Modernism for the Masses

by Anthony Guneratne

The very definition of Modernism has always been contentious. Did it begin with the advent of photography, which liberated the visual arts from the obligations of realism, or was its starting point the experiments in the application of color by such Post-Impressionist painters as Cézanne, van Gogh and Gaugin? Did Claude Debussy’s gradual abandonment of tonality, the cornerstone of Western musical composition since J.S. Bach, lead inevitably to Arnold Schoenberg’s polytonality and the sound experiments of Webern, Stockhausen and Cage? Do the honors of introducing non-representational theatre belong to Pirandello, to the German Expressionists or to the Italian Futurists? And where do Kafka, Musil, Svevo and Joyce fit in?

While they offer no solutions to such conundra, postcards, which enjoyed immense popularity as a medium of communication in the early years of this century, faithfully recorded the changes in artistic trends in Europe and North America. We have moving photographic cards of Count Leo Tolstoy, wild-haired and dressed in the attire of his serfs, just as we have ones of Joyce trying to look respectable in his jaunty Irish trilby. Impoverished Italian immigrants who thronged New York and who could not afford the price of a ticket to the Metropolitan opera, could still send each other postcards of their hero, tenor Enrico Caruso, photographed in nearly all his stage roles as he ushered in a new repertoire and in doing so put the then new device of audio-recording on the artistic map. Vaslav Nijinsky, the dancer-choreographer who established what we today call modern dance while working for the great impresario Sergei Diaghilev (whose Ballet Russe drew lasting contributions from just about all the innovative artists of Paris), left very few autographs, almost all of them on postcards illustrating his roles.

Yet it is not as a record of the musical and performative arts but of the visual arts that postcards truly come into their own. During their heyday (generally taken to be between 1898, when the celebrated poster artists of Paris began to have their work reproduced as lithographic postcards of exceptional technical standards, and 1914, when World War I ushered in a new age that placed a premium on electronic communication), almost every major visual artist in Europe either designed postcards or authorized the illustration of specific works in this most popular of media.
At times the artists were quite aware that they were thus permitting people who would otherwise seldom visit such places as museums to have some contact with their work. In this respect postcards retained some connection with their origins, for they were introduced in 1869 in the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a means of facilitating communication among the poorer classes, and when vast numbers were used in the first year of their issue they were hailed as a “triumph of democracy” (Fanelli and Godoli 9). More than a quarter of a century later, Walter Crane, the greatest of English book illustrators and a disciple of the socialist William Morris, produced a number of postcards to promote social causes. The age of social reform in Britain coincided elsewhere in Europe with a renewed appreciation of other cultures and of the movement later known as Exotisme, and Crane transformed his intimate familiarity with Indian and Japanese art into a precursor of what soon became known as Art Nouveau. The postcard reproductions of images from his children’s book, Flora’s Feast (see 52-55), are instructive not only as fine examples of the transmutations of organic forms characteristic of Art Nouveau, but also for their redistribution of the balance between text and image with respect to the source (see the accompanying book illustrations in the exhibit).

Others artists, especially during such times as World War I, recognized the value of such a widely diffused medium for propaganda purposes. Still others designed postcards with quite different forms of propaganda in mind: today the most sought after set of postcards among collectors remains the set of twenty, including contributions by Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, that advertised the Bauhaus Ausstellung (or exhibit) of 1923 in Weimar, at the moment of its apogee as a synthesis of all the arts (the entire set is well illustrated by Britsch and Weiss, one of the recommended books in the bibliography). On occasion, even reproductions of works designed for other media have importance: Gustav Klimt never designed a postcard, but reproductions of such paintings as Judith (see 186), exhibited in Venice in 1906, had an obvious impact on the greatest of the Venetian glassmakers, Vittorio Zecchin, whose delicate postcards (see 128 and 129) provide an interesting contrast to the flowing lines of his work in glass. The Times of London, while quite general in its criticism of continental fads (among which it classed “the art nouveau”), lavished its Puritanism on members of Oscar Wilde’s circle, ironically singling Aubrey Beardsley’s almost coal-black parody of James McNeill Whistler’s nocturnes for censure: published initially in the provocatively licentious Yellow Book, the publicity brought forth the postcard (see 50).

