Making Modernism

Illustrations for Hecht’s 1,001 Afternoons in Chicago, 1922

Herman Rosse’s jacket cover and title page illustrations for Ben Hecht’s sixty-four vignettes about city life in 1,001 Afternoons in Chicago (Chicago: Covici-McGee) are minor masterpieces of design, and important examples of 1920s architectural imagery.  His drawings throughout the book are spectacular and theatrical; Chicago itself is treated as a stage set.  Buildings, streets, and bridges are all rendered in a graphic, starkly linear manner.  The abundance of signs in Rosse’s drawings and the marquee-like shapes and layout of the illustrations recall the “Golden Age” of urban advertising in the 1920s, when American cities were choked with all manner of images and texts.  In this spirit of ballyhoo, the cover illustration incorporates the title of the book––in full and in fragments­­––at least seven times.  On the title pages, the rather filmic image of the pedestrians’ striding legs recreates the quirky perspectives of urban experience.  A decorative border of buildings and smoke plumes above becomes a visual metaphor for the modern city.  Inside the book, Rosse’s pictures introduce each of Hecht’s essays.  Concluding each are varied, stylized theater masks.  

While Rosse’s art shows the influence of the German Expressionists and the visionary Italian Futurist architect, Antonio Sant’Elia (1888-1916), it also presages a Chicago aesthetic.  It looks forward to the subversive illustrative art of the Hairy Who, the windowed cities of Roger Brown’s Imagist paintings, and even to the nostalgic, compartmented imagery of Chris Ware.  Most importantly, however, Rosse’s imagery visualizes Hecht’s own colorful descriptions in 1,001 Afternoons in Chicago of the city’s built environment as “a merry-go-round of rooftops, skyscrapers bristling like cubistic bayonets…[and] buildings like black and white checkered pythons standing on their tails….”  

Unsurprisingly, given the look of his art, the Dutch-born Rosse (1887-1965) was an architect, theatrical designer, and art director.  Studying in Holland and London, he eventually earned his degree in architecture from Stanford University in California.  In 1918 he became head of the design department at Chicago’s School of the Art Institute.  He also took on private commissions for interiors, fabric designs, and book illustrations, and created sets for the stage in conjunction with Hecht, Kenneth Macgowan, and the Goodman Theater.  It was at this time that Rosse produced the theater-inspired drawings for 1,001 Afternoons.  Like Hecht, Rosse was lured to Hollywood, where he became an accomplished art director and set designer on films such as Dracula and The Emperor Jones.  And like Hecht, he won an Academy Award­­ (for the art direction in the 1930 King of Jazz).  Like so much of Chicago modernism, Rosse’s illustrations for 1,001 Afternoons are both intensely specific to this city and were adaptable to the tastes and styles being realized in other metropolitan centers. 

- Mark B. Pohlad, DePaul University

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