One Fine Show: Alexey Brodovitch at the Barnes Foundation

Welcome to One Fine Show, where Observer highlights a recently opened exhibition at a museum outside of New York City—a place we know and love that already receives plenty of attention.

A black and white photograph of a silhouette of a man falling
Alexey Brodovitch ‘Tricorne,’ 1935. Philadelphia Museum of Art. From the Collection of Dorothy Norman, 1968. Image courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art

The other day a colleague and I attended a screening of Classe Tous Risques at Film Forum, and at one point in the 1960 French noir, a character pacing his bedroom, bored, decides to open a magazine. The garish news spread within causes existential angst and, for reasons related to the plot, the slaughter of a traitorous friend. These days such an emotional reaction from reading a magazine would be rare. You’re more likely to want to murder someone on the masthead.

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But there was a time when magazines weren’t only impactful but also a medium for genuine artistic expression and this period is celebrated in “Alexey Brodovitch: Astonish Me,” a just-opened show at the Barnes Foundation that showcases the work of Brodovitch, the influential photographer and designer who served as art director of Harper’s Bazaar from 1934 to 1958. The show collects some 100 ephemera from his career, including photographs, prints, works on paper, books and magazines, alongside works by artists with whom Brodovitch collaborated, among them Eve Arnold, Richard Avedon, Lillian Bassman, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Irving Penn.

SEE ALSO: Her Life in Art – An Interview With Painter Loie Hollowell

Brodovitch was a renaissance man, capable of leveraging the talent and ideas of the era alongside his own. In 1924, he beat out Pablo Picasso in a competition to design a Grand Prix poster contest for the Bal Banal. His magazine covers remix vibes borrowed from surrealism and cubism, and his photographs play with time in a way that feels indebted to both of those schools as well.

A black and white photo of a man walking around a great many photographs laid out on the floor in a grid
Alexey Brodovitch reviewing page layouts for Richard Avedon’s Observations, 1959. Photo by Hiro. © 2024 Estate of Y. Hiro Wakabayashi

One of the best examples of these in this show is titled Le Tricorne, from Brodovitch’s experimental and influential 1945 photobook Ballet. In this photo—which captures an image of that ballet choreographed by Léonide Massine to the music of Manuel de Falla from the mid-‘30s—the silhouette of a body seems to be lifted into the air in a way that dangles its limbs under it. It’s confusing and more so for being dramatic, as the scene is apparently lit by spotlight. In the foreground, we see the black and white stripes of a costume that was designed by Picasso.

Also on display is a futuristic wooden chair Brodovitch designed, which won third prize in its category at the International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design at the Museum of Modern Art in 1950. The man’s creativity couldn’t be contained. Perhaps this is the reason he was allegedly the only art director permitted the crop the photographs of Cartier-Bresson, whose empathetic and ethnographic Calle Cuauhtemoctzin, Mexico City (1934-35) is included in the Brodovitch. The beauty of its subjects was probably a surprise to popular viewers, but the show’s title comes from Brodovitch’s mandate to “astonish” them with new ideas and aesthetics. Instagram has taken up many of the roles magazines used to fill, but its algorithm will never surprise you.

Alexey Brodovitch: Astonish Me” is on view at Barnes Foundation through May 19.

One Fine Show: Alexey Brodovitch at the Barnes Foundation