Until 1913 contemporary European Modernist art was almost unknown on the other side of the Atlantic, but in that year the New York Armory Show that was collaboratively organized by the leader of New York’s Photo-Secession movement, Alfred Stieglitz, changed everything. It might well have been Stieglitz himself who commissioned the photographic postcards of the works of Braque (see 370) and Picasso that introduced Cubism to the US, while the paint was barely dry on the most famous of all Dada canvasses, Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (see 232), when it went before the camera. In Germany the newer artistic trends from Russia, Austria and Italy were propagandized for by the editor of the Magazine Der Sturm, Herwarth Walden, who promoted his exhibit of 20 paintings by Marc Chagall (thus establishing Chagall’s reputation beyond Russia) with a vibrant, color postcard of his landscape, Kleinstadt (see 294). The Expressionists found a refuge in Walden’s galleries, until the Nazis flushed them out and showed their work alongside those of asylum inmates in their extremely popular “Degenerate Art” exhibitions. The Nazis aided the Fascist Generalissimo Franco when civil war broke out in Spain, and at his behest reduced the Republican stronghold of Guernica to smoldering ruins. In 1940 Picasso and the filmmaker Luis Buñuel, both living in exile in New York, hung the famed canvas that represented the horror of the event; the postcard issued by the Museum of Modern Art bemused at least one spectator, but she added on the card that it was important, and should be kept (374).

Postcards as Historical Records

Mention of the Nazis and the rise of fascism in Europe alerts us to another important dimension of postcards: their function as historical documents. Shortly before the Titanic set sail in 1912, the White Star Line had issued postcards celebrating their feat of engineering, and on the day of departure passengers sent postcards from on board. These, and the cards issued hurriedly in the light of the tragedy that was to follow, are among the most eagerly sought by some types of collector and one sent by a passenger who did not survive fetched $10, 336.30 in December 2002, a record for a postcard sold on the internet (in contrast, the highest known price for an artistic postcard is over a quarter of a million dollars for one by Piet Mondrian, while the highest for an historical card, believed to be the first illustrated card sent by mail, dated 1840, is $44,300.00 at an auction in November 2002). More valuable from a purely aesthetic perspective are the cards that document historical trends rather than such singularities. The introduction of postcards coincides with the rise of an urban consumer culture (demanding posters and other forms of mass produced commercial artwork), new technologies that ushered in what the first important philosopher of modernity, Walter Benjamin, has characterized as the “age of mechanical reproduction” and the widespread influence of such cultural discoveries as Japanese print-making technology. Perhaps the most enduring aesthetic result of this conjuncture arose in the U.S., where the cover art designed for fashion magazines such as Cosmopolitan became one of the defining contributions of American artists to early 20th Century visual culture. The popularity of American fashion art is attested to by the unauthorized pirating of designs by Philip Boileau (180) and by Harrison Fisher (170 and 171) as far afield as Finland and Russia. In time, the text associated with the “industrial art” of the advertising poster, began to occupy a significant component of the design itself, as exemplified in the work of Cappiello (336) and Cassandre (319), the latter example, preserved in near-perfect condition, being one of the great achievements of both poster and postcard art.

