Today the United Kingdom, after over three years of turmoil, officially leaves the European Union. Plus ça change. Its relationship with Europe over the past thousand years has always been one of conflict and collaboration. The historian David Starkey has argued that Henry VIII’s break from the Catholic Church in Rome made him the first Eurosceptic. “Catholic Europe was now the threat, the launch pad for invasion. In other words Henry was the first Eurosceptic: the xenophobic, insular politics he created have helped to define English history for the past five centuries.”
Britain has been settled and influenced by people and ideas from Europe and beyond for hundreds of years, brilliantly charted by Robert Winder in his original and important book, Bloody Foreigners.
To celebrate pan-European diversity and revolutionary cultural exchange, a truly gorgeous book to browse and relish is the recently published feast-for-the-eyes: French New Wave, A Revolution in Design developed and created by Tony Nourmond (editor), Graham Marsh (art director), Christopher Frayling (introduction), Alison Elangasinghe (text).
“The French New wave is one of the most influential movements in the history of cinema” — Tony Nourmand, founder and Editor-in-Chief of Reel Art Press, and former gallerist and consultant for vintage movie posters at Christie’s, London.
Many of today’s world-renowned French film stars were made by the New Wave: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Alain Delon, Catherine Deneuve, Brigitte Bardot, the late Jeanne Moreau and Anna Karina (Godard’s muse and lover) who died in December 2019 among them . . . One of the movement’s most iconic actresses was the American Jean Seberg, who became addicted to heroin and had a tragic end, similar to others who found fame early (Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe).
There are a great many books available about the French New Wave, but this is the first one to be published about its design and typography. A manifesto was launched by a group of young film makers in 1952/53 contributing to the magazine Cahiers du cinema. (Initially Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, Scherer, Rivette, Chabrol, and from the Left Bank, Varda, Ressnais, Marker, Colpi, Demy . . . they were joined by others as the movement snowballed.)
The young film makers wanted to film in the streets using mobile cameras and natural lighting. Their friends were the actors, and their apartments were used as film sets. They made their films look like real life, and invariably portrayed its extremes. Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (1960) was banned by the French government as it dealt with torture and the Algerian War.
The term Nouvelle Vague / New Wave came from a series of articles by Françoise Giroud published in L’Express in October-December 1957 about the youth culture of the time. In 1959, forty young French film directors were given a chance to screen their films at Cannes Film Festival, and Les Quatres Cents Coups/The 400 Blows won Best Direction prize.
Publication of French New Wave, A Revolution in Design was originally planned to coincide with the 50th anniversary – work on the book began in 1995 – but for it to come out a decade later on the 60th anniversary has meant that more posters, film stills, photos and publicity material from press books could be discovered and sourced from collectors.
An A-Z of the artists-turned-graphic-designers from France, across Europe, and Russia, forms the structure of the book. Their work is reproduced to stunning effect. The extent of their influence today is clear to see in myriad ways, not least in that Hollywood’s bad boy, Quentin Tarantino, called his company ‘A Band Apart’ after Godard’s film Bande à part (1964).
In the 1950s-‘60s-‘70s, film goers found out about movies via film posters which were crucial marketing material. As the designers were usually art students they were aware of and inspired by the modern art movements of the time. In Paris, the first Francis Bacon exhibition was in 1957; Jackson Pollock in 1960; Mark Rothko in 1962; and Andy Warhol in 1964. Their art was introduced to the general public by New Wave film posters rather than by the exclusive galleries exhibiting them.
Various techniques were used to create New Wave posters: experimental typography, collage, photo montage, cartoons, a mix of illustrations and photos. Their creative freedom and authenticity snubbed the formulaic conventions of the Hollywood movie studios’ star system and the way promising young actors had a persona created for them, often involving a new name and background, and were contracted to play their parts with no choice in the matter.
(Marilyn Monroe famously walked out on 20th Century Fox after finishing The Seven Year Itch and only went back to them after they agreed to her contract demands.)
The artist-designers were the subversive disruptors of their time, and featured the director’s name (the “auteur”) in big letters while the actors were barely mentioned, or else appeared in a smaller font.
Since posters were created for national audiences they were diverse and nuanced for local tastes. So designs for Le Petit Soldat (The Little Soldier) . . . Le Feu Follet (The Fire Within) . . . Hiroshima Mon Amour . . . Ascenseur pour l’echafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) . . . Pickpocket . . . Alphaville . . . had a very different look and feel depending on whether they were being screened in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, Japan . . . Such creative freedom is unimaginable in our age of corporatised, streamlined marketing and easy-to-recognise branding.
French New Wave, A Revolution in Design is a visual feast for graphic designers, film buffs, aesthetes, Francophiles, and just the plain curious. It makes me wonder how best to approach the current political – and moral – crisis, and feeling cut adrift. Since this maritime island has been my home for over four decades – I have not moved across the Channel as four close friends have done recently – I am hoping that all the breakdown prophecies are, if not entirely wrong, inaccurate at least.
Brexiters frequently repeat that they only wanted to leave an institution, not a continent, and that they love Europe. In which case how does this island stay European and preserve social and cultural ties to ensure it is not alienated from its own continent? What could replace the Erasmus programme which helps students study abroad for a more rounded global education experience? How will small and medium-sized businesses be protected, if at all? Will Brits continue to benefit from the living standards enjoyed thanks to over half a century of EU membership? The proof is in the pudding as the twist on a very old proverb goes . . . One thing that is certain is that developments post-Brexit are likely to be long and complex.
Perhaps leaving the EU will be so painful that the changes the UK needs will have to be made. Good Bye Europe, Hello Revolution?
French New Wave A Revolution in Design by Tony Nourmond, Graham Marsh, Christopher Frayling, Alison Elangasinghe | Reel Art Press, 1 Nov. 2019 | 40 GBP 350 pp illus. ISBN: 978-0957261044
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