Industrial Illustration, 1950s


Rolf Keller worked as a self-employed graphics artist working for different clients. He did caricatures for newspapers, newspaper advertisements, layouts as well as illustrations and the kind of work we have seen already in this blog, like the greeting cards and advent calendars he designed for Lederbogen Verlag. However, economically more important for him was the work he did for industrial customers.

In a letter to Svend Keller, dated Sept. 28th, 1957, Rolf Keller writes:

“Relating to business, September was extremely poor. The main reason is that there were no assignments from WMW, since Sch. was absent for 6 weeks to build up an exhibition. Yesterday, the first assignments came in again.”[1]

WMW, actually VVB WMW, was the association of nationally-owned enterprises producing machine tools in the GDR. This citation demonstrates that WMW was the main client of Rolf Keller; the work for them was his bread and butter business. The letters indicate that besids WMW, he had other industrial customers as well. For these companies, he designed logos (an especially lucrative kind of work, according to his letters; I don’t know it he was the one who designed the WMW-logo visible on this leaflet, but it is possible), but also leaflets like the one shown here, the only item of this kind I have at the moment. It shows one of the machines offered by WMW. I do not know what kind of print process was employed at the time to transfer a painting into a print like this, but using such paintings instead of photographs seems to have been quite common in technical illustrations of the time. The painting is signed and shows Rolf Keller’s logo, as well as a “50” that is probably the year. The middle folds shows staple holes, so there must have been at least a cover, if not additional pages. It is well possible that Rolf Keller also did the layout of the whole page, as well as the layout of the back page (listing several machines and parts, together with the respective providers), but I don’t know. Anyway, here is the back side, to give you an impression of what kind of publication this was:


Rolf Keller probably did similar illustrations for catalogues and advertisments as well. He also worked for WMW during the Leipzig industrial fair and seems to have been involved in the design of their stand at the fair, strenuous but well paid work involving night shifts, according to some letters. It looks like the fair stand included hand-painted posters of machines. In a letter dated 13th March 1957, again to Svend Keller, he writes:

“I am quite overworked since everything is night-work. I Paint in most cases from 6 PM until 4 AM. Yesterday and today, however, only until 11:30 PM, but I was there from 8 AM to 9 [?] and I did a lot of sketching despite the strong bustling activity. Then to the accommodation, to sleep for 2 hours. I think you would enjoy the tempera-paintings of the machines. Today I have finished painting the next model of a complicated worm grinder.”[2]

It does not become quite clear here if Rolf Keller actually worked on the fair stand itself. Some of the work on the fair seems to have been the preparation of paintings to be used later, not the direct work on the fair stand. In a letter from 20th of March, 1957, he writes:

“I am now evaluating the things from the fair for Schönfeldt, preparing figures and staffage to it and adjusting diverse things. Strange that everything needs its time and hour to develop to maturity. One time during the fair while working in the night, I was totally desperate because it just did not work. Now, after gaining distance it works nearly effortlessly and the tempera paintings are bit by bit taking shape.”[3]

The “figures and staffage” might have been decoration for the fair stand, for next time, but that does not become completely clear here. The paintings might have been done for catalogues and fliyers, like the one shown here. The fair would have provided an opportunity to get access to samples of all the different machines in one place and without disturbance, something that might not have been possible in the factory. The man named “Schönfeldt”, also mentioned in other letters, is obviously the “Sch.” from the first citation above. He obviously was Rolf Keller’s main contact within WMW.

After the German reunification, some of the companies belonging to WMW where sold. Some of them seem to have gone bankrupt. The machine industry of the GDR was largely targeted at east Europe and the Sovjet Union. When the east German Mark was converted into the west German Deutschmark at a conversion rate of 1 to 1, the industrial products of GDR companies became too expensive for their traditional customers in the east. On the other hand, they were not up to date technologically. As a result, a large part of the east German industry collapsed. The surviving remains of those companies, including some remains of WMW, now belong to different industrial groups. However, after some research I found that documents from WMW, including catalogs and leaflets, have been transferred to the state archive of Saxony, in its Chemnitz branch (see It is very likely that in the inventory of that archive, more works of Rolf Keller await discovery, and I want to try to track them down when I have the time to do so.

I think this is an interesting part of industrial history as well as history of applied art and design. Such old industrial illustrations from the 1950s, showing the technology of 60 or more years ago, have a certain aesthetic appeal to me. If you enlarge the picture, you might appreciate the artistic quality it has. This is not only an old picture of and old machine; it is also a work of art.


