John F. Kennedy’s speech on the steps of the Rathaus Schöneberg in Berlin on June 26, 1963, marked a significant moment in the history of the still-young Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). Immortalized by the pronouncement “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner), Kennedy’s speech before an estimated 120,000 people was seen to mark the moment in which the citizens of the isolated “island” of West Berlin finally felt reconnected to both the FRG and the wider Western bloc.
Like many other West German citizens, Thomas Bayrle would have seen the speech on television, which might explain the multiple perspectives he used throughout the lithograph Kennedy in Berlin (1964). Bayrle’s image performs a series of jumpcuts between a close-up of Kennedy delivering his speech and various shots of the crowd and the architecture of the Rudolph-Wilde-Platz, perhaps attempting to evoke the experience of the television viewer. Indeed, like Bayrle’s other work of the period, his interest here appears to be the spectacle of the crowd itself. Note also that Bayrle used the colors red, white, blue, yellow, and black (the colors of the flags of both the FRG and the USA) throughout the composition. Bayrle’s decision to create this work is especially notable because it was issued after another important event just five months after this speech, on November 22, 1963, when President Kennedy was assassinated. By creating this image as a lithographic print, Bayrle ensured that, like its televised source, it could be endlessly repeated and duplicated.
Thomas Bayrle was a weaver’s apprentice from 1957 to 1959, and afterwards studied at the Werkkunstschule (Art College) in Offenbach until 1961. While he first concentrated on commercial art his focus soon shifted toward different printing techniques, such as lithography and etching. With Bernhard Jäger (b. 1937) he founded Gulliver-Presse in 1962, and quickly acquired renown as a printer and publisher of artist’s books. In Bayrle’s artistic practice his preference for graphics and printing merged with his fascination for machines and a critical approach toward mechanization and mass culture. Serial repetition within grid structures became the guiding principle of his works, which were related to American Pop art. He created images (Superform) out of repeated small logos, figures or pictograms, evoking the mechanics of global capitalist production. Bayrle sometimes also included controversial political personages in his works and “real” machines like engines (e.g. Kennedy in Berlin and Mao und die Gymnasiasten (Mao and the Athletes) (both 1964). From the late 1970s he worked with film, and later became a pioneer of computer-generated and animated art. He taught at the Städelschule in Frankfurt am Main from 1975 to 2007 and was repeatedly featured in the Venice Biennale (2003; 2009) and Documenta, Kassel (1964; 1977; 2012).