PRINT February 1980

Seeing Between the Pages

TO ASK WHAT FILIPPO TOMMASO MARINETTI, the poet-founder of Futurism, and People, the blockbuster magazine of the 1970s, have in common is to raise the issue of modernist art’s relation to the media, which, ever with us, is at the heart of this discussion. What links them is, first and foremost, the modernist revolution in typography and layout which really got going with Marinetti and was put to the test with People. Then, not unrelated to the above, there’s their contents to consider. Both embrace all of life, celebrate its dynamic and dissonant qualities, turn it into a cult of personality. Each takes a view towards content that is at once collective, external, and categoric. Yet the difference between them is this: where Marinetti made life into Futurism and turned Futurism into a cult of personality, using manifestos, newspapers, magazines as the means, People makes life simultaneously into people and People but turns People ultimately into a cult of personality, equating the means and end, media and message.

Before such a high stage of manipulation is possible though, the media and message had to learn how to use one another. This first happens, with happy results, in Marinetti’s Futurism.

Futurism was where the message learned how to use the media by tuning into and turning onto its potential for publicity and propaganda. After all, it was due to the media that before there were any real examples of Futurist literature and art to speak of, there was still a Futurist literature and art to talk about because of the Futurist manifestos which spelled out each one’s aims, aspirations and principles to the audiences of leading newspapers and magazines where they appeared worldwide. Marinetti made Futurism depend on the press from start to end—1909 to 1943—during which time almost every major activity and quality was in essence “Futurized” once discussed in a published manifesto. They range from airplanes to war with anything goes in between, like food, like lust. Anyway, in selecting where to place the manifesto, Marinetti was guided by the readership and the publication’s own press connections. For example, instead of in Poesia, the magazine of poetry he published, his Founding Manifesto of 1909 appeared first in Le Figaro, a well-known Parisian newspaper with a strong international following and press connections. Because of Le Figaro, all the people who cared about such things in the other major international capitals soon read about Futurism. Also, being on the front page of a daily was conceptually ideal for a manifesto celebrating modern life. Le Figaro, with its six-column format was, itself, a tribute to the same dynamic and aggressive features praised in Marinetti’s manifesto. Displayed in the first two and one-third columns, it joined in a mixed bag of new items ranging in subject and importance from the weather to the latest French ministerial scandal; it, like Futurism, was a collage of modern life’s big contrasts and loud dissonances.

Although conceptually concretizing a close relation between modern life and Futurism was one of Marinetti’s primary aims, the layout must have irked him since it made his manifesto look like any of the other items, except for the section with numbered principles. Being noticed, after all, was very much a part of the Futurist sensibility. Marinetti soon set himself the task of applying that aspect to Futurist writing and thereby differentiating it from all other writing. He made typography and layout the means. Along with and as part of the new Futurist literature, he defined the new typography and layout that would be required in a series of manifestos and statements between 1912 and 1914: Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature (1912), Wireless Imagination and Words In Liberty (1913), After Free Verses Words In Liberty (1913), Geometrical and Mechanical Splendor In Words in Liberty (1914), and Abstract Onomatopoeia and Numerical Sensibility (1914) are the important ones.

Together they paste up a typographic revolution against what Marinetti, in a characteristically emotional description, called “monastic harmony, symmetry, equilibrous sensibility of the page,” along with traditional punctuation, typefaces and frontispieces dripping with classical scrolls and baroque flourishes. The old page, in other words, had had it! The new Futurist page was, instead, a dynamic battlefield where words (now in simple typefaces), bars, and a host of mathematical signs (familiar to all of us from ninth and tenth grade algebra and plane geometry) slug it out, with words deformed or fragmented in the process. But the rhythm and flow of the action are directed by the very bars and mathematical signs taking part in it, while the intensity is indicated by abrupt contrasts in the size and thickness of letters. At once form and content, Futurist typography was Futurist literature’s equivalent. As such, in images of this sort, it translated the dynamic, synthetic, simultaneous qualities in Futurist literature—in essence its modern character—into boldly direct visual designs that “screamed modern” in particular to artists and writers who read and looked at them.

More Futurist manifestos and free word-poems “screamed modern” in Lacerba than anywhere else and at no time more so than in the years 1913–14, when it became THE Futurist magazine and must-reading for the international avant-garde in France, Germany, and Russia, whom the Futurists loved to provoke. Naturally, all read Lacerba to see every name and work and the context in which each one appeared. Lacerba, under the editorship of Ardengo Soffici, a Futurist poet-painter and Parisian art scene insider, and Giovanni Papini, a Futurist writer, was the forum for the Italian side of all those fun controversies involving such as Delaunay and Léger. Besides free word-poems and manifestos on painting and sculpture, Boccioni published reportorial pieces aimed at setting the record straight against the French. “I futuristi plagiati in Francia,” in Lacerba (April, 1913) and “Il dinamismo futurista e la pittura francese,” (August 1, 1913) are two examples.

