The green tree dominates the image’s centre, towering over a tangle of highways, which are themselves rendered in shades of dull, newsprint grey. Printed along the bottom in red is a poetic message: Und Neues Leben Blüht aus den Ruinen – “And new life blooms from the ruins.” Created in 1979, this is just one of many anti-car posters created by the German political activist and graphic designer Klaus Staeck.
Born in 1938 in the German town of Pulsnitz, north-east of Dresden, Staeck moved to West Germany in 1956. There, he trained as a lawyer and became active in the West German Social Democratic party before teaching himself graphic design.
Beginning in the early 1970s, Staeck created posters that mimicked the iconography and language of political campaigns to poke fun at leaders whose policies, he believed, mainly benefited the wealthy and powerful.
Occasionally, the car would become a stand-in for such policies, such as in 1974’s “For wider streets, vote conservative,” which shows a Rolls-Royce driving down a narrow street past modest houses, none of which have driveways.
While his work now hangs in museums, his posters were originally plastered on buildings or displayed in store windows; smaller versions were handed to people as flyers and postcards.
None of Staeck’s work bears his signature; he believes that having people engage with the central questions he poses in his art has always been more important than identifying the creator behind it. As Staeck said in a 1977 interview: “I have developed a technique that can be used to reach many people who have no interest in politics, but who are nevertheless concerned about inequality, injustice and social problems.”
“He calls himself a ‘disturber of comfortable conditions,’” says Juliet Kinchin, a former curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which holds a large collection of Staeck’s posters.
“He uses humour and irony to make you laugh and yet your laughter is undercut constantly by the political provocation he offers.”
This is certainly true of Staeck’s more blatant anti-car posters, which take the techniques the auto industry uses to sell happy motoring and turns them on their head.
Consider, for example, a 1987 poster featuring a car beneath text that reads, “The new 12-cylinder: Our contribution to the general frenzy,” which sharply undercuts the notion that purchasing a luxury sports car benefits anyone, and least of all the society in which it is driven.
A 1991 poster showing a sporty red car above text that reads, “This model performs particularly well in traffic jams” accomplishes something similar. That both posters use German-made BMWs to make their points is hardly a coincidence.
The car’s threat to safety is highlighted in 1987’s “Car from the perspective of a traffic victim,” in which an automobile’s undercarriage takes up almost the entire poster, presenting the car not as the stuff of motorist fantasies but of pedestrian nightmares.
“Right of way for bicycles” (1985) shows a tiny cyclist riding below a gigantic car tire as if to suggest that merely asserting that cyclists have the right of way on public streets is not enough to protect them from harm.
When it comes to one of the car’s biggest harms, Staeck also pulls no punches. In “The future belongs to the car” (1984), no vehicle can be seen, just a clearcut forest that represents the auto industry’s pillaging of natural resources to fuel its continued growth.
“No freedom without waste” (1979) shows a happy couple standing behind a muscle car as a plane takes off against an ominous burnt-orange sky, as if to say that nothing good can come from rampant consumerism.
At 83, Staeck is still creating works that take on the powerful and call attention to the climate crisis.
While his anti-car posters are a small fraction of his overall body of work, Kinchin sees them as a natural subject for an artist and provocateur from a country that pinned much of its postwar recovery on manufacturing cars and enabling their use.
“The autobahn was, on one level, a signifier of Germany’s postwar economic miracle which, by the 70s, was being questioned everywhere,” she says.
Today, with the car’s place in society continuing to be questioned, Staeck’s work remains as relevant as ever. “He’s very aware that this isn’t just a British or German or American issue,” says Kinchin. “It is truly a global debate.”