For me the most exciting part of the Weill Project has been the opportunity to design placards. In a former post I said a little bit about what placards are and how they were used. For the Weill Project shows these will be 22 x 28 inch posters displayed onstage to announce each song before we perform it. Right now we are aiming for a total of 15 songs, so the design work has been divided between me and Yvette Endrijautzki, an amazing artist now based in Wuppertal, Germany, though she used to have a gallery in Georgetown here in Seattle. You can follow her on Instagram to see her placards and her process in making them.
As I’m the art director for this project I had to decide if I wanted to take on all of the placards or just a portion of them. Joe Mabel and I agreed that “angry” isn’t a typical flavor of my artistic style, and some of these songs are very angry, so at Joe’s suggestion we included Yvette to work on these, plus a few more!
We each have very different styles, and yet we are both very controlled and precise artists. The main element tying our styles together is the font, since each placard must include the song title. Yvette is taking inspiration from Weimar era art while I’m using a technique I’ve just always wanted to try.
Scherenschnitte, or cutting paper with scissors, is an old German and Swiss art form originating around the 17th century. The height of Scherenschnitte’s popularity coincided with the popularity in Europe of shadow puppets, which were called ombres chinoises, that’s French for “Chinese shadows," because European shadow puppetry was inspired by Chinese shadow puppets. You can read a history of puppetry in Germany here. Since I’m a shadow puppeteer I have also wanted to make more permanent art from cut black paper. Here was my opportunity to do so!
Scherenschnitte was already an old art form in the 1920s, and a popular one, so popular that the handmade aspect of the art was beginning to be replaced by machine made replicas. In the face of such commercialization of the art form there were a few souls devoted to keeping it alive (Eva Schonberg for one) and even stretching its boundaries. Perhaps the most famous Scherenschnitterin (that’s a lady paper cutter for you English speakers) was active in Berlin in the 1920s. Her name was Lotte Reiniger, and she is considered to have pioneered feature film animation with her Adventures of Prince Achmed in 1926, that’s a full 11 years before Disney’s Snow White. Reiniger’s husband and chief collaborator was a film director named Carl Koch, Koch and Reiniger met Brecht some time between 1923 and 1926, and it appears they made Kurt Weill’s acquaintance around the same time as the release of Prince Achmed.
Koch was approached by Weill and Bertolt Brecht in 1927 to work on a piece called Ruhrepos, a sort of musical landscape spectacle commissioned by the city of Essen. In Brecht’s words, “The Ruhrepos should be a document of contemporary history along the lines of the Orbis Pictus of the seventeenth century, reflecting this century’s view of the world in simple pictures. Songs are written and composed to elucidate large placards, depicting mines, types of people, etc. Slides and film projections show the actual documents that are treated by the poetry and the music.” Given such a collaboration I can only wonder if Reiniger would also have been called upon to help design these placards, but the project was not to be as Essen couldn’t get the funding together. However, in the following year the association between Weill and Koch becomes more of a Weill Reiniger collaboration.
In 1928 Lotte Reiniger created her second feature length shadow puppet film called Dr. Dolittle and his Animals. The composer Paul Dessau was in charge of the score. In addition to his own compositions for the film he also included pieces by Paul Hindemith, Igor Stravinsky, and possibly Kurt Weill. There are tantalizing clues all over the internet about Weill's involvement with this film, but it's hard to pinpoint exactly what that involvement was. There is some implication that he wrote a new score for one part, likely the part called Affenbrücke, or Monkey Bridge, as seen in the image here. Unfortunately the only version of this film available includes new music. Any original scores appear to have been lost. This film was originally supposed to be animated in six parts, but only the first three were ever completed, amounting to 25 minutes of total film. Talking pictures were becoming popular around the time of its release, so Dolittle was a flop in spite of the rave reviews, and funding was withdrawn for the continuation of the project.
Since Reiniger and Koch were good friends with Brecht, Koch was allowed to film parts of the premiere of Threepenny Opera. Brecht had some stills taken from this film that are now the only surviving photographs of the premiere. Reiniger made papercuts of Threepenny from memory afterwards, apparently altering the ending slightly to be more aligned with Brecht's original vision. These papercuts were included in a newspaper article as well as in the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm during Threepenny's run.
As a side note, Carl Koch nearly collaborated with Weill again in 1933, this time with Jean Renoir who wanted to direct a musical comedy based on Octave Mirbeau’s novel Diary of a Chamber Maid. This project also didn’t happen, though Renoir did turn this into a movie in 1946.
That was all some back story to introduce my placards for the Weill Project. Here I’m sharing five of them with you, but you’ll have to wait until the show to see the other two. Each of these has a background painted with watercolors before cut paper is glued down over it. I made these on mixed media paper measuring 11 x 14 inches, so they will have to be blown up to twice their original size once the placards are made. I also didn’t put text on them, but will do so digitally later.
Speak Low: The first placard I made shows a couple enmeshed by the rays of the dying sun. I thought this fitting for a song about the devastating effects of time passing. As an aside, I learned there’s a name for this particular phobia: chronophobia. I’ve personally been struggling with it ever since my mother died a couple years ago. As a singer I’ve been approaching this song purely aesthetically, but now that I have a better understanding of the link between this song and my own chronic anxiety around time I can hopefully bring more emotion to it. Cutting all those little circles was also really hard, and I probably won't do much of that again. This is cut from a single piece of paper.
Berlin im Licht: This song was written for a big festival sponsored by the gas and electric company of Berlin in 1928, sort of the forerunner to the Berlin in Lights festival today. I took key landmarks of Berlin’s skyline and cut them out along with their reflections in the river. Light bulb balloons hover about. This skyline includes landmarks that were extant in Weill's time as well as more modern buildings and features.
Youkali: I was excited to figure out a technique for rendering brightly colored lights in watercolor over a blue watercolor background. Thank you, Golden Acrylic absorbent ground! The viewer is in the position of a voyeur, viewing the fabled fairy island of Youkali surreptitiously through palm fronds. Cutting out these palm leaves was really fun, but positioning them artfully was a challenge.
Complainte de la Seine: This is one of my favorite Weill songs, an incredibly beautiful but dark piece about the rusty boats, jewels, broken hearts, and body parts that are lost in the river Seine. I wanted to honor this aesthetic by creating the most beautiful bruise colored sky I could. If you look closely you can see a skull: the clouds are eyes, the tip of the Seine a nose, and the posts on the bridge are teeth. This is cut from a single piece of paper.
Foolish Heart: This song comes from One Touch of Venus (as does Speak Low,) a story in which a statue of Venus comes to life and wreaks havoc: falling in love with an engaged barber while stirring up the passions of the art collector who bought her statue to begin with. This song is all about the ensuing love triangle. Though technically Venus is Roman, she originated in Greece, so I took my inspiration from Greek amphorae. This placard depicts a broken heart amphora filled in with the various love interests all facing in the direction of their affections. The poor barber’s fiancée stands outside the triangle wondering what the heck happened, while Mount Olympus, Venus’ home, looms in the lower right. This is cut from a single piece of paper.
Follow my blog here, as well as the official Weill Project blog, for future updates on the project. If you would like to support the project the best way is to actually support me. For a limited time a monthly donation via Patreon will get you a piece of my original artwork. Become a patron now and receive a new piece yearly as long as your patronage lasts.