What World War I did to 20th century art parallels the transformation it wrought on culture in general. Import tariffs and shortages of supplies led to a diminution in the quality of both paper and printing, and the physical quality of postcards declined inexorably save for a brief reprieve in the early Soviet years and a slightly longer one in the Art Deco period in Italy. There was a diminution, too, in the number of artists, even if the avant-garde now had new social issues to address. A few of the German Expressionsts welcomed the war, but August Macke, who exhibited with the Blaue Reiter group (see 221), died in action a few weeks after his conscription and war hero Franz Marc perished at Verdun (1916). Egon Schiele was declared medically unfit for service in the Austrian army, but Death would not be denied and the artist widely regarded as Klimt’s successor as leader of the Viennese avant-garde was to occupy that position for only a few months before succumbing to the great influenza epidemic of 1918. While his three often-reproduced cards for the Wiener Werkstätte are unrepresentative of his maturity, the contorted, erotic figures characteristic of his later draftsmanship are evident in a posthumous set of cards issued to commemorate the first anniversary of his death (see, for instance, 210). The war also thinned the ranks of the Italian Futurists and the rump that remained fell easy prey to Fascist over-statement: courted by Mussolini, Mario Sironi founded the Novocento group, whose art fast assumed a vacuous monumentalism (see, for example, 229). Even during World War I there had been frenzied expressions of patriotism such as Alberto Martini’s coffin-making Kaiser (119) and the feminized Austrian double-headed eagle of Rubino (122). Umberto Brunelleschi, who with Jean-Gabriel Domergue (321 and 322) is regarded by many as the greatest Art Deco book illustrator (two of the influential Femmes des 20s series, 332 and 333 are included here), was quick to rekindle the dream of poet-activist Gabriele D’Annunzio, who had launched a quixotic and temporarily successful assault on Trieste in an effort to detach it from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and restore it to Italy (see 330).

During and just after World War I Russian art underwent staggering transformations. Besieged by one enemy after another and then by civil strife, the avant-garde painters drew upon folk tradition to appeal to a still largely illiterate population; but almost immediately this style was abandoned in favor of the ultra-modern Soviet cult of the machine. Indeed, Russian postcards, more than those of any other country, catalogue the grand and tragic history of their nation, and thus a separate section of the exhibition has been devoted to them. This constitutes a particularly striking instance of the importance of postcards in reconstructing such aesthetic histories, but many other such histories could also be written with the aid of postcards.

Postcards as Social Documents

While still another book could easily be devoted to the subject of postcards as social documents – consider, for instance, their role in promoting tourism — what perhaps most needs to be addressed in the present context is the fact that postcards, even when undated, are very specific to their own time and place. Just as they record the triumph of Exotisme, of Japanese influence on Whistler and through him on the Impressionists, of the influence of African art on the Cubists, Expressionists and later Futurists, and of Indian and Chinese art and philosophy on the Bauhaus through the pedagogical practices of Johannes Itten, they also document some of the more regrettable and insular aspects of their environment.
Frantisek Kupka, who contributed one of the more striking cards of the early series derived from the covers of the satirical Cocorico magazine (143) and who later became the most important Czech Vorticist, was also guilty of postcards expressing anti-Semitism. His sins, however, are as nothing when compared to the vast repertoire of African-American caricatures found in contemporary American postcards. I was an active collector of the lively anthropomorphic frog postcards of Rose Clark and Charles Twelvetrees, until informed by a fellow collector that they originated in atavistic stereotypes of African-Americans. With the exception of a few important Russian war propaganda cards and Aurelia Bertiglia’s famous staged incursion of his permanently bug-eyed children into Ethiopia on Fascist Italy’s behalf (such as 327), few examples of these debased genres are important enough artistically to warrant inclusion in this exhibit.
On the positive side, postcard artists did not have to endure many of the limitations their contemporaries faced in the competitive, rough and tumble world of commercial art. Perhaps as a consequence, genres that had limited impact elsewhere thrived. In no other artistic medium of the early 20th Century are women artists as well represented, and in the case of the important genre of fantasy book illustration that achieved its high point in the Victorian era (the illustrations often being issued as postcards by the publishing houses as book advertisements), women illustrators predominate. Ida Rentoul, who later signed with her married name Outhwaite, remains one of the most popular of all postcard artists (see 156-160) and Australia’s most famous book illustrator. Although Cicely Barker was equally influential through her book illustrations, the postcards of her fairy series were never approved for release, and the original sample postcard (with no printing on the back) included here (153) is of great rarity. At a far remove from Barker’s lyricism is the daring, and surprisingly modern, sensibility found in the only series known to be by the Russian book illustrator S. Lodygin (see 284-287), whose two-color fantasy nudes are without equal.

