Academic journal article New Formations

Living Life in Pictures: Isotype as Modernist Cultural Practice

Academic journal article New Formations

Living Life in Pictures: Isotype as Modernist Cultural Practice

Article excerpt

Abstract The Vienna Method of Picture Statistics, also known as Isotype, has become a means for historians and theorists of modern culture to directly link visual modernism with modern social science and philosophy, specifically with logical positivism and Taylorism/Fordism. Isotype has been described in terms of Taylorist standardization, rationalism, 'transparent construction' and functionalism. By delineating the understanding of these terms held by Isotype's inventor Otto Neurath and his friends and colleagues, and contextualising Isotype in relation to recent reassessments of Neurath's other work, I suggest that Isotype participated in a modernism that was understood by its proponents in ways that were more plural, and pluralist, than we now give them credit.

Keywords Isotype; Otto Neurath; modernism; Josef Frank; Taylorism; Vienna; Gerd Arntz; statistics; functionalism

The 2005 exhibition Making Things Public at the ZKM Centre for Art and Media in Karlsruhe included several Isotype charts, graphic statistical posters dating from the 1920s and 1930s. In the context of this exhibition, curateci by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, the charts presented a challenge to contemporary artists and designers to come up with equally elegant and compelling visual methods adequate to current political and social arrangements. For the curators, as for several commentators on Isotype, the charts both exemplified the modern emphasis on positivist science, 'facts' and statistical evidence, and typified a modernist dream of communication without mediation, interference or noise, of a pure language.1 Isotype is significant because it links this dream directly to positivism and connects modernism in design to Latour's characterisation of modernity in politics and science.2 Since the 1980s, several texts on modernism and modernity have turned to Isotype to make similar connections. This is possible because of the 'clean' modernist graphic appearance of the charts, combined with their statistical content and the fact that Isotype's inventor, Otto Neurath, was a founding member of the Vienna Circle and a renowned (or notorious) logical positivist. Isotype has slowly begun to be pivotal in an understanding of the modern as a coherent category that can encompass the sciences and the arts, and in which ideas of rationalism and functionalism and in particular, the rationalisation of working-class life and labour by Taylorism, form a dominant strand. This essay challenges this definition of the modern by suggesting that lsotype participated in a modernism that was more pluralist than we now give it credit. This is not to say that the reading of lsotype as a modernist representation of statistical facts is wrong, on the contrary. This argument suggests that we need a less narrow interpretative paradigm to understand the intersection of logical positivism, functionalist design and Taylorist rationalisation in lsotype. It aims to show some of the historical tensions at work in the views and practices of Neurath and his close friends and colleagues.

Neurath is largely forgotten now, but he was, in a sense, a 'hub' linking the artistic, scientific, philosophical and political avant-gardes in Europe and America. When he died in England in 1945 at the age of 63, he had been a sociologist and political economist, founder of the Unity of Science movement, and housing activist. Through his work in museums, social planning, and the housing and settlement movement of 1920s 'Red Vienna', and later through his work with CIAM (Les Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne), Neurath developed close connections with modernist architects and designers, including Josef Frank, El Lissitsky, Adolf Loos, Margarete Schiitte-Lihotzky (the designer of the Frankfurt Kitchen), and the Bauhaus. Through the Vienna Circle, and unified science, he came into contact with the most important scientists, philosophers and mathematicians of his day, including the Frankfurt school, Albert Einstein and many others, while in Britain he was involved in the early planning of post-war reconstruction. …

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