Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Alajalov: Illustrator or Cartoonist?

When Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987) painted the 22 June 1935 cover for The New Yorker magazine, employment prospects for college graduates were uncertain. I'm drafting this post mid-June, at the tail end of this year's graduation ceremony season, and a similar situation holds. In both cases, there was serious economic under-performance. But in 1935 college graduates were a much smaller share of the 22-year-old or thereabouts population, so supply-demand factors were more in their favor back then even though times were tough.

Alajalov (name accented on the third syllable) was a popular illustrator from the late 1920s into the 1960s, best known for magazine cover illustrations he created for Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and The Saturday Evening Post. Biographical information on the internet is sparse. And even inaccurate: his Wikipedia entry states that the Russian Revolution happened in 1916 -- 1917 was the actual year. The most useful link that I could find is here. There are some books from the 1940s dealing with illustrators containing sections about Alajalov, but this recent, similar kind of book by Fred Taraba might be easier to locate.

Taraba mentions that Alajalov was a fine-art painter and muralist as well as an illustrator. He and other sources stress that Alajalov would take a good deal of time and trouble to make the settings of his illustrations as accurate as possible. I think this care was essential because his signature work seems more cartoon-like than straight illustration. Yet the cartoonishness lies mostly in the way he depicted the faces of his subjects. And like a good cartoon, those faces reveal the character and current thought or emotion of those subjects. Further, the settings and situations he depicts match or come close to matching the experience of his viewers. Taraba notes that Alajalov tailored these elements to fit the average readership of The New Yorker (big-city, supposed sophisticates) and the Post (Middle America).

A final thought before turning to more examples of Alajalov's work. In his heyday, aside from The New Yorker and some 1920s publications such as Life and Judge, most mass-circulation magazine illustration for stories and non-fiction articles was naturalistic. So during much of his career, Alajalov's approach was largely unique (I have a major exception in mind, and will write about him at another time). Today, to dredge up a cliché, the shoe is on the other foot: comparatively little magazine illustration is naturalistic, the bulk being cartoon-like in one way or another.


The New Yorker - 28 October, 1939

The New Yorker - 1 March, 1941

The Saturday Evening Post - 2 May, 1959

The Saturday Evening Post - 31 December, 1949

1 comment:

dearieme said...

"1917 was the actual year": yup, for both The Revolution and for Lenin's coup d'etat.