Max Bill: best kept secret of European modernism

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”
John Keats “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

Helmhaus Zürich / Zürcher Kunstgesellschaft (1957)
Variation 12 1938. Max Bill

Swiss-born architect Max Bill is perhaps one of the best-kept secrets of European modernism. As somebody who studied at Bauhaus under the teaching tenure of Klee and Kandinsky, and who has on multiple occasions been lauded as an inspiration of the late Francois Morellet, Max Bill is – as far as the popular opinion is concerned– a fairly underground figure. In full truth Max Bill never completed his studies at the eponymous school of design, something that has in later narrative been attributed to a lack of founding. Yet, the tight economy didn’t stop the mastermind who has outlined principles that would later define a Concrete – movement which despite its fairly modest outreach counted members such as Mondrian and Henry Moore amongst its rows. Just as his Bauhaus contemporaries, Bill’s beliefs were deeply rooted in  the idea of ‘function preceding form’. Despite being primarily self-taught, Bill’s seminal experience at Bauhaus led him to be a conspicuous champion of the un-ornamented style, which consisted of stripping away the the superfluous in order to reduce form to it’s primary or ‘concrete’ function.
Arguably Max Bill’s oeuvre is far from a pure form stripped down to its function. 

Ultimately his designs, paintings and architectural works are painstakingly beautiful to look. In contrary, Bill seemingly argued that ‘‘The form should not simply be a response to its use but should be manifest as a harmonious whole, evoking a general impression of beauty”.
Indeed – he stressed that beauty is a quality integral to the form which doesn’t necessarily impose or hinder when it comes to achieving highly valued aesthetics. While the notion of ‘beauty was highly eschewed by the ‘constructivist’ as it implied a subjective or expressive element, Bill argued that by diligently applying arithmetical and geometric principles one could achieve mathematical beauty.
Bill wrote extensively on the subject of beauty and mathematical principals, which is evident from his writings in 1949 where he mentions Bach as simulacrum of the principle :
“Bach employed mathematical formulas to fashion the raw material known to us as sound, into the exquisite harmonies of his sublime fugues… The art in question can best be described as the building up of significant patterns from the ever changing relations of, rhythms and proportions of abstract forms.”

”Even in modern art, artists have used methods based on calculation, inasmuch as these elements, alongside those of a more personal and emotional nature, give balance and harmony to any work of art.”


This notion is highly evident in Bill’s paintings, usually employing basic geometric shapes in order to achieve visually captivating and narrative pieces, accompanied by a vivid use of colour typical of a former Bauhaus student.
A clear outlay and geometrical approach intuitively defined Bill’s work from the very beginning –  while an underlying grid is now a characteristic that sets the foundation of ‘constructivism’, Bill employed the technique already in his early 20’s, almost 10 years before the abovementioned  movement was formed.
One needs not to look further than in the square format book Form designed to the last detail by BIll. Regarded as a an outstanding example of modern design – the elegantly outlined publication soon gained a cult status propelling Max Bill to one of the most important figures of modern typography and graphic design.  

Max Bill, Construction in 19 Squares, 1941, gouache on board, 102 x 72

An ode to rationalist and utilitarian design, it is highly evident throughout Bill’s oeuvre that whilst he was highly dedicated to fostering an integration of mathematical aesthetics and a puritanical approach to modern life, his work wasn’t devoid of human sentiment. Bill was exceedingly conscious of the fact that by shaping human environment through architectural endeavours one had a central role in shaping culture and society, and thus accepting the responsibility that accompanied such endeavours.