Film ‘The Visual Language fo Herbert Matter’

Its’ not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see – Henri David Thoreau

A film about the perhaps not so well known Swiss graphic designer and photographer Herbert Matter (1907-1984). The film ‘The Visual Language of Herbert Matter‘ captures as a visual story and documentary the life of Herbert Matter from his birthplace Engelberg in Switzerland to Matter’s years in New York. The filmmaker Reto Caduff made a film as a collage of Matter’s prolific visual works and various interviews with his son and grandson, writers and designers who met Matter during life. (Caduff and Matter, 2010)

Herbert Matter

Matter is credited as an ‘influential mid-century modern design master,.. expanding the use of photography as a design tool and bringing the semantics of fine art into the realm of applied arts.’

Matter’s bithplace Engelberg was during his time transformed into a tourist center for the high society ‘In Engelberg is immer Hochbetrieb’ (always peakseason) and after his painting studies in Geneva he was commissioned for advertisment in the tourist area.  A long lasting impression was his stay in Paris, where he joined art studies with Fernand Léger, learned modern visual communication, embracecd Constructivism, Purism and Bauhaus, and was influenced by surrealism and Russian graphic designs of posters.

Photography was the key medium for Matter, and through his experimental and rather perfectionist approach created unique and iconic works in the fields of graphic design, photography and photomontage.

Eventually he moved to the New York in 1935, married Mercedes Carles and became famous for his influential style. He worked by Alexey Brodovitch (Harper’s Bazaar), Alexander Liberman (Condé Nast, Vogue) and Knoll (furniture). He created furniture designs and corporate designs (e.g. Knoll, New Haven railways).

As a photographer and graphic designer, Herbert Matter was an artist who embraced many discplines, crossed boundaries and developed his unique approach.

I found the visual narrative of the film appealing and made me aware of how various disciplines can inspire an artist in developing one’s own style with a unique voice. Atlhough Matter was part modern art, close friend with Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Alberto Giacometti, and Alxander Calder. I couldn’t sense the ‘avant-garde’ notion of marginalization. Matter was not a theorist, even not during his lecturing at Yale’s design school. He was a practitioner who knew how to make visual convincing impact. His successes with various business would place him possibly more into the area of a designer working for commissioned works and for clients. However, what I learned from the film is Matter’s professional approach to his own work that conveyed messages through clean and calm design,  serenity as an ‘architect of the white page’. Matter crossed boundaries and developed a new graphic language that started from photomontage and scissors.

The graphic designer and writer Jessica Helfand said somewhere in the film about Matter’s New York time: ‘They had fun, they were productive, they didn’t wait for technology’. What I see as a key element in the creative field and arts. Another quote that I found intriguing was by Matter’s grandson Jordan Matter who stated that

‘the artists work is his voice’ – Jordan Matter

Very fascinating to see this film, a documentation of modern art from a different perspective. Not a Greenbergian or other theorist’s view, not a post-modern deconstructive view, but a visual perspective on what matters at a time.

I also take away that creativity is what one does with what one has. Not about technology. Matter’s posters may seem today in the era of smartphone image manipulation and photoshop for everyone simple and repeatable. But considerng the historical and social context the works are very experimental, an approach I really embrace myself with my sketchbook works and art practice. I may be a bit jealous, that Matter moved towards to pulsing center of art at his time. I think Matter was a tremendously lucky guy – with skills. It makes me think whether in today’s global interwoven world this is still a necessity or whether Matter could have stayed today in Engelberg and be as successful. A question of place and approximity – so relevant for me as a distant art student.



  • Caduff, R. and Matter, H. (2010) The Visual Language of Herbert Matter : ein Film über den Schweizer Grafikdesigner und Fotografen Herbert MatterSternstunde Kunst,
  • The Matter Family (2017) Herbert Matter® Official Site, [online], Available from:[Accessed 13 Oct 2017].

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