Alexey Brodovitch: Astonish Me at The Barnes

By Peggy Roalf   Friday February 9, 2024


On March 3 the Barnes Foundation will open Alexey Brodovitch: Astonish Me, a major exhibition exploring the influence and significance of photographer, designer, and instructor Alexey Brodovitch (1898–1971). Brodovitch is best known for his art direction of the US fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar from 1934 to 1958 and his role in making photography the cornerstone of its visual identity. The first US exhibition of this major figure will focus on Brodovitch’s legacy, consider his collaborations with many of the major figures of 20th-century photography, and encourage new perspectives on art direction and graphic design. Above: Brodovitch’s cover for the February 1939 of Harpers Bazaar (detail). Collection of Vince Aletti. Harper’s Bazaar, Hearst Magazine Media, Inc.

Born in the former Russian Empire (now Belarus) to an aristocratic Jewish family, Alexey Brodovitch (1898–1971) dreamed of becoming an artist when he was a young man. After serving in the Russian Civil War, he was exiled to Paris. He lived in Montparnasse, a diverse community inhabited by some of the 20th century’s most revolutionary artists, where he was exposed to myriad artistic styles. Brodovitch’s exposure to vanguard art movements fueled an intense interest in photography and typography. He took on freelance work as a graphic designer, creating posters, advertisements, and restaurant decoration and paraphernalia. His first design success was in 1924 for a Grand Prix poster contest for the Bal Banal, which many artists entered, including one Pablo Picasso. Below: Alexey Brodovitch. Poster for Bal Banal, 1924. Collection of Dr. Curt Lund; Image courtesy of Curt Lund


Brodovitch moved to the US in 1930 to take a teaching post at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art (now the University of the Arts), in Philadelphia. In 1934, newly installed Harpers Bazaar editor Carmel Snow attended an Art Directors Club show of work by designer Alexey Brodovitch. Snow called it a revelation, describing "pages that bled beautifully, cropped photographs, typography and design that were bold and arresting." She immediately offered Brodovitch a job as 's art director. Throughout his career at the magazine, Brodovitch revolutionized magazine design. With his directive "Astonish me," he inspired some of the greatest visual artists of the 20th century (including protégés Irving Penn, Hiro, Eve Arnold, Lillian Bassman, and Richard Avedon) to create legendary images. Below left: Alexey Brodovitch reviewing page layouts for Richard Avedon’s Observations, 1959. Photo by Hiro. © 2024 The Estate of Y. Hiro Wakabayashi

David Campany, a contributor to the lavishly illustrated catalog for the show writes, "Though disparate in their aesthetic approaches, these figures are unified by their responses to Brodovitch’s dictum to 'astonish me.' The authors [of the catalogue] address Brodovitch’s impact on photography as an artistic medium in the mid-twentieth century and explore how European art and design became the foundation of a new American print culture.

Brodovitch’s own work will be illuminated through his personal projects—such as the magazine Portfolio and the photographic project Ballet, which depicted performances of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo in the United States (whose evolution echoed Brodovitch’s own émigré condition). Case studies of his transformative collaborations with photographers such as Arnold, Avedon, Penn, Lisette Model, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Hans Namuth, and André Kertész reveal pivotal encounters that may surprise even the most ardent photography aficionado. An illustrated chronology offers an important tool for scholars on this influential but often overlooked figure." 

Brodovitch's designs were revolutionary. Gone were the tidy, imperial rhythms of the old days; in their place were radical shifts in mood and tempo, punctuated by rousing swells and graceful pauses. Flipping through the magazine became like watching a movie—there was drama, suspense, narrative. There was also great rigor and restraint, as all of the text, from the logo and the cover copy to the tin iest fine print, was eventually rendered using a single font: Didot. Brodovitch's creative use of white space and playful spreads that unfolded like musical compositions. Changes in size, layering, and color provided the viewer with a sequence of experiences, evoking movement and energy on the printed page. 

The exhibition is Curated by Katy Wan, Managing Curator, D.Daskalopoulos Collection Gift, Tate Modern, London; the catalogue includes essays by Vince Aletti, David Campany, and Katy Wan. Info

Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA Info