This post is going to have it all: comics, fonts, broadbrush high-lowbrow cultural opinionation, curiously reasonably priced British TV.
We’ll start with fonts. Why did the modernists go ga-ga for sans serif? Take Tschichold, my recent subject of study. Early in his career, he dogmatizes that there is something technically obligatory, inherently suited to the Engineering Age, about sanserif type. What induced him to make such an implausibly strong claim, and induced others to buy it, was somehow a tremendous aesthetic impulse in this direction. This felt so necessary. Human beings aren’t skeptical of arguments that give them exactly what they want, so bad arguments are often most interesting as indices of desire. But what was the Big Deal with filing down all the little pointy bits, all of a sudden?
I’ve been curious about this for a while, but not really sure to what extent it was a question that made enough sense to bother asking. On the one hand, it’s almost impossible to prove why such-and-such suddenly became fashionable then-and-there. On the other hand, in a general sense, the explanation in this case is obvious since seriously overdetermined. W.W. I was over, the old was out and discredited, the new was in and had to be radical. Type design slots in almost self-evidently with architectural and design modernism. If you feel you ‘get’ what Gropius, Le Corbusier and Adolph Loos were on about, and why then was the time for it, the likes of Tschichold don’t take much, if any, special explanation. (Not that Tschichold was just taking his cue from architects.) Sans serif was clean and machine-y and new and rational and future-looking; a sternly ascetic, hence somehow spiritually intense-seeming reproach to all that came before. Clean type for a clean slate. What more could you ask for? (What more can be said?)
A pretty good book on my shelf: Forms in Modernism: The Unity of Typography, Architecture and the Design Arts 1920s-1970s [amazon]. The author, Virginia Smith, doesn’t have anything vastly original to say about modernism. (It’s a short book; its treatments introductory in most ways.) But she makes typography the centerpiece of her ‘visual set’, which is an interesting and valid enough choice. You can ‘see’ the unity of modernism ‘through’ modern typefaces quite as much as in modern buildings or modern furniture designs.
So: what more can be said about why modernism went for sans serif? If you read Tschichold’s The New Typography [amazon] you find, unsurprisingly, that he thinks what he is demanding fits with larger movements in the visual arts, painting and photography. Very roughly, photography is supposed to have freed painting from the subject. So we get impressionism, expressionism, then (even more so) cubism, futurism, constructivism, abstraction. (You can read quite a bit of Tschichold’s book through Google books. The chapter on “The New Art” covers this stuff in particular.) It’s intuitive what modern abstract art has to do with sanserif. That is, when Tschichold aligns himself with what Picasso and Braque were up to, it’s not surprising, but difficult to pin it down. Maybe all you can say is: modernism. In the air. Le Corbusier: “Style is a unity of principle animating all the work of an epoch, the result of a state of mind that has its own special character. Our own epoch is determining, day by day, its own style.”
But I just got a really good book that advances an intriguing and much more specific hypothesis. High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture [amazon], by Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik (1990). It’s a big, lavish coffee table affair, which went with a MOMA exhibit. I like it because it’s got lots of great pictures, it’s really well written – I go for that whole effortlessly New Yorkerier-than-thou Gopnik vibe – and it turns out to be surprisingly focused on type styles and comics. What could be better? (Nothing, that’s what.) OK, I really don’t have time to talk extensively about comics tonight, more’s the pity. But I am completely awestruck to learn that the earliest clearly superhero-style kick to the face by a masked man was delivered by Bibendum, the Michelin Man, with much sang froid. In 1908. Seriously. Why didn’t they give that guy his own comic book? He’s completely awesome.
Right. Sans serif type. Varnedoe and Gopnik note that, as early as 1911, Braque stenciled in ‘Bal’ and ‘Bach’ in a pair of works. See here and here. Then Picasso responded with “Ma Jolie” and “Still Life With Chair Caning” and such. And others, Gris, got into the act. All this collaging. In New Typography, Tschichold specifically mentions that Picasso and Braque pioneered novel techniques for introducing into paintings ‘materials previously considered foreign to them’, and that then others took this further; but he doesn’t mention, specifically, that Picasso and Braque introduced type specimens into their works. Or that the type they selected to paste in tended to be of a particular character: cheaply printed, blocky, ‘grotesque’ slab-serif or stenciled. Newspaper headlines and bits of old-fashioned (even for 1911) ad copy. Quirkily out-of-context joky-hoky stuff. In part, this evoked ‘the street’, the city, newspapers, cafes, the bustle of modern life; in part, it must have appealed to Picasso and Braque the way cheap stuff, particularly dated – but date-able – stuff is appealing to us today. We have an ironic affection-disdain for mass culture artifacts with ‘camp’ or nostalgia value. The quality of the type sampling makes this cubist stuff ‘pop’ art before pop. You get this counterpoint between the superfine high formal hermeticism and the craphounding dive into culturally low materiality.
