Flip, Linger, Glide: The Movements of Magazine Pictures and Their Publics c. 1915


Coles Phillips, cover design, Good Housekeeping, February 1915

Coles Phillips, cover design, Good Housekeeping, February 1915

Jennifer Greenhill’s talk focused on the illustrations of early 20th -century female periodicals, especially the work of American illustrator Coles Phillips (1880-1927).  As owner of an advertising agency and illustrator of mass-consumption magazines, Phillips is a fitting character to challenge the prevailing historiographical interpretations of magazine illustration. On one hand, Greenberg and other modernists scorned magazine illustrations as mere kitsch. On the other, many museums display illustrations and magazine covers framed on the walls, like ‘high-art’ paintings. Greenhill certainly considers illustrations art. However, she also focused on their role within magazines, where they can be flipped over, lingered on, or glided through.

Greenhill placed particular importance on the interface between the reader’s body and the printed image. She argued that certain illustrations respond to typical patterns in reading, inviting and expecting specific forms of engagement from their beholders. Although illustrations in early 20th-century magazines generally conformed to the ‘pretty girl’ type and invite a gender analysis, Greenhill’s main focus was on the formal properties of magazine cover-images, which visually compelled the reader to directly interact with the magazine’s materiality.

Reflecting this approach, Greenhill’s lecture featured a number of detailed visual analyses, the most sustained of which focused on Coles Phillips’ 1915 cover design for Good Housekeeping. Showing a young woman immersed in a book, the cover promoted a positive image of the female readership as contemplative and engaged, a representation that was relatively rare at the time. At the same time, the cover also functions as advertisement for the magazine, which was more book-like in its format and more literary in content than its competitors. Uncluttered by text, the cover easily became a collectible, a practice which publishers explicitly encouraged.

Most noticeable in this Good Housekeeping cover is Phillips’ signature fade-out technique. Whilst some forms are described in detail, others lack any outline and merge into the background. Thus, the fade-out technique emphasised two-dimensionality. Yet some parts of the image, like the folds in the woman’s dress, are accurately described and tactile in their three-dimensionality. At the boundary of flatness and illusion, the cover evokes art historian Alois Riegl’s concept of ‘haptic vision.’ Showing Phillips’ sketches along with the printed copy of his designs, Greenhill demonstrated how tactility and openness were already major bconcerns at the pre-production stage.

Titled ‘A Brown Study,’ as in the contemporary phrase denoting a state of deep thought, the 1915 cover puts a commercial spin on the contemporary fascination with psyche and self-discovery, staple themes of the Good Housekeeping. Indeed, Phillips illustrations often challenge the rising popularity of photography, demoting its high-art ambition by emphasising its commercial associations.

Greenhill’s lecture was a work-in-progress for a chapter in a forthcoming book. Yet by tightly basing her arguments on visual evidence, she delivered an inspiring and eye-opening talk.

The Healing Power of Art – Dr. Richard Cork

As I was headed out toward the exit to head back home, walking past the daily announcement board near the reception, I saw that there was a lecture based on a book launch that evening. “Richard Cork: The Healing Power of Art,” it said. The possible implications on the scientific function of art was a rather unusual subject, so I quickly read over the description, and the mention of Rogier van der Weyden grabbed me. Two years ago, I have attended a presentation about his Beaune Altarpiece and its commission for the Hôtel-Dieu hospital, and I remembered that I was fascinated by the fiery damnation depicted in the work and the reason for its display for the hospital’s dying patients. Fragmented memories and the feeling of my earlier questions rose up to the surface.

After considering it for a little longer as I emptily continued reading (…El Greco…Mattias Grünewald at Isenheim…), I decided to attend the lecture. I quickly went up the three flights of stairs to the top floor entrance. Slightly winded, I placed my ears near the door, and listened. A male voice was talking about traveling, and there was a polite laughter. The lecture had already begun, but I could tell that Cork wasn’t that far along in his presentation. I opened the door cautiously and with a quick, shuffling walk up to an empty section in to the door side, near the front row.

Thankfully, Cork had not started talking about the artworks yet. I probably missed the part where he explained why he decided to take on this project, which, in hindsight, would have clarified some lingering questions I had about the talk. I initially intended to just sit and enjoy the talk, but as I began to listen to him talk about his first encounter in his travels, the Innocenti Hospital in Florence, I opened my bag, took out my notebook and pen, and began taking notes.

Cork led us through his travels to uncover the art in hospitals in the Continental Europe and the UK within a mostly chronological and geographical framework. He relayed his studies from his visit to the Innocenti Hospital in Florence, passing through Sienna to Beaune to see Rogier van der Weyden’s panels of the Last Judgement, then to Isenheim and Grünewald’s altarpiece.

Some of the more vivid examples, such as van der Weyden’s depictions of the extremes of redemption and damnation, and Grünewald’s affecting image of the suffering Christ on the cross, looking diseased and his face contorted in pain in the Isenheim piece. These pieces in particular seems to offer a glimpse of the diverse attitudes of societies toward their sick to today’s audiences.

His focus moved to Spain from there, lingering on El Greco and his contributions like the Madonna of Mercy (1603-1605) for the Illescas Church Hospital, deemed blasphemous during his time for representing figures in contemporary dress, and his dynamic portrayal of the apocalypse at the Tevera Hospital in Toledo, depicting St. John and the murdered people abandoning themselves to the End, their faces and bodies reaching up to the heavens.

He then traced his steps to London, where he encountered Caius Gabriel Cibber’s contorted faces and bodies of madness that once decorated the gateway into the Royal Bethlam Hospital, James Thurnhill’s English Baroque paintings adorning the dining room of William and Mary Hospital for Seamen (now known as the Painted Hall in Greenwich), William Hogarth’s hopefully thematic Healing of Bethesda (1736) at the Baths Hospital, and Richard Dowd’s numerous works that were created on the premises while mad and confinement to the Broadmore Hospital. For more recent examples, Cork also looked at Leger’s Le Fleur qui Marche (1952), and Naum Gabo’s public sculpture for the fountains at St Thomas’s.

Through these many examples, he gave a vivid telling of stories about a selection of artworks and their connection to hospitals. As my interest lay in getting a further understanding of unusual functions of visual arts, I felt that Cork could have given us a bit more, because although he gave us some conjectures about what contemporary viewers would feel while looking at these works, he did not explicitly addressed the issue of why art would be used in the hospitals for each historical context within the lecture. But it may have been a strategy to prompt the audience to refer to the book, and in that the lecture gave a taste of the small selection of artworks included in his book, it was a good presentation to accompany a book launch.