As a member of the ‘Produktionsgenossenschaft des Handwerks’ (production cooperative for handicrafts, PGH for short), ‘Glühende Zukunft’, or ‘Glowing Future’, which was founded just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Henning Wagenbreth, along with Anke Feuchtenberger, Holger Fickelscherer and Detlef Beck, experimented with bringing together picture stories and methods of illustration. They inspired each other and worked with woodcuts, linocuts, and screen prints, designing graphics, illustrations and comics, both for commissions by theatres and publishing houses and for their own interest.
Wagenbreth, a trained commercial artist, has been awarded numerous prizes for his posters. Mond und Morgenstern (1999), the children’s book he illustrated, with a story by Wolfram Frommlet, was awarded the title of ‘Schönstes Buch der Welt’ (most beautiful book in the world). In terms of layout and style no one publication is like the others, whether it’s T.C. Boyle’s short story Der Polarforscher (The Arctic Explorer, 1995), Das Geheimnis der Insel St Helena (2002), a fantastical story spun around the death of Napoleon, Uli Becker’s volume of poetry Fallende Groschen (1993) or Alfred Lichtenstein’s Die große Mausefalle (1996) that he’s illustrating.
As with all representatives of the German comic avant-garde, it was contact with Art Spiegelman’s RAW magazine that provided the initial spark for his interest in the medium. Exceptional artists such as Mark Beyer, Rory Hayes, Jeunet and Caro, who began drawing comics as part of the punk movement, have always had a considerable influence on Wagenbreth’s graphic and narrative style. He also knows how to combine the expressiveness of the underground with the East-European art of illustration, the woodcuts of Frans Masereel and computer graphics in a most appealing way.
Together with his students at the Universität der Künste in Berlin, where he is a professor on the Visual Communication course, he has developed a method of programming picture stories on ordinary handheld computers. The pixel illustrations can be downloaded by infrared or internet onto their displays. He is working on a standardised system of signs for computers with Tobot, his automated illustration machine.
In order to illustrate a criminal phenomenon of the digital world, however, Wagenbreth went back to the traditional printing technique of lino-cutting. So-called “scam-emails” are sent out by the Nigerian mafia to targetted businessmen and women. By forwarding a sum of money that will enable the transfer to a foreign account of an alleged sum of cash worth up to millions, the receiver of the scam-email will be allotted a percentage of the profits. In his book, Cry for Help, Wagenbreth has kept 36 of these scam-emails from his Internet trashcan. His brightly-coloured lino-cut prints reduce the imaginatively constructed dramas to an over-exaggerated central theme. After all, the scam artists are producing modern fairytales that deal not only with the battle between good and evil but also with hidden treasure. Looked at more closely, the writers of the emails are playing on prevailing clichés abroad in a unique way and presenting Africa as an Eldorado of political corruption and economic intrigue. Just looking at the copies of the original emails clearly lays out the West's naïve views as represented in the media. What is more, Cry for Help is a magnificently laid out illustrated book that experiments in an extremely cleverly way with the medium of illustrated narrative.
Wagenbreth is a curious and playful designer. He draws the strength for his diverse projects from a plentiful fund of creative ideas. In the publisher Armin Abmeier he has found a companion and promoter for his lavishly printed picture stories, which they publish together in lovingly designed small print runs for bibliophiles. The work of Henning Wagenbreth resembles a treasure chamber, a collection of curios, in which you might encounter mechanical installations, obscure sensations and lovable freaks from the fin de siècle to the modern digital age.
is a cultural researcher and freelance cultural journalist.
He also designs film programmes and exhibitions on the theme of comics.
Copyright: Goethe-Institut Stockholm