Umbra vitae

Book cover: Umbra vitae
Book cover for Georg Heym’s poetry anthology Umbra vitae, 1924
Deutsches Buch- und Schriftmuseum der Deutschen Nationalbibliothek Leipzig

Umbra vitae

Expressionist book design by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1924

Kirchner, again and again. For years now, in his hours of leisure and purely for his own joy, he has been illustrating Heym’s Umbra vitae, and doing so by taking the old edition and under every single poem, which never fills out an entire page, he has added a little woodcut, which then fills out the empty print space right down to the page number.

From a letter by publisher Giovanni Mardersteig to Kurt Wolff dated 1922

Expressionist poet Georg Heym died at a young age (1887-1912); his works appeared shortly after his death and inspired Expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. A collaboration with the publisher Kurt Wolff and his artistic adviser Hans Mardersteig, this edition was created between 1922 and 1924, with the overall design largely executed to Kirchner’s specifications. He created the woodcut illustrations and determined the paper, type, printing area, print colour and other elements in accordance with his conception of the bibliographic gesamtkunstwerk. There were 510 copies printed, but the book sold poorly and only assumed greater significance with the heightened interest in Expressionism after the Second World War. 

Today this work is regarded as one of the most important examples of Expressionist book art, the first time a printed edition was produced as an overall artistic concept.