Pictured Above: Curator Katy Wan of the Alexey Brodovitch: Astonish Me exhibition. Photo Credit: Mandee K. Hammerstein, Arts News Now.

A Conversation with the Curator. Katy Wan on Alexey Brodovitch: Astonish Me

By Louise Feder

“Astonish me.” It’s a mandate that one imagines must have felt equal parts energizing and terrifying by the artists on the receiving end of Alexey Brodovitch’s (1898-1971) bold dictum. But, when one considers the work of Brodovitch’s students, employees, and mentees, it appears setting the bar high while continuously finding ways to draw out and showcase their unique strengths and talents was distinctly effective. It is Brodovitch’s influential roles – as instructor, graphic designer, illustrator, photographer, and art director – as well as his legacy via impact on a generation of photographers that is considered in a dynamic new exhibition at the Barnes Foundation this spring.

“I’m sure audiences will be questioning, ‘Why Brodovitch at the Barnes? Why now?’” remarks exhibition curator, Katy Wan, Managing Curator, D. Daskalopoulos Collection Gift at the Tate Modern in London. “But it’s worth mentioning that these men had parallel existences in Philadelphia in the 1930s. And Brodovitch was here for just a short time, but the reason that he came to Philadelphia in the first place is rooted in education and pedagogy because the Philadelphia based businessman John Story Jenks had originally asked Brodovitch to show his daughter around the sights of Paris and the art exhibits. She was so impressed by his teaching method that she convinced her father that he should offer Brodovitch a place teaching in Philadelphia, at what is now the University of the Arts. I think that is so fascinating – it’s this shared interest in education and teaching that Brodovitch and Barnes had that make this [the Barnes Foundation] a fitting home for this exhibition.”

Pictured Above: Alexey Brodovitch: Astonish Me, 2024. The Barnes Foundation, installation view. Photo Credit: Mandee K. Hammerstein, Arts News Now.

And much as Barnes’ legacy as collector, curator, and educator is most readily seen in the permanent collection of the Barnes Foundation and its particular, specific display in the Museum’s galleries, Brodovitch’s influence and impact is primarily seen through the works of his students in Astonish Me. The exhibition includes an impressive selection of works by photographers like Richard Avedon and Lillian Bassman, Irving Penn and Eve Arnold, among others. It is through a thorough exploration of these documentary and fashion photographers’ careers, stories, and photographs that visitors are invited to consider the instructive influence of their shared mentor in Brodovitch.

Pictured Above: Alexey Brodovitch reviewing page layouts for Richard Avedon’s Observations, 1959. Photo by Hiro. © 2024 Estate of Y. Hiro Wakabayashi

“I think that the people surrounding Brodovitch had a great many stories about him. And I think that he was a great storyteller himself, at least visually speaking. And this is what has built this kind of hagiography around him,” says Wan. “I mean the trouble with a show like this is many people who had direct encounter and living memory of him are no longer with us. And I think that’s why a show like this is so vital, to happen now before those stories are truly lost forever.”

Pictured Above: Alexey Brodovitch. The Sylphs (Les Sylphides), 1935-37. Art Institute of Chicago. Purchased with funds provided by Karen and Jim Frank. Photo Credit: The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY.

A gallery within the exhibition is devoted entirely to Brodovitch’s role as art director at Harper’s Bazaar, a position which he held for nearly a quarter-century (1934-1958) and perhaps his best-known role today. A vitrine full of magazines, several of which are clearly well-used and thumbed through by past readers, show the publication’s aesthetic evolution under Brodovitch’s tenure. The title font changes, cover illustrations become more dynamic, and certainly more modern, even incorporating Dada influences and commissioning work from artists like Man Ray, Salvador Dalí, and A. M. Cassandre.

Pictured Above: Harper’s Bazaar, November 1935. Collection of Vince Aletti. Harper’s Bazaar, Hearst Magazine Media, Inc.

The dramatic design shift under Brodovitch’s direction shows a clear, deliberate move away from the expected and toward a more cosmopolitan, complex window onto the world for and bringing a touch of luxury to a mass audience of Harper’s Bazaar’s readers. This is, of course, another shared interest of Brodovitch and Barnes: importing European culture for American audiences. However, while Barnes’ approaches for bridging the cultural gap are immediately understood – i.e. collecting and displaying masterworks of European painting and sculpture in Pennsylvania – the methods of an art director may be considered more subtle, and certainly less discussed or understood by the very same mass audience who consumes the work they produce.

Pictured Above: Photography display wall with Alexey Brodovitch: Astonish Me.  Photo Credit: Mandee K. Hammerstein, Arts News Now.

“I hope this show reasserts the importance of art directors. I think that it is a job that often appears invisible, because clearly, it’s the power of the image that carries so much traction. When visitors come to the show, what they will encounter in the two main sections is an invitation to see the photographs and their representation in magazines, side by side. And I hope this will give an added understanding of what an art director does, and actually how Brodovitch had command over the layout of an entire magazine to create compelling stories.

Pictured Above: Alexey Brodovitch. Tricorne, 1935. Philadelphia Museum of Art. From the Collection of Dorothy Norman, 1968. Image courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Amongst the strategies that we employ in the exhibition are questions of scale, of totally changing the size of an image, the size of an originally printed photograph and presenting it differently on the pages of a magazine, of cropping – whether it be around the subject or of an image (Cartier-Bresson is a really good example of that) – of inverting an image in the case of Lisette Model, and of juxtaposition. I think that every curator encourages visitors to see their subject as differently, or, in even higher aspirations, to see the world differently. So, I hope people come away from this exhibition with an added appreciation of what an art director does, but also the value of the printed photograph and the ways in which images circulate in society.”

Pictured Above: Alexey Brodovitch: Astonish Me, 2024. The Barnes Foundation, installation view. Photo Credit: Contributed.

Alexey Brodovitch: Astonish Me is on view at the Barnes Foundation through May 19, 2024. The exhibition is sponsored by Comcast NBCUniversal. Key support is provided by the David Berg Foundation and additional support comes from the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation. Julie Jensen Bryan and Robert Bryan, Hearst, and Donna and Jerry Slipakoff. The Barnes Foundation is located at 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA. Their hours are Thursday through Monday from 11am – 5pm, and 10am – 5pm for Museum members. More information about the Barnes can be found on their website.

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