Sunday, April 7, 2024

Art Eyewitness Review: Alexey Brodovitch at the Barnes Foundation

Alexey Brodovitch: Astonish Me


Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia
March 2  - May 19, 2024

Reviewed by Ed Voves
Original photography by Anne Lloyd

The subtitle of the Spring 2024 special exhibition at the Barnes Foundation is particularly well-chosen – “astonish me.”

Alexey Brodovitch: Astonish Me tells the story of the hugely influential Russian √©migr√© artist/designer and charts his enduring legacy. Brodovitch (1898-1971) fled Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, exerting a remarkable impact on art and advertising in the United States. But the words “astonish me” have a deeper resonance than merely promoting a thrilling sense of novelty or amazement among delighted readers or spectators.

The act of astonishing can be to shock, to startle, to confound, or to challenge people to start thinking about or seeing the world in new or convention-shattering ways.

Alexey Brodovitch did exactly that, utilizing a most unlikely publication as his medium: Harper’s Bazaar.



Alexey Brodovitch  
Cover illustration for Harper's Bazaar, November 1935
 Collection of Vince Aletti 

Brodovitch was hired in 1934 when Carmel Snow, the editor-in-chief of the trendy fashion magazine, saw examples of Brodovitch’s work at the Art Directors Club exhibition at Rockefeller Center. Brodovitch’s “fresh, new conception of layout technique,” Snow later commented, “struck me like a revelation.”

A revelation and something of a revolution. Joining the editorial staff of Harper’s Bazaar, Brodovitch brought insights and influences from Europe’s “shock of the new” upheaval to the U.S. Brodovitch's innovations have affected artistic design and popular modes of perception, ever since.

Alexey Brodovitch: Astonish Me is a brilliantly orchestrated enterprise, the inspired work of Katy Wan, a guest curator from the Tate Modern Museum in London. 



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) 
 Katy Wan, curator of the Alexey Brodovitch: Astonish Me exhibition

"Astonishment" is a word which certainly applies to the exhibition at the Barnes. Katy Wan had only a limited number of works of art, created or collected by Brodovitch, available for display. Two house fires destroyed most of Brodovich's archive, his photo negatives and personal collection. Wan has done an exceptional job with the tragically limited resources at her disposal.



Gallery view of Alexey Brodovitch: Astonish Me, showing Portfolio: a Magizine for the Graphic Arts, Summer 1950, photos by Irving Penn.
Photo courtesy of the Barnes Foundation

“Astonish me!” had been the mantra of Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario who aimed to revitalize Russian culture – and promote it to the West - with his Ballets Russes dance company in the years before World War I. 

Forced to leave Russia, following the Bolshevik victory in 1920, Brodovitch found himself "down and out in Paris." He joined the ranks of the Russian diaspora which numbered Sergei Rachmaninoff, George Balanchine, Vladimir Nabokov and others. 

Rachmaninoff's heartbreaking remark after escaping from Russia - "I left behind my desire to compose: losing my country, I lost myself also." - did not apply to the much-younger Brodovitch. Ever resilient, he worked at a variety of jobs in Paris, including house painting. But then his luck turned and he was hired to help create the sets for the Ballets Russes during the last years of the fabled company, exiled like him to France.

As the Barnes exhibition details, Brodovitch engaged and experimented in many artistic media during the 1920’s. Brodovitch actually had little formal training in the arts before leaving Russia. There are few visible testaments to Russian culture in his surviving work, but Brodovitch had seemingly imbibed the insatiable thirst for artistic experimentation that characterized Russia in the years before World War I and the 1917 Revolution.



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) 
 Alexey Brodovitch's study for head-piece illustration
 for John Milton's A Brief History of Moscovia, 1929

Adversity opened Brodovitch's eyes to the radical innovations taking place in post-war Europe. Dada, Surrealism, the Bauhaus school in Germany and the Neo-Classicism championed by Jean Cocteau provided a rich bounty of new ideas and techniques which Brodovitch assimilated during the 1920's.



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) 
Gallery view of Alexey Brodovitch: Astonish Me at the Barnes Foundation

Eager to make his mark, Brodovitch took on a dizzying variety of tasks, at the same time as he painted backdrop scenery for the Ballets Russes. Brodovitch illustrated books, designed commercial advertisements and experimented with furniture design. 



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) 
 Alexey Brodovitch's Floor chair (Model 1211-C), 1948

One of the galleries of the Barnes Foundation exhibition brilliantly surveys his eclectic creativity to the full. The amazing floor chair, which Brodovitch later donated to MOMA, dates to after the Second World War, but certainly testifies to his incredible burst of ingenuity and energy during the 1920's.



