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Graphic designer Anthon Beeke is celebrated with a glorious overview of his work:  "It’s a miracle!" Various writers explore the provocations, eroticism, poetry as well as other aspects of his life and work.

By Gabrielle Kennedy /asdf 26-09-2013

Anthon Beeke has a reputation to uphold. “You have accomplished the impossible,” American graphic designer Alston Purvis once told him. “You have even succeeded in shocking the Dutch.” Purvis recounts this anecdote in a new book celebrating Beekes career: "It’s A Miracle".

Purvis acknowledges though that Beeke’s success in communicating “can to some extent be attributed to the generally receptive Amsterdam audience.” The poster that sparked the biggest controversy in his hometown is from 1980 and showed a woman’s buttocks as a harnessed horse with a very visible vagina.  It was advertising a play by Shakespeare: "Troilus and Cressida".  In the US a show overviewing his work was cancelled because of this same poster.  

The posters showing genitals, Beeke said in an interview with Eye Magazine in 1994, “are statements made by me as a man to women. I’m talking about a rat in the kitchen, that part of us in which we as men are not kosher about when it comes to women, yet which we see as completely natural. My poster may be a curse to some, but they confirm what others already feel.”

Beeke (73) was born and raised in the city of Amsterdam, known once for its brutal trade in anything and everything from slaves to spices as well as its great intellectual freedom. “Amsterdam gives me a lot of energy,” he said, “so I try to give some of my energy back. I don’t think I could have come out on the streets with these posters in Berlin, Paris, Madrid, London or wherever, not to mention America, where they begin to tremble if you post them on the walls of their so-called progressive art schools. So you might say I do it to set an example.”

Beeke traces his unconventional style back to his roots. As the son of a plasterer he dropped out of school at fourteen. He was a total outsider in art circles but was instinctively drawn to design and did manage to get some lessons – from men who would continue to become the two opposing icons of Dutch graphic design: modernist Wim Crouwel and political activist Jan van Toorn.  This famous debate in 1972 between these two opponents is still talked about today. 

After a stint as an intern with Van Toorn, Beeke said in the Eye interview, “at last I felt I was on the right track. I was about 22 or 23 and I would have to find some way to make my mark in an area others had been trained for. I still thought of myself as an amateur, but suddenly I began to see my amateur status as a good starting point. You are less bound by convention and sacred truths. I could draw a little, paint, had done some photography, pantomime and even singing, had travelled all over Europe, and most importantly could look after myself. In short, I had lots of experience that should give something special to my graphic work.”

Then Beeke went a step further and turned his outsider status into his biggest asset: “It was not difficult to put myself at right angles to the commonly accepted position. And by adopting a different approach I swept all my so-called backwardness off the table in a single stroke. That feeling has given me great freedom.”

This moment coincided with the beginning of the 1960s when Amsterdam turned into the world’s “magic centre” – at least in the eyes of the local hippies. Beeke’s career took off and endured well past just that era.

But Beeke did not just provoke his audience for the sake of it. “Beeke had an aim when he learned to undermine conventions,” writes professor Esther Cleven, art historian at the University of Amsterdam, in her concluding essay of the new book. “He was interested in the effects his designs had on spectators and wanted to cater to their subjective experience.” To achieve his purpose “Beeke did everything that you shouldn’t do according to the young professional ethics of typography and graphic design in order to bridge the gap between media and spectator.”

The title of the book – It’s a miracle! – is taken from a lecture given by Beeke at the Cooper Union Institute in New York, trendwatcher Li Edelkoort explains in the books introduction. In between slides of all his different works, Beeke kept showing a bright yellow slide with fat black letters saying: It’s a miracle. “As if Anthon Beeke couldn’t believe everything that had happened to him in his life,” writes Edelkoort, responsible for compiling the book.

Among the contributors are the aforementioned Alston Purvis and Esther Cleven, and also Steven Heller (critic and former art-director at The New York Times), photographer Erwin Olaf, and artist and designer James Victore.

"Anthon Beeke: It’s a Miracle!"
BIS Publishers, 2013

Main image:
Poster for the theatre company Globe playing Shakespeare's 'Troilus and Cressida' (1980)
Left from top:
'It's a Miracle' - book cover
Naked Ladies alphabet (1970)
Anthon Beeke directing the making of the Naked Ladies alphabet, photo by Ed van der Elsken (1969)
Poster for the theatre company Globe playing 'Quartet' (1982)

Poster for the 'Holland Festival' (1995)
Poster for the theatre company Amsterdam playing Martin Crimp's 'Attempts on her Life' (1997)

Book for paper company Scheufelen; with Li Edelkoort (1997)

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