The Daily Heller: Imago’s Print Experimentation

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Certain magazines cover their times. Others define the period by inventing the style of their times. And others are way ahead of their times. With its deceptively elegante format and surprising contents, Imago was the showcase for art and design of the ’60s and ’70s. It retains a certain resonance for the 2020s, too.

This first collection of the innovative magazine, Imago 1960–1971 (Corriani Editions) is an invaluable artifact looking back at the future of Italian art and design.

Giorgio Camuffo, one of Italy’s most prolific design writers and archivist scholars, served as curator/editor of this hefty new book (which currently is only published in Italian), so we asked him for some of the introduction to be excerpted in English below:

Imago presents itself as a mysterious object, a black envelope hiding and protecting a coloured folder. A disappointing approach for a magazine that in its subtitle declares itself “for a new image.” But the unwitting reader, who was disconcerted at first contact, will then be amazed—as I was—by the quality of the printed matter when he opens the folder.

Perhaps it was the beauty of the images that remained in my eyes, or more likely it was the simple challenge of putting together all the issues, objects that are now very rare and very difficult to find in their original form, that first pushed me to collect them and then to plan a book that would present to the public all the extraordinary graphic objects published in the 14 issues, between 1960 and 1971.

But what is Imago? It is not easy to say. From a formal point of view, it is a magazine, albeit with a “fanciful” periodicity, since it came out when everything was ready and above all when there was money to print it. To be precise, Imago is a company magazine, a house organ, albeit a very unusual one, the tool invented to promote the services of Bassoli Fotoincisioni of Milan, a company specialising in the production of printing plates, by Raffaele Bassoli, its owner, and Michele Provinciali, a brilliant graphic designer, teacher, photographer, one of the most prominent figures on the Italian design scene in its heyday. But Imago is also, and at the same time, a repertoire of graphics, a magic box and the ideal synthesis of a business idea, in which a company with a need to advertise its production quality meets experimentation, creativity, research and design culture.

Raffaele Bassoli and Michele Provinciali, editorial and art directors of the magazine, published the first issue of Imago in May 1960, at the height of the economic boom, when Italy was a country where everything seemed possible and when Italian design was beginning the triumphal march that would lead it to invade the homes of half the world.

For Imago Provinciali wanted something different and developed an editorial project in which the figure of the graphic designer was not necessary, or not necessarily visible. Avoiding the emergence of his own sign, Provinciali assumes rather the role of curator and conceives a folder containing a heterogeneous set of printed matter, each an autonomous invention, distinct in form, support and layout. He wants each project to be a unique piece, a reflection or a look at an original subject chosen independently by its author.

Independent objects, not bound together, held together only by their packaging. Some are purely visual-material constructions, others are verbal-visual elaborations, with free associations of graphics, photographs, art reproductions and texts.

Browsing through the contents of the Imago folders, one finds single sheets folded in various ways, posters, small books, stapled files, made of cardboard and tissue paper, printed in black or in several colours. A virtuoso inventory of graphic solutions of great value, such as the 121 carabinieri or the cars designed, like the first ones, by the graphic artist “without a licence” Pino Tovaglia, the worn out soaps, the oversized railway ticket or “the nefarious containers of washing liquids, found unevenly distributed on the shoreline,” all works by Michele Provinciali, the Automostro by Armando Testa or the Ricostruzione teorica by Bruno Munari.

