1930-1940 decade


This decade marks the beginning of much that characterises our media in the 21st century: the birth of modern digital computing: from the seminal paper On Computable Numbers (1936) came the idea of a universal computing machine (afterwards dubbed a Turing Machine), and by the end of the decade several prototype digital computer experiments were edging towards Turing’s idea. It was also the decade of early RDF or RADAR experiments, culminating with the British Chain Home System (begun in 1934). This system became a national defence network, linking RDF stations and Observer stations, with Fighter Command airfields, – all linked together for the first time into Hugh Dowding’s Air-Defence System. We also have Paul Otlet’s ideas for a world-library system (the Mundunaeum, 1934) – a remarkably prescient visualisation of a globally networked library system supported by telecommunications networks, central archives and television. And the equally visionary idea of a World Brain from H.G. Wells. These latter visions – one founded in information-science, one in an idealistic vision of man’s future – describe the potential that was eventually realised by the linking of the Internet (c1969)into a World Wide Web (c1991)  of linked documents. Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings start the Mass Observation movement. In graphics and information design, the 30’s is notable for Otto and Marie Neurath’s invention of the Isotype system (1936) – a standardised pictorial language designed to simplify the presentation of statistical data; Harry Beck designs the great schematic, colour-coded  London Underground Map (1933); Phylis Pearsall’s London A-Z Street Maps – perhaps the first pocket-size geographical information system; Chester Carlson invents Xerography – the modern photo-copier (1938); Ernst Leitz creates the Leica 35mm camera; and A. P. Rowe rationalises Operational Research (1938). Vannevar Bush – a mathematician and computer pioneer, invents a device for storing, browsing and selecting microfilm frames – the Bush Rapid Selector (1938); William Gruber invents a plastic stereo-viewer – the View-Master (1939).

Aldous Huxley had described a possible future of mankind in Brave New World (1932), Olaf Stapledon writes equally great science fiction:  Last and  First Men (1931); Kurt Godel proves that you cannot prove everything (Incompleteness Theorem 1931); and Alan Turing dreams up the Universal Computer (Turing Machine, 1936), and as mentioned above, Paul Otlet and H.G. Wells describe utopian, global, information-machines.

In literature and the arts, Surrealism is the dominant movement (see Dali: The Persistence of Memory (1931) and Metamorphosis of Narcissus 1937) and Bunuel: L’Age d’Or 1930); Picasso’s Guernica probably the most significant statement; Finnegan’s Wake the greatest modernist writing; John Steinbeck documents the internal US migrants escaping the Dust Bowl (Grapes of Wrath 1939); Frank Capra and others are inventing a 1930s style of filmic romantic comedy (eg It Happened One Night 1934), Chaplin makes Modern Times (1936), Charlie Parker invents BeBop Jazz (1939); Tex Avery invents Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny 1937); Disney makes Snow White (1937); Dorothea Lange and other photographers and artists of Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration  (state-funded arts programme) are documenting the great depression; the BBC starts broadcasting Television programmes; Robert Johnson records the Blues; Cameron Menzies makes Things to Come (1936); Kodak launch Kodachrome colour-film; Allen Lane launch Penguin Paperback books; Dave Fleischer draws Betty Boop; Blumlein invents Binaural-stereo sound recording; Andre Kertresj makes his Distortion Series of Nudes (1933); Radio Luxemburg starts broadcasting; Meriel Cooper makes King Kong (1933); and Chaplin spoofs Hitler in The Great Dictator (1940), and the Marx Brothers – with Duck Soup –  make anarchic fun satirising Fascist dictatorships.

In many ways, this is a golden age for the narrative comic-strip and several masters of the art emerge or become well-known in the 1930s, including Chester Gould (Dick Tracy), Al Capp (Lil Abner), Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon, Rip Kirby), Hal Foster (Prince Valiant), Burne Hogarth (Tarzan), and Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates). Not to mention Bob Kane’s Batman and Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman! Why? In an era before television, comics were a low cost visual-narrative entertainment – less demanding than novels, geared for those recent immigrants still struggling with English, colourful and addictive like a radio soap-opera.

On the darker side, the world is awash with sinister dictatorships – Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini. Leni Reifenstahl celebrates white aryan supremacy in The Triumph of the Will (1934), Albert Speer designs the Nazi livery and the Nuremburg Rallies; John Heartfield risk life and limb making anti-Nazi photo-montage posters (c1934). Todd Browning’s Freaks (1932) is a reminder of how we treat those who are different.

Janusz Maria Brzeski: The Sex Cycle 1930.


