Anthon Beeke, Design Provocateur, Dies
On Tuesday afternoon, September 25th, 2018, the esteemed Dutch graphic designer Anthon Beeke, 78, died in his home city of Amsterdam as the result of a cerebral infraction. Beeke (born on March 11th, 1940) is well known for his Naked Ladies typeface (1969) and numerous outspoken controversial posters for Zuidelijk Toneel Globe, the Toneelgroep Amsterdam, the Holland Festival, the CompagnieTheater and the KunstRai. He also art directed noteworthy graphic identities, logos, exhibitions, books, magazines, postage stamps, catalogues, TV commercials, packaging, children’s games and advertising campaigns. As a remembrance below is an essay I wrote for his last monograph, “Anthon Beeke: It’s A Miracle!”
It is disappointing that the word “provoke” is not somehow incorporated into the title “graphic designer” – terms like “provocadesigner” or “designrovocateur,” would perhaps suffice. Provocation is arguably the essential goal of all good graphic designers – and this holds very true for poster designers, who have only a brief moment to attract public attention. Among the most determined and aggressive poster-provocateurs, Anthon Beeke deserves (and would doubtless be proud of) the title “Design Provocateur.”
Provocation is measured by many different degrees of intensity. Some work provokes a simple glance, others a searing stare; some trigger joy, others sadness, and still others rage. Sometimes the cause is inadvertent, sometimes the result is surprising. Beeke’s provocation is quite deliberate – he is not an innocent; his imagery is not naïf. In every single design piece, the integral element sparks an emotional response – positive or not. Such a calculus caused the scandal in America over twenty years ago when his poster for Globe Speelt Shakespeare’s “Troilus En Cressida” was scheduled to be hung at an exhibition of his work at the Cooper Union gallery in New York City.
Beeke’s theater posters are never neutral – points are made, statements are visualized, senses are challenged. Beeke’s mission is to educate while promoting the client. This poster was all this and more. It was, on first, second and third look both sexist and sexually violent. The savagely trussed and painted backside of a woman bending over to show her vagina, attached to her truss is a horse’s tail. Made to look like a horse (a Trojan horse?), this symbolically represents how Cressida is sent into bondage by her father to be used and abused like any other beast of burden. Realistically this photograph is of an actual woman transformed – dehumanized and violated.
When the poster was hung, members of the New York design community were outraged; a printer refused to print it in a design magazine; editorials were written and letters were received condemning either the poster or the censorship that resulted. The framed image was removed from the gallery wall. Many liberal and conservative tenets were brought into focus. What was allowed in Amsterdam failed to pass muster in New York.
Beeke’s conceptual equation was simple: difficult image + public consternation = critical conversation. His posters do more than promote a product, they advocate a concept while testing the limits of free expression.
That there is an outlet for Beeke’s most strident works is a testament either to the clients’ courage or Beeke’s determination. He may compromise, but one would be hard-pressed to see any trace of him thwarting his vision. “Troilus En Cressida” is not pleasant to look at, but its mnemonic is indelible. By transcending the immediate purpose to advertise a performance, it also rose to the level of manifesto, which kills the proverbial two birds with one stone.
This is not an exception, but rather Beeke’s rule. Seeing a collection of his posters is like bring exposed to the behavioral modification in “A Clockwork Orange.” If forced to stare at each of the posters reproduced here the eye wants to look away. But the viewer cannot help but engage. Beeke forces his audience to go slightly over the edge but does not push them into freefall. There is a safety cord –an aesthetic balance that keeps even his most disturbing images within control.
Beeke’s typography enables this provocation to engage. If all he did was produce startling pictures, then he would be little more than a pure artist. But graphic design is the marriage of type and image – art and message – for a purpose. Beeke is continually aware that even his most challenging photographs must guide the viewer towards some action other than revulsion. Turning off a poster is not an option. Shock alone is not convincing. Every one of his images functions well within accepted design proscriptions. The work can be viewed as sensational (which many will do at first glance) or utilitarian (which is ultimately the intent). Whether it is a gun pointed at a penis, a pickled baby Siamese twin, a beaten, bloody face, or a naked elderly woman suckling a baby doll, the first shock evolves quickly into an accessible message.
The difference between a revolutionary and a provocateur is purpose. Beeke isn’t revolting by producing difficult pictures, he is provocative because he disturbs the status quo to influence the otherwise over-saturated and under-stimulated mind.