Spring 2003

Brodovitch remembered in style

Alexey Brodovitch

By Kerry William Purcell,<br>Phaidon, &pound;45

When Alexey Brodovitch died in 1971, aged 73, he had been a physical wreck for more than a decade. Ever since his dismissal in August 1958 from the art directorship of Harper’s Bazaar, a post he had held for 24 years, followed by the death of his wife, Nina, a year later, he had been in steep decline.

His heavy drinking burgeoned into alcoholism and he spent long periods drying out to no avail. In 1966 he broke a hip and never fully recovered. He was still on crutches in 1969, as shown in a memorable portrait by Richard Avedon, his devoted friend. Most appropriately, it is the last image in this splendid book.

More significant than the obvious decrepitude of the man we see in the photograph is his undiminished alertness. We recognise in those features the man who was the most highly regarded magazine art director of his generation (and, arguably, of any other), the moving spirit of the renowned Design Laboratory, the designer of some superb picture books, and the co-creator of Portfolio, 1950-51, described by Purcell as having been ‘widely acknowledged as the archetypal graphic design magazine of the twentieth century’, even though it only ran to three issues.

Less known is his work as a photographer, about which he was untypically modest. Happily, the author has devoted twenty pages to this aspect of Brodovitch’s work in the only book authored by him, Ballet, 1945. This rare publication (only a few hundred were printed), to which he contributed only the photographs, accompanied by a text introduction from Edwin Denby, stands as a model for all books of its kind.

The author does not shrink from pointing out Brodovitch’s faults. Even Ralph Steiner, the man who in 1934 introduced Brodovitch to his muse, Carmel Snow, the editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, said of his desire to be constantly innovative that it was ‘a destructive and unhelpful concept’. Not everyone could stomach the ruthless criticism he dished out; but for every Diane Arbus who left because ‘she didn’t like the forbidding atmosphere he created around himself’ there was an Art Kane, a Richard Avedon or an Irving Penn who was stimulated and entranced by him. All this, and more, is documented in this authoritatively written and excellently illustrated book.