Fascism & illustrated press
Many thanks, dear Emma, for presenting "Action" to us - following your presentation was highly rewarding for me. I have one question and two remarks for you:
- Question: You refer to "action" as a newspaper; according to my understanding it would be a weekly, which in Germany rather is a magazine and something different than a newspaper, as - to put it in a nutshell - the periodicity impacts design and content. So do you use the term "newspaper" by purpose here, and what are you implying with it?
- Comment #1: I was a bit intrigued about your use of the term photomontage for the examples you presented, because already in the 1920s (and more so today) observers distinguish between "Bildkombination" (pasted picture/photo combinations), layout montages (integration of text and photo, often on a spread), photomontage (creation of a new visual unit, often with elaborate darkroom techniques) and typofoto (merger of picture and text in an artistic arrangement). [My apologies if my definitions are not proper, English is not my native language.] We detailed all this recently in an article by Andres Zervigon and myself in "Deutsche illustrierte Presse" on Journalism and Visual Culture in Weimar Republic (Baden-Baden 2016). The examples you showed were photo combinations at best, and this is the main difference to the photomontage as a more sophisticated technique applied most often by the poitical left (next to Heartfield for instance Marinus for "Marianne" in France, Karl Vanel in Czech Republic (also AIZ), Zhitomirsky in the Soviet Union, or Josep Renau for "Estudios" in Spain).
- Comment #2: When looking at the roots for Action, rather than referring to Italy's fascism you should mention the most obvious: Of course the "Illustrierter Beobachter" (Illustrated Observer), published as the Nazi party's weekly from the late 1920s on. They even produced photo combinations or montages for their covers:
Together with my colleague Konrad Dussel we published last year a large-scale content analysis of more than 30,000 pictures from "Illustrierter Beobachter" and two of its competitors; if you are interested you find the source in the materials of the conference.
All best from Germany, and stay healthy!
Thank you for this fascinating presentation, Emma. Following on Patrick's second comment, I think the binary opposition you propose - avant-garde (implicitly left-wing) modernism vs European fascism - is perhaps not so clear-cut: modernist aesthetics appear as a conventional marker of technological modernity by the 1930s, in European magazines at least. Another fascinating example, from the late 1920s, is the French sports supplement Match l'Intran, which ran spectacular composite pages celebrating the sporting body and technology - sometimes in the same composition. These are from 1926-27:
So I think you're right that the Action covers represent a move on Mosley's part to assert the BUF's credentials as a "modern movement"- associated with the technological future rather than with progressive ideals.
Thank you for a fascinating presentation that raises important questions about modernism and the political uses of photography. I am jumping in on this thread because I have one more question to throw into the mix that Patrick and Tim started above, about the messy relationship between the artistic avant-garde and fascism. You mentioned that Wyndham Lewis published in the Fascist Quarterly. I understand this was more of a literary exercise, but is there any chance he was still advocating for the modernist aesthetics he had championed over the previous decades in connection with his fascist work? Did he have anything to do with Action?
@timsatterthwaite Thank you so much to Tim and Patrick for your very helpful questions and comments. My research is at an early stage so they are very much appreciated! I can't seem to find a button to respond to you both individually, so I hope you don't mind me responding to you both in the same message.
1. Action as a newspaper. This is an interesting question, and maybe one which speaks to different classifications in different countries. Action was explicitly described as a newspaper by its editors: see, for instance, John Beckett writing in The Blackshirt, 14 February 1936, 5:
This is the sort of thing they say, and, indeed, did day in the early days of the Movement: “The Fascists cannot produce a decent newspaper, yet they say they can govern the country.”
Well, we intend convincing them that we can produce a first-class paper.
For Beckett and the BUF, it seemed to be important for propaganda purposes that Action was viewed as a newspaper: maybe it was deemed more serious? There hasn't been lots of critical material on BUF periodicals, but critics always describe Action and Blackshirt as newspapers. Perhaps there is more of a tradition in Britain of weekly political newspapers: current examples would include Socialist Worker, which is often sold on the street at rallies in the same way as BUF publications would have been.
2. Terminology. Thank you so much for this detailed exploration of the different types of photo combination: as I mentioned in my presentation, this area is very new to me and so I have been searching for the correct language to describe what I’ve been seeing. I will look forward to reading your piece on the German illustrated press as it sounds like exactly what I’ve been looking for!
3. I am very grateful to you for your mention of the "Illustrierter Beobachter", which I first encountered in your keynote. I was going to send you a message to see if you could recommend any sources where I can access it, so I am grateful for your reference.
4. Tim: I completely agree! That’s the conclusion that I reached by the end of my presentation too. I typically work on British periodicals so much of the international material is new to me: thank you so much for this fascinating example. The images of women in motor cars and healthy bodies bathing/exercising resonate with photography I’ve seen in popular British magazines from the 1920s. I wonder to what extent the BUF were inspired by specific publications (at home or internationally), or whether this was simply an aesthetic that was in popular usage, certainly by the mid-1930s.
It’s intriguing, though, that the BUF didn’t engage with these aesthetics across all of their publications. In our archives we have a number of BUF pamphlets which do not utilise modern design, photography or typography. As far as I can see Action is the only publication which uses this aesthetic on a sustained basis. This seems strange for an organisation wishing to paint itself as the ‘Modern Movement’. This modernity seems to have only been promoted when communicating with possible BUF sympathisers, as opposed to established supporters.
