the dream of the idea: fantasy behind the illusion

It was a time when the world was going terribly wrong. A look at the art of A.M. Cassandre….

by Art Chantry( :

This is the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, September 15th, 1939. the cover is by A.M. Cassandre. I was lucky enough to stumble across a stash of these in a thrift store. I have the entire year bracketing from December 1938 all the way through January 1940. with the exception of three covers, they were all designed and illustrated by A.M. Cassandre.

Cassandre is considered maybe the high point of ‘high’ art deco graphic design. His most famous poster is of a luxury liner barreling down on you, imaged from the bow of the ship. It’s a stunner. Virtually all of his posters – and he did many – are perfect. Each one a highly prized collector’s item even today. Each one a high mark in the history of poster design and graphic design. At his peak, the guy could do no wrong.

AC:cubism was so prominent by that point that even the mainstream american designers were doing cubist and constructivist ideas in their work (especially in layout and typography). but surrealism - especially the cassandre brand of surrealism - was pretty darn weird even in 1939.

This is not to confuse A.M. Cassandre’s work with art deco exclusively. I doubt he considered his work ‘art deco’ at all. He was one of a huge number – a legion – of graphic designers simply working in the hip style of the moment. Cassandre was not working in a vacuum, there were hundreds of competitors making similarly stunning posters while he was at work. But, cassandre’s output was just a hair more astonishing, just a little “better” than the pack. Now, he’s virtually the only guy whose name we recognize from that era of poster design.

One of the big differences was that Cassandre was a surrealist. The late 1930’s was the period when surrealism invaded american advertising. Surrealism leaked over from Europe initially through the art scene. but the real transfer of surreal dream imagery didn’t really cross the Atlantic until it hitch-hiked on the back of the fashion industry. Euro-trash fashionistas of the 30’s were avid hipsters, too. And surrealists were cool. so, they aped their ideas in a shallow copycat way into their fashionista thinking.

Original cover of Harper's Bazaar magazine, with artwork by A. M. Cassandre. He was famed for his Art Deco advertising and travel posters, but was an important graphics designer as well. These spectacular Art Deco magazine covers are surprisingly rare today. click image for source.

The ads in these magazines are a mind-blowing trip. Instead of real live models, there began a proliferation of mannequins. And if that wasn’t disturbing enough, they are set in graphic dreamscapes, often with disturbing defacing elements like vegetables for heads and bananas for hands floating in swirling clouds and watch faces. All very cool, tres chic!

Cassandre’s illustration style was part Dali, part Magritte and little Max Ernst tossed in for shits and giggles. The guy was so strange that his work looks even psychedelic today (the chemical surrealism of a later time). For an American magazine of this era, his work must have stood out like a big strange sore thumb.

Most of the cream of American illustration of the era was lightly influenced by what was happening in the European art world, but you can only see it in the the visual ‘flatness’ in some of the illustration styles. however, the bulk o

erican illustration was American provincial “Americana” styles and cartoons.

---One of the results of Cassandre's trip to the United States was an exhibition of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in January of 1936 which led to an offer from Harper's Bazaar to design a series of covers for them, which he did from 1936 through 1940. All these designs are highly imaginative compositions that gave the magazine a distinct characteristic on the newsstands, often with a quasi-surrealistic flair. Fashion is in full bloom in this Cassandre Harper's in-store display, also utilized as a cover for the magazine. This is Cassandre's last cover design for the publication as World War II interrupted that series.--- click image for more...

It was still a magnificent era for American illustration, but it was also very conservative, like the American marketplace. One of the few places that this ‘new thinking’ coming out of European intellectual circles could find a place to flourish was in fashion – that great arena of trends and ideas. However, the fashionsta upper class embrace of surrealism was still a visual shock to most of America.

Cassandre’s cover work for this period of Harper’s Bazaar was strange to say the least. Instead of depicting actual fashions, he depicted the fantasy behind the fashion. He concentrated on the ‘dream of the idea’ of what was being said and what the implication may be. It appealed to an emotional level of otherness and spin. The world on the verge of the second world war must have seemed like a big bad nightmare unfolding. So, Cassandre depicted floating eyeballs over an outline of france to image Paris fashion on the brink of catastrophy. It’s disturbing stuff – especially weird to see on the cover of a conservative fashion magazine.


Cassandre survived the war and continued to work until the 1950’s. I don’t know the details or the circumstances, but he died by his own hand. After the war, his work never reached this level of insight or popularity again. Perhaps he was depressed that his era had come and gone? dunno. When it comes to suicide, we can only guess.

But, during his brief tenure as cover artist for this high-end innovative fashion publication, Cassandre brought both surrealism into American editorial illustration and depicted the emotional and mental collapse of an entire world as it rapidly disappeared forever.

Harper’s BIZARRE.

Read More: created a harmonious and meaningful whole using avant-garde photography, typography and illustration. After being hired he asked several old friends like Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, Raoul Dufy, Marc Chagall and A.M. Cassandre to work for the magazine. Cassandre created several of the Bazaar covers between 1937 and 1940. Brodovitch was the first art director to integrate image and text. Most american magazines at that time used text and illustration seperately, dividing them by wide white margins.---

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