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Features / Illustration

“Like a little factory making picture books”: The wondrous work of Marie Neurath

In 1941, Marie and Otto Neurath set up the Isotype Institute with one goal at its heart – the visual communication of information. Isotype, short for “the international system of typographic picture education”, was initiated by Otto in the 1920s, but after his death in 1945, Marie carried on his work for another three decades, pioneering a form of education for children that carries impact and influence still today. From the 1940s to the 70s, the graphic designer led a team of researchers, artists and writers at the institute to produce over 80 illustrated children’s books, half of which are dedicated to science, translating nature’s most marvellous and complex wonders into easily understood infographics and diagrams.

Opening today at the House of Illustration, the exhibition Marie Neurath: Picturing Science journeys through Marie and her team’s process, from early sketches and research to final spreads and book covers, dissecting the creation of these detailed works. Here, we speak to the exhibition’s co-curator Sue Walker, who together with Eric Kindel at the Otto and Marie Neurath Archive at the University of Reading and Katie Nairne at the House of Illustration, has put the show together. We asked her about Marie’s background, approach and ethos.

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Marie Neurath (via the House of Illustration)

It’s Nice That: What do we know about Marie’s background and why the interlacing of illustration and science education were so important to her?

Sue Walker: Marie Neurath studied physics and maths originally. In her early career, she worked with Otto Neurath in Vienna in the role of “transformer” – which is, in the words of Robin Kinross [the academic and writer on visual communication], “the process of analysing, selecting, ordering and then making visual some information, data, ideas, implications”. This “making visual” in an ordered, systematic way was something she was particularly good at. She liked explaining things.

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Marie Neurath (via the House of Illustration)

INT: What was so different about her outlook on illustration in education? How did she collaborate with the researchers, writers and artists on the team?

SW: She worked closely with Joseph Lauwerys, an educationist. They believed that children should be encouraged to engage with pictures to help them understand history, geography, science and so on. Her way of working was ahead of its time. She believed in collaboration; designing with people; getting feedback. The children’s books were made by a team of people: researchers, writers, illustrators and designers, including Olga Bursill, Clive Weatherhead, Kenneth James, Dennis and Barbara Young and Ilse Reisenbach. Some worked part-time and from their homes, sending drawings from home. Everything was reviewed and commented on by Marie, and she engaged rigorously with production teams demanding attention to detail and high quality in printing.

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Marie Neurath (via the House of Illustration)

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Marie Neurath (via the House of Illustration)

INT: What can you tell us about her artistic process and creative approach?

SW: The books began with research in libraries, books, conversations with experts. Then, lots of sketching, drawing, trying things out. The books were designed in spreads with careful working out of the relationship between pictures and text. Drawings and ideas were shown to experts so they could check for scientific accuracy.

Marie used before and after comparisons and simplified schematic images, and techniques such as cross-section and magnification to engage young readers. She worked closely with Wolfgang Foges, Max Parrish and others at the book-packaging company Adprint in the design and production of the books, where colour was seen as an integral feature to enhance meaning and engage readers.

This excerpt is taken from Max Parrish’s publicity material from 1961: “Each subject is clearly explained by means of simplified but accurate drawings in bright colours. Full colour is used with meaning, to add to the clarity of the visual statement, rather than as decoration, and the clean, refreshing brilliance of the drawings never fails to appeal to children and to capture their enthusiasm.”

This is what Marie said in response to a letter from a child: “We got the information from many books and periodicals, one of our institute went to the library and read the latest material. Then we talked and she explained everything to me, and I sat down and made new sketches, and talked them over with other people, and showed them to a man who knows everything about the subject, and then the final drawings were made by the designers in our institute. You see, this is like a little factory making picture books, we make one after the other, it is great fun.”

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Marie Neurath (via the House of Illustration)

INT: She was prolific. What do you think her impact was on education and illustration, and why?

SW: Her books were well-received and got excellent reviews in educational magazines. They were recommended on lists of books for use in schools. She was encouraged by Max Parrish and others involved in publishing the books – they suggested topics for books. They were also well-received in other countries and were translated into other languages, including Italian, French, Dutch and Japanese.

Marie Neurath: Picturing Science opens today at the House of Illustration and runs until 3 November.

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Marie Neurath (via the House of Illustration)

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Marie Neurath (via the House of Illustration)

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Marie Neurath (via the House of Illustration)

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Marie Neurath (via the House of Illustration)

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Marie Neurath (via the House of Illustration)

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Marie Neurath (via the House of Illustration)

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Marie Neurath (via the House of Illustration)

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Marie Neurath (via the House of Illustration)

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Marie Neurath (via the House of Illustration)

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Marie Neurath (via the House of Illustration)

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Marie Neurath (via the House of Illustration)

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Marie Neurath (via the House of Illustration)

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Marie Neurath (via the House of Illustration)

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Marie Neurath (via the House of Illustration)