How WWII curtailed a design career

When war broke out, Paolo Garretto's brush with fascism made American publishers unwilling to use his work

By Steven Heller
Published July 12, 2011 1:01AM (EDT)

Many monumental things happened in 1927. In addition to embarking on the road to fame and ubiquity as a graphic artist.

"I also married [his first wife Ariane], went to live in Paris and worked in London," Paolo Garretto wrote. "But my wife did not like London so I had to commute every week by airplane (Fokkers from the war that were adapted by Air France to make the trip over the Channel)." Over the years he made hundreds of caricatures for the "Great Eight" and for advertising clients too. "It was pleasant for a while," but then he admitted, "with the years passing by, the faces to caricature were becoming scarce."

To find other challenges he began doing some work in Italy for Gazzetta del Popolo in Turin (a newspaper for whom he designed a format), Rivista del Popolo d'Italia (Mussolini's flagship magazine), and Natura, a beautiful Milanese magazine for which he designed the covers, and which were reproduced in the leading advertising arts magazines in Europe and the United States.

The late Twenties was not only a time of political upheaval, but a period when artists believed in the power to change people's thoughts through graphic design.

"As all others, I was pushed by Cubism, Futurism, Divisionism (what our professors had called 'stupid inventions to get attention and fame any way possible'). I tried very hard to be different," wrote Garretto about the genesis of his personal style. "We were all conscious that we were pushing and trying to change something or everything. I recall when Fortunino Mantania, a very famous [art nouveau] illustrator from the turn of the century, came to my father's house one evening. To get his opinion, I showed him a drawing I had made for a new brand of coffee. He told me to forget, what he called, my 'fantasies and useless tricks' and design a nice, nearly naked (Negro) girl embracing the package instead of my smiling Neapolitan cafeteria (coffeepot) pouring coffee in a demi-tasse." Garretto respected him, but thought his ideas were old fashioned. So instead, "I did my idea and it was bought."

Garretto's graphic approach was based on simplification of primary graphic forms into iconic depictions and loose, but poignant likenesses. Vibrant, airbrushed color was his trademark, and he also experimented with different media to create exciting new form, including experiments with collage and modeling clay which proved fruitful. Without his superb draftsmanship what is now pigeon-holed as Deco styling would surely have been a superficial conceit, but his conceptual work was so acute, and his decorative work was so well crafted that he eschewed these pitfalls. Writing in a 1946 issue of Graphis, his old friend and sponsor from the Cafe Aragno days, Orio Vergani, describes Garretto's ingenuity this way:

"Once the constructive theme of his images is discovered, Garretto proceeds to the invention of the media necessary for executing them. I believe he has painted, or rather, constructed his images with everything: scraps of cloth, threads of rayon, with the bristles of his shaving brush, with straw, strips of metal and mill board, with iron filings and sulpher, tufts of fur and wings of butterflies. His colors are born of a strange alchemy of opposed materials in the light of an artificial sun; he seeks for the squaring of shade as others have sought for the squaring of the circle."

Though Garretto lived and worked out of his flat in Paris, the City of Lights was no more than a base from which to work for publications and agencies in other major world capitals. He visited Berlin often, where he worked for the Berlin Illustrated News, Leipzig Illustrated, Der Querschnitt, Der Sport im Bilder, and others (until Hitler assumed power and had expelled many of the Jews on the creative staffs of these journals). In London he did advertising work through the London Press Exchange, the most important advertising outfit in the British Empire, basically because Charles Hobson, its director, asked him to do some "modern and surprising posters." Owing to his own globe trotting and the consequent lack of time for what he called "mondanities" Garretto did not nurture many friendships in Paris. He did, however, know the French masters of poster art, A.M. Cassandre, Jean Carlu, Charles Loupot, and Paul Colin, and was briefly connected to their advertising "agency," Alliance Graphique owing to his friendship with a Montmartre printer named Dupont. For this agency he did a sketch of a poster for Air France's new airline, La Fleche d'Orient. It was immediately bought by the client, apparently ruffling the feathers of the other Alliance members whose own attempts to sell their ideas had failed. Avoiding silly rivalries and business minutia was why Garretto invariably preferred to handle most of his other advertising accounts directly with the client. Around this time he met Alexey Brodovitch at his office at Les Trois Quartiers, the chic Parisian department store, for which he was art director. It was an acquaintance that would have interesting consequences later in Garretto's career.

"I had seen some of Brodovitch's work," recalled Garretto, "and was very enthusiastic about his new way to advertise men's clothes, shoes, and women's beauty products. For me, an admirer of the [raucous] Futurists, it was very exciting to meet this very calm, controlled Russian."

Garretto's caricatures were published in the United States, first by the Philadelphia Ledger and the New York Sunday World, then Fortune Magazine started using covers, and later he did drawings for The New Yorker's profiles, but his really significant American exposure occurred in October 1930 when Clare Boothe Brokaw, one of Vanity Fair's chief editors, requested his services in a "flattering but unexpected" letter sent to his Paris home:

Dear Monsieur Garretto,

The Editors were very much impressed with your cartoon of Gandhi in the August issue of Fortune. We had also in our files some excellent caricatures made by you for the December, 1927 issue of the Graphic. It occurred to us that you may possibly have some other caricatures of prominent people, or cartoons of a political, artistic, or social nature, which you maybe able to send us. We should be very glad to consider them for publication in Vanity Fair.