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) 
 Alexey Brodovitch's frontispiece for Franz Toussaint's Ramayana,1927

Brodovitch's illustrations for books and advertisements demonstrated a modernist flair. But he was equally adept at integrating stylistic elements from earlier periods of art history or exotic cultures. In 1924, Brodovitch created a poster in support of a benefit event, the Bal Banal, organized by the Union of Russian Artists. He evoked the bygone world of 18th century Venice set against a strident, industrial-age typeface. Brodovitch was especially proud of this mask design, which reappeared in later work.


Alexey Brodovitch, Poster for Bal Banal, 1924

Although scholars now discern that Brodovitch had little daily contact with Diaghilev while working on Ballets Russes sets, the example of the aging impresario was all important. Diaghilev was still a bold, risk-taker. He taught his dancers and designers how to “astonish”, to expand the mind and vision of the audience, not just entertain them. This was an approach which Brodovitch embraced as the guiding principle of his oeuvre.

Diaghilev died in 1929. A year later, Brodovitch emigrated to the United States. He accepted a teaching position at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art, now the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Brodovitch taught there from 1930-1934. He engaged in multi-tasking as he had done in Europe, notably design work for the Saks Fifth Avenue store.

Brodovitch launched his teaching in the U.S.with a zeal for the unconventional which became his "signature" style. He initiated an innovative instructional methodology, entitled the Design Laboratory. These were proactive group sessions which encouraged individual exploration by students rather than assimilating a set body of precepts. Several generations of leading American photographers and artists benefited from Brodovitch's unorthodox and sometimes unsparing teaching.



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
 Henri Cartier-Bresson's Alexey Brodovitch, 1962

Reading about Brodovitch's Design Laboratory in the outstanding exhibition catalog resolved the mystery of why the Barnes Foundation mounted Alexey Brodovitch: Astonish Me. Normally, special exhibitions at the Barnes relate in some way to the art theories of Dr. Albert Barnes or to collection highlights like the works of Cezanne, Modigliani, etc. 

So what was the connection of Alexey Brodovitch to the Barnes Foundation? Education is the key to understanding both, pedagogy of the kind which promotes perception on an individual level, not "group think." Both Barnes in his Merion, PA, establishment and Brodovitch in his Design Laboratory encouraged looking at the world in unique, unconventional ways. 



“The Girl of Tomorrow”, Harper’s Bazaar, February, 1939. 
Collection of Vince Aletti

Brodovitch took that same approach to design with him when he signed on as art director at Harper's Bazaar. During his long years at the magazine, 1934-1959, he was to hire many of his students from the Design Laboratory as photographers: Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and Eve Arnold, to name a few.

Initially, it was Brodovitch's connections to leading artists in Europe which were crucial to creating a new aesthetic for Harper's Bazaar. Brodovitch was intrigued by the design possibilities of Surrealism. Images by Man Ran, Salvador Dali and Lizette Model were featured in the magazine. 

Another major talent, A,M, Cassandre, more famous today for his Art Deco posters of French ocean liners and speeding trains, worked with Brodovitch to create an unintentionally surreal cover for Harper's Bazaar. 



A.M. Cassandre, Harper’s Bazaar, September 15, 1939
Collection of Vince Aletti

Cassandre's design of a bevy of glaring eyes appeared on the magazine's cover two weeks after the outbreak of World War II. Of course, when the cover was being planned during the summer of 1939, the intended theme was the autumn Paris fashion shows. Instead, the fierce stare of these eyes bespeak fear of spies and saboteurs. Events were to prove even more surreal than Alexey Brodovitch could foresee.

When war came to the United States in December 1941, Brodovitch's artistic talents were placed at the service of the Allied war effort.



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
 Alexey Brodovitch’s 1942 Poster, 
Freedom of Speech, One of the Four Freedoms for which the Allies Fight

The Barnes exhibition highlights one of Brodovitch's wartime posters, an effort to popularize the Allied "Four Freedoms" policy. Alarmed by the spread of support for Nazi Germany in certain areas of Latin America, this brilliant design emphasizes the effectiveness, literally and figuratively, of Freedom of Speech over Nazi idealogy. Brodovitch's design surely ranks as one of the most memorable images of Allied propaganda during the Second World War.

With so much ground to cover and a shortage of works of art actually created by Brodovitch, Katy Wan wisely chose a focused appraisal of several especially striking Harper's Bazaar articles, designed by Brodovitch. As a result, we see how photographer and art director can work together to create indelible imagery.

Certain photos, occasionally, create a force field of their, making them stand-out seemingly of their own accord. This is not always to the ultimate advantage of the photographer.



