Werner Graeff

1921–1922 Bauhaus student

Portrait of Werner Graeff, 1960s.
Portrait of Werner Graeff, 1960s. © Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin / Werner J. Hannapel.
  • Born 24.8.1901 Wuppertal, Rhineland Province (German Reich) | Germany
  • Died 29.8.1978 Blacksburg (Virginia), USA

  • Different spelling Werner Gräff

  • Professions Author, Lecturer, Photographer, Painter

Werner Graeff was born in Wuppertal-Sonnborn on 24 August 1901. During his school days in Bonn, Solingen, Oranienburg and Berlin, he produced highly impressionistic paintings. Like many of his peers at the time, he was also an active member of the German youth group Wandervogel. Around 1919, Graeff turned away from impressionism to focus on landscape paintings simplified in the cubist style, wood sculpture, and woodcuts.
In 1921 Graeff enrolled at the Staatliches Bauhaus Weimar, where he studied under Johannes Itten and Oskar Schlemmer. Two of the movement studies he completed on Itten’s preliminary course are still found in the Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin. He produced his first constructivist-style sketches under the influence of Theo van Doesburg; during this year, van Doesburg held classes and talks in Weimar and taught a De Stijl course at the Bauhaus, which Graeff attended. The same year, the young Graeff joined the De Stijl artists’ group and had his first work ‘Für das Neue’ published in the journal ‘De Stijl’.
In 1922, Graeff attended the first International Congress of Progressive Artists in Duesseldorf and the Constructivist and Dadaist Congress in Weimar (other visitors included the van Doesburgs, László and László, Karl Peter Röhl, Hans Richter and Tristan Tzara). That same year, he exhibited his constructivist, De Stijl-style drawings with the Novembergruppe (November group) in Berlin.
There followed a phase in which Graeff worked on creative ideas for daily life, such as car and motorcycle chassis designs, an international lingua franca. He also worked on the first of several film scores. Much as the constructivists simplified painting, Graeff aimed to simplify daily life. During this period Graeff became friendly with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and the filmmaker Hans Richter and began to collaborate with them. Together with Mies and Richter, Graeff founded the magazine ‘G’ (Gestaltung, German for design); Richter was the publisher, Graeff, Mies and Richter all served as editors.  In 1924/25, Graeff studied at the Technische Hochschule Charlottenburg for a brief period, promptly ended by a familial economic crisis. Shortly afterwards, he set up a driving school, which he directed in person until 1926. Graeff again embraced his creative talent, becoming a member of the Deutscher Werkbund and participating in a De Stijl exhibition in Paris in 1925. In 1926, he was employed by Mies as a press and propaganda chief for the legendary exhibition ‘Die Wohnung’ at the Weissenhof Estate in Stuttgart. The Deutscher Werkbund commissioned two publications in association with this: ‘Bau und Wohnung’ and ‘Innenräume’ (1928). Graeff’s first book, about his friend, artist Willi Baumeister, was published previously, in 1927.
Graeff was then involved in diverse creative endeavours. In 1928 he organised the Deutscher Werkbund’s ground breaking exhibition ‘Film und Foto’ (FiFo). He drafted a film script for Hans Richter and Paul Hindemith (‘Die Rebellion der Handfeuerwaffen’, 1928). Heavily adapted, this eventually yielded Richter’s ‘Vormittagsspuk’ (Ghosts Before Breakfast). For the opening of the FiFo exhibition, Graeff also published the aforementioned book ‘Hier Kommt Der Neue Fotograf!’ This is still regarded as a seminal book on the photography of Neues Sehen (New Vision). From 1930, Graeff published textbooks. In 1931/32 he taught photography at the Reimann School in Berlin, later at his own photography school in Berlin.
In 1934, Graeff emigrated to Spain. He taught photography here too and designed film sets for the Spanish film industry. As fascism gained traction in Spain too, in 1936 Graeff relocated to Switzerland, where he turned to writing. In addition to short stories and film scripts, he wrote more photography textbooks. In 1940 he was appointed head of the school of photography in Locarno. From 1946 to 1949, Graeff designed one of the world’s first mini cameras: the Kleinkamera Graeff was half the size of a packet of cigarettes and weighed just 40 grammes. Encouraged by his friend Willi Baumeister, after a 25-year absence Graeff finally began to paint again in 1950.
Graeff first returned to Germany in 1951. He taught at the renowned Folkwangschule in Essen until 1959. In 1954, his work was shown in a first solo exhibition at the British Centre in Cologne. In 1957 and 1958, the former Bauhausler and constructivist was general secretary of the International Design Congress in Darmstadt and Berlin. From 1960, Graeff focused exclusively on his art. Werner Graeff died unexpectedly on 29 August 1978 in Blacksburg, Virginia, USA. [AG/RW 2015]

  1. Literature:
  2. · Werner Graeff (1922): Für das Neue, in: De Stijl, Jg. V, Nr. 5, Leiden.
    · Werner Graeff (1923): Anmerkungen zur Filmpartitur Komp. II/22, in: De Stijl, Jg. VI, Nr. 5, Leiden.
    · Werner Graeff (1923): Vergnüglicher Überfluß durch Neue Technik, in: Ma, Jg. VIII, Nr. 5/6, Wien.
    · Werner Graeff (1927): Willi Baumeister, Stuttgart.
    · Werner Graeff (1927): Bau und Wohnung. Die Bauten der Weißenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart errichtet 1927 nach Vorschlägen des Deutschen Werkbundes im Auftrag der Stadt Stuttgart und im Rahmen der Werkbundausstellung „Die Wohnung", Stuttgart (Werkbundbücher 1).
    · Werner Graeff (1952): Farbige Ruhrlandgestaltung, in: Ruhrländischer Künstlerbund, Essen.
    · Dieter Honisch (1973): Werner Graeff. Das druckgrafische Werk, 1918–1972, Essen.
    · Klaus Kemp (2007): Begegnungen mit Werner Graeffs Bilderwelt, in: Konstruktion und Formerlebnis, S. 48–57.
    · John Matheson (2001): Werner Graeff. Bauhausschüler, Zeichner, Grafiker, Filmpionier, Fotograf, Gestalter, Autor, Organisator, Buchgestalter, Typograf, Emigrant, Erfinder, Konstrukteur, Lehrer, Maler, Bildhauer. Meilen (u.a.).
    · Beate Reese (2011): Das Bauhaus und danach. Werner Graeff und die Nachkriegsmoderne, Köln.
    · www.kunstgebiet.ruhr/kuenstler/werner-graeff
    · www.wernergraeff.de

Werner Graeff

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