Imago was also a great showcase for talent, a meeting place that embodied and translated the spirit and initiatives that animated Milan in those years, a city undergoing great economic and building expansion but in which industry and culture sought each other out and met, and in which new paths for artistic and general cultural experimentation were opened. Graphic designers, writers, poets, photographers, illustrators, artists and even musicians, friends of Bassoli and more often of Provinciali, populated the lively world that revolved around the publication of Bassoli Fotoincisioni. An important role is certainly played by the writers: great names of Italian literature—Dino Buzzati, Piero Chiara, Giuseppe Pontiggia, Mario Soldati—but also authors less known to the general public, such as Raffaello Baldini, Aldo Borlenghi, Raffaele Carrieri, Sergio Garassini, Pino Pistorio and Domenico Tarizzo, who animate Imago with an ironic, pungent writing, dealing with different themes and contributing to that plural verbal-visual language that distinguishes the publication. There are, of course, graphic designers and advertisers: well-known names such as Giulio Confalonieri, Silvio Coppola, AG Fronzoni, Max Huber, Giancarlo Iliprandi, Bruno Munari, Remo Muratore, Armando Testa, Pino Tovaglia, and others less well-known but no less interesting, such as Emilio De Maddalena, Roberto Maderna, Antonio Tabet and Enzo Belfanti, art director of Bassoli Fotoincisioni, author of many of the projects published in Imago. In addition to them, important photographers such as Alfa Castaldi and Paolo Monti, and artists and illustrators such as Fulvio Bianconi, Floriano Bodini, Salvatore Fiume and Aoi Kono Huber.

More from Camuffo:

The adventure began with the meeting of two very different personalities who were nevertheless linked by shared passions as much as by mutual esteem and respect: Raffaele Bassoli and Michele Provinciali. In 1960, the former was the owner of Bassoli Fotoincisioni in Milan, a company he inherited from his father, Carlo, specialising in the production of printing plates. Carlo Bassoli had been director of the photomechanical section of the “Avanti!” printing house and, after the Fascist raid in 1923, had bought the remaining usable machines. After the Second World War, and particularly in the years of the so-called economic miracle, Bassoli held an important position in the sector and collaborated with the best graphic designers and the most important companies in communication and printing. Michele Provinciali was a graphic designer with a rich cultural background, a “materialologist,” as Giorgio Celli defined him, “who encompasses both the artist and his double, or shadow, the graphic designer.”

His curiosity makes him capable of tackling different disciplines; he paints, photographs, produces small objects and collages. “He is not an ‘intellectual’ because, says Raffaello Baldini, “he has never bothered much about finding plausible and ‘rational’ explanations for the suggestions of his instinct. He trusts his eyes, a smell, his intelligence, even his moods.” His portrait emerges vividly from the words of those who knew him, were his friends or worked with him. “He spoke quickly, he got angry, he got congested (and when he got congested he even stuttered), he knew many of Eliot’s poems by heart,” writes Baldini, who adds: “He was a utopian, an anarchist and believed above all in painting.” According to Celli, “two ‘souls’ coexisted in him: that of the constructivist, geometric, more conventional graphic artist, and that of the baroque, hypergeometric graphic artist, dedicated to ‘marvelling.'”

Born in Parma, Provinciali graduated in art history in 1947 in Urbino, and became the assistant of Pasquale Rotondi—the superintendent of the Galleries and works of art of the Marche region, known for having coordinated the great operation to save part of Italy’s artistic heritage at the outbreak of the Second World War—and worked on 15th-century Italian painting. In 1951, thanks to a presentation by Giulio Carlo Argan, Lionello Venturi and Walter Gropius, he obtained a Fulbright scholarship and moved to Chicago, where he attended the Institute of Design (the school founded by László Moholy-Nagy in 1937 as the New Bauhaus). The experience in Chicago was decisive for the young Provinciali; when he returned to Italy in 1953, the collaborations in the field of design were not long in coming. To mention just a few episodes, in 1954, the annus mirabilis of Italian design, he was one of the organizers of the International Exhibition of Industrial Design at the 10th Milan Triennale; in 1955, together with Gino Valle, he received the Compasso d’Oro award for the Solari company’s watch; in 1956 he was art director of Qualità, the house organ of Kartell-Samco. His years of study in Chicago and the sensitivity he acquired pushed Provinciali towards teaching: From 1954 he taught at the Scuola Umanitaria in Milan, where he coordinated the photography course.