Postcards as Aesthetic Objects

For the artistic innovators of their time postcards were indisputably an art form and those they designed embody the best that American and European art and graphic design had to offer. This may, initially, seem rather surprising considering the functional nature of postcards in relaying messages; but then, functional art was accorded an unprecedented degree of respect at this historical moment, even a certain pride of place by the artists of the Wiener Werkstätte, the Soviet Constructivists and, subsequently, the Bauhaus designers. So it was that an apparent liability became in effect an artistic challenge: until 1906 and in many instances thereafter, the backs of postcards were only intended for addresses. The already limited design surface (both international postal agreements and printing practices rapidly standardized the postcards to a size that seldom varied from the maximum decreed by 1878 Universal Postal Union World Congress, i.e. 90 x 140 mm) had to incorporate blank or lightly-colored fields for written messages. One would imagine, then, that the more familiar Indian and Persian miniature paintings of the 17th and 18th centuries, or that the late-Renaissance Dutch genre of miniature oil paintings, would have exerted a major influence on postcard design, but these, unlike the ubiquitous Japanese inheritance from woodblock printing, are seldom evident. Instead, the only discernible “small scale” influence is from book illustration. This tradition did in its own early history borrow from an innovation in Islamic codices in which the illuminations, most often embedded within fields of calligraphic text, would from the 9th Century onwards occasionally creep out of the rectilinear borders to “play” with the ornate lettering. More local decorative traditions also influenced European book illumination, as is evident in the Celtic tradition represented by the Book of Kells, or the tradition of French courtly painting in the Limbourgs’ famed books of hours.

The subtle “December” card by the Cuban-Spanish Art Nouveau master, Gaspar Camps (133), and the bravura photomontage by his Catalan contemporary Brunet (132) illustrate these varied inheritances well. More captivating, perhaps, is the 1898 card by the Russian artist N. Karazin (263), a good example of the Islamic legacy of playing with borders, with the added felicity (worthy of M.C. Escher) of toying with figure and ground in rescuing the rabbit from the pursuing Borzois. The use of text as a component of the design, borrowed from Constructivism by Bauhaus graphic designers (see 214), can also be seen to be an extension of this ancient tradition of illumination, one that was quite alive, for instance, in the Russian icon painting that inspired such Russian nationalists as Ivan Bilibin (see, for instance, his depiction of the Divine Bird Alkonost, 272, and the other Russian views or depictions of folktales, 269-271).
While a number of postcard artists were well-known book illustrators, even more were connected with the art of the poster, paradoxically a much larger design surface than that of a postcard. One of the most common mistakes among art historians, however, is to regard the postcard as merely a smaller version of a poster. Precisely because many of the poster artists of the late 19th Century recognized that their lithographs would be rescaled for book-sized folios and as postcards, the art movements of the period produced a new kind of art capable of being reproduced in various sizes, one of the consequences of the “age of mechanical reproduction” that Benjamin perhaps failed to explore in sufficient detail. It is an important development in the context of Western art, which had hitherto been highly space-specific and responsive to particular demands of patronage (recall that Michelangelo suddenly changed his design plans for the Sistine Chapel ceiling when he recognized that the figures he had painted for two years were too small when seen from ground-level). It is only because chromolithography achieved a certain degree of technical precision by the late 1870s that the art of the poster and then the art of the postcard, and the translation of one into the other, became possible.