Lacerba took a partisan view but this was effectively packaged in a format which combined features from newspapers as well as art magazines. Newspapers of the time are recalled by its long rectangular shape (over 12 inches in length) and use of line as column dividers. The two-column format was found in several art magazines, including Vienna’s turn of the century Ver Sacrum, and various others like Paris’ L’Art et Les Artistes and Darmstadt’s Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration.

Les Soirées de Paris, the major magazine reporting on the activities of the Parisian avant-garde, was also read internationally. However, of small size, with single columned text and narrow, bunched-together, hard-to-read lines, it gave off a curiously precious and Symbolist feeling, this despite photographic reproductions of art work. Its layout recalled Mercure de France, the important Parisian journal, whose conservative layout was considerably livened up in one double-spread by the publication of “Nous et L’Occident” in April 1914. “Nous et L’Occident” was a statement by Russian Futurists in which the diagrammatic look—numbers and bar-bordered columns—of the Italian manifestos in Lacerba were adapted. By then these were all de rigueur—signs of modernity.

In contrast, Lacerba’s pages, by allowing enough breathing space between lines, were easier to read and bolder to, look at. Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration, it seems, also had these qualities in 1900 but too many revisions had spoiled them by 1910.

Lacerba’s organic integrity was another of its important features. It was in large part due to the fact that Soffici and Papini were hooked on typography as process and as material. Papini’s Dichiarazione Al Tipografico in Lacerba (May 1, 1914) contains an intense confession of his feeling of being at one with the printing of his writings. Soffici’s memoirs are equally filled with excited remembrances of his working relationship with Vallecchi, his Florentine typographer and main-man in the field, and about his difficult search for the typeface for the title, Lacerba, on the cover. Soffici’s Cubist-influenced collage paintings often contained typographical elements. Tipografia, 1914, is a prime example, having among other fragments the cover and inside page from Lacerba. Picasso’s Still Life With Lacerba, 1913, is evidence also of the cover’s graphic appeal to artists. But Lacerba’s formal coherence, because of its super-sensitivity to typography, was as much a matter of sequence as of separate pages. The layout was designed to keep the reader turning the pages. So instead of having, say, a whole double-spread or a single page, a free word-poem, manifesto, prose piece or illustration shared some of it with an adjoining item or two. In this way, they paced the rhythm and order of the magazine’s information, while maintaining an active relation with the reader/viewer.

Lacerba, with features such as dynamic, bold, active visuals, organic form and content, and partisan pro-Futurist viewpoint, opened the readers’ eyes to a magazine’s potential as a medium. Its direct influence is evident in the plethora of little magazines during the war years and 1920s put forth by various art groups including Dada’s Café Voltaire, Russian Constructivism’s Vesch, Hungarian Futurism’s Ma, not to mention Italian Futurism’s Nei, Poesia and Stile Futurista (a different Poesia than Marinetti’s, the last one is a late 1934 entry), Purism’s L’Esprit Nouveau, with small size and single-columned text recalling Les Soirées de Paris, as did Broom, put out by the American avant-garde.

Aside from Dadaist imitations of Futurist free word-poems in the layout of their simultaneous poems, the typography in these magazines was generally more synthetic and constructed than that in Lacerba. Such chances were directly related to the mechanical sensibility of their time and Cubism’s influence. The letters, reduced to the simplest possible basics take on hard-edge shapes, like mechanical gears. The columns, bars, and numerical signs were heavy and prominent and took on stronger managerial roles within the pages when extended to edges and to form intersecting lines. A three-column format came into use to give greater specificity and articulation to the layout. This format occurred on a page of Marcel Duchamp’s New York (1921), a spoof on both little magazines and fashion magazines. His play on Futurism’s play—conflicting reading directions with lines of information set at right angles to one another and divided by a bar—was taken several steps further when he made the reader turn a page a full 360 degrees, in opposite directions.

El Lissitzky used a three-column format separated by lines in the first pages of Vesch to organize simultaneous presentation of discussions in Russian, German, and French. The format’s tense quality was, in addition, equivalent to the importance and seriousness of the content, which dealt with Soviet Russia’s willingness to participate again in international art. This importance was highlighted by the switch to a more traditional two-column format for the succeeding articles. (It is interesting to note that before three columns were used for features, they were in review sections.)

No doubt the most striking change to have occurred in the post World War I crop of magazines was the proliferation of photographic reproductions. Lacerba, in the pre-war period, avoided using them because of expense, because of the lack of uniformity and sharpness of value in printing them, and in order to have better control of the magazine’s overall character. Wood-block prints were used for the most part. Much of the innovative work in magazines then had to do with integrating photographic reproductions and words on the page. Although reproductions had appeared regularly in art magazines from the late 19th century on (they’re in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts by 1879) they were still presented in much the same ways as the printed and line engravings before them. But the magazines in question—and the Gazette des Beaux-Arts is a case in point—made renovations from others’ innovations. By 1929, the Gazette, after having traded in its renaissance pastiche cover for one of a purely typographical design and then for one of an even more direct, open, simplified character, placed a greater emphasis on photographs by having more in number and larger images of them, changing the proportionate relations of text to illustrations. Such decisions, in even conservative art historical magazines, were not taken lightly but were made to attract readers who had begun to expect a certain look and feel to every magazine.