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) 
Richard Avedon's Dovima with Elephants, Evening Dress by Dior,1955

Such was the case with Richard Avedon's now-iconic photo of the fashion model, Dovima, posing in the latest Paris fashions of 1955 with a pair of elephants. Both Avedon and Brodovitch knew this was the standout from the photo-shoot and Brodovitch gave it a full-page spread in Harper's Bazaar. In time, Avedon came to view the success of Dovima with Elephants as a mixed-blessing, a photo whose fame obscured his skill and originality.

Brodovitch was a superlative photographer, himself, no doubt a major reason he was so respected by Avedon and other graduates of the Design Laboratory. Even Henri Cartier-Bresson paid Brodovitch the supreme accolade of allowing him to crop his photos appearing in Harper's Bazaar.

When it came to his own photos, Brodovitch revealed a heedless, rule-breaking genius for taking memorable pictures, countered by a self-effacing caution when it came to publishing them.



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) 
Alexey Brodovitch’s Ballet, published, 1945, with text by Edwin Denby

Of necessity, his photo masterpiece, Ballet, is central to any understanding of Brodovitch as a photographer and artist. The Barnes exhibition has several of the photos from this very rare book on display. It is a tremendous privilege to be able to view them and  the experience is further enhanced by the superlative essay in the exhibition catalog, written by David Campany of the International Center of Photography.

"A ballet is an event in time," Campany writes, "and all that remains once it is over are fragmentary impressions."

When Brodovitch came to America in 1930, all he had  left of his Ballet Russes experience - and by extension, his Russian homeland - were his memories. In 1935, he began to document performances in New York by the successor company, the Ballet Russes of Monte Carlo. Needless to say, Brodovitch chose unconventional vantage points for his picture taking. Straining the boundary of photography even further, Brodovitch stressed the ethereal nature of dance with unorthodox, unsettling camera effects.



Alexey Brodovitch, The Sylphs (Les Sylphides), 1935/37

As David Campany points out, Brodovitch did not use a high speed camera (readily available in the 1930's) mounted on a tripod to take carefully focused pictures. Instead, he photographed the dancers with a hand-held 35 mm with slow shutter speed and natural light.

The resultant pictures would hardly be recognized as photos by the professional  standards of the day. We can see them for what they are: images of the sensations we feel while watching a ballet and the "fragmentary impressions" which remain when it is over.



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
 Alexey Brodovitch’s Ballet (Septieme Symphony), 1938


Alexey Brodovitch, Les Noces (The Wedding), 1930's


Alexey Brodovitch, Tricorn, 1935 

Brodovitch also evoked the off-stage atmosphere of the ballet, moments of ease and unease of the dancers and audience following a soul-stirring performance. 



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
 Alexey Brodovitch’s Irina Baronova (Detail),1935

The candid "portraits" Brodovitch took, such as this incredible image of the ballerina, Irina Baronova (1919-2008), were hugely influential, shaping the way that Richard Avedon would photograph actors, authors and celebrities during the 1950's and 1960's.

Having created a body of unsurpassed photos, Brodovitch kept them from display. Only in 1945, did he publish a selection in Ballet, a limited edition book which was never sold commercially. Brodovitch gave copies away, but most of the remaining stock went up in flames in the 1956 house fires.

Ballet became a cult classic, cherished by a small but elite circle of photographers, designers, museum curators and art collectors. This was Brodovitch's fate, as well. His last years, especially following the death of his beloved wife, Nina, in 1959, were marked by illness, injury and depression which led him to cease teaching his Design Laboratory in the early 1960's.

Alexey Brodovitch died in 1971. Largely forgotten by the public at the time of his death, Brodovitch was revered by photographers "in the know." 

For these image-makers, Brodovitch remained a commanding figure. We see him in that mode in the photo of him taken by the celebrated fashion-photographer, Hiro. 



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) 
Gallery view of the Alexey Brodovitch: Astonish Me exhibition, showing
Brodovitch reviewing page layouts for Richard Avedon's Observations 

Like a Diaghilev-style impresario, Brodovitch strides around the layout of one of his last edited publications, Observations, with pictures by Avedon and text by Truman Capote. The large-scale print at the entrance of the Barnes is simply awesome and I remained rooted before it for quite some time.

Irving Penn, who had studied in the early, 1930's Philadelphia-based Design Laboratory, summed-up Alexey Brodovitch as only a person who truly knew him could do so: 

This curious, remarkable man who managed somehow to germinate seeds of talent unknown even to the person who carried them. He did this with such regularity and over such a long period of time that chance could not be the explanation.