The conceptual flexibility now demanded of artists was not a skill acquired overnight. Alphonse Mucha was not the first Art Nouveau artist, but the movement is almost synonymous with him and he assisted in the production of series after series of postcards, unlike Privat-Livemont (see 47) and de Feure (see 141), gifted contemporaries whose postcards are extremely rare. Fortune chose Mucha when a desperate Sarah Bernhardt commissioned a belated poster for her starring role in her company’s production of the Romantic melodrama Gismonda. Mucha’s 1894 poster, which led to instant celebrity (and a long-term contract), was four years later reproduced as a ribbon of color on the left edge of a postcard in a horizontal (or landscape) orientation. This was part of a set of theatrical postcards that reproduced his popular posters, but the publisher, Champenois, which issued a succession of Mucha series over the next six years, was wise enough to grant more space to his designs. Although Mucha even executed a design solely as a postcard (14), perhaps his greatest achievement in this French period is the series of menus for the champagne producer Moët et Chandon (the two examples here, 11 and 12, bear comparison with an object that is on a less than 2:1 scale, as can be seen from the Moët et Chandon menu contributed to the exhibition by Rex and Bernadette Guneratne). Mucha postcards continued to appear after his return to his Czech homeland, and the nationalism and hieratic religiosity of his later work are also well documented by postcards (see, for instance, one of his design for a famous nationalist sports festival, 13).

Until the advent of World War I French printing companies employed the subtle innovations of such expert lithographers as Henri Toulouse-Lautrec (see 90) and Jules Cheret (see 74 and 75), and German printing companies enjoyed a reputation for vivid color and superior embossed designs, but other publishers such as Gerlach and Schenk (Vienna), the British-based Raphael Tuck and a few Italian houses of the 1920s and 1930s operated under the assumption that postcards were, indeed, an art form for which aesthetically-inclined correspondents and collectors were willing to pay a premium. Tuck devoted part of their “Modern Art” and “Art” series to reproductions of the work of the exceptional Evangeline (Eva) Daniell, who succumbed to consumption in her early twenties and would otherwise be unknown (see 56-60). A place of honor in this regard should be accorded to the Detroit Publishing Company that served as patron to one of America’s few important Art Nouveau artists, Samuel Schmucker. Although Schmucker also produced cards for Tuck and some outstanding series of Halloween postcards for the John Winsch Company (embossed and printed in Germany, as in the case of 21 and 25), the forty-eight cards published by Detroit attained the summit of American postcard printing. In one case, one of the Mermaid’s Lovers series survives only as a postcard (see 31), and the version included in the exhibition offers insights both into the printing process and the possible reason for the company’s failure to issue some of Schmucker’s finest achievements. It is a sample, and the white spots on the design are not printing errors but spaces left bare for gold-leaf highlights, a prohibitively expensive process that must have been compounded by Schmucker’s extraordinary color demands in some of his more elaborate designs. Although this card is one of the few that bears Schmucker’s modest initials, of those represented in the exhibit the one reputed to be the most beautiful card printed in America is one of his six Butterfly Girls, “Sensibility” (28), which like one of his Mermaids appears to be a tribute to his attractive, artist wife.

While Schmucker painted finished watercolors for the Detroit cards in a scale of about 3:2, other artists such as Sofia Chiostri (see 337-341) and Scattina (see the “Disappointed Minstrel” series, 360) drew or painted their preparatory bozzetti to a 1:1 scale on the postcard supports themselves. Still others took the aesthetic challenge of the postcard to its logical limit. The late-Victorian illustrator Arthur Rackham hand-drew postcards for his friends and family, as did the American poster artist Norman Rockwell (see 19 for an early poster design). Oleguer Junyent and Lluis Masriera, Spanish Art Nouveau illustrators, and the German Expressionists Max Pechstein and Erich Heckel, hand-painted their postcards. Likewise, some Russian cards designed by the Rayonists for the publisher A. E. Kruchenykh and those initially exchanged by members of the Viennese Siebener Club, most of whom co-signed one of finest of the early Secession cards (185), show evidence of hand-coloring. The tradition survived in Italy well into the Art Deco period, with the most collected examples being those of Giovanni Meschini (see 349-351) who painted in a number of styles; even the Russified name, Nasmeshnikov, may be an invented near-anagram granted to postcards executed in an especially bold manner (see 356).