This reminds me of Tschichold on type (quoted in my review): “None of the typefaces to whose basic form some kind of ornament has been added (serifs in Roman type, lozenge shapes and curlicues in Fraktur) meet our requirements for clarity and purity. Among all the types that are available, the so-called “Grotesque” (sanserif) or “block letter” (skeleton letters would be a better name) is the only one in spiritual accordance with our time.” But why in spiritual accord? What Varnedoe and Gopnik argue is that, oddly, the ‘spirit’ of the earliest attempts to make 19th Century ‘grotesque’ type essentially ‘modern’ was more mocking-affectionate than straight. Then the traffic between high and low got very complex, in a two-way way, especially when you throw advertising in the mix. Highbrows dumpster-dive for print ephemera, then advertisers copy from highbrows, back and forth. Let me just quote the authors, summarizing one nice source they cite.
Mehemed Fehmy Agha, who formed his tastes in Germany in the 1920s and thus had direct experience of the work of pioneering modern graphic designers such as Lissitsky, was called to America by the publisher Condé Nast in 1929. “Dr.” Agha, as he was known, subsequently redesigned American Vogue and other publications in a way that helped bring the United States into the wave of modernization of type styles and layout sweeping Europe. And in 1931, Agha wrote a brief but acute article that gave an overview of one particular element in the changes he had lived through and affected: the emergence of sans serif as the official family of typefaces constituting the modern style.
Picasso, Braque, and Gris, as we noted earlier, recurrently plucked out of newspapers and ads examples from a certain class of typefaces: chunky, utilitarian, and bearing either blocky serifs or none at all. When they did that, around 1912- 15, these forms were hangovers of the crude poster typefaces of the previous century. The first sans-serif faces, after 1800, may have owed something to the emulation of archaic stone inscriptions from antiquity, as a part of neoclassicism; but a great many of the most prominent ones had been devised out of the necessity, in the huge wooden pieces of type used for posters, to eliminate serifs that would have been especially vulnerable to the physical pressures of printing. The Cubists’ selection of these workaday characters from the printer’s bin, dated and utterly lacking in anything one could call style, represented what Agha called “a light Gallic joke,” that then was taken up in earnest by outsiders in Germany and Russia. (The Futurists, too, adopted rudely bold poster type for the masthead of their journal Lacerba; and Picasso responded positively by including that masthead in one of his works. In the context of the broad and fast-spreading influence of the Cubist and Dada innovations in collage and papier collé, outsiders saw the direct simplicity of these letters, isolated or in word fragments, as an essential element in the new look of modernity. And these eager innovators then formulated procedures that would capture that look – by imposing programmatically tilted type lines and sudden scale shifts, and also by devising new, no-nonsense, “functional” sans-serif type fonts. The vogue for the new typefaces, seemingly so attuned to the machine age in their stripped-down bareness, then spread through magazines to expositions and eventually back out into the broadest currents of public print in the 1930s …
Agha saw that the history of sans-serif type was a wheel: starting from the lowest, least prestigious strata of public currency, moving up by artists’ selection into rarefied levels of avant-garde experiment, and from there revolving back around to reenter, and transform, the widest currency of public language. His typographical mini-history involved only matters of the form and style of the modern world of words, rather than more telling issues of its content; but it points out some basic facts of twentieth century history that are useful to recognize. Above all, it suggests that the world of modern public language and that of avant-garde innovation are not irrevocably separate domains, but parallel historical developments, which have recurrently engaged in exchanges, in both directions. The story is one in which modern art was neither simply an enemy of modern commercial culture nor just an occasional poacher on its territory, but a partner in a complex pas de deux of give-and-take: the one drew from the other, and then vice versa. Agha’s wheel is a pattern of linkages and transformations that moves things from one category to another, from one use to another, and from one level of consideration to another. Rather than trying to define isolating barriers and divisions, it sketches a case for the interdependence, within modern art, between playful aesthetic innovation and powerful social activism, and between things that seem merely utilitarian, even shopworn, and things that, in the hands of an artist,’ can become potent, meaningful, and complex. In this sense, the little tale about type may also be a typical tale-and its wheel-like motion worth remembering in the larger cycle of modern art’s interchanges with popular culture. (pp. 59-61)
Now this is waaay too simple to be a magic bullet explanation of why sanserif took off. Varnedoe and Gopnik, by implication, makes it seem as though the likes of Tschichold must have been straight men, not fully in on the Picasso-Braque Cubist hipster joke about good old slab serif & co.: the cheap, strong stuff! But it strikes me that there’s probably something to it. The Agha article – I would like to read it – is “Sanserif” in Advertising Arts (supplement to Advertising and Selling), March 1931, pp. 41-47. The thing about Agha is: apparently he was kind of a genius, but also a commercial art director. It’s hard to believe that you should ever just plain believe what such a creature tells you. Surely he is pulling your leg somewhat, just on principle?
What do you think? Is it plausible that the grandfather of cool, corporate Helvetica was a kind of ironic, high-lowbrow Cubist straddle?
As for the reasonably priced British TV? You can get The Prisoner: The Complete Series, for only $29. That’s seriously a good deal.
Sorry, man. Sale’s over. (What can I offer you? Ooh, how about a free Gentle Giant sampler: In A Power Free Interview [amazon]. I have never been able to decide whether this sort of thing is a guilty pleasure, a righteous displeasure – or, what’s that you say? you just want to listen to the vaguely Zappaesque madrigal section? Fine, fine. (I like the first track. Sounds sort of like XTC.)