Garretto, however, did not respond until late December after Brokaw insisted in a second note that:

"We are indeed anxious to see your work, and if there is something we can use, we are anxious to do so in a forthcoming issue."

Garretto no longer hesitated, and immediately sailed to New York to meet his new clients.

"Aside from the satisfaction that I always had through my work, I must say that the Vanity Fair period was really the most exciting of my life," he recalled with a distinct melancholy about the special time that had passed. "I never had the slightest problem with them -- [Frank] Crowninshield was a kind and most comprehensive editor [in chief of Vanity Fair], and what can I say of those beautiful and bright, intelligent Clare Boothe Brokaw (later Luce) and Helen Lawrenson? It was really a joy for me to go to New York every time. Not to speak of my friendship with M.F. Agha [Vanity Fair's legendary art director] whom I had met first in Berlin when he was art director of German Vogue."

He spent time with Condé Nast in Paris and New York, stayed at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, and cultivated friendships with many of New York's rich and famous. It was a charmed life. Fortunately for Garretto's bank book he was commissioned by the New York office of the Italian Lines to execute some travel posters. For in addition to his fee they provided him with 50% discounted tickets on their transatlantic steamers. Since Garretto commuted to the United States almost as frequently as he went to London, the savings were well appreciated. When he elected to stay at home his working relationship remained unhindered by what today is a comparatively slow means of travel and communications. Indeed he said that it was faster in the 1930s to send a drawing from Paris to New York (usually it took five to six days) than to send a package to Milan (taking ten to fifteen days). Moreover, his rapport with the editors was exemplary, given the commonplace interference in visual matters exercised by editors today.

"In general I would be told that [Vanity Fair] wanted a cover for a certain month and I would conceive it, send it, and then see it published," he explained. "Only once did I have to rush another cover drawing because the one I had sent could not be used." In this case the new one became a classic example of Garretto's caricature as design in the service of polemics. It was rather prescient too, for this cover showed the world sweating under the heat of the Japanese flag (in a reference to an important world naval convention that Japan refused to sign). "Condé Nast wrote me a complimentary letter asking how 'I came to nurture this idea.' I told him that I knew the Japanese had no interest in signing a treaty that would limit their control. To me it was quite clear that Japan was growing fast and was very hungry for [power]."

Most of Garretto's concepts were his own, and were often based on his sometimes profoundly acute -- yet other times devastatingly naive -- understanding of world politics. In addition to his commercial work, Garretto considered himself a journalist. He had been affiliated with newspapers for a long time, and so, as the war clouds over Europe began to darken and swell in the late Thirties, Garretto was allowed to travel owing to his long standing affiliation with the Italian Press Association, which made it possible for him to get visas for almost any country. When the war suddenly broke out in 1940 he was, however, in Turin art directing -- "changing the face" -- of the Gazzetta del Popolo and, because he was an Italian citizen could not get a visa to return to Paris to be with his wife (whom he later divorced) and son who where stranded when the French frontier was closed to foreigners. Instead he left for New York from Naples on the steamship Conte di Savoia, which was filled to capacity with Americans fleeing the future battleground. On board he shared a table with John Paul Getty,

"who wanted to be left alone and was upset when he learned I was a newspaperman, but was mollified when I drew a caricature of him. He later told me to call him if I needed anything in the United States."

Back in New York, Garretto worked for his friend M.F. Agha who took over at Vogue after Vanity Fair had folded. He did covers for others. One such commission was earned a year before, through Brodovitch and editor Carmel Snow, who offered him a contract to design the twelve 1940 covers for Vogue's competitor, Harper's Bazaar. But as an American war with Germany and Italy was quickly becoming inevitable, Garretto's past association would prove an insurmountable obstacle in his attempt to do more work and be allowed to stay in New York. The first problem arose with Harper's Bazaar. Before leaving for Turin in 1939 he had completed finishes on two of the covers. When he returned he was anxious to complete the rest. But neither Snow (who was working with her publisher Wm. Hearst in California) nor Brodovitch (who was on vacation) could be found to discuss the jobs.

"So I started to work on ideas for covers for February and March," he recalled. "Some time after this I reached Brodovitch, who told me in the nicest and kindest way he could that my contract was broken."

Garretto learned through the grapevine that a biography, titled "Fascist Artist," printed in Vanity Fair in 1934 was making the rounds of Harper's Bazaar, and given the tenor of the times the editors refused to give this "Fascist Artist" any work.

"Happily for me," wrote Garretto, "I always had Condé Nast and Fortune to accept me, so I carried on, nevertheless with a bit of bitterness, as you can understand. I later heard from Agha that Brodovitch had told him that he suffered but had to 'obey orders.' In my opinion he obeyed orders too strictly."

