… a diluted version of a modern style such as Cubism could serve as a mind-arresting gimmick in the presentation of an object for sale …
… “It was after the war that suddenly walls, roads, objects became violently colored,” [Léger] wrote in 1937:
An unleashing of life forces filled the world … by the open window the facing wall, violently colored, enters our home. Enormous letters, figures four meters tall are projected into the apartment. Color takes its position … economic struggles will replace the battles of the front. Industrialists and merchants confront each other brandishing color like an advertising weapon. A debauchery without precedent, a disorder makes the walls explode. No brake, no law comes to temper this overheated atmosphere that shatters the retina, destroys the wall. … Can we perhaps put order in this?
[ … ]
… At the time of the Armory Show of European modernism in New York in 1913, all but the most adventurous advertisers had found the new art aberrant and useless. The progress from the smug derision of The Century at that time to the eager brochure on “Going Modern” offered by an advertising firm in 1929 was piecemeal at first, then headlong in the last years before the Great Depression.
… however … the modernism in question was an indiscriminate mix of Bauhaus-influenced graphics, French art deco, and Wiener Werkestätte stylizations. If a seller felt that the “emotion of modern drawing can give a small car new dignity and make us covet one … [or] glorify so prosaic an article as the kitchen range,” the “modernist” result in an ad might be the “cartoon simplicity” commissioned from an artist like Rockwell Kent.
[line break added] The showiest and least interesting applications of European lessons came in illustrations with gratuitous “moonbeam” diagonals in the background or “zigzag” inflections. The most pervasive and serious absorptions were in typography and layout.
[ … ]
… Now the idea of style is extended to include nearly every article of human use: towels, telephones, typewriters, fountain pens, bathrooms and refrigerators, as well as furniture, draperies, motor cars and radios. These articles are redesigned and colored in the modern spirit, something entirely apart from any mechanical improvement, to make them markedly new, and encourage new buying, exactly as the fashion designers make skirts longer so you can no longer be happy with your short ones. [marketing executive Earnest Elmo Calkins]
… Artists like Léger and Duchamp had looked to the world of hardware — syphons and urinals — as a world shaped by relatively “unconscious” uncorrupted forces of functional design, which advertising and display then devised means to dramatize. Now utilitarian objects of this sort, including especially consumer items such as appliances, might begin to have the dramatizations of advertising built into their form from the outset …
… Advertising agents were more and more interested by the way a diluted version of a modern style such as Cubism could serve as a mind-arresting gimmick in the presentation of an object for sale; they urged their clients to see that a degree of abstraction would still allow an item to be recognized, with a little salutary effort on the part of the intrigued viewer. One such agency instructed its audience, in regard to a composition of circles and curves, that IT’S A PIPE!
[line break added] But at the same time those advertisers were learning to see that familiar things could profitably be represented in strange new ways, Magritte was demonstrating that entirely traditional ways of representing things could, with minute alterations, arrest the mind with more enduringly discomfiting effect. THIS, he advised, in perhaps his most succinct and memorable epigram on the problematic nature of all representation, IS NOT A PIPE.
René Magritte, The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe), 1928
My most recent previous post from this book is here.