Both El Lissitzky and Alexander Rodchenko, two of the best known Russian Constructivist designers in their time and ours, found, in working with photomontages and individual photographs alike, size to be a very important factor in determining not only the printed image of separate pages but of sequences and manipulated it accordingly. In Die Kunstismen (1924), a magazinelike collection of texts and pictures from leading art movements of the day, El Lissitzky contrasted the size of individual photographs in a long sequence where works of art were arranged for purposes of dynamic contrast on single pages and double-spreads; their asymmetrical layouts were designed to lead the eye from one to another and across the page into the next page. Rodchenko, in his covers for LEF and NOVY LEF, two Constructivist magazines, superimposed photographs and titles on the covers, a relationship recalling photomontages, and, at times, in Futurist style, set information about the issues’ contents or publication date at right angles to the photographic image aligned with the cover’s upright rectangular format.

Although the materials and techniques involved in printing magazines were becoming more sophisticated as the amount of information that people wanted to read in each issue increased (meaning more pages), as surfaces could vary more in texture, and as color became a reality, the approach used remained close to the Futurists’. El Lissitzky’s statement that the design of the book “must correspond to the strain and stress of the content” in addition “to the laws of typographical medium” recalls Marinetti’s “The book ought to be the Futurist expression of our Futurist thought.” (You can substitute magazine for book in both.) Like other of El Lissitzky’s early statements on typography and printing, it has an emotional Futurist edge to it. So does another from the same 1923 article: “The printed sheet transcends space and time.”

The new photo-illustrated news magazines in the 1920s and 1930s were dealing with the same problems of typography and layout and were applying a similar approach although to a different content. After all, the design ideas in the air were put there by leading artist/designers such as El Lissitzky, and the second generation Italian Futurists Fortunato Depero and Ivo Pannaggi. As artists who also designed commercial advertising, their work was reproduced in important trade publications in the late 1920s like the internationally read German Gebrauchsgraphik.

Time, Fortune, and Life were created in this period. Each one developed a format for a content which, in itself, represented a new way of thinking about the world. In Time, this meant having a weekly notion of time and a categorical, but bits-and-pieces view of reality. Fortune concentrated on a new, lively, and (most important) visually luxurious presentation of business. Life was to do in pictures what Time did in words while looking good like Fortune. In other words, they were a medium—not just magazines out to change the way people read, see, and think. As a group their similarities to Futurism in approach and attitude again show how insightful the movement was about the character of the modern sensibility—its manipulability.

Their organic approach to form and content was further complicated by a heavy load of advertising material which also had to have a prominent place in the text, thus demanding a rethinking of the construction of sequences. Choices had to be made about where to put the many pages of advertising each issue had to carry: in the front and back as filler, in between minor and major features, or within major features themselves. Smaller advertisements had to be dealt with in the same way and the Futurist repertoire of bar-borders was put to use as simultaneous integrators and dividers between them and the article copy. Time made the most efficient use of bars, horizontals, and verticals given the amount of items and categories each page and department had to manage to communicate. And its additive character in this way recalls also the detail in detail character of Futurist manifestos such as the ones on literature, theater, and art. Fortune, like Futurism, estheticized business and industry in its sumptuous presentation. But readers, as shown by its page of self-advertisements, often got the media and message confused. One line of praise quoted was “Transforms the beast of business into a prince of beauty.” But such confusion, after all, was desirable, as judged by its being in a self-advertisement. Self-advertisement was another quality of Futurism along with the aggressive and confident posture it assumed towards both the audience and content in presenting things in a “this is the way they are” finality. Like Futurism, also, these magazines constantly experience change, always trying out new forms and contents, always adding, always dropping.

People, like any of the major magazines of our time continues in the tradition of Time-Life magazines while maintaining their connections with Futurism. People, however, is much more direct and instantaneous about its presentation; its copy is shorter, more condensed, and simpler than the weekly news magazines, but dynamic contrasts in subject are exploited in order to get the reader through the total issue and its advertisements in as short a time as possible. There is little encouragement to linger over it, topicality and newness being as basic to its outlook as reading. Materially, it is as precisely designed as Time or Life and others. A 1979 notice to readers in its special double issue ending the year contained an explanation of the reason for the different paper stock, used in several proceeding issues, which, it seems, was a source of complaint from some readers. Yet People, by looking at reality through a collection of people, who are greatly simplified to fit its format, recalls Futurism’s ironic attitude towards the individual. And is this finally, the substance of the media’s message to us?

Ronny Cohen received her Ph.D. from the Institute of Fine Arts and writes frequently on a variety of art historical/critical subjects.