***

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves
Original Photography: Copyright of Anne Lloyd

Introductory photo: Hiro (Japanese-American, 1930-2021)  Alexey Brodovitch reviewing page layouts for Richard Avedon's Observations (detail), 1959. © 2024 Estate of Y. Hiro Wayabayashi. 

Alexey Brodovitch (American, born Russia, 1898-1971) Cover illustration for Harper's Bazaar, November 1935. Collection of Vince Aletti. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)  Katy Wan, curator of Alexey Brodovitch: Astonish Me at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.

Gallery view of Alexey Brodovitch: Astonish Me at the Barnes Foundation, showing Portfolio: a Magizine for the Graphic Arts, no.2,  Summer 1950 (photos by Irving Penn). Designed by Alexey Brodovitch and published by Zebra Press, Cincinnati, Ohio. Photo, courtesy of the Barnes Foundation.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)  Alexey Brodovitch's study for head-piece illustration for John Milton's A Brief History of Moscovia, 1929. Opaque watercolor, with incising: 9 7/8 x 7 3/4 in. (25.1 x 19.7 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art collection.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)  Gallery view of Alexey Brodovitch: Astonish Me at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)  Alexey Brodovitch's Floor chair (Model 1211-C), 1948. plywood, wooden dowels and plastic-covered cord: 23 3/4 x 23 1/2 x 28 in. (60.3 x 59.7 x 71.1 cm) Given by Alexey Brodovitch to the Museum of Modern Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)  Alexey Brodovitch's illustration for Franz Toussaint's Ramayana, published in 1927. Engraving: 5 x 4 in. (12.7 x 10.2 cm) Collection of Dr. Curt Lund.

Alexey Brodovitch (American, born Russia, 1898-1971) Poster for Bal Banal, 1924. Hand colored litograph: 15 1/2 x 22 1/2 in. (39.4 x 57.2 cm) Collection of Dr. Curt Lund.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Henri Cartier-Bresson's Alexey Brodovitch, 1962. Gelatin silver print:: 8 x 11 3/4 in. (20.2 x 29.9 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art. collection of Dorothy Norman, 1971.

“The Girl of Tomorrow”, Harper’s Bazaar, February, 1939. Collection of Vince Aletti. Harper’s Bazaar, Hearst Magazine media, Inc. © 2024

A.M. Cassandre, Harper’s Bazaar, September 15, 1939. Collection of Vince Aletti. Harper’s Bazaar, Hearst Magazine media, Inc. © 2024 Approval A.M. Cassandre/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)  Alexey Brodovitch’s Poster, Freedom of Speech, One of the Four Freedoms for which the Allies Fight, 1942. Lithograph: 39 1/8 x 28 1/2 in. (99.4 x 72.4 cm) Museum of Modern Art collection.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Richard Avedon's Dovima with Elephants, Evening Dress by Dior, Cirque d'Hiver, Paris, August 1955. Gelatin Silver print mounted on linen: 86 x 70 in. (218.4 x 177.8 cm) courtesy of the Richard Avedon Foundation.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Alexey Brodovitch’s Ballet, published, 1945. Text by Edwin Denby. J.J. Augustin, NY, publisher: 143 pages, 103 illustrations.

Alexey Brodovitch (American, born Russia, 1898–1971) The Sylphs (Les Sylphides), 1935/37. Gelatin silver print (Image/paper): 8 1/8 × 10 7/8 in.(20.5 × 27.6 cm) Art Institute of Chicago. Purchased with funds provided by Karen and Jim Frank. # 2001.401

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Alexey Brodovitch’s Ballet (Septieme Symphony), 1938. Gelatin silver print: 8 × 10 7/8 in.(20.4 x 27.5 cm) National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. 

Alexey Brodovitch (American, born Russia, 1898–1971) Les Noces (The Wedding), 1930's. Gelatin silver prin: (8 5/8 x 12 5/8 in. (22 x 32.2 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art, Collection of Dorothy Norman, 1968

Alexey Brodovitch (American, born Russia, 1898–1971) Tricorn, 1935. Gelatin silver print: 10 1/2 x 13 3/8 in. (26.7 x 34 cm Philadelphia Museum of Art, Collection of Dorothy Norman, 1968

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Alexey Brodovitch’s Irina Baronova (Detail),1935. Gelatin silver print: 8 ¾ x 13 7/16 in. (32.2 x 34.1 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art, Collection of Dorothy Norman, 1968

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Gallery view of Alexey Brodovitch: Astonish Me at the Barnes Foundation, showing  Alexey Brodovitch reviewing page layouts for Observations in Richard Avedon's studio, photo by Hiro Wakabayashi, 1959.