Tracing the influence of prolific art director Alexey Brodovitch

An exhibition and accompanying monograph sheds light on the work of the photographer, designer and art director, who transformed the pages of Harper’s Bazaar over nearly a quarter of a century

The names that circle around Alexey Brodovitch are well-known. He collaborated with Man Ray and Henri Cartier-Bresson, and as an educator and mentor he left a mark on celebrated photographers such as Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, and Eve Arnold. Yet Brodovitch himself is “not a household name”, explains Katy Wan, the curator behind the late art director’s first major retrospective in the US, his adoptive home. “Our hope is that this exhibition affirms his legacy in modern photography and design.”

Named after the line he used on creatives, Alexey Brodovitch: Astonish Me makes a strong case for revising and cementing his legacy as a seemingly tireless creative practitioner who, according to Wan, was “regarded by his peers as the father of modern art direction”.

Top: Les Noces (The Wedding) by Alexey Brodovitch, 1930s; Image courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art; Above: Reviewing layouts for Richard Avedon’s Observations, 1959; Photo: Hiro © Estate of Y Hiro Wakabayashi, 2024

Born in the former Russian Empire, Brodovitch exiled to Paris in the 1920s, specifically Montparnasse, arguably the city’s creative nucleus at the time. His exposure to the era’s “vanguard art movements” left its trace on his practice, which encompassed everything from graphic design to photography to furniture design.

When Brodovitch relocated to the US in 1930, he took his catalogue of references and influences with him, and introduced them to students through his teaching posts in New York City and Philadelphia, where he established the Department of Advertising Design at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art.

Harper’s Bazaar, January 1936; Image courtesy collection of Vince Aletti, Harper’s Bazaar, Hearst Magazine Media
Harper’s Bazaar, February 1939; Image courtesy collection of Vince Aletti, Harper’s Bazaar, Hearst Magazine Media

By 1934, he was invited by Harper’s Bazaar to become the magazine’s art director, and spent nearly 25 years there honing an experimental approach to sequencing, colour, typography, and proportions. This included toying with the tension between images and white space, and constructing ‘cinematic’ sequences that treated magazine pages like frames of a film.

Brodovitch’s lack of recognition compared to some of his contemporaries may be due in part to the fact that he only published one book of his work. Titled Ballet, it featured an evocative series of photographs of Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo performances taken between 1935 and 1937, which eschewed the era’s photographic conventions when it comes to dance and sport, according to an essay in the catalogue.

Alexey Brodovitch Poster for Bal Banal, 1924; Image courtesy collection of Dr Curt Lund

The show sheds light on his multifaceted career through over 100 works of his own and of other people in his orbit. Illustrating his influence on other artists and designers is a key feature of the show, which makes the case that the worlds of photography and graphic design might not have been the same without his guidance as a mentor and educator, not to mention his own “unconventional and experimental designs that are common practice today”. Some of these are playfully revived in the catalogue designed by A Practice for Everyday Life.

Brodovitch also shaped ways of working. In the book, writer and critic Vince Aletti recalls that “he didn’t want to just place elements on a page, he wanted to control those elements from the assignment to the edit to the final layout,” laying the foundations for what later became standard procedure.

The Sylphs (Les Sylphides) by Alexey Brodovitch, 1935-37; Image: The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY
Tricorne, 1935 by Alexey Brodovitch, from the Collection of Dorothy Norman, 1968; Image courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art

The emphasis on other voices isn’t just a nice-to-have. More than simply giving Brodovitch his dues, the show was also born of an archival impulse. Much of his personal archive of work and materials had been destroyed in two separate fires – disasters that some say were related to his departure from Harper’s in 1958. The process of reconstituting a portrait of the artist from what little remained, namely through accounts and works supplied by other people, is navigated out in the open by Wan, who also takes the opportunity to discuss wider ideas of legacy.

“The present exhibition is centred around the broader question of how legacies are formed in spite of such calamities of material erasure,” writes Wan in the book’s introduction. “What is the fate of those individuals who, despite their significance, leave behind little evidence of their achievements?”

Alexey Brodovitch: Astonish Me is at The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia until May 19;