Friday, March 2, 2018

Ode to a Face

Fraktur characters, above, and
Old English equivalents, below.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I don’t usually get all geeky about things, but today I’m letting my hair down – well, what’s left of it.

Early on in my career as an artist of sacred themes, I learned that Holy Scripture is especially important where visuals are concerned. Although my work is representational and straightforward, I tend to get nervous about making sure my interpretation of the Word is accurate. To make up for whatever I think may be lacking, I usually put a portion of Scripture somewhere in my paintings. And that brings me to Fraktur.

The typeface, Fraktur, has become my go-to when designing text into my artwork. It is a more graceful, yet more robust font than its cousin, Old English. While the latter typeface has always retained a stiff upper lip, it gets overused. For starters, it’s on nearly every diploma known to man. Old English also ends up on blacked-out rear windows of ridiculous, custom, compact cars – in all caps. That sort of thing makes me blow a gasket.

Fraktur, on the other hand, is German, and it demands respect. Besides my slightly-strange fixation with its swashes and ligatures, I recently learned that Fraktur is also a typeface with pedigree.

We must thank Hieronymus Andreae, who designed the calligraphic face in the first place. That was the early 1500s. Andreae was a master formschneider, or woodblock cutter, which was a highly sought after skill with the advent of printing. His name probably doesn’t register with most folks, but Andreae’s associate, Albrecht Dürer, most certainly does. The Fraktur typeface was specifically created to be used in Dürer’s design of the massive woodcut, “Triumphal Arch,” which measured nearly 10 by 12 feet. Yes, a woodcut. Of course, something that ambitious didn’t begin as a doodle on a bar napkin. The piece was commissioned by the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I.

Unlike Old English, which fell out of use in favor of Roman-based fonts during the 17th and 18th centuries, Fraktur had staying power. It was still widely in use in the early 1900s – mostly in Germany, but also in a smattering of other northern European countries. The typeface had such a rich lineage that it became the face, in more than one sense, of German literature. And that was the eventual reason for its downfall.

Fraktur might have had its origins with such German notables as Maximilian I and Dürer, but it only took one German knucklehead to ruin everything. The font suddenly didn’t fit well with official military communications during WWII, and modern typefaces quickly overtook the stately font. Perhaps more significantly, being thoroughly German suddenly had a stigma attached to it. No longer was Fraktur used as body copy in published literature.

Today the typeface only occasionally shows up in newspaper mastheads, or in places where a touch of regal historicity is needed. I kind of like that. A lot.

Detail of "Resurrection," using embellished Fraktur typeface. Edward Riojas. 1999. (Collection of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Grand Rapids, Mich.) Copyright © Edward Riojas.

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