The Historical Present: Pandemic Connections in an Early 20th-Century Photo | Magazine

The Historical Present: Pandemic Connections in an Early 20th-Century Photo | Magazine

To research art and design meant for streets, train stations, shop windows, and other public places in early-20th-century Europe and Russia, the curatorial team looked closely at public spaces themselves. We gathered historical images documenting how the posters, advertisements, magazines, and other works in the show were originally installed on city walls or in storefronts. Enlarged images in the exhibition provide context for visitors, revealing forces that shaped artists as they developed these works, from the speed of modern transportation, to urban bustle, to the dynamism of signage integrated with architecture, competing for attention.

When Claire discovered the masked figures in this photograph of Jacob (Jac.) Jongert’s advertisements for coffee and tea produced by the Dutch company Van Nelle, I immediately wondered if the image might stem from the early 1920s, amid a late wave of the 1918 influenza pandemic in Holland. Jongert lost his first wife to the outbreak in 1918, just a couple of years before he joined Van Nelle’s advertising department. By the late 1920s, Jongert had departed from the highly decorative Wendigen style, which was the major influence on Dutch graphic design at the time, to promote a functionalist approach that privileged clarity of communication. The advertisements we see on the wall of the building in this photograph reflect this later style in their playful yet concise typographic arrangements, use of highly legible sans serif letters, and high contrast, allowing us to date the photograph to ca. 1930. But this presented a dilemma: the Spanish flu subsided in the early 1920s, so why would people still be wearing masks almost a decade later?


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