Garretto was also given certain jobs to keep spirit and soul alive, including the re-rendering of Cassandre's original Dubonet Man. It was assigned to Garretto by Paul Rand, then the art director of The Weintraub Agency that handled the account. Rand told me:

"Garretto was a masterful artist, and accepted this job without any reservation or resentment even though I was not asking him for his own ideas."

Because of the danger of war, President Roosevelt had stated that no German or Italian citizen could get a quota visa for the United States and Garretto's visitor's visa allowed him only a few months sojourn. Covarrubias had assured him that he could help obtain a permanent visa in Mexico, so as to avoid deportation to the Virgin Islands. Unfortunately, this never materialized. However, since one of the many dignitaries Garretto met during his travels was Secretary of State Cordell Hull, he was told by Hull's secretary that if he returned to Italy he could come back to New York to apply for permanent residency.

"But there was no time for this," Garretto recalled. "Italy entered the European war. (And in the meantime I married my second wife in New York). I was arrested as were all other Italian newspapermen, and taken first to the Tombs [a New York prison] and then to the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs to join the Italian, German, and Japanese diplomatic internees. After six months we were embarked on the Grottingholm, a Swedish boat as old as Noah's ark, to Lisbon where wagon-lit trains were waiting to take us to our respective countries."

Just as his fling with Fascism was tolerated in America before the war, his farcical caricatures of Mussolini and Hitler (published in the United States) were only tolerated in Italy until war broke out. Garretto had heard that Mussolini was not pleased with a certain anti-war article he had written a few years earlier. So when he returned to Rome, Garretto was not in favor. And when he refused to do propaganda (owing, he wrote in a rather far-fetched statement, to an FBI declaration that he signed before being deported not to do any anti-U.S. propaganda) he was forced to come up with an idea that would prove his patriotism and not land him in an Italian prison for insubordination or treason. His brilliant idea, which is quite funny in hindsight, was to help teach Italian to those peoples conquered by the victorious Fascist forces.

"I had patented an idea to teach our vocabulary through the movies," wrote Garretto. "One would see a cartoon, a short (with live actors) and through the sound, the image, and written captions could learn the language."

Garretto was sent with his new wife, Eva, to Budapest to put his invention into practice. His stay was rather pleasant until Mussolini was deposed, exiled, and then reestablished as a puppet by Hitler. This meant that if an Italian living in a German-occupied country did not become a "new Fascist" in support of the new Duce, he or she would be interned as an enemy alien by the Germans. Such was Garretto's fate for nine months until he and his wife were evacuated by the Germans in the face of the Russian advance. They were eventually deported to Trento, Italy, where they were able to escape from a transport train during an allied air raid, and managed to flee to Milan, where Garretto and his wife were helped by friends, even though they were "suspect citizens," according to a document they were forced to carry. With the war's end Garretto returned to Paris as an "ex-enemy." Though it took time to reestablish himself, he made covers for the fashion magazine Adam and a few other small journals. In Italy he published a children's book that he had written while interned in Hungary, and worked for several magazines, including Arbiter, Per Voi Signor, and others. In 1946, with the help of some friends, he was able to get a visa to return to the United States, where he designed a perfume bottle that was produced by Lucien Lelong. But generally speaking, in the United States his work was not as sought after as before the war.

"It is not me who stopped working for the American magazines," he wrote in answer to the question, why did he terminate his American associations? "but the American magazines changed a lot. They published less and less drawings. In my time, maybe there were less photographers. And the old art editors died or changed and maybe the new ones did not even know my work! My last serious appearance was in Vogue, in a special section dedicated to [the musical] South Pacific. So you see I did not stop ... They did." Dejected, he returned to France where he worked for the Italian magazine Panorama and other "low circulation, low paying magazines."

In 1952 Garretto found that living in France became a big problem. He

"started to be singled out by the income tax operators in Paris who found that I had not paid income tax in France on what I was earning in the U.S., Italy, etc. It was useless to tell them that I paid regularly in those different countries. So they fixed a big fine -- too big for me to pay -- and I decided to leave Paris and start again in Monaco where there is no income tax, but they tax you indirectly through prices that are higher than in France or Italy."

Until Garretto's death in August 1989, he actively pursued his life's work. Though appearing only once in an American publication since the early fifties -- actually in a subscription flyer for Condé Nast's Traveller -- he has had many exhibitions throughout Italy and a critical biography about him was published in Naples. Yet despite today's retro-illustrators who have borrowed and made a success of the Garretto approach, his own contemporary work, including portraits done in his 1930s style of the Beatles, Margaret Thatcher, and Liza Minnelli, is quite out of sync with the times. Stale even. Regardless of Garretto's formidable drafting skills, his more recent representations of contemporary personalities lacked the intuitive strength that underscored his earlier work. Perhaps it might also be argued that the famous and infamous of the Twenties and Thirties are bigger than life while today's are merely human scale. Maybe Margaret Thatcher could never be as powerfully charged a portrait as Benito Mussolini. Whether Garretto's contemporary work holds up or not, the work he did during his heyday will be remembered among the most innovative caricature and illustrative design of the golden age of graphic style.

Copyright F+W Media Inc. 2011.

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