VU and visual modernism
Laura: thank you so much for a fascinating and beautifully-presented talk. I'm interested in your statement that visual modernism is used as a 'gimmick' in VU. Could you could say a little more about this? I'm wondering whether a magazine such as this could have used modernism as a gimmick, but also adopted modernist design principles because of an affinity with modernist ideology and/or aims more broadly. Or do you see the two as mutually exclusive? I'm wondering whether the magazine utilised modernism only as a way to increase sales, or if its adoption was motivated by other factors too?
Thank you very much for this interesting question!
To be clear: VU definitely had an affinity with modernist ideology and aims.
VU can be understood in many ways as Lucien Vogel’s personal project. As I mentioned Vogel was a well-known patron of the arts and had a noteworthy role in french intellectual, cultural and political life. VU is but the accomplishment of a long career during which Vogel kept advocating for the illustrated press to collaborate with avant-garde artists, illustrators, typographers, photographers… He also owned a gallery, published artists’ books and even musical albums, and so on. Eventhough he was not an artist himself, he most definitely supported modern art and helped spread modernist views on culture and the arts in France.
But he also helped spread, more generally, modernist ideals of society, which is I suppose what you meant.
At the beginning of the 1930s he became more active politically and grew closer to communist ideals and personalities. (For the anecdote, his daughter Marie-Claude who occasionnally worked as a photoreporter for VU later married Paul Vaillant-Couturier, a major figure of the French Communist Party, and she became very active in the french resistance.)
Meanwhile, VU started with an ill-defined editorial policy, and always ambitioned to open its pages to all sorts of political opinions. I would say on average it conveyed a rather progressive, centrist discourse. In 1936, eventhough VU supported the Front Populaire one could still find extremely conservative texts within its pages — probably under the influence of the company’s board, which eventually forced Vogel to resign from his position as director because they considered the magazine was too supportive of the Republican side in its intense coverage of the Spanish Civil War (and they feared it would cause the sales to decrease).
Evidently VU’s discourse became more and more left-oriented between, say, 1931-1936. But the general editorial policy remained quite vague. Social progress and the fear of war and militarization became two major narratives in VU, with a complex, ambiguous depiction of technological progress as the source of both society’s potential advancement and demise.
Coincidentally, the magazine became more and more « modernist » over the very same years.
There might very well be a correlation between VU’s social ideals and modernist design, but I wouldn’t be so quick as to say that visual modernism was essentially fit for progressive or radical social ideals, albeit that kind of discourse can often be encountered with regards to New Typography and modernist design in general. A more humble hypothesis would maybe be that when they had to deal with increasingly political and at times militant topics, VU’s designers (and its art director) relied on the visual references they considered to be fit in such circumstances, such as russian constructivism.
In short, yes visual modernism was adopted for commercial reasons, and yes it was also (at least partly) adopted with sincerity and a faith in modernist ideals. This again goes to prove how complex the uses of visual modernism could be in mass media.
I tried to be as clear as possible eventhough this is I think a very complex issue, and I hope I managed to answer your question in a satisfying way.
All true what Laura said, many thanks. From my side just a few brief remarks, all concerning the design aspect of VU (I do not know enough about the texts, my apologies):
- I believe a distinction is helpful between
-- (1) the basic layout scheme (or the grid) - this was, in the case of VU, definitely NOT avant-garde, but followed the usual design of weeklies as a mixture between newspaper design and a photo album; actually, there were only few magazines that incorporated avant-garde on this level (e.g. das neue frankurt and die neue linie; D'Acii d'alla from Barcelona; or Mesic from Czechoslovakia).
-- (2) the design of singular spreads on a particular topic; here modernist features were often used as design elements (or visual "gimmicks" as you said). This you can encounter in a variety of magazines of any kind, and thus also in VU.
Give it a try, take any issue of VU and flip through its pages - the result is... often disappointing, honestly, and the same is true with issues of Berliner Illustrirte (ed. Korff), Muenchner Illustrierte Presse (Lorant) or many others of the magazines labelled as modern; and even the AIZ layout is for the most part not really exciting - except for the appr. 200 Heartfield montages, on a total of more than 15,000 pages of the magazine as a whole... almost neglectable.
We should always keep in mind that our today's view on the magazines is often highly selective, with a bias towards the spectacular. I know about this, I'm doing exactly this for 20 years now...
PS: When I did my study on "New Typography" I had to recognize that it is truly difficult to identify modernity or avant-garde. You can tell for the very few obvious examples (Dada magazines etc.), ok, but in the mass of magazines you have occasionally some indications of modernity - and, by the way, there is no final check list of indicators for modern graphic design, just what you can take from Tschichold and other classics.