@josierjohnson Thanks so much for your question. This is a question I have been grappling with too - I suspect that the answer is extremely complicated! The first thing to say is that I haven't, as yet, been able to access the Fascist Quarterly: we don't have a copy in our archive and so I will need to make a trip (once lockdown is over!). I am very interested to trace Lewis's involvement further (I work on Lewis in other projects). I can, however, say something more about the BUF's connections to British modernism more broadly. Edward McKnight Kauffer designed the cover for Mosley's book, The Greater Britain, in 1932; from searches online, it looks as though some of their booklets and pamphlets were either designed by Kauffer or a designer familiar with graphic modernism. I haven't been able to trace any hard copies of these yet either. I can't remember if I touched on it in the final presentation - I had to cut quite a bit out! - but Mosley was involved with several key characters from the Bloomsbury Group in the early 1930s. The first iteration of Action, published in 1931 under the auspices of the short-lived New Party, was edited by Harold Nicolson, husband of Vita Sackville-West, and included contributors such as the politician and Mosley collaborator John Strachey. There was quite a public split between Mosley and these 'Bloomsberries' when Mosley turned to Fascism, but he may have been introduced to individuals and even aesthetic forms which influenced his later activities. Copies of the first Action are also rare and so they are on my list for a visit to the University of Sheffield's collections. I suspect that viewing that magazine will help me understand this complex relationship a little better. Thanks again!
@emmagenevieve Thanks for your reply, Emma! Clearly there is a lot of fascinating material here and I look forward to hearing more from you in the future!
@emmagenevieve Thank you very much for this presentation which I enjoyed greatly and learned a lot from. We have a tendency to associate modernist design and aesthetics with modernist social values, and therefore as Mr. Satterthwaite mentions it with left-wing politics. Probably partly under the influence of art history's discourse, if not under that of modernist artists and designers who put a lot of effort into building a heroic image of themselves... Even when we speak of National Socialist aesthetics and ideals as a form of "reactionnary modernism" we always implicitly consider modernism per se to derive from left-wing ideals. So I think it's very interesting and important that periodicals such as Action be studied as visual objects which are also part of that history of modernism. I am looking forward to reading your study once it is completed.
Looking at Action, I wonder if the connection to visual modernism was not (at least partly) via mass culture. You suggested in your presentation and in the other comment thread that Action was reaching for a wider audience than Blackshirt, and conveyed a sort of watered-down or more implicit fascism (If I understood well). So it was essentially aiming to be a popular, mainstream media I suppose? In 1936 what we call "visual modernism" was already largely domesticated across Europe, and cannot be considered as avant-garde as it was a decade earlier. For instance the sort of sans-serif lettering displayed on Action's frontpage would be I think, closer to Art Deco and popular display typefaces then used in advertising than avant-garde modernism. Maybe these design features were also simply chosen in Action because they were "trendy"?
Furthermore, as Mr. Satterthwaite mentions, sports illustrated were known to be very innovative and produced bold photo compositions as early as the 1900s. This article by Thierry Gervais about La Vie au Grand air (1898-1914) is truly fascinating. Unfortunately it is in French but if you scroll down you might see interesting compositions dating from the early 1900s.
Off the top of my head, I would love to read more about the possible connections between sports illustrated's aesthetics, the ideal of masculinity they conveyed, the spectacular / dramatic effects of photomontages... and fascist ideals. I suppose that's a whole other research project!
@lauratruxa Hi Laura, thanks so much for your very kind and helpful comments. I completely agree that we tend to associate modernism design & aesthetics with left-wing or progressive values, despite the fact that (at least in Britain & the US) many key figures (Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, TS Eliot, etc.) held right-wing if not even Fascist views. I'm looking forward to teasing out this complex relationship more as my research develops.
I also agree that Action's relationship with visual modernism was mediated in part through mass culture. In comparison to other newspapers I've looked at, its appearance is very striking, but less so when we look at magazines or even adverts from this time. The Art Deco comparison is a good one, and it reminded me of this magazine from my own (very small) collection, the British humour magazine Razzle, also from 1936:
I hadn't made the connection between the two titles before, but Art Deco / 'jazz moderne' magazine covers like these were probably a much more likely source of inspiration than any directly modernist publications.
And finally, yes: I'd also love to read more about the connections between photography, sport and masculinity, especially in illustrated magazines. I love the early examples you share. Both your comment and Tim's earlier one reminded me of page spreads like this one from September 1920 in The London Magazine, an illustrated fiction magazine which also carried photo essays:
A colleague of mine at a past institution, Andrew Edgar, was working on the aesthetics of sport: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17511321.2013.761885 but I can't remember him working on periodicals specifically. Another research project indeed!
I really enjoyed your talk, even if the material keep making me shudder! The discussion here about modernism, modernity and fascist aesthetics has been fascinating too. I had two small questions - you mention that coverage of sport disappeared from Action. Was there any explanation for this? It seems odd given its mass appeal in the 30s but also that it might key into the healthy body discourse that you discussed. The second was much more speculative: that quote about rejecting the 'utopian politics of the flaneur' fascinated me - is there any more information on the author, or the context?
Hope you're well!