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