When designing a poster for an exhibition of literature, the use of purely typographic features seems an obvious choice. Literature consists of letters, words and sentences which tell a story. The accompanying images are created in our own minds. //////////////////////////////////////// This exhibition takes a contemporary look at Swiss literature before and during the First World War. That is why the poster should make a contemporary impression. It is already hard enough to gain public enthusiasm for this bygone era. What interest do we still have today in things which happened a century ago? How is the literature of that period still relevant? Has the whole subject not already been fully researched and discussed? Perhaps there is still something new to discover? Or can we rediscover and reassess things which have been forgotten and repressed? The exhibition in the Strauhof Museum in Zurich has been confined to Swiss-German literature, omitting authors from the French-speaking part of Switzerland and the Ticino. //////////////////////////////////////// My first designs were all turned down for various reasons by the five-member body of curators, historians, literary scientists and scenographers. And so I went on to look for a new solution without any clear briefing but with countless suggestions and opinions. A great challenge. I felt it important to remember that the main issue here was literature and not a historical exhibition about the First World War. In other words I wanted to dispense with warlike or excessively military subjects. Switzerland was not directly involved in the war. It lay at the heart of events, gazed out in wonder across its borders and heard the sound of distant thunder which became the telling title of the exhibition. I wanted to depict that sentiment on the poster. //////////////////////////////////////// «Switzerland only heard the thunder of the artillery from afar. But it was affected by the war in many different ways: the gulfs between German and French speakers, between the haves and the have-nots threatened to tear the country apart. //////////////////////////////////////// A majority of authors disregarded these issues in their writings. Regarding themselves as successors to Keller or Gotthelf, they concentrated on the world of small farmers and petty bourgeois. Conservative literary criticism even took the view that literature should steer clear of contemporary problems. But not all authors shared that opinion. //////////////////////////////////////// The outbreak of war sparked off a lyricism drunk on the very idea of war. Later, when the first flush of enthusiasm had faded, the ‘Border guard novel’ ensued, its aim being to convince the soldiers of the purpose of the border service. //////////////////////////////////////// The image of the «sound of distant thunder» also typifies the relationship between the bourgeoisie and the working class. The demands of the workers’ movement were perceived as a threat. Just a few politically aware authors were willing to discuss the subject. They did so from the standpoint of bourgeois education, in other words they appealed to idealism and reconciliation.» //////////////////////////////////////// The use of essentially typographic resources turns script into an image. Black letters which fuse together are perceived as an immediate threat behind a green horizon. Their legibility is unimportant or relegated to the background so as not to compete with the legible title. However, identical forms are repeated and so create a point of reference with the title. //////////////////////////////////////// In the title «Fernes Donnergrollen» (The sound of distant thunder) a broken typeface contrasts with a sans serif grotesque font. With this rather unusual combination I wanted to call attention to the inner rift in Switzerland. The broken font symbolizes things that are old, conservative and traditional. From the mid-16th until the early 20th century, it was the most widely used typeface in the German-speaking regions and was not replaced by antiqua until the late 19th century. The grotesque font, also known as sans serif, is a family of typefaces derived from antiqua in which the line thickness of the letters is (almost) uniform and entirely without serifs. «Akzidenz-Grotesk» is one of the oldest sans serif fonts and can be traced back to early 1898. It stands for all that is new, modern and forward-looking. The enlarged initial capital letter D of «Donnergrollen» is reminiscent of the ornate letters which were frequently used at the opening of chapters in ancient books and so represents a bridge with literature. //////////////////////////////////////// The silhouette of a gas-filled balloon hovers over the title and the menacing script in the distance. Following in the footsteps of the Swiss pioneer of aviation Eduard Spelterini, this theme stands for the spirit of fundamental change which prevailed in those days and also represents a lookout peering into the distance. «The view from the balloon of our beautiful homeland whose image is troubled by no acts of war or stands aside from them like an ‘island’ symbolizes a general mental attitude which is supported by a part of Swiss-German literature, namely the mercantile and more successful section.» (Quotation from Roman Hess, Head of the Literature Service in the Presidential Department of the City of Zurich). Gas balloons had also been used by the Swiss army since 1900 for reconnaissance purposes. «In other words the balloon does not stand only for private escapism but also for a position of neutral watchfulness. However, it is not clear whether this is a Swiss balloon or a balloon operated by an army that is waging war. Is the balloon part of the threat or is it spying out the threatening situation across the border? Is the balloon flying from here to there or is it penetrating our territory from beyond the border?», asks Roman Hess. //////////////////////////////////////// In graphic terms, the balloon is the only «figurative» element in the poster that is otherwise dominated by typography, a charming counterpoint without diverting too much attention from the title. The balloon defines the upper part of the poster as «heaven» and provides plenty of food for thought. Even if it is no more than a small (insignificant) part of the exhibition, it will nevertheless have a recognition effect. //////////////////////////////////////// In the background «rays of light» direct attention to the title. They radiate out from an energy centre which is focussed like a threat in the black letters. This motif is reminiscent of the famous poster for Harald Szeeman’s Monte Verità exhibition, of the «Switzerland as an island of peace» postcard but also quite simply of sunlight or the flames of artillery fire. Further back, fragments of a text in broken script can be read in a flowing, curved font. The attractive feature here is that the poster generates a near and far effect. Seen in close-up the text is legible while from afar it becomes a linear structure with wavy lines reminding us of the wind. To my mind, the near and far views are the very heart of this exhibition.