Blackletter Controversy

The Art Nouveau movement brought about a revolution in the arts. Along with Art Nouveau came new typefaces which featured hand-drawn lettering that emphasized curvilinear aspects of text which were widely accepted by most European countries, aside from Germany. Prior to the spark of Art Nouveau in Europe, a key component of German design was the use of the Blackletter typeface. This aspect of German culture was one that the German people were not willing to give up so easily and caused division amongst artists of all ages, eventually leading to the creation of a new style called Jugendstil.

Following is a brief history of the significance of Blackletter in the German culture. It all started with Johannes Gutenberg and his printing of the entire Bible in Latin using a blackletter typeface, known as Textura. The production of the Gutenberg Bible marked a revolution in printed works. As printers continued to print text, it became apparent that the bold, heavy typeface was too bulky and was, honestly, just too difficult for some people to read. Printers became aware of this fact and came up with a Roman typeface that was generally thinner and not as illegible as some Blackletter type sets were. The goal of the Roman typeface was to make text more legible, and ended up providing a modern look to the text as well.  While most European printers and designers adopted this new Roman typeface, Germany was set on sticking to their roots in Blackletter. Thus, the German emperor Maximilian ordered a modern version of Blackletter typeface be made so that he could print books in German, for German use. This typeface was created by Leonhard Wagner and was called Fraktur, which became iconic to German print and German culture at the time.


Fraktur was the go-to font of the German people for a long time. All of their newspapers, school books, and posters made use of Fraktur, so much so that it eventually became a part of German tradition, culture, and identity. Germany had been making use of Fraktur since the 1400’s, so it’s no wonder why many artists were so reluctant to let go of their beloved Blackletter once the new styles of Art Nouveau came through in the late nineteenth century with their curvilinear, hand-drawn lettering and bright colors. While the younger artists were eager and ready to adopt the latest trend in lettering and design, older generations would not have it. This controversy of acceptance of Art Nouveau in Germany led to a division among young artists and the older generations, creating a new German style called Jugendstil, which means “youth style”. This new movement was essentially the German version of Art Nouveau for the younger designers.

Jugendstil did not totally disregard German traditions, in fact, it sought to create designs that had influences from both German tradition and new styles of Art Nouveau which contained curvilinear, embellished, hand-drawn aspects. The result was a new form of typography that used modification of Blackletter with flowy, hand-drawn details. There were quite a few young artists who successfully contributed to the Jugendstil aesthetic. One was named were Fritz Erler, whose Jugend poster seamlessly combined the two styles. The lettering in the header clearly shows Blackletter influence in the way the lines vary in width throughout the various curves of the letters. The letters also show sharp, jagged edges, which is a prominent characteristic of Blackletter. Erler combines Blackletter with Art Nouveau by adding smooth, curved embellishments to both sides of the text, something that was unique in Art Nouveau designs. The two curves meet below the center of the word “Jugend” and create a design that the letters seem to be flowing out of. The solid, bold red color of the letters, along with the movement of the curves are both evidences of Art Nouveau influence on traditional German Blackletter, creating a new style known as Jugendstil.




Works Cited:

Walden Font Co. “History of Fraktur Writing and Printing in Germany at the Walden Font Co.” History of Fraktur Writing and Printing in Germany at the Walden Font Co. Walden Font Co., n.d. Web. 29 Sept. 2016.

Farley, Jennifer. “The Blackletter Typeface: A Long And Colored History.” RSS. N.p., 07 Nov. 2009. Web. 29 Sept. 2016.

Eskilson, Stephen. Graphic Design: A New History. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007. Print.