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The Unexpected Mid-century Cinema Posters of Germany’s Isolde Monson-Baumgart

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.

1
The Earrings of Madame de...

1961

Navigating tight budgets, Baumgart and her contemporaries made use of a variety of techniques to suit the subject of whichever film they were representing—mixing together painting, collage, photography, drawing, and montage.

This is one of Baumgart’s first posters designed for the Neue Filmkunst under the direction of Hillmann. Baumgart was certainly a minimalist in spirit, and she knew the power of a good photograph when framed in the right way. Often, she added a definitive embellishment to an otherwise quite simple and understated photographic design: here, it’s the bold, hand-drawn detailing of the earring, which appears to lift up three-dimensionally from the poster’s surface. In the film, the entire action rotates around the pair of dangling earrings. Baumgart makes the poster’s axis rotate around them too. Sans serif lettering drifts down the pictured woman’s neckline, almost like another piece of jewelry, and pulls the eye towards the mysterious title of the film.

2
Children of Paradise

1970

In 1966, Atlas Film commissioned Baumgart to design a poster for the re-release of the classic Children of Paradise. Like her poster for The Earrings of Madame de…, she chose to compose her design from a tight, close up shot of a face. For that final flourish that’s come to define much her poster output, Baumgart sprinkled confetti over the still.

Many of her posters would use overlay techniques, pairing striking combinations of face and texture with sturdy typography for a finish. A 1960 Hitchcock poster for Neue Filmkunst similarly played with overlay and bold type: Margaret Lockwood’s upside-down face is spliced with a pattern of a chair as she fades into darkness. Thin, elegant type and the bold name of the director crown the composition.

The Lady Vanishes (1938). Design by Isolde Monson-Baumgart for Neue Filmkunst. Date unknown.

3
Suspicion

1966

More than 200 film posters were designed by Neue Filmkunst, from advertisements for American Film Noir classics to those for French and Czech New Wave. As they lined Germany’s movie theaters, there was a striking difference between these bold, mysterious graphics and the colorful, kitsch posters representing the mainstream cinema of the time.

For this 1966 poster for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1941 Suspicion, Baumgart decided to turn the classic Hitchcock silhouette around so that he faces the audience directly. The transparency for the German title text has been heightened, so it appears to shadow across Hitchcock’s forehead—a positioning that emphasizes the psychological nature of the film. The typeface’s wave-formation also metaphorically evokes the feeling of a suspicion “coming over a person.” Instead of choosing to focus on stars Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine as most other Suspicion posters do, the poster attests to the filmmaker’s genius in generating suspense.

4
Daisies

1969

Baumgart’s 1969 poster for the Czech art house classic Daisies (1966) draws directly from the film with it’s color, whimsy, flower power, and symbolic fixation on butterflies. Her collage technique and detailed butterfly renderings are quite unlike the rest of her design output: instead, these delicate compositions recall the careful arrangements of color found in her etchings and abstract paintings, which she focused on especially towards the latter years of her life.

An attention to minuscule detail is also something that became increasingly important to Baumgart: between 1973 and 1998, she designed countless stamps for the Deutsche Bundespost, often combining a series of tiny lines and other shapes to form an image, and forming patterns intricate as the design of a butterfly’s wing.

Deusche Bundespost stamp. Design by Isolde Monson-Baumgart, 1973.

5
David and Lisa

1964

A 1964 poster for David and Lisa (1962) exemplifies another strategy that Baumgart regularly made use of: the pairing of two film stills, together with black and white text. The typography of the title’s films squeeze to fit around Janet Margolin’s face, in such a way that our focus is pulled directly to the two protagonists’ gazes.

As has been seen, Baumgart often used typography to guide the eye—another striking example is her 1967 poster for Agnès Varda’s classic Cleo from 5 to 7

Poster Cléo from 5 to 7 (Agnès Varda, France, 1962), by Isolde Monson-Baumgart, 1976.

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