Andy Warhol's Attraction to Herbert Bayer's Lips

When Alexey Brodovitch was art directing Harper’s Bazaar, he ran a striking cover by Herbert Bayer for its 1940 “College Fashions” issue. A three-quarter view photo of a woman’s face is duplicated in two rows of four: a clear newsstand eye-catcher.


Brodovitch went on to commission an up-and-coming illustrator named Andy Warhol for several jobs in the 1950s. So whenever I discuss that particular cover with my design history students, I note that Warhol had to have been familiar with it, and even strongly inspired by it. And just last week Britain’s Guardian published a story about a new Denmark exhibition of his largely unseen pre-Pop drawings, and it includes an illustration that offers compelling proof.

In his formative years as a commercial artist, Warhol would regularly produce drawings by tracing photos. Although the article doesn’t mention Bazaar, it does remark that the sketch “reflects his obsession with repetition.” And now it’s safe to say that, in its own way, this cover may be as relevant to his aesthetic as the Niagara publicity still he appropriated for his “Marilyn” series.

Even more noteworthy are the several other associations between the magazine cover and, specifically, the 1962 “Marilyn Diptych,” one of Warhol’s most famous and influential artworks. For example, each of the Bayer’s eight faces is at a different distance from the next; the shift is subtle, like the slight tonal variations on the faces, but apparent enough to indicate the hand of the designer rather than mere mechanical repetition. Likewise askew are each of Monroe’s 50 silkscreened faces, duplicated ten times across and five down.

Bayer has blown out the right side of his woman’s face, which eliminates detail and allows for a graceful transitional flow; Warhol also uses a bare minimum of facial contour textures, but Monroe’s features are coarse and harsh, like cheap tabloid newspaper printing, as if to indicate the media’s often brutal treatment of personalities in the news.

And then there’s the palette. Both make prominent use of flat colors, but Bayer confines his red, yellow, blue, and green to his model’s lips, so their pattern becomes the focal point. Warhol’s Pop neons envelop almost all of the picture’s left panel, but because Monroe’s teeth are pure white, the mouth also becomes the spotlighted. Much has been written about the eerie aura of the canvas’s uncomfortably angled, semi-sneering red lips; they’ve even been compared to a bloody vagina dentata.

Bayer’s cover image is primarily black and white, which makes his bright “lipstick” accents pop. The full right half of Warhol’s diptych is all grey and gritty, and even fading away at the far end; it’s hardly a coincidence that he produced it just shortly after Monroe’s death. One picture is about making a presence, the other is about becoming an absence.

Working 22 years apart, both artists are, obviously, following different agendas. The iconic Bazaar cover was meant to attract readers to an issue about back-to-school styles, making a nod to superficial variety within the conformist demands of fashion. Warhol’s piece could indicate the very opposite: a vain struggle for individuality in an increasingly homogenized mass culture. And like all lasting works of art, it packs a visceral resonance that continues to provoke us more than half a century later.

We could make several other comparisons, such as how these two graphic representations each spoke to the sexual politics of their times. And we can also conclude that the ways Warhol drew from that particular Brodovitch/Bayer cover, both figuratively and literally, is ample testament to the creative powers, and unique geniuses, of all three artists.

Above: Warhol’s “face repeated eight times,” c. 1958, and “Marilyn Diptych,” 1962, copyright © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

Below: 1953 Niagara photo by Gene Korman.

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