Writing Machines: On Konrad Klapheck's Typewriters 

 

Essay

Published in Metropolis M, No. 3, 2021

June 2021

Konrad-Klapheck-Der-Chef-1965-Kunstpalast-Düsseldorf-olieverf-op-doek-111-x-161-cm_2021-02

Konrad Klapheck, The Chief, 1965

In the foyer of the Meertens Institute sits a double-keyboard typewriter. Or, at least, it did sit there at one point in the last few years. While I later learned that the double-keyboard typewriter was usually utilised for the purpose of working in two languages as once, I was first struck by it as I imagined two women—the main activators of the typewriter as burdened by history—sitting side by side while working away. And I liked this fantasy of collaborative writing, of the two women passing the page back and forth between the conjoined carriages, influencing the development of what began to appear on the page and refiguring administrative work as a collective practice beyond the individualising anonymity it usually enforced.

 

Yet writing is more often than not considered quite a solitary activity, a fact reinforced when I came to understand that despite having two fully functioning keyboards, the double typewriter was still intended for one bilingual user. The same solitariness can be said for painting, or at least painting as we are taught to understand it historically, whereby the single artist, usually male, sits at the easel awaiting inspiration. Konrad Klapheck, the seemingly unclassifiable postwar German painter, has brought these two activities together since painting his first typewriter in 1955—the first of his many surrealist renderings of the machine, which bring into conversation the act of painting with that of writing.

 

I first encountered Klapheck’s work only a few years ago at Kolumba in Cologne, where the accompanying exhibition guide noted that as a child he dreamed of being a writer. [1] After learning of this and looking into his work more, I couldn’t help but feel a certain psychoanalytical underpinning to his obsessive relationship to the writing machine. At the time, and still now, my interest in the typewriter was embedded in an obsession of my own: one focused on the mechanisms of administration and its pursuit of objectification, both in terms of the citizens it takes as subjects and the people, most often women, it puts to work in service of this pursuit.

 

I see these mechanisms clearly at play Klapheck’s typewriters and, for that matter, toyed with too, making each depiction a vilification of the oppressive force of bureaucracy. This has a particularly charged slant given that he grew up in Nazi Germany—an unquestionably despotic manifestation of the administrative apparatus. Yet despite the heaviness in the air at this time, there is a lightness of touch to his work, perhaps because of the tongue-in-check attitude with which he paints his derision.

 

And perhaps this is a result of the stylistic trends of the time, as the political climate of his years studying at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf—where he was a student from 1954–56—can also be felt in his caricature-like mechanical reproductions. Undoubtedly influenced by the influx of pop iconography resultant from the US occupation of West Germany (and its ensuing economic recovery), Klapheck’s representations of the mass-produced machine merge the last days of surrealism with the critical objectivity of pop art’s affection. In this spirit, his anthropomorphic modifications and foreboding titles hint at his true distain of power, with each painting sardonically named after autocratic figures as if characters in a sinister morality play: The Monarch (1963), The Legislator (1969), The Chief (1965), The Ruler (1966), The Dictator (1967), The Emperor (1966) and The Ideal Husband (1964), which Klapheck notes is ‘an ironic title because the reality is it is about a family tyrant.’ [2]

 

Klapheck’s 1963 painting Patriarchy offers an image of this cast list of male supremacy. In this typewriter, the keyboard is divided into two distinct compartments. Rather than transforming the typewriter into an exterior of a building, as many of his other typewriter paintings do, Patriarchy depicts the interior of what appears to be a court room: a set of keys occupy the bench traditionally reserved for the judge and just underneath, positioned below the judges yet still elevated, sits the jury. Klapheck has seemingly replaced humans with typewriter keys, framing patriarchy as both judge and jury of societal proceedings. Similarly, in The Legislator (1969) the carriage return leaver of the typewriter is elongated to surrealist proportions and raised as if an arm in fascist salute, ready to drop at any minute and enforce the rule of law.

 

Yet other more poetic titles, which interestingly often accompany his more straightforward or true-to-life renderings of the typewriter, offer a different take on the potential of the writing machine. In The Weapon of My Seriousness (1959), my favourite of Klapheck’s titles, a typewriter sits pride of place in the centre of the frame, largely to scale except for an extended cubic midriff separating the keyboard at the base and the paper and its platen at the top. In thinking of the women typists who have punctuated history, the ones who always come to mind when I think about administration, this work feels more like a supportive nod. The female who sat behind this typewriter—which through its extended body places the paper and what is written on it up high as if on a pedestal—will not be underestimated this time. The typewriter then figures as a tool of emancipation, writing the activity of giving voice.

