TypograFriday: Fraktur, part 2

Last typografriday I shared with you my obsession for blackletter type; this week I promised I’d give you some context. Not that long ago, I was someone, much like most of you, who associated blackletter’s heavy strokes and barbed finials with Nazis, gangs, metal bands, rap and newspaper mastheads. How did I get from from there to here? I’ll share some of my path. But after the jump.


The book to find.

frakt_natlThe first book I’d suggest you pick up is Blackletter: Type and National Identity, edited by Paul Shaw and Peter Bain. It’s seven short but fantastic essays, six of which are translated from the German, charmingly set with many visuals. It also has a terrific bibliography. Its texts are very approachable (considering it seems a specialized focus) and very enlightening.

Some historical context in brief gleaned from the book: medieval book hand calligraphy was pretty much all blackletter, as was Gutenberg’s original printing type. Shortly thereafter however, Roman type was born in Venice and quickly adopted in Italy, France and thereafter across Europe. Germany (and some of north/eastern Europe) continued to use the form in a sort of nationalistic solidarity/rejection of frivolous Frenchiness.

“From the outset, the opposition between blackletter and roman has been colored by more momentous polarities: medeivalism vs. modernity, Protestantism vs. Catholicism, Lutheran Pietism vs. Italian Humanism, German Romanticism vs. the French Enlightenment, the authority of the state v. personal liberty and popular sovereignity, nationalism vs. cosmopolitanism, mysticism vs. rationality.” (from Introduction)

…and organic vs. mechanical, and Infinite vs. finite… The letters then, before they got the associations of violence and power we hang on them, already were loaded with meanings by the time of the Enlightenment. There’s a ton more in this short book (I borrow heavily from another of its essays below) but let’s move on to the other two books on blackletter in English.

Two more great books and a website.
frakt_mexicanHer degree project published as a book, Christina Paoli’s Mexican Blackletter is a collection and analysis of handpainted blackletter on signs in Mexico. It collects evidence of a non-German national identity attaching to the type, dispels the notion that it’s only for thugs and shows how much experimentation there is in its folk form. And it’s a beautiful book, suitable for coffee tables in goth living rooms.

9781568988016_largeFinally, the book so aimed at my heart it seems impossible, Fraktur Mon Amour by Judith Schalansky. It’s designed like a big Bible but with hot pink instead of gilt page edges. The left pages are hundreds of type samples of digitized blackletter organized by subcategory, with abstract art made using the letterform on the right pages, all in black and bright pink. Oh and it comes with a disc with all of those fonts. In the world of digital type, blackletters are strangely often freeware (for instance all of Dieter Steffman’s incredible collection), but this collection comes in an amazing enough package that I wouldn’t have it any other way.

If books are altogether too twentieth century for you, there’s always room for spirited discussions of blackletter’s Nazi taint and critiques of contemporary blackletters in process over at Typophile.

The Nazi historical section, in brief:

[totally condensed/plaigarized from the Willberg essay in the first book] The blackletters favored by the Nazis were a sort of unsubtle mock-fraktur that had much in common with sans serif. This subcategory is called Schaftstiefelgrotesks: Jackboot Grotesks. And even more surprising, after centuries of being firmly intertwined with ideas of German national identity, blackletter was forbidden statewide in 1941 in an edict declaring it debased and, yes, Jewish. The last sentence reads “first change over to the standard script those newspapers and magazines that already have a foreign distribution or whose foreign circulation is desired.” This priority, and even their calling the Roman script “standard” betrayed their motivation: blackletter was indeed a German script, but Germany was looking to expand into world dominance, and their spiky medeival script was going to be a barrier to the communication that comes with Empire.

So, despite Nazis banning it, blackletter is still widely associated with their regime. And despite their favored blackletters being ahistorical bastard hybrids, these days bastard hybrid blackletters are among the freshest typographic experiments around.

Stay tuned for part 3 (and the last, at least for 2009) where I select and discuss some of these experiments and try my best not to mention Nazis at all! And, dear reader, thanks for staying with me.]

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