Magazines and Modern Identities. Global Cultures of the Illustrated Press, 1880–1945 | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Magazines and Modern Identities. Global Cultures of the Illustrated Press, 1880–1945

Magazines and Modern Identities. Global Cultures of the Illustrated Press, 1880–1945
by Tim Satterthwaite and Andrew Thacker, Editors

Bloomsbury Publishing, London, England, 2023
312 pp., 92 b/w; and 8 col. Trade, £90.00; PDF and Epub format, £ 81.00)
ISBN: 978-1350278639.

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
February 2024

For many decades, Modernism and little magazines have been perfect bedfellows. Changing perceptions of both Modernism and magazine culture have shattered this ideal match, reshuffling the cards and bringing to the fore a more nuanced and complex picture. Modernism, on the one hand, is no longer a monolithic whole, safely protected from all things nonmodern or antimodern. Magazines, on the other hand, have ceased to be reduced to the prestigious yet small territory of confidential literary avant-garde publications circulating from hand to hand yet with the ambition of revolutionizing culture, society, and life. Magazine scholarship is now addressing all kinds of magazines, big and small, aesthetic, and political as well as purely commercial and entertainment base (but no longer despised as futile), text-only and lavishly illustrated, open to close and formal as well as distant and contextbound reading, etc.

Magazines and Modern Identities is a brilliant showcase of this enlarged view. Edited by a team that unites the best of both worlds (Tim Satterthwaite is a specialist of magazine culture, Andrew Thacker a major voice in Modernism and avant-garde studies, both with an impressive track record in the field) and gathering some fifteen articles on the whole gamut of current magazine and Modernism research, it is an outstanding collection that will prove the perfect platform for all those interested in deepening or broadening their own interest and advanced reading on the topic. It is also a volume that succeeds in using a common theoretical framework, that of the magazine as “small archive”. It makes sense to quote here at length the definition of Madleen Podewski, as given by Patrick Rössler (p. 60): “These ‘archives’ are small because their knowledge production takes place with concrete material, periodically successive issues that can be picked up individually and leafed through. They produce their own knowledge by printing and binding together more or less heterogeneous material; and they create this material themselves.”

The subtitle of the book, Global Cultures of the Illustrated Press, immediately stresses the two dominating perspectives, globalism and illustration, that constitute the common thread of all contributions (originally presented at a 2020 conference but craftily reshaped in a very coherent volume – one hardly notices for instance the shift from one chapter to another and the complementarity of the chosen magazines, in time and space, is exemplary).

First of all, there is the complex relationship between modernization and globalization. True, technology and ideology driven Modernism is in many aspects a global phenomenon, as shown by the inclusion of non-European and non-US examples from China, Mexico, and Québec, among others. Yet this book demonstrates that modernity, as the result of a not necessarily successful effort toward modernization, is far from being a homogeneous situation or happening. Traditionally speaking, the unequal spread of Modernism and its internal tensions or contradictions used to be described in terms of progressive versus reactionary, with only countries, communities, groups, circles, or individuals being “ahead” of their “backwards looking” opponents. This dichotomizing perception has been largely superseded for quite some time now (avant-garde and rearguard positions are no longer seen as diametrically opposed). Today it is instead the very notion of the global that is being challenged (and not only in the field of magazine culture; one may wonder what will be left in a couple of years of the subdiscipline of “world literature”, for instance, currently in bad shape due to the rapid closing of many geopolitical frontiers). In this book, the critique of global Modernism results from the double perspective of gender studies on the one hand (there are various and often stunning examples of the different treatment of men and women in Modernist magazines, the case study on the French VU being the most blatant but until now never noticed illustration of this gender gap) and language and translation studies on the other hand (here as well, the book clearly shows that the focus on linguistic traditions and language innovation highlight at the same time the dream of Modernist innovation and the resistance to globalization in magazines permanently negotiating between the rejection of a no longer thriving tradition and the defense of local customs and cultures).

The second common thread of this collection is the creative and in certain cases disruptive power and impact of visual technology in print culture, more precisely the changes brought about by the rapidly increasing use of photography and rotogravure –all points that the contributors of the book manage to smartly link with the previously mentioned questions of globalization and its possible discontents. Although every chapter pays great attention to the history, circulation, influence, and posterity of the magazines, the main focus is always on layout properties and word and image interactions, with excellent analyses of how the global Modernist spirit of the “New Vision” and the “New Typography”, as summarized in the 1920s by the achievements of Russian constructivism and manifestoes like that of Jan Tschichold (the later architect of the “classic” Penguin look), was locally adopted as well as adapted, that is appropriated, softened, misunderstood, reinvented, expanded, etc. in magazine format. Most magazines appear as Janus-like: all of them have to navigate between their own political, ideological, and cultural agenda, which is in most cases neither totally homogeneous nor stable, and their craving for the new and the modern, which are also historically shifting categories. Hence the use but also the refusal, often implicit, sometimes “unconscious” as certain authors put it, of the basic principles of Modernist typography, revolutionary layout techniques, and uncommon word and image dialogues (most contributors thus underline the transition from photographically illustrated texts to textually illustrated photographic mosaics and sequences).

Magazines and Modern Identities is an important survey of what contemporary magazine scholarship stands for. It offers a perfect synthesis of this expanded field, while never abandoning the healthy practice of combining broad historical perspectives with a sharp sense of detailed microhistory. It furthermore discloses hardly to totally unknown material, mainly from the non-Western world (but not only that: the book also includes fascinating reading of, for instance, the British fascist magazines of the 1930s), while also introducing and testing fresh views on well known publications such as VU or the Arbeiter Illustrierter Zeitung.