 

Just a few days ago I was reading a book on the history of the Women’s Electoral Lobby—a national grassroots organisation that started in Melbourne, Australia, in 1978 and which developed an innovative approach to surveying political candidates about their commitment to women’s issues. A key hallmark of this approach—that now, looking back, can be clearly attributed with being a major contributor to huge national reforms, including the momentous 1984 Sexual Discrimination Act—was the decision to introduce a protocol that saw its women members always interviewing and surveying candidates in pairs of two. One would do the talking, the other the transcribing. A human double typewriter.

 

Not coincidentally, this was around the same period where women were finally welcomed into the modern office, an apparent advancement for the plight of women which concurrently saw them become synonymous with the machine itself: the word ‘typewriter’ came to refer to both the word-processing machine and the female typist. [3] But in thinking of my fictitious interpretation of the double-keyboard typewriter in the hallway of the Meertens Institute in Amsterdam now and the many pairs of women who lobbied around Australia in the late twentieth century, there is surely a connection to be made between administrative forms of recording and writing proper.

 

As such, my aforementioned obsession with administration has led to me to attempt to commit to a feeling around administrative writing that isn’t only anxiety-producing—as when we get that purple-blue Belastingdienst envelope in the mail—but which also tries to rethink it as a kind of experimental writing itself, one with a history of anonymous female authors who all, just like Klapheck, wanted to be writers. In The Undying, Anne Boyer says of a man sick with cancer that ‘he wanted to write a book but he didn’t know how to organise the information of his experience’, and I think this is a perfect correlation between administration and writing, as it positions them both as organisational tasks.4 On this note I also like thinking of the many submissions the Women’s Electoral Lobby wrote to legislators (another hallmark of their approach) as creative writing, one based on penning narrativised non-fiction accounts of female experience as a way to speculate on (imagine) how the world could be different.

 

It was through Klapheck’s persona-filled typewriters that I came to understand the nature of administration as a depersonalising force, particularly because it is a practice spearheaded by the modern day incarnation of the characters listed earlier, ones willing, even happy, to misuse their state-given power. Here, the recent child benefits scandal comes to mind. But in his typewriters I also found a defence of writing, in all its forms, which in turn spotlights the anonymous administrators who are tasked with erasing themselves while also reductively profiling others.

 

His most tender depiction of a typewriter can be found in Vocation (1959), a tiny five-key typewriter. There is something far less spectacle about this one, I would even go as far as to say humble. In contrast to the other depictions, which border on satirical, this one puts in motion a feeling of reassurance (as opposed to helplessness as with the totalitarian typewriters, or resilience in the case of others). Just like the painting’s title suggests, writing is a worthy vocation.

 

It’s an interesting addition that Klapheck also painted sewing machines and irons in a similar manner—all products resultant from industrialisation, all historically gendered. Sometimes it’s hard to know what to make of this, especially when coupled with his later works that portray the nude female form in an often graphic manner. You would think logically this narrative might be reversed, as the depiction of objectified women surely comes before the negative rendering of the objects of their oppression. But while at times it feels like Klapheck might have momentarily missed the point of women’s liberation (one work, titled The Strong Women (1961) transfigures stoic industrial piping into curvy, voluptuous female silhouettes), in Klapheck’s depiction of bureaucracy I find a sense of solidarity. I appreciate that when I look at the paintings I don’t just feel an art historically relevant, genre-defying practice—as the many male historians that surround his work tend to focus on—but instead see an acknowledgement of the burden of regulated expression and a way out through writing.

[1] Pas de deux, exhibition catalogue, Kolumba Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne, 2018.  

[2] J. van der Wolk (ed.), Konrad Klapheck (Rotterdam: Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, 1974), 100.

[3] It was noted to me that the word ‘computer’ was also notoriously used to refer to female staff who carried out routine mathematical work en masse, from solving meteorological calculations for forecasting in the 1920s and 30s to undertaking decryption tasks during World War II, prior to the advent of the Turing machine. Thank you to Edward Colless for this observation.

[4] Anne Boyer, The Undying: A Meditation on Modern Illness (London: Penguin Books, 2020), 135.