This marked the start of a new and very important activity in his career, which in 1971 would also take him to the Isia in Urbino and which enabled him to never lose his interest in research and visual experimentation. Having set up his studio in Milan, Provinciali found himself frequenting the company in Via Accademia for work, and a friendship soon developed between him and Raffaele Bassoli. In addition to professional matters, they were united by their passions for jazz, fast cars and, in general, everything that revolved around the automotive world, as well as a love of culture and classical languages, a legacy of their high school studies. Raffaele is an engineer and an industrialist, but he is also a keen reader, a lover of art and music. Michele is a poet, painter, archaeologist, critic, as well as a well-known graphic designer and art director. Small in stature, always very elegant, with a maniacal attention to the details of what he wears and in particular to shoes—so much so that he decided to open the first issue of Imago with the image of a used shoe. Michele and Raffaele began to see each other; they met not only for professional reasons but also for friendship, to listen to music, to play together and to passionately discuss different topics.

With Imago Bassoli has found the ideal dimension for combining his passions: the growth of his company and culture, used as an opportunity to build stories and relationships but also to give his company the image and role that economic results alone cannot guarantee. 
Without Raffaele Bassoli, without his company’s financial resources and without the people made available for production, Imago would never have been possible. It is he who provides the production structure and bears the very high costs of printing, binding and communication. However, Bassoli is not just the industrialist who finances the enterprise: He also plays an important role in all of the magazine’s editorial processes. He takes care of the entire chain, from relations with authors to the choice of different printers, from production to distribution and sales. This total commitment reveals that for Bassoli Imago is not only an economic adventure but above all a cultural venture and activity. For Provinciali, too, Imago has many meanings.

First of all, it is an opportunity to practice a conception of graphic design and, above all, of art direction that he evidently feels congenial. For Provinciali, design and communication are never dogmatism, they are not necessarily aimed at creating uniformity and order through a rigorously organized grid: Years later, talking about the beginnings of Imago, he would state that his approach was opposed to the international style that was then beginning to assert itself and that a few years later would find expression in experiences such as Unimark by Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda. More than anything else, the many stories handed down by Provinciali’s students at the Isia in Urbino help us to understand not only the ideas behind Imago but also his concept of graphics. Small facts: Such as the one reported by Massimo Casamenti, who tells of Provinciali coming out of a shop with a packet of corks and exclaiming to his students “This is graphics!”, creating panic among his young students but also prompting a discussion and leading them to question the meaning of the profession and the different ways of approaching it.

These provocations were often taken to the extreme, as Massimo Dolcini—one of his closest students, with whom he would have a very long friendship and working relationship—recalls, who claims to have heard him say several times that in order to be a good graphic designer one had to forget about graphics. These are apparently simple and paradoxical statements, but they tell of circumstances that, as Gillo Dorfles writes, make us understand how Provinciali’s ability was also to recognise “conditions already in place, of chromatic or material relationships, existing around us, but which we only realise after he himself has ‘presented’ them to us and made them tangible and inspectable.”

It is clear from his projects that Provinciali shared the modernist aspiration to contribute, with “good design,” to improving the quality of living and dwelling in contemporary society. But this ambition never loses sight of the forms and signs that emerge from everyday life or from those areas where expression comes before style. A certain understatement, so to speak, of Imago can also be read in this light. For this magazine, Provinciali builds an editorial project in which the figure of the graphic designer is not necessary, or not necessarily visible. Avoiding the emergence of his own sign, Provinciali assumes rather the role of editor. Even though the entire editorial project is built around the figure of the graphic designer and visual artist as author—the contents are works, in this sense—the role that Provinciali reserves for his own intervention and ultimately also for Bassoli is not self-celebratory. Instead, the graphic design and production are at the service of the ideas, the contents. Graphics—the layout of the materials—are prepared to support an attentive, respectful gaze, to be a means or service rather than an end in itself.