Master of From Black to White

Alain Weill
Idea (Japan), #248

The work an of artist of Hans Hillmann’s stature, since he has forty years of creation behind him, is necessarily rich, dense and complex. It is therefore very difficult to sum it up in a few lines. Unlike other graphic artists, he has managed with the same success in double careers, a poster artist on the one hand, and an illustrator on the other. The coherence that one finds in his work is even more rare: from his early works to his present day work, no matter what subject matter he approaches, Hillmann is a master of design. Or, more accurately put, he is a master of graphic art, of its lines, its half-tints and shadows, which do not need color in live. He either totally ignores color, or doesn’t know how to use it (though you do see it sometimes here and there) but it is clearly not at the heart of his study and is not, in any case, an essential element.

Hillmann is first and above all a prodigious designer, a man who throughout his life, is designing with constancy and jubilation. A recent work, »Konferenzzeichnungen« shows us pages of a draft covered with little drawings, of preparatory sketches created in the course of his daily work meetings. Therein lies the prime secret supporting all his work: the design, done in pen or pencil. This talent, this inexhaustible wealth, is what makes his work adapt so well to the diverse sectors in which he works, each with its specific constraints.

From 1953 to 1974, he created about 130 posters for the film distributor Neue Filmkunst for auteur films. In this domain, where a lot of descriptive mediocrity (just using shots of the stars) prevails, he by contrast chooses to find a simple, sober yet strong image symbolizing the subject of the film. This reductive exercise is again accentuated by the restricted budgets allowed for him, leaving him to express himself in black and white: the two cannons of Potemkin or the falcon of which the head is a revolver aimed at the spectator, for the Maltese Falcon, just two striking examples among many others, of black and white photograph or a combination of the two, he arrives each time at finding the synthetic solution which summarizes both the story and the atmosphere of the film at the same time. Although his contribution to cinema is important, Hans Hillmann is not only a poster artist. Far from it. His place in the world of illustration is just as distinguished.

His book, »Fly Paper« after a black novel by Dashiell Hammett, is one of the most important illustrated works of the post-war period. Form multiple preparatory sketches and on-location drawings created in San Francisco where he situated the action, Hillmann created a masterwork printed in two tones, black and sepia; a work of rare dramatic intensity where each image brings out the violence of the action. As in his posters, one finds something there that surpasses design, his rigorous thought, which cuts the story up into a series of shock images.

Little illustrated stories are another facet of his talent: minimalist comic strips where the humor is mixed with the absurd or the fantastic. Here again there is an idea, brought back to its essentials, then picked up and given the design, which, with an insolent facility, gives it form. This is a formula that one finds again in his numerous newspaper drawings. So, Hans Hillmann, always researching the graphic expression of an idea, embodying the quintessence what the graphic arts are, without needing colors to master of from black to white.