Graphic design exhibitions are rare events in Portugal. If one takes into consideration its disastrous economic situation in the context of the global financial crisis and unimaginable austerity measures imposed by its government, their existence alone should be a case for celebration. Almanac – An History of Portuguese Graphic Design in Magazines took place under these conditions between October and December 2013 in the northern city of Matosinhos.
The exhibition was spread over two floors in the municipal gallery Espaço Quadra, which is solely dedicated to design and run by ESAD – Escola Superior de Artes e Design. Upon entering through glass doors, a big quantity of vitrines filled with magazines occupied the majority of the ground floor, with a wall-size timeline dominating the room. On a window that allowed looking at the floor below, a short text in bold black type set the tone for the exhibition.
In the preface of the 4th edition of Philip B. Meggs’ History of Graphic Design, the designer Alston Purvis mentions that “the visual feast that is graphic design becomes more abundant as time passes.” If we use this image, we can affirm that one of the most eloquent ways of serving that feast is to lay magazines on a table allowing that they communicate styles, values, techniques, content and form through the diversity produced by the history of graphic design.
This was a risky statement by the exhibition’s curator José Bártolo, head of ESAD’s Scientific Board. It may imply that graphic design served and displayed like food, will speak for itself. Contrasting with this there was a concern in framing the displayed work in a wider historical context. The timeline signalled the emergence of some magazines in parallel with important national and international design events, as well as political and social ones. Even though this effort was undoubtedly a crucial contribution to the discourse being developed in the exhibition, it still left the magazines lacking a clearer and more objective contextualisation. The dimension of the timeline and the spread historical events made it hard to understand the potential impact they had on the design and editorial process of the publications being exhibited.
If in the first room was possible to see a colourful feast of a vast quantity of magazines from the first half of the 20th century, the second appeared to be even more abundant, with too many publications inside some vitrines – particularly from the last decade – making the task of navigating so much information more difficult. There was a notorious effort to highlight magazines of political, social and cultural influence such as A Paródia (1900)[sc:sidenote side=”right” margintop=””]1Paródia, designed by Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro , Ilustração Portuguesa (1903) and Contemporânea (1922). Bordalo Pinheiro’s A Paródia was pivotal for introducing political humour to a wide audience and as importantly, a model of production and distribution in what could be considered the birth of self-publishing in Portugal. It was a pro-Republican magazine critiquing D. Carlos monarchic regime. Such relevant information was not available to the audience. In the second room, Almanaque (1959), Cadernos Politika (1989), [sc:sidenote side=”right” margintop=”200px”]2Cadernos Politika, collective design by Pedro Claúdio, Jorge Nogueira, Luís Carlos Amaro, Paulo Valente, Nuno Fonseca, Pedro Ruivo,Rogério Gonçalves, Jorge Silva Nuno Ramos de Almeida and Manuel António, 1989. and K (1991) were other notorious examples amongst more contemporary publications from the 1960s to present. They showed political involvement, critical reflection, and the attempt to produce a magazine as a coherent argument with a consideration of its many stages and activities involved. They revealed, too, Portugal’s rich legacy of political and satirical caricature and illustration, the diversified use of typography, a constant reference to the country’s historical visual elements and also the influence of Modernism, with the magazine Binário, for example. Due to the ambition of trying to provide an overview of over 100 years of history in such a small space, to develop a consistent and thorough discourse would always be a very difficult task.
Portuguese graphic design history remains largely unknown outside of the country, and in particular the UK and US which continue to dominate most of the discipline’s historical production. The work of Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro, Sena da Silva, Victor Palla and many more less known designers deserve a closer attention and study. The last decade has seen a rise of self-initiated publications and academic research addressing this need. The Colecção D, edited and published by designer Jorge Silva, and Robin Fior’s thesis about Sebastião Rodrigues’ work are some examples of this.
Organised chronologically but with thematic detours, the exhibition demonstrated an effort to highlight the relation between political, cultural, social events and design production, while putting forward a careful selection of magazines in the form of a proposed – and much needed – archive. Yet it was inevitable to not leave Almanaque without the feeling that it was not an exhibition of magazines, but of magazine covers. At a time when there is a contagious culture of tumblring, with many designers archiving, compiling and sometimes just simply dumping images and unreferenced content with a self-indulgent absence of criteria and purpose, to use feast as metaphor for a graphic design exhibition is undoubtedly dangerous. Almanaque was able to avoid it.