Anthon Beeke’s Provocations
Anthon Beeke is one of Holland’s most influential, risk taking designers. He is ill now so the time is right for a monograph on his career. I first learned of Anthon when I was a teen. He designed an incredible publication titled The Virgin Sperm Dancer. In fact much of his work had a sexual, sensual or erotic focus. I was asked to write about that in the new book, Anthon Beeke: It’s A Miracle published by BIS (see here). This is a book worth having. The following is an excerpt from my contribution, which includes essays by Seymour Chwast, James Victore and Marian Bantjes, among others.
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. Anthon Beeke’s provocation is quite deliberate — he is not an innocent, his imagery is not naif. 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 women 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. “Toilus 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 being 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 free-fall. 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 revusion. 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 joined-twin, a beaten, bloody face, or an naked elderly woman suckling a baby doll, the first shock evolves quickly into an accessible message.