Postcards and Modernist Art

While I have noted Mucha’s contribution to the popularization of artistic postcards (he is justly granted his own section of the exhibition being the starting-point of most discussions of postcard art and the artist with the greatest number of books devoted to his work in the medium), there are other artists whose work in postcards is an essential part of their oeuvre. Schmucker has been mentioned in this context, but so could Raphael Kirchner, whose eclectic borrowings from European modernist trends led, rather oddly, to the creation of Europe’s first pin-up girls, these insouciant, kittenish figures being equally popular among soldiers from both sides of the trenches during World War I (35-39). So, too, Fidus (ps. Hugo Hoppener) and Sascha Schneider (289-292), whose characteristically dangerous Expressionist visions of sexuality did not lend themselves to the wide acceptance of their paintings and designs. In order to promote his paintings, Fidus released photographic postcards of them, but unfortunately for him it was the postcards that attained lasting popularity (see, for instance, the eagerly-sought “Temple Dance” series of 5 postcards, 215-219).

Although most early artistic postcards have been grouped under the umbrella of Art Nouveau, many artists produced work that is too removed from the style to allow the kinds of generalizations made even by such authoritative art historians as Fanelli and Godoli. Note, for instance, the convergences of style of the Italian experimental painter Kienerk (83 and 142), the Franco-Polish poster designer Laskoff (117) and the American fashion illustrator (and talented punster) Coles Phillips (176), none of them really “Art Nouveau” except in period. Then, too, some variants commonly characterized as Art Nouveau, such as the Glasgow Arts and Crafts Movement led by Rennie Macintosh, his wife Margaret MacDonald and her sister Frances, derived inspiration directly from medieval and Japanese art, and not through continental intermediaries: the movement influenced, in turn, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Bauhaus, and perhaps also the little known namesake A.K. MacDonald (64 and 65).

Other artists actually objected to the “excesses” of Art Nouveau but invariably found themselves in “bad company,” foremost among them the leading poster designer Eugène Grasset (see the lithograph in the exhibition, also reproduced as a postcard design in Neudin 1991). Accordingly, a separate section has been accorded to him and to the Neo-Impressionist landscape painter, Manuel Wielandt (6), and to the later Symbolists. Basilio Cascella, distressed by the erosion of craftsmanship in the age of mechanical reproduction set up a printing press that was capable of rendering his tactile line and delicate colors adequately (2 and 3). While Cadiou preferred a more ethereal version of Symbolism (1), Maurice Denis, a founder of the Nabis in 1888 and a central figure in French Symbolism in the generation after Gustave Moreau, entered the glamorous poster competition sponsored by the Byrrh tonic company, only to show the hard labor that went into producing the relaxing beverage (4).

I have already discussed the importance of fantasy book illustration and the healthy and wealthy young women who swept through Europe in the form of American fashion design. Alphonse Mucha, too, has been given his due. Yet even as Mucha perfected the art of postcard chromolithography, artists with a more conceptual approach to design and to the postcard as an object, were making their presence felt in Europe’s artistic firmament. Thus, further sections of the exhibition are devoted to the art movements more conventionally associated with Modernist painting and graphic design.

The founders of Vienna’s Sezession (German cities also launched more short-lived Secessions), Klimt and Max Klinger, did not make major contributions to postcard design (see, however, the example of Klinger’s unsurpassed draftsmanship in 187). One of their heirs, the most celebrated glassmaker of his generation and illustrator of the finest covers of the Secession’s journal, Ver Sacrum (see 189), was Koloman Moser, who rivals Oskar Kokoschka as the most important of Austrian postcard designers. Some of the Secessionists also contributed to the most famous of all postcard series, one consisting of over 1, 000 numbered cards published by the craft-dedicated Wiener Werkstätte. This series includes not only the finest examples of the graphic illustrations of Josef von Diveky (192), Arnold Nechansky (206), Maria Likarz (203), Rudolf Kalvach (196), Melanie (Mela) Koehler, Susi Singer and Moriz Jung, but also more than a dozen remarkable examples of Kokoschka’s design experiments, including 210 and 202.

