Van Gogh — Bela Horovitz (Phaidon Press)

This book, published by Phaidon Press in 1936 simply titled Van Gogh, was a complete monograph of all the artwork by Vincent Van Gogh. It was one of the first art books to show the complete work of an artist in one place and rode on the ever increasing success of Van Gogh. This book made history and since then art books had become more and more popular.

This book is 27x36cm in size, which was a pretty large book for it’s time making it a really unique design. The front “Van Gogh” title is a modern looking, bold, easy to read sans serif typeface, very reminiscent of some Bauhaus inspired aesthetics which had grown at the time before this book was published but had only just been disbanded in 1933. The monochromatic images inside the book are printed on using a technique called photogravure, which involved transferring photo negatives onto metal plates that etch in the design, resulting in a very high quality image with maximum detail showing. Some colour images were glued into the book, to give it an extra feature that many would find desirable.

The designer, Bela Horovitz (1898–1955), was obsessed and enthusiastic about using the most modern printing methods, and he had established a very close relationship with a group of printers who did all the printing for this book. This resulted in a very high quality product as everyone was on the same page, had close communication and had access to the most modern technologies at the time. Despite the high amount of effort and care put into it, the team decided they wanted to make it a reasonably affordable book so that they could market it to more audiences. All 55,000 first-print copies of the book had been sold only a couple of days after the books initial release, showing it was a wide success.

The simplicity of the front cover’s design, featuring Van Gogh’s Self Portrait from 1888, is very effective in it’s minimalist nature. It shows a large portrait of Van Gogh to attract readers and it is a full scale image, taking up the entire front cover. This helps the reader to understand what the book is about and makes it easy to recognise the artist, with the large title, named after the artist, in a bold and bright typeface.

The book is neatly laid out and is very easy to understand. There is rarely more than one image on a single page, the only other objects being the title of the piece and the dates they were done. This creates a very modern, easy to read book with a minimalist style yet still engages with the audience by informing them of details by the artist. A lot of the pages contrast each other, having coloured images on one side of the spread and the printed monochrome images on the other. This makes it interesting to look through as there’s not many times you’re only looking at black and white images, there’s a decent mix of both throughout.

Bela Horovitz and Phaidon started as publishers whose main goals were to publish cultural history successfully and largely unbiased, and clearly through the publishing of this widely successful book, they had achieved that.

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