Mags in the museum? Find out why two of the biggest names in modern art were William Randolph Hearst and Condé Nast
“Surprise me», Demanded the impresario of the ballet Sergei Diaghilev of all those who worked for him. Surprise me!
One of his employees in the early 1920s – when his Ballets Russes embodied the avant-garde in Paris, the epicenter of the art world – was a budding artist named Alexey Brodovitch. As a set painter, Brodovich was exposed to the music and costumes of Igor Stravinsky and Pablo Picasso. But the biggest impression was made by Diaghilev himself. When Brodovich emigrated to the United States and became the artistic director of Harper’s Bazaar, he appropriates the impresario of the impresario. “Surprise meHe told the photographers he hired. And because he hired people like Erwin Blumenfeld, Lisette Model, and Robert Frank, they not only amazed him, but also amazed America.
In Modern look, on view until July 11e, the Jewish Museum carried out an extensive survey of magazine photography cultivated by Brodovich, Alexander Liberman of Vogue, and the aesthetically adventurous art directors of publications ranging from A D at Scope. The exhibition and accompanying catalog reveal both the extraordinary talent that swept through mid-century New York City and the limits the business community placed on even the most creative artists of the time.
Many photographers, and much of the visual language, came to the United States of Europe, not only from Diaghilev’s Paris, but also from Weimar Germany, where the Bauhaus cultivated a remarkable synthesis between the fine- arts and applied arts in the years before the Nazis. took power. Although the Bauhaus vernacular was developed for effective mass communication, the commercial ambition of William Randolph Hearst and Condé Nast brought a set of standards and expectations that left little room for unconventional ideas that have originally motivated many of the surprisingly radical formal qualities seen in the mid-century. American magazines. Simply put, the revolutionary message has been suppressed.
The most insightful observations on the lapse of European avant-garde ideals have come from German cultural critic Walter Benjamin, in a 1934 essay titled The author as producer. “The revolutionary strength of Dadaism lay in the test of the authenticity of art,” he wrote. “You made still lifes from tickets, cotton reels, cigarette butts, and you mixed them with pictorial elements. You put a frame around everything. And in this way, you told the audience: look, your photo frame is destroying time; the smallest authentic fragment of everyday life says more than the painting… Much of this revolutionary attitude has shifted to photomontage. Just think of the works of John Heartfield, whose technique turned the book jacket into a political instrument. But now let’s follow the further development of photography. What do we see? He has become more and more subtle, more and more modern, and as a result he is now unable to photograph a building or a pile of garbage without transfiguring it. Not to mention a river dam or an electric cable factory: in front of them, the photograph can only say: “How beautiful”. “
Most of the arts players in the US market seem to have understood this compromise, as evidenced by the various ways in which they have come to terms with the appeal of massive audiences and resources to match. Blumenfeld, who got his start in Dada photocollage and went on to become one of New York’s highest paid fashion photographers, boasted of his ability to “smuggle art” unnoticed by “guiding asses” philistines. Frank gave up editorial work after just six months at Bazaarinstead, turning his attention to book-length photographic essays that offered a penetrating view of American culture with a skillful pace that learned from the visual syncope seen in Brodovich’s magazine. Liberman, who was a painter and sculptor apart from his career at Vogue, attempted to distance the magazine’s content from the expectations of high art, protesting that even being called an art director was “pretentious”, and instead endeavoring to fill the pages with “the courage of life”. As for Brodovich, he never gave up on his goal of being the diaghilev of magazines, but redefined the avant-garde appeal to astonishment in a way that served Hearst’s interests by aligning astonishment on the value of the shock. For example, Brodovitch avidly posted photos of Model showcasing body types that shattered all glamor expectations. “My photographs were so at odds with the elegance of the magazine,” she later recalls, “that Brodovich, the extravagant art director, put them on for that reason alone.
Understanding the struggles and compromises behind the scenes does not diminish magazines or their photography, but rather enhances our appreciation of the medium. We see that the work is not as radical as it seems at first glance, but also perceives a dimension that Benjamin would not recognize. In the mid-American century, artists and art directors were actively and purposefully testing the creative capacity of popular culture – and exploring the space of substance in an eye-catching spectacle – which were radical acts in their own right.