Cover Story: In a Sea of Bikini-Clad Models and Vacant Celebrities, the Hand-Drawn Illustrations of Germany's der Spiegel Magazine Have a Unique Appeal, Writes David Crowley

By Crowley, David | New Statesman (1996), December 6, 2004 | Go to article overview

Cover Story: In a Sea of Bikini-Clad Models and Vacant Celebrities, the Hand-Drawn Illustrations of Germany's der Spiegel Magazine Have a Unique Appeal, Writes David Crowley


Crowley, David, New Statesman (1996)


When Saddam Hussein was discovered in his hideaway by US troops in December 2003, the editors of Time magazine took the dramatic decision to pulp more than a million copies of the title. The planned cover image of Jesus Christ announcing a weighty piece on the interpretation of ancient biblical texts had to be replaced by something more newsworthy. The radiant messiah gave way to the heavily bearded, wild-eyed Iraqi dictator with the line "We got him". An inspired hand-drawn illustration lost out to a hastily snatched photograph.

This is a vivid example of the dilemma of the weekly news magazine: how to be topical in a world where other media offer real-time reports on fast-changing events. This burden has killed off most of the great photo-journals of the 20th century, including Life, a mainstay of American publishing that disappeared from the news-stands at the end of the Vietnam war. When television became a ubiquitous presence in American homes, Life's founding promise to turn the reader into an "eyewitness of great events" lost its force. In turn, Life lost its readers.

To compete in a saturated media market, current affairs weeklies promise their readers calm analysis after stormy events or on slower economic and political processes that lack the spectacular qualities of "the news". The promise of analysis is also made in the kind of cover images employed by these titles. A feature of Time is the portrait of the man, sometimes woman, "of the hour", suggesting deep insight into the minds of our heroes and villains. By contrast, the liberal German weekly Der Spiegel has a tradition of sophisticated illustrations that comment, like its editorial content, on world events. A selection of these images is presented in The Art of Der Spiegel, a new book accompanying a touring exhibition, in a shrewd attempt to promote the magazine as high culture.

The origins of Der Spiegel lie in the aftermath of the Second World War, when the allied forces occupying Germany had the idea of publishing a magazine that would deliver objective news. Corrupted and distorted by Nazi rule, the German press had been an organ of the state. If West Germany was to become a functioning democracy again, it needed a free and critical press. Much to the annoyance of the British government, the resulting magazine, Diese Woche, immediately set about criticising the rule of the occupiers. The allies removed the thorn in their side by handing over the publishing licence to a team of young German journalists who, in 1947, renamed the magazine Der Spiegel.

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The weekly maintained its campaigning stance and established a reputation for investigative journalism. In 1962, it was at the centre of a political crisis known as the Spiegel Affair, which tested democracy in West Germany. Accused of treason for reporting the failings of the German army, the editor and publisher of Der Spiegel were put on trial and imprisoned, and police occupied the magazine's offices for more than a month. These events triggered protests across West Germany and abroad. Eventually, the defence minister, Franz Josef Strauss, was forced to admit to having used the weight of the state to limit press freedom. Der Spiegel emerged from the scandal with renewed authority as a check on the hubris of Germany's political leaders.

For the first ten years or so, the magazine's cover images owed much to Time's "man of the moment" format, as did the red frame and forceful masthead. But under the art director Eberhardt Wachsmuth, Der Spiegel began to commission illustrators to produce beautifully drawn editorialising images. First turning to the US, where the illustrated cover had been well established before the war by titles such as Conde Nast's Vanity Fair and Henry Luce's Fortune, Wachsmuth then began to foster a generation of home-grown talent, including Hermann Degkwitz and Ursula Arriens. …

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