Only a few thoughts, good night to everybody
@lauratruxa Thank you for such a rich and helpful answer! It's a complicated question, but you've answered it in a very interesting way. Your summary that
yes visual modernism was adopted for commercial reasons, and yes it was also (at least partly) adopted with sincerity and a faith in modernist ideals. This again goes to prove how complex the uses of visual modernism could be in mass media.
is very helpful, as this is something I've encountered in quite a few magazines I've studied. I think acknowledging that the two impulses can be possible within a single magazine is useful. I'm relatively new to VU so I look forward to exploring it in more detail. Lucien Vogel seems like a fascinating figure. Thank you again.
@lemmy60 Dear Patrick,
The distinction you suggest between 'the basic layout scheme (or the grid)' and the 'design of singular spreads on a particular topic' is very useful. I hadn't thought of using this framework before, but I can see it being helpful when approaching magazines which appear 'modern' but don't draw explicitly on the principles of avant-garde design, as outlined by figures like Tschichold.
I completely agree with you about the contents of many of these magazines being disappointing. I run magazine seminars for students and researchers in our archive at the University of Birmingham and everyone is always surprised by how boring so many of the magazines are inside! I'd be intrigued to know your thoughts on a couple of questions:
1. Do you think we focus too much on magazine covers as periodical scholars? Does this focus give a skewed impression of what these magazines were like as a whole?
2. Do you think that we privilege what you call the 'spectacular' too much, i.e. at the expense of other types of magazines/articles/features?
I suppose neither of those things is necessarily a problem if we acknowledge our bias, but I wonder if our preference for modernist, avant-garde or even just 'modern' design/contents means that other titles escape our notice.
Hi Laura, thank you for such visually captivating presentation. I am curious about your comparison with the readership of L'Illustration and the number you quoted (readers of VU were about half as many as L'Illustration). What is your explanation for this? Can you tell which were the readers of these two different publications?
Thank you Antonella
Laura, I also have a question about your thesis, ie, the visual modernism of VU is incompatible with narratives of the exotic and the feminine. I would argue that modernism supports the exotic and the feminine (this is very clear for example with Jazz magazine in Paris). How does this paradigm work with other countries? Antonella
What a fascinating talk, and sophisticated manner of presentation, which itself mirrors Vu's more avant-garde content. I have a two questions for you. What do you make Michel Frizot's suggestion that the nature of the rotogravure process helped generate Vu's modernist approach, that is: designing layouts on a light table with cellophane strips of text and image fragments allowed or even stimulated inventive spreads that worked well beyond restrictions of a grid? Of course, the process would allow editors to increase or lower the octane of the modernist fireworks as suitable to the subject. But Frizot seems to suggest that rotogravure was a big factor in the magazine's choice of and employment of modernist approaches.
As for the variation of the spectacular and the orthodox throughout issues, do you find that the use of modernist/avant-garde approaches in any one issue of Vu crests and subsides with the passion a reader is meant to bring to subjects covered from page to page? This would be a bit different from the suitability of modernist approaches to a theme, as you discuss. For example, the essay on the Soviet Union seems like the spectacular climax of the issue you discuss, as opposed to any crossword puzzle or light satire that might follow (hence the majority of pages in modern magazines being banal). This orchestration of passion definitely characterizes the pages of the AIZ and its selective use of montage and spicy text.
@lemmy60 Thank you for this addition. I absolutely do agree that periodicals from that era are often "disappointing" with regards with our expectations, and that we sometimes tend to focus on elements that are in fact exceptional.
However in the case of VU, I don’t exactly agree that the basic layout scheme is 100% "NOT avant-garde". If you compare an issue from 1928 with an issue from 1936, the change in structure is visible.
In 1928, VU resembles this mixture of newspaper and photo album you describe. Wide margins, symmetrical compositions. Pages are designed on their own and not as spreads, i.e. there are no elements that sit on both pages. Pictures are integrated in the grid.
In 1936, the margins are much smaller, the basic « design unit » is clearly the spread rather than the individual page. I.e. there are often elements, be it the title or illustrations, which are laid over both pages and connect them. And there is usually at least one picture that goes « out of frame », meaning it is printed over the margin and until the edge of the paper (I believe this is called bleed print in english?). The contrasts between the size of the titles and the body of text is also usually stronger, and slanted titles or images are quite common. And of course sans-serif typefaces are common in 1936, even sometimes used in the body of text.
Therefore even in terms of structural design VU in 1936 definitely was more "modern" than it was in 1928, by modernists' standards. Actually I believe these structural elements (small margins, asymmetry, sans-serif typefaces and "bleed printed" pictures) survived the interwar era even better than stereotypical "spectacular" modernist elements such as geometry.