In Germany the flamboyance of Expressionism gradually gave way to the more astringent Bauhaus conceptions of industrial art, but even the latter’s least humanistic aspects could be overlooked in the light of what followed: the massive, pseudo-classical structures envisioned by Hitler’s architect Albert Speer. The card by Herbert Bayer (223), is a good example of a brief attempt to come to terms with National Socialism before the Bauhaus designers and architects were lumped in with the other degenerates by the Nazi party, leaving them with the unenviable but fairly obvious choice between entering American academia and a wide assortment of places of detention.

With the exception of a rich-hued advertising card by Boccioni (reproduced in Britsch and Weiss) and reinterpretations of the Italian colors by Marinetti (e.g. 228), few of the early Italian Futurists authorized color renditions of their work and the loss of tonal values, as in the card by Carrà (227), is readily apparent. A cunning parody of the Futurist paintings included by Walden in the 1912 Der Sturm exhibit is actually a superior card (226) to most of them. More attractive are those by the later Futurists like Tato (230 and 231) who turned the love of machinery evident in their early brethren into a celebration of military armaments. The influence of the Futurist fragmentation of the moving image on the early exponents of the anti-art movement, Dada, was brief but formative. Duchamp and his brother, Jacques Villon (see 233 and 234), founded the Section d’Or in 1912 under the influence of Cézanne and the Cubists, but shortly before the outbreak of war, Fernand Léger, Alfred Picabia and Kupka introduced them to the Italian innovations. Those Dadaists who survived the War gradually reassembled and became part of the group that in 1924 coalesced around André Breton’s Surrealist manifesto. For the Surrealists postcards were exemplary expressions of anti-art aesthetics, and in a gesture typical of the movement Paul Eluard devoted an issue of the movement’s journal, Minotaure, to “Les Plus Belles Cartes Postales,” ignoring all but pornographic postcards and those known as metamorphic or, more accurately, arcimboldesque (e.g 235). By the time of the last great Surrealist Exposition in 1937 the group had already fragmented, although even the peripheral Picasso and Miró and the renegade Dalí (to whom André Breton had already applied the derisive anagram, “Avida Dollars”) participated, each contributing to a set of 21 postcards which gathered together many of the most immediately recognizable names in 20th Century art (see 237-257).

This exposition took place shortly before the arrest of Gustav Klutsis in 1938, an event that more or less brought Soviet innovation in postcard design to a grinding halt. Practically the entire school of Russian Nationalist painters, inspired by such Romantics as Ilya Repin (264) and Viktor Vasnetsov (282), designed postcards, many in connection with Diaghilev’s revelations of Russian culture in Paris, where Bilibin, Bakst (267), Benois (268), and even the folklorist and philosopher Nikolai Roerich (276-278), designed sets and costumes for the Ballet Russe. A notable collaboration between the Cubo-Futurist poet and dramatist, Alexei Kruchenykh and members of the Knave of Diamonds artistic group (namely Mikhail Larionov, his short-lived brother Ivan and his wife Natalia Goncharova), resulted in a group of postcards, some hand-colored, derived from their illustrations of Kruchenykh’s books written in such invented languages as Zaum. These exceptionally rare 1911-1912 cards (see, for instance, 295, 296 and 297) capture the very moment when the Neo-Primitivists of the Knave of Diamonds began to experiment with Rayonism, which was with Futurism (from which it drew inspiration) perhaps the first “non-objective” artistic style in Europe. These black and white postcards do not indicate their subtle use of color (especially regrettable in the case of Goncharova, another of Diaghilev’s set designers and a gifted colorist), but they were interesting experiments in a new lithographic process and serve as an important record of a significant, sparsely-documented moment in Russian art. By 1915 Kasimir Malevich had launched the Suprematist movement, the first art movement to advocate a total abandonment of objective representation (his first major work in the style being a black square on a white background). The advent of World War I united the great poet and illustrator Vladimir Mayakovsky with Malevich, Aristarkh Lentulov and a small group of fellow modernists in the singular “Today’s Lubok” movement devoted almost exclusively to postcard design (see 298-300). On the evidence of signed work in parallel media Malevich’s contributions have been identified (e.g. 299), but the attributions of their unsigned cards (that, with a single exception, have in common couplets of Mayakovsky’s satirical verse, vivid primary colors and visual designs inspired by “Lubok” or folk art) have still to be established convincingly.

