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Fontana Modern Masters - click opera
February 2010
 
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Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 08:19 am
Fontana Modern Masters

Yesterday I happened to be looking through the Motto Distribution blog when I came across this picture of a double-page spread in a volume called The Reader:



I immediately recognised in this work -- I think it's by Ruth Höflich, a London-based German artist who works with books and libraries -- a couple of abstracted versions of covers from the original 1970s Fontana Modern Masters.



Fontana Modern Masters was a series of pocket guides to artists, writers, philosophers, sociologists and other thinkers published by Fontana paperbacks. The series, edited by Frank Kermode, began in 1970. I don't know who designed the covers, which featured Helvetica Rounded Bold type and brightly-coloured abstract blocks of pop colour indebted to the paintings of Frank Stella and Josef Albers. [Update: the covers use the paintings of Oliver Bevan.]



The luridly elegant original Fontana Modern Masters were still very current when I became a student in the late 70s. I bought several of them. I liked how the series worked as a kind of cross-disciplinary hagiography; these "masters" were saints, yet cool too. Mostly leftish, the books were also a kind of radical chic. And they offered the sort of collectable, generic, same-but-different appeal as Merve Verlag, for example, offers today.



The series also offered some weird juxtapositions. What on earth could the master of relativity have in common with the "high priest of love"? Well, simply that they were both "modern masters"; one described orgasms, the other helped split the atom. Both presided over modernity, and both deserved funky Modernist covers and a paperback book.



If you're a bit of an aspie you might want to spend hours working out whether some kind of system exists to relate one jacket to another. The relationship between the Joyce and McLuhan covers, for instance, shouldn't tax anyone used to a certain kind of IQ test question. To turn Joyce into McLuhan, clearly, you just rotate 180 degrees and, er, change the colours.



I think my favourite covers are the ones that drop a stark, jagged shape onto a white background, like these ones for Melanie Klein and Jean-Paul Sartre.



It's not surprising that these covers -- inspired design, inspired by art -- have inspired artists in their turn. In 2005 Jamie Shovlin had a show at Riflemaker Gallery in London entitled Fontana Modern Masters, a "remaking of the Fontana / Collins paperback 'modern thinkers' series of the seventies. Hard-edged, 'systems' graphics were converted into soft lyrical watercolours", said the Riflemaker blurb.



Like me, Shovlin seems to like the white-background covers better than the bled, blocky ones. I like how he's let the solid, sharp blobs of colour dribble, bringing attention to the handmade, liquid quality of his watercolour approximations.

You'll notice that Shovlin has left the titles off some of the books. Anything which Fontana actually published, Shovlin depicts without its title. Books which Fontana announced but didn't publish, he's painted as he thinks they would have looked: "Shovlin set about constructing a system – set out in the Fontana Colour Chart – which would allow him to ‘accurately’ produce the covers of the books which Fontana had announced it was to publish but which, for whatever reason, had never appeared. Thus the existing books were analysed, and the colours used in the cover designs were assigned values derived from the percentage of space they occupied, the percentages being taken from the intellectual ‘score’ of each ‘Modern Master’ (a total arrived at by a series of seemingly arbitrary criteria). Working from the covers of the existing books Shovlin was therefore able to extrapolate the appearance of non-existent books about such heavyweights as Adorno and Lacan."



In the end, Shovlin made 58 Fontana watercolours representing the 48 existing titles in the series and his versions of what the ten ‘lost’ titles might've looked like.



Shovlin may be poking fun at "the notion of objective research methodology, especially in its application to 'useless' information", but it's unlikely anyone will be inspired to make a similar homage to the Fontana Modern Masters covers which followed the first series. In the 1980s the design took a precipitous tumble, opting for silly line drawings of the thinkers. And in the 90s we got this incredibly ugly and conservative look:



It's tempting to say that the collapse in design standards witnessed by Fontana Modern Masters since the 1970s represents the decline of Britain itself -- as the island swung right, sharp paperbacks making the ideas of György Lukács accessible to a wider, funkier public were replaced (by Rupert Murdoch-owned media conglomerates) by dull textbooks whose covers seemed to scream: "DEAD WHITE MALE!"

Or were these thinkers always dead white males, and did the pop-minimalist covers merely dress them up, for a decade or so, in the spurious glamour of orgasmic colour -- like putting mini-skirts on Action Man dolls? Certainly had me fooled.

48CommentReplyShare


(Anonymous)
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 08:53 am (UTC)

My friend collects the Fontana Modern Masters and puts pictures of them on her Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/search/?q=book&w=34043743%40N00). I didn't know what the series was called before now!


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 09:11 am (UTC)

Excellent, she's got Trotsky! This is like collecting bubblegum cards! Yay!


