Until the Berlin Medical Historical Museum mounted an exhibition about him in 2010, Fritz Kahn’s graphic illustrations had largely been forgotten. The show, the first dedicated to Kahn’s works, attracted more than 24,000 visitors, and marked a small but overdue public tribute to the prolific writer, doctor, artist and innovator.
Long focused elsewhere, the spotlight returned to Kahn this year when his best-known graphic work, “Man as Industrial Palace,” went on display at the New Museum in New York, part of an exhibition titled “Ghosts In the Machine.” The piece is now on view at “Superhuman,” a show running at London’s Wellcome Collection through Oct. 16 — a nice bit of attention for what was originally issued as a free poster with Kahn’s magnus opus, a five-volume 1926 work titled “Das Leben des Menschen” (The Life of Man). Suddenly back in the public eye, the poster is the physical representation of Kahn’s ideas, which envisioned the human body as an industrial machine.
Born in Germany in 1888, Kahn is credited with being a founder of conceptual medical illustration. Before him, medical illustrations had mainly been used for study purposes, necessary for medical students and those in the profession, and needed to be as realistic-looking as possible.
Kahn, however, was interested in his works being used in a broader educational capacity. Although the drawings appear strange today, they were genuine attempts at bringing biology into the public sphere, and making the human anatomy more understandable to the man on the street.
After beginning life in Halle, the young Kahn moved with his Orthodox family to Berlin, where he received a liberal education, studying medicine, the natural sciences and the humanities. After a stint as an army doctor in World War I, he wrote two successful medical books, and served as a gynecologist and surgeon in a respected Berlin clinic. Between 1920 and 1960, he would become one of the world’s most successful science writers.
Kahn’s drawings of the inner workings of the human body used metaphors from the modern industrial age
His writings, in which sex education was a popular theme, were translated into many languages, and were essentially aimed at the layman. What distinguished the books from his competitors’ were the accompanying illustrations.
Kahn’s drawings of the inner workings of the human body used metaphors from the modern industrial age. In effect, the body was portrayed as a machine, an analogy that was constantly reworked and extended, often focusing on specific body parts. The drawings were often given fanciful, surrealist names, such as “The Architecture of Digestion” and “Fairytale Journey Along the Bloodstream.”
The inspiration for the images came from the cultural and technological changes that were then reshaping German society. Kahn’s graphic concepts were fueled by art movements such as futurism, surrealism and Dadaism — the same wheels and cogs that propelled Kahn’s “Man as Industrial Palace’ also inhabited films such as Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” and Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times.”
Looking at “Man as Industrial Palace” now, viewers are put in mind of a well-tuned, highly organized factory system, with an internal apparatus manned by workers spread along varying chains of command. The upper echelons of the brain host the directors of operation, while information is transmitted to switchboard operators seated in the central nervous system, and then dispensed throughout the body.
Nearly half a century after Kahn’s death, the artwork looks remarkable, and has a haunting, eerie quality. The body remains a veritable hive of activity; its countless functions represented by interconnected pipes, tubes and circuitry, all graphically represented in a polished and precise format. This was the human body running at high production levels — and was, in a sense, a pictorial representation of the capitalist enterprise.
Kahn was a political person, although one hesitates to say that his views informed his illustrations. It is notable, however, that his illustrations were not actually drawn by the man himself, but by a team of graphic artists employed to render his ideas on paper. Nevertheless, Kahn was careful to ensure he received credit for the unique look of the graphics, copyrighting and even “branding” his work with his initials.
His technique was part of the new approach to graphic and industrial design then taking root in Weimar Germany. Kahn’s drawings are known to have influenced Walter Gropius, the architect and founder of the Bauhaus school, who cited Kahn’s ideas in his lectures.
As a successful writer and public figure, it was only a matter of time before he attracted the attention of the Nazis
Despite his prolific writing and graphic output, as well as his work as a doctor and lecturer, Kahn also found time to play a role in Berlin’s Jewish community. A committed Zionist, Kahn visited and bought land in Palestine in 1922, after publishing a successful 1920 book titled “Die Juden als Rasse und Kulturvolk” (The Jews as Race and Cultural Nation).
Espousing the views of the Enlightenment, Kahn founded a humanist community in Berlin in 1924, the Independent Order of B’nai B’rith, and became chairman of a Jewish aid organization for the elderly. According to Uta von Debschitz, a co-author of “Fritz Kahn: Man Machine,”One of the main goals of the [Yehuda Halevi Lodge] was to establish an up-to-date collection of Jewish knowledge and foster a political alertness among his fellow Jews to constructively face and handle the challenges and dangers of the time.”
Along with her brother, Thilo, von Debschitz is largely responsible for Kahn’s re-emergence, having conducted extensive research before producing the pair’s wonderfully illustrated monograph on the scientist. The siblings were also instrumental in mounting the show at the Berlin Medical Historical Museum, receiving a certificate of
commendation from the German Jewish Community History Council for their work.
For Kahn, the rise of Hitler proved a tragic validation of his activism. As a successful writer and public figure, it was only a matter of time before he attracted the attention of the Nazis. New anti-Semitic legislation forced him from his profession, and later from Germany, and also brought about the public burning of his books.
Kahn left for Palestine in 1933, the first in a series of sojourns and departures that would continue for the rest of his life. Having bought a house in Jerusalem, the doctor made a concerted effort to put down roots, and was in close communication with other exiles such as Chaim Weizmann, Max Brod and Arnold Zweig. He met and married his second wife, pianist Erna Schnabel, and wrote on subjects relevant to his new homeland, such as water use and urban development. He also penned “The Natural Life In Palestine,” a manuscript that remains unpublished.
Life in exile proved difficult, however, and by all accounts, he missed Europe. A stint in Paris ended after the Nazi occupation of France; with the help of a friend, Albert Einstein, who wrote a letter on his behalf, he obtained a visa to the US in 1941.
It was in America that he wrote his last successful works, and in 1956, he returned to Europe. From this period on, until his death in Switzerland in 1968, he found it increasingly difficult to get published.
Kahn lived an extremely busy, productive life and left an impressive legacy. He wrote 20 works, had more than 1,500 graphic illustrations attributed to him, and was a contributing editor to the German Encyclopaedia Judaica between 1928 and 1934. His influence on graphic design and art is still apparent, and can be seen, among other places, in the work of Israeli artist Aya Ben Ron, and in what was an inspired piece of animation by Henning Lederer, “Man as Industrial Palace.”
For an influential but long-neglected thinker, Kahn’s return, however modest, represents part of his well-deserved due.