[1] German original: „Der September war geschäftlich äußerst mies, ein Monat wie seit Jahren nicht. Das lag hauptsächlich am Ausfall der WMW-Aufträge, da Sch. 6 Wochen abwesend war, um eine Ausstellung aufzubauen. Gestern kamen die ersten Aufträge wieder.“

[2] German original: „Bin ziemlich überarbeitet, da alles Nachtarbeit ist. Male zumeist von 6 Uhr abends bis 4 Uhr früh. Gestern und heute allerdings nur ½ 12, war jedoch von Früh 8 bis 9 [?] Uhr dort u. habe trotz des Riesenbetriebes viel skizziert. Dann ins Quartier, 2 Std. schlafen. Ich glaube, die Tempera-Bilder der Maschinen würden Dir auch Spaß machen. Heute habe ich das nächste Modell einer komplizierten Schnecken-Schleifmaschine fertig gemalt.“

[3] “Ich werte jetzt die Sachen von der Messe für Schönfeldt aus, mache Figuren und Staffage dazu und gleiche Verschiedenes aus. Seltsam, daß doch alles seine Zeit und Stunde braucht, um zur Reife zu kommen. Einmal war ich auf der Messe bei der Nachtarbeit völlig verzweifelt, weil es einfach nicht mehr klappte. Jetzt, nachdem Abstand gewonnen ist, geht es fast mühelos u. die Temperabilder gewinnen allmählich Gesicht.”


Abi Shek in THE BOX, Düsseldorf

Abi Shek. Without title. Woodcut with ink on canvas, 150 cm x 116 cm. Picture courtesy of Abi Shek.

THE BOX, a Gallery in Düsseldorf (see, opened a new exhibition this evenig showing some works of Abi Shek. Not only do I like Abi’s art a lot, his family and my own are also connected by several ties of friendship, so it was a special pleasure for me to attend the opening of the exhibition. The author, essayist and poet Frank Schablewski, a friend of Abi, delivered an interesting opening address, providing his own interpretation of Abi Shek’s works.

A central topic of Abi’s work is animals. The works shown here are large woodcuts, really large compared to typical print sizes. They are printed with printer’s ink on stretched, gessoed, painting size canvases. In some cases, like in the example shown above, additional picture elements have been painted using blue-violet ink.

Abi’s works are abstracted to black, filled contours on white ground, reduced to two dimensions. They are partially inspired by living animals, partially by ancient cultures, especially pre-historic rock art. They hover on the border between abstract and figurative art, distilling the animals into archetypal shapes that evoke resonances of animal fables and emotional encounters with nature.

The exhibition also includes a number of small metal sheet sculptures, showing animals as well. These also start with two-dimensional contours cut out of the metal sheets, but regain the third dimension by bending the sheets. As a result, they inhabit a border area between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional, between graphic art and sculpture. Abi Shek originally studied sculpture with Micha Ullman. These sculptures indicate how Abi’s graphic art is connected to his origins in three-dimensional art. In a way, his wooden printing blocks are sculptural as well, reliefs that are then used as printing blocks.

For more information on Abi Shek see

THE BOX. Duisburger Str. 97, 40479 Düsseldorf, Germany.

May 2nd, 2014 to May 18th, 2014.

Opening times: Mo. 7 PM to 10 PM, Tue. 6 PM to 21 PM, Fr. 6 PM to 8 PM or uppon arrangement.

Rupert Rosenkranz 2

Rosenkranz 2

Here is another print by Rupert Rosenkranz. See my first article on him here with additional information. Click on the picture to see an enlarged version of the print..

Rosenkranz invented his own printing process, which he called “Elektrographie”, based on PVC printing plates treatet with heat, resulting in stunning textures and patterns.

Rupert Rosenkranz


A print made by German artist Rupert Rosenkranz (1908 – 1991). Rosenkranz developed his own unique printmaking method using PVC printing plates which he treated mainly with heat, resulting in very interesting textures (click on the picture to view it in higher resolution). On the official page (see link) the process is described like this: “PVC Druckplatten werden mit Sticheln und Hitze bearbeitet” (“PVC printing plates are treated with etcher’s needles and heat”). He called this technique “Elektrographie”. However, the electricity was probably only used to heat the tools, maybe soldering irons or even pressing irons, but I don’t know exactly. If you are an artist interested in print making, you might try this out yourself. Rupert Rosenkranz also worked as a painter, painting in a variety of styles.

Besides abstract prints like the one shown here, Rosenkranz also made larger, predominantly non-abstract prints. Personally, I prefer his abstract prints, but all of them are unique because of the interesting textures resulting from his special technique.

Once I visited an exhibition in a private house in Hamburg, I think either in the late 1970s or the early 1980s, where he was selling such prints with motives mainly from the mediteranean and from a trip to the south pacific. He was talking about that trip enthusiastically and was obviously regretting that he was so old already. I remember him saying repeatedly “Das Leben ist viel zu kurz.” (“Life is much too short.”).