@apelizza Dear Mrs Pelizza, thank you for you questions.
About L'Illustration : it was THE French illustrated weekly, and existed since the 1840s, so the short answer to your question would simply be that L'lllustration was a national institution while VU was a (relatively short-lived) outsider in the french media landscape. Besides, L'Illustration was not a magazine, but resembled an illustrated journal. See the differences in design between L'Illustration and VU : the two upper spreads were taken from L'Illustration's special "Automobile" issue (October 1933) while the two lower spreads were taken from VU's special "Automobile" issue (October 1933). Same date, same topic and striking visual differences.
L'Illustration was more conservative both politically and visually. It was also much more expensive: in 1930 it cost 4 Francs while VU cost 2 Francs. (A newspaper was 25 cents and a sports illustrated 1 Franc). Basically L'Illustration catered to the established bourgeoise audience, while from what I assume VU's audience were new educated and cosmopolitan middle to upper-middle classes.
About modernism and the feminine : It depends on how you define "modernism". France scarcely had any actual "modernist" graphic designers to begin with, and French Art Deco is known for its decorative tendencies (See Cassandre's work for instance).
I would say that self-declared visual modernism as defined by avant-garde designers and New Typography, was not compatible with sterotypical popular representations of the feminine and the exotic. If you read Tschichold it is quite clear that there is one proper way of designing things and it should never compromise with ornaments. But this is discourse and theory, and I hoped to show that in reality, domesticated modernism and stereotypical representations of the feminine and the exotic were often associated, hence a complex entanglement of modernism and mass visual culture.
I don't think I know the Jazz Magazine you speak of, maybe you meant Jazz Hot (1935) ? I haven't been able to catch a glance of its inner pages, so I don't think I can give you an opinion unfortunately.
As for how the paradigm could apply to other countries, that is a question I would very much like to explore. Actually France was quite prolific in producing these "orientalist" gimmicky typefaces that I mention. It would be interesting to see how well they exported.
@zervigon Dear Mr. Zervigon, thank you for your questions.
Yes, Michel Frizot very well explained how working on film was a "creative revolution" so to speak, and allowed a breaking away from the grid. Incidentally it also allowed for new professional specializations such as art director as opposed to "graphiste" or "maquettiste" (the word "graphiste" which means graphic designer only started to be used during the 1930s in France).
When you look at VU's early years, you can witness how the team seemingly learned how to master this new technique and produce bolder and bolder, more and more innovative designs. However I think the reasons for VU's innovative designs are just as much social and cultural as they are technical. The influence of visual modernism and the reference to the AIZ (as a journalistic model as well as a political one) could be noted. As I mentioned VU wanted to appear modern (as a media, socially, politically) and therefore it chose to make a modern use of its printing technique. But I don't believe that rotogravure (in french héliogravure rotative or roto-héliogravure) can on its own explain innovations in design. If I am not mistaken L'Illustration was also using rotogravure by the beginning of the 1930s and as you can see on the examples I included in my previous message, its designs were very far from modernistic.
I like the idea of an "orchestration of passion" which you mention. Yes, this is a very valid point. The best example would be that VU published many special, themed issues (for example the Soviet Union issue) that were always much bolder and more innovative than the regular issues. It was in these issues that VU first experimented with color, and with sans-serif set bodies of text for instance. It is believed that these issues were crucial in VU's economy. For instance the Soviet Issue sold 500 000 copies, possibly 10 times more than VU's regular ones. One could suggest that these special issues, because they could afford and had to be more "spectacular", functioned as spaces for journalistic and design experiments. Often what "worked" in Special Issues would start being used in the regular ones a few weeks or months later.
do you find that the use of modernist/avant-garde approaches in any one issue of Vu crests and subsides with the passion a reader is meant to bring to subjects covered from page to page?
This is a fascinating question, Andrés. There is certainly a correlation, in VU's 1930s issues, between modernist design - angularity of page layouts and oblique photographic angles - and the content to which it relates. Some of the most vertiginous, destabilised layouts appear in stories related to war, and to the rise of Nazism. This spread is from the story "Front 1932", a return to the battlefields of the western front published in the week of Armistice Day:
And this one, from the Germany special issue (April 1932):
(photos copyright: Musée Nicéphore Niépce)
There are also stories on more benign subjects (such as girls' education) in the early 1930s' issues that use these strong angularities, so it's not a hard-and-fast rule (there is an impending sense of crisis underlying much of the content of VU 1932). By 1933, things begin to calm down, and from around 1934 the magazine's mature design style emerges.