The deluxe cruise ship of a magazine that was L’Illustration, 80 or so years ago, was not simply a tireless and generous repository of visual arts and belles-lettres, but it was also a testing ground for modernists—especially graphic designers— looking to discover how far from Old France they could nudge a mainstream clientele.
The “Numero de Noel” (Christmas) editions were particularly heavy on the Louvre-level satisfactions; and in the number for 1924, with a cover showing a reproduction of a portrait-painting by Fragonard, that elegant and witty design provocateur, George Barbier, gives us a fascinating ride into visual irony. Purporting to be a document from the pre-Revolutionary period (by someone called Andre le Breton—Andre Breton being the notorious Dadaist and Surrealist firebrand; but at the same time there is remarking of an Andre le Breton who was a notorious censor, in the eighteenth century)— the rather daffy text punches out twists and turns of the love affair of one of Marie Antoinette’s confidantes. The main thing, though, is Barbier’s presenting the actors in this imbroglio as if they had become present-day, deco-era Parisians.
The sub-title of this little novella is “Phantoms of the Ancient Regime.” At its center is the correspondence between the lovers separated by thousands of miles, expressing their fantabulous desires and addressing each other as “my heart” and “my sister.” Set amidst this melodrama is the further melodrama of the heroine-widow’s first marriage to a man 40 years older than she.
Barbier’s gig in the edition of 1923 has to do with a young rural aristocrat of the current era coming to Paris and entering the world of an oriental man-about-town who transports him into a romantic (drug-fuelled) fantasy, “The Land of a Thousand Surprises.”