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 08:54 am (UTC)

But what does "the collapse of design standards" really mean? I mean, I'm basically with you aesthetically - the 1970s designs look cool, the 80s ones look terrible and I'd probably be a little less harsh on the 90s ones although they're not wonderful. But I do remember a time in the 80s when those Stella-ish designs looked very boring and passé. It was the 70s institutional look. And now it's come back, the retro-modernist look is back. It's so subjective and cyclical that it's impossible to talk about some sort of collapse of standards - that's just feeding into a "good old days" mentality.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 09:16 am (UTC)

Well, you're with me aesthetically, so the "good old days" mentality is intersubjective, which is the closest we can get, aesthetically, to objective.


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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand


(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand



(Anonymous)
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 09:02 am (UTC)

When Marx took the picture of himself with a wild beard and stern gaze it was something of a joke, a picture for his daughters, playing with the idea of the giant(and just before he cut off most of his hair, actually). This kind of irony is generally lost, and the people in the pictures become inaccessible (an exception would be Einstein)

70s fontanas are nice, because they don't foster the "dead white males" club. Sure, fontana might choose men, but they don't play on or strengthen misconceptions about philosophers needing to be men (old bearded men, no less).


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 09:12 am (UTC)

Then again, there's something rather masculine about sharp lines and geometry, isn't there?


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loveishappiness
loveishappiness
O.H.
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 10:06 am (UTC)

The ones from the 90s are not nice. That photo over a photo look used to be so ubiquitous. Not only that, but I bet the 90s editions are very large in comparison. Somewhere close to A5 instead of the pocket sized originals. So if the covers scream "DEAD WHITE MALE!" the size screams "LEAVE ME ON THE SHELF!"


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litle_eglantine
litle_eglantine
little_eglantine
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 10:14 am (UTC)

My favourite, and the only one I owned, was Frantz Fanon by David Caute. He wasn't a white male... though he was dead.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 10:22 am (UTC)

I don't think the Helvetica Rounded Bold looks that great, to be honest. It clashes with the otherwise sharp lines of the design.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 10:25 am (UTC)

All the others mix italics with uprights, handwriting with type, and serif with sans serif in really inexcusable ways, though (see below). I think the Helvetica makes a beautiful energy with the angular coloured shapes and spaces around it.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 10:23 am (UTC)
Top Marx?


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 10:34 am (UTC)
Re: Top Marx?

Oh, there's no doubt which is the best Marx here. I still think it would look slightly better with standard Helvetica.

The nineties cover is really exemplary of how they mixed different typefaces in the late eighties and early nineties (I'm guessing it just became technically easier to do it at that point). Did The Face pioneer this? Then there was the Guardian with its italic "The". Very messy stylistically.


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Re: Top Marx? - (Anonymous) Expand


Re: Top Marx? - (Anonymous) Expand






krskrft
krskrft
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 11:07 am (UTC)

Momus -

What do you think about the Vintage Books cover art from the 80s?




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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 11:44 am (UTC)

That's not my tasse de thé at all. Looks tacky and cheap. I will never like drop shadow, not even ultra-ironically! (Actually, the first Momus EP uses drop shadow, but it was none of my doing).


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steviecat
steviecat
Stephen Drennan
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 12:23 pm (UTC)

The Modern Masters cover artist was Oliver Bevan.


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steviecat
steviecat
Stephen Drennan
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 12:27 pm (UTC)
More info

More on Bevan here : http://www.jamesfineart.co.uk/art_page.php?id=29.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 01:19 pm (UTC)
Looks a bit like...


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 04:54 pm (UTC)
Re: Looks a bit like...

ceci n'est pas un Yes

DC


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 02:52 pm (UTC)
aspberger's diagnosis: negative

The McLuhan and Joyce covers are isomorphic under a reflection about the short axis, not a rotation of 180 degrees.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 03:02 pm (UTC)
Re: aspberger's diagnosis: negative

Well, they're the same shape if you rotate 180 and flip horizontally (ie mirror):


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ferricide
ferricide
christian nutt
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 07:42 pm (UTC)

totally unrelated: i'm on vacaction in tokyo and yesterday, i walked through shinjuku while listening to voyager and it was very good. thanks for making voyager, and also thanks for making it available at christmas so i could have it on my iPod.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Apr. 10th, 2009 07:15 am (UTC)

This entry made me think of your Boring Books video. Which, when I looked at it again, shows covers more boring than the Fontana ones, but in some cases approaching that level of aesthetic appeal. I love the whole idea of an abstract book cover - as if to say the content is so powerful there's no need to illustrate anything.


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steviecat
steviecat
Stephen Drennan
Mon, Apr. 13th, 2009 08:40 am (UTC)

More info snippets - the designs where there are white backgrounds (as opposed to the full-colour covers, i.e.), were designed by James Lowe rather than Oliver Bevan. Of the Bevan ones, at least two had the same artwork - Joyce and Guevara.


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