After the chaos following two 1917 revolutions and invasions and counter-invasions at the end of World War subsided, another Futurist inspired movement called Constructivism, whose emphasis on machinery and industrial materials in turn exerted a powerful influence on the Bauhaus theorists, was spearheaded by El Lissitzky, Aleksandr Rodchenko and Gustav Klutsis, all of whom contributed to important innovations in photomontage. Fortunately for Rodchenko, he virtually gave up photomontage in 1924 and concentrated on well-composed “straight” photography (e.g. 304 and 305), with the exception of renowned movie posters for Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. Although the quality of the printing of Klutsis’s 1928 series of sporting postcards celebrating the Moscow Spartakiada of that year is so poor that his enthusiastic declaration that they would revolutionize the art of photomontage could only have applied to his designs, the compositional dynamism of some of these cards might even have influenced Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 film Olympia (see, for example, 303). The accusatory label of “Formalism” attached to this series in 1931 left the way open for a rival to level the charge of subversion against Stalin’s one-time favorite poster artist; of the important photomontage artists only Rodchenko, though often censured, outlived the Great Leader.

Elsewhere in Europe, the post-War gloom had long abated, and the unveiling of the treasures of Tutankhamen’s tomb (1922-24) added fresh vigor to the movement that came to be known as Art Deco. The Paris Art Deco exposition of 1925 was attended by a sizeable contingent of architects, graphic artists and movie set designers from across the Atlantic, and although the style became international and through the ubiquity of American cinema practically universal, national and regional variants soon appeared. Britain’s Deco artists produced some of their best designs for fantasy postcards and the Scandinavian exponents of this style would be little known if not for their postcards. One of the finest Deco sets is that of Dutch-Indonesian artist and writer Rie Cramer (315), although it is in Italy that Art Deco postcards probably achieve their highpoint with the work of Montedoro (352-355), Sofia Chiostri, Brunelleschi and Meschini.

By the onset of World War II, the light-hearted Deco style had come to seem passé, and the only artists to continue to design important postcards following the war happened to be the two most celebrated painters of the 20th Century. The Matisse-Picasso exhibit that recently ended at London’s Tate gallery brought to light a number of surprising connections between the artists, such as a shared passion for African sculpture. They designed postcards for different reasons. In 1949, convinced that he was about to die of a debilitating illness, Matisse placed himself in the care of the nuns of the Convent of the Rosary in Vence. To his astonishment they nursed him back to health, and he devoted two of his remaining five years to decorating the adjacent chapel and redesigning vestments, issuing the designs for the latter as postcards (see 372 and 373). Picasso designed sets of postcards as a declaration of his commitment to world peace, and the two most famous are included here (375 and 376), the one with the dove becoming emblematic of the entire movement and perhaps also of the contribution of Modernist art to the hopes and aspirations of the ordinary people who lived through an otherwise violent and ugly century.

 


Artist-designed Postcards from the
Collection of Anthony Guneratne
Bienes Center for the Literary Arts • Fort Lauderdale, FL