue studying graphic design was taught by both Leistikow and Hillmann. Spotting her talent for visual composition very early on, Hillmann began commissioning Baumgart to create posters for the film distributor—a collaboration that would continue for over a decade. Her designs for Neue Filmkunst remain some of her most well-known and memorable works of graphic design.
In some ways, the secret to Neue Filmkunst’s success was simple: designers were allowed to do whatever they wished once they were given a brief, and as for deadlines, they were given weeks or even months at a time. Instead of following a particular aesthetic direction, each poster uniquely drew from the film it was inspired by. It’s been remarked that Hillmann and his team brought German poster design to a distinguished level that it hadn’t seen since the 1920s. With designs by the likes of Hillmann, designer Wolfgang Schmidt, and Baumgart, the small distributor was awarded prizes, and its posters were celebrated in numerous exhibitions throughout the country.
While producing designs for the Neue Filmkunst and later for Atlas Films, Baumgart moved to Paris. Between 1959 and 1963, she worked at the famous Atelier 17 print studio of painter Stanley William Hayter. She began to lecture on print making at the American Centre in Paris, and flittered between Frankfurt, France, and the U.S. for several years. She taught at the University of Connecticut and in Kassel, eventually settling in the U.S. with the American artist Jim Monson.
Today we celebrate the film posters of Baumgart—from her surprising interpretations of classic Hitchcock movies, to her energetic representations of internationally renowned feminist art house cinema.