Book Review: Recalling a Modern Master

By Michael Webb

It’s Modern: The Eye and Visual Influence of Alexander Liberman. Charles Churchward. Rizzoli, $65.

There’s a fairy tale quality about the life and careers of Alexander Lieberman. An emigré from Kiev, he was briefly touched by the Russian avant garde, edited the first magazine of photo journalism in Paris in the 1930s, narrowly escaped to the US in 1941, was swiftly fired from his first two jobs but spent the next 50 years in art direction at Condé Nast. Even as he honed his reputation as an artist and social lion, he became editorial director of the entire publishing empire, from Vogue to Allure. He re-launched Vanity Fair and House & Garden and inaugurated new titles. Nobody will ever again exercise such authority and for so long. Adaptability was his greatest gift. An exacting stylist, he could reconceive magazines every decade and for every demographic, remaking layouts for hours at a time, before returning to his Connecticut studio to work on an abstract painting or sculpture.

This is a portfolio of gorgeous images and spreads spanning seven decades, including a few that still have the shock of the new. Beauty and couture alternate with artwork. The layout is conventional (Liberman would surely have torn into it) and the text is cramped and pedestrian, but it provides the essential information. The man emerges from the myth: a supremely elegant arbiter of style, applying his talents to the ephemeral follies of fashion. He married a Russian beauty, the mother of novelist Francine du Plessix Gray, hired and fired the finest photographers, and outmaneuvered imperious editors. As his friend Beatrice Monti remarked, “I can’t imagine another Alex. The time is past for that.”

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