In conversation with Anthon Beeke

Image: book cover for publishing house Bert Bakker, Anthon Beeke/ 1980

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Published in Affiche, winter 1992

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In 1992 I interviewed Anthon Beeke in his studio. I took notes and reconstructed his answers to the best of my recollection. He spoke freely and made sense without much concern for theory or logic, by which I was deeply fascinated. Some quotes from this interview were used in King Anthon.

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Anthon Beeke (1940) is a great designer. He combines an intuitive approach to the content with a strong conceptual ability. He has been making posters professionally for a quarter of a century, during which period his work has been alternately applauded and reviled. His most important series of posters was made for the Southern Repertory Company Globe, Theatre Group Amsterdam and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. He still works for the last two. Globe no longer exists. The performances were very much of the moment, what has survived are the posters. Although the story they told stressed the ephemeral, they now hang in rooms and collections all over the world.

The Globe series is remembered primarily for its photographic posters. Was that the original idea or did it gradually develop?
The artistic management of Globe wanted to make some very wild posters, which involved a lot of finishing: stocking things on and tearing bits off. But that was far too much work. Straight after the second or third poster I started to make photographic posters.

At the time, what experience did you have of photography?
I have always viewed photography as a medium that makes a very clear statement, whilst at the same time categorically denying that it is doing so. It gives everyone the opportunity to project his or her own imagination. Through magazine work I had had a lot to with photos made by others. Anne, who was my wife at the time, was a photographer. I was keen to take photographs, but in an amateur fashion, using the camera as a pencil.

Did you have a connection with theatre?
Not really. I went to the theatre reasonably often, but was no theatre freak. I’ve also never become one.

The Globe posters are almost all black and white. Was that a technical issue, to do with money or was it a deliberate choice?
No, it was the budget. There was no money to do more. Sometimes two colours were used but mostly there was just one.

The photography in the Globe posters is very varied. You see Dumbar-like aspects, but there are also shades of Mapplethorpe. Did you consciously decide on these variations?
To start with I draw everything, of course. I try to find a metaphor for the idea that is expressed on stage, but which is intangible except to those in the auditorium. The starting point is definitely design. The form that originates in that process I then try to capture in a photographic image. I never start with photography; as far as I’m concerned, it is merely a means to an end. That’s why you don’t see a particular style in the photos. In fact you don’t really see them as photographs. My posters are experienced as posters. Nobody ever says: ‘What a beautiful photo you’ve made!’ Image and text are one.

The Globe series is primarily dedicated to the human – to love, sex, violence and death – expressed in a very physical way. Where did these images come from?
I have always been concerned with the human body. The first major published expression of this interest was the alphabet that I made for the printers Steendrukkerij De Jong & Co, that naked girls alphabet. I find the body fascinating, not in an erotic way, but as a source of inspiration for ideas. It communicates powerfully. Everyone knows what a hand, foot, belly or nose means. So when you use a body as a means of expression, everyone can understand it. At that moment, language is irrelevant, it’s culture that predominates.

In general they are not particularly cheerful posters.
No, but then the plays are not all that cheerful. Most Greek tragedies, or Shakespeare, plays that deal with the realities of life. I try to express that vision. But with the eyes of a man living now, with all his experiences. And when I look what others have done with it, with a mask or a lamb, I feel they don’t het to the essence. I am a great admirer of Dick Bruna. He is someone who always tells little children quite precisely whether the rabbit is happy or crying. In my view, adults need to be told in exactly the same way what it’s all about.

When is a poster as success?
There are many different levels. It succeeds when I have the feeling that the ideas I put into it are expressed in an optimal way. It also succeeds when the people I have made it for think it has – they are the first to react to it, their opinion is decisive. Although their way of looking at it is slightly different from mine and that of my colleagues. And then: when the public reacts strongly to it – I think a poster has succeeded when there is a genuine reaction, regardless of the nature of that reaction.

Does that mean a good poster is always provocative?
No, not always, not at all. No… well, actually, yes! There is something provocative in every poster I make. Even Friday, the portrait of a ten year-old girl, about whom everybody thinks: what a masher, what a beauty! By introducing a very slight blur in the eye, which gives that little girl a kind of randiness, it becomes provocative, because we are not prepared to accept this kind of reaction in ourselves. It is more a question of your reaction, than something intrinsic in the image.

Is it still possible to provoke people in this way?
Yes, of course. But personally I am not so keen on doing it any more. I have the feeling at the moment that for me that chapter is closed. Many of my colleagues are working with photography and nudity; they can take it further. I thnink that I need to move in a new direction, find another way of communicating. I don’t know whether I’ll succeed, because it isn’t that simple.

Is there a difference between a theatre poster and a commercial poster?
Advertising posters are often part of one campaign. The ones we make always refer to each other. The target group may well have been to the play shown in the previous poster. They remember that as well as the significance of the poster in relation to the performance. So you are working in a relatively protected area. Benetton, for example, does exactly the same. There are references to what has gone before. You get the feeling that there is something going on in those images and in yourself. But you don’t really want it pointed out by someone you don’t know. And certainly not by a company that sells pullovers.

Good poster designers have always been important in the design world. is that because posters are large?
of course, they have a special position. They hang in the street, they are signed, they are large. They are autonomous. Poster designers operate as intermediaries, something that scarcely comes into other design assignments, if at all.

Does the graphic designer come closest to being an artist when designing posters?
Some designers see it like that. And so does the public. But I don’t think so. Graphic design borders on art, but I would not like to call myself an artist. I am 100% designer. It is my decision, freely taken, to be a designer and not an artist. My freedom looks like that of the artist, but without clients, I am nowhere. Incidentally, the idea that there is freedom in art is a fairy-tale, believed only by those who have not gone into it seriously. Art is full of limitations – in any case as far as the artist is concerned. Designers have much more freedom. We don’t keep to agreements about principles as artists often do.

Do posters get enough attention and are they sufficiently appreciated?
Within the profession, yes. We are always talking about them. I am not all that bothered. I like working in a field where the guerilla is more prominent than the establishment. Posters don’t need that much attention, I give them as a designer. If people look at them in a different way, there is a chance that the arrow will miss the target. If people start to find the poster as such beautiful and interesting, the whole thing will soon be dead.

Would you say that appreciation signals the end of the story?
Yes, that’s it. That’s just what we have to avoid.

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