Edelmann Disembarks from the Submarine
At Artscape in Baltimore July 17-19, 2009, you might have seen the Yellow Submarine artcar by Gary Coover of Arkansas. If so, then you also saw everyone from ages 3 to 83 burst into song the minute they saw it, many of them reliving their favorite scenes and characters from this iconic film that puts a smile on everyone’s face. There’s only one way to go out of the theater after watching this uplifting film, and that’s singing!
Despite the knowledge that it was not his greatest work, it is impossible to eulogize graphic designer Heinz Edelmann without leading with the Yellow Submarine, the Beatles animated classic. When one designs such a beloved landmark that has such a lasting impact on animation, graphic design, and advertising for generations to come, one must become resigned to adulation. Even though it was a rushed production and Edelmann worked overtime so many hours that he grew deathly ill and nearly lost his eyesight, the designs he cranked out day after day for the short 11 month production term have lasted to enchant one new generation after another.
The Father of Yellow Submarine Art died on Tuesday, the 21st of July 2009 in Stuttgart, and for the uninitiated, no, we’re not talking about Peter Max. Although the first time I talked to Heinz Edelmann in 1993 he declared the Yellow Submarine felt like an albatross around his neck, and he was tired of talking about it, he was still irritated that Peter Max had managed to usurp his title in mass consciousness as the assumed creator of the Yellow Submarine. Unlike Edelmann, Max was a master at self-promotion, and because he continually linked himself to the Beatles, and refused to correct interviewers who mistakenly assumed he designed Yellow Submarine, the myth grew and perpetuated on itself.
Meanwhile, after Yellow Submarine, Edelmann continued to evolve and perfect his style working almost exclusively in Europe designing hugely popular posters, thousands of books, magazines, and films, and inspiring countless students through his teaching, retiring as full professor after 30 years at the Stuttgart Academy of Fine Arts. Edelmann’s style was far more satiric, dark, and biting than the bubbly fluff produced by Max, and the unfair comparison can only be made by the ill informed. My favorite Edelmann production was his annual New Year’s Eve card that was usually more like a booklet. Each was a unique work of art featuring his otherworldly characters commenting on the bleak state of the world, yet somehow always ending on an optimistic note. It might surprise many to learn that the Father of Yellow Submarine was most fond of the Blue Meanies, and was actually rooting for them to win! The illustrations he created for a German edition of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings were more in tune with the orcs and goblins than the elves and hobbits.
Rightly regarded as one of his generation’s major contemporary graphic artists, Edelmann’s characteristic visual language set him above transient trends and fashions. One of his peers, New York designer Milton Glaser said, “To think of him in terms of the Yellow Submarine is to really parochialize his talent. He developed since then, and his work has changed. I know that he would like to forget about the Yellow Submarine that was so pervasive in his life, and he’s gone on to do many, many interesting things.” (Sadly, one of Milton Glaser’s most famous designs, the Bob Dylan poster with the rainbow hair, is also frequently mis-attributed to the pervasive Peter Max. In reality, it was Glaser and Push Pin Studios who first trained Max in this style that came to be identified with the 60s flower power generation. In a mutual sign of respect, Edelmann considered Glaser to be the “Master of Masters.”)
The last time I saw Heinz Edelmann was in October 2005 when he was lauded in New York at the School of Visual Arts where he received the Master Series Award. Though he was ill at the time, he was buoyed up by the enthusiasm and support of his talented artist daughter Valentine and beloved and equally talented wife Anna who survive him. The exhibit included selections from a lifetime of clever, whimsical, compelling, and beautiful designs, and the respect and praise showered upon him by his peers was a suitable climax to a hugely successful career.
Although it hurt him that every time he was interviewed about a new one-man showing of his artwork, he would inevitably be asked what was it like to meet the Beatles, and although he said at the end of the last interview he gave me for my book, Inside the Yellow Submarine, that the next person who asked him about it should be rolled in a carpet and eaten by moths, Edelmann continued to very graciously and patiently answer every journalist and every Beatle fan who pursued him until the end.
The next time you have the tune of the Yellow Submarine stuck in your head, remember Heinz Edelmann, the creative genius who invented all of Pepperland, and more importantly, all the ingenious Blue Meanies like the Apple Bonkers, Snapping Turtle Turks, Kinky Boot Beasts, and the dreadful Flying Glove. Then take the time to check out the rest of his wide-ranging catalogue of designs and prepare to be intrigued and delighted.
He will be sorely missed by those of us who counted him as a friend, and were endlessly entertained by his quiet, but acerbic, wit – and even more so by everyone who appreciates the power of graphic design to compel a societal movement and a shift in consciousness. May your spirit soar high, brother Heinz.
--Bob Hieronimus, Ph.D., author of Inside the Yellow Submarine: The Making of the Beatles Animated Classic