If the definition of a pop artist is that the artist is both inspired by contemporary popular culture and uses the tools and media of that culture, Brzeski must qualify as a prototypical pop artist – creating fascinating and up till now completely under-rated work – mostly in photo-montage – a decade or so before the earliest emergence of British pop art (Eduardo Paolozzi’s collages of the mid 1940s -eg  I was a Rich Man’s Plaything – 1947). A Polish artist, photographer, illustrator and film-maker, Brzeski combined all his skills in this series of images produced in 1930. Working in Kracow in 1931 age 24, Brzeski co-produced an exhibition of experimental photography that included works by Man Ray,  Laslo Moholy Nagy, and Hans Richter – all of whom were also experimental film-makers, establishing his own position as leading member of the Polish avant garde.


There’s a freedom of intermedia exploration in Brzeski’s images, that you don’t see again until Kurt Schwitters’ English work (eg For Käte 1947), Paolozzi’s sketchbooks (both in late 1940s), and John McHale and Richard Hamilton’s  work in the 1950s. Brzeski is a true original. Yes it’s Brzeski’s at that time unique integration of photo-collage and line-drawing – its adventurous, explorative, humorous, sexy…

Ernst Leitz + Oskar Barnack: Leica 35 mm Camera 1930


Lewis Jacobs + David Platt (eds): Experimental Cinema (1930-1934)


Josef von Sternberg + Marlene Deitrich: The Blue Angel 1930


Jacques Henri Lartigue: Renee Perle (1930-32)


Richard Buckminster Fuller: Dymaxion House 1930 + Anne Hewlett Fuller: visualisation painting of Dymaxion House 1934


To me, what is really important about Fuller is his inter-disciplinary approach to architecture and design. He drew from pure science, mathematics, materials science (physics and chemistry), emerging technologies (etc) as well as Bauhaus and Intetnational Style innovations in the arts – all informed by a ‘start with the universe’ holistic approach to problem solving. He was a published poet, philosopher, practical craftsmen (his re-design of the Rowing boat so that you looked forward along your intended course), inspirational author and lecturer – he nourished students like me in the 1960s. The recent retrospective of his work at the Whitney museum in NYC in 2008 was a wondrous assembly of many of his innovations, and this catalog the place to begin your Fuller studies (Dana Miller and K. Michael Hays: Starting with the Universe – Buckminster Fuller 2008).

Irving Berlin + Harry Richman: Puttin’ on the Ritz 1930


The ‘Great American Songbook’ of course includes all the hyper-talented media icons of the 20th century – the canon of popular classics and  jazz standards that emerged in the middling years of the 20th century – perhaps especially the 20s, through the 1950s. These include works by Irving Berlin, Richard Rogers, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, amongst several others. Many of these were first or second generation American immigrants and together brought a wealth of originality and inspiration from both local and European musical sources. For more detail, see Alec Wilder: American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900–1950 (1972).

Harry Richman – from the film Puttin’ on the Ritz  1930


Piet Zwart: Film-Art Book Covers 1931


Chester Gould: Dick Tracy 1931


Rudolf Arnheim: Film As Art 1932


Dave and Max Fleischer: Betty Boop in Snow White (1932)


Carl Theodore Dreyer: Vampyr 1932


Kurt Schwitters: Ursonate or sonate in urlauten (Sonata in Primordial Sounds) 1932


Ernie Bushmiller: Nancy 1933


Thomas Ross + Stevenson Smith: Maze-Solving Computer – Robot (Machine-Learning experiment) 1933


Andre Kertesj: Distorting Series 1933


Fred Astaire + Ginger Rogers: Dance Musicals from 1933


The big screen immersive experience and opulence of the cinema in the 1930s – art deco (sometimes called Odeon-Moderne), art nouveau  or beaux-art inspired architecture and interior design, luxury fitted thick-pile carpets, soft lighting, air-conditioning, comfortable richly-upholstered club-chairs, grand entrances and foyers, seat-side service from uniformed usherettes – dimmable electric lights, coloured neon signs, lavish curtains, the sense of occasion – all these factors provided the context for being transported into fairy-tale worlds of glamour and opulence – and probably most effectively in the dance films of Busby Berkeley and the performances of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Astaire was handsome, sveldt, charming, boyish, – a perfect epitome of a dance partner fused with romantic lead, and partnered with a sexy and stylishly beautiful  – and streetwise – Ginger Rogers. Katherine Hepburn, the American upper-class star of Bringing Up Baby – and girlfriend of multi-millionaire Howard Hughes – acidly commented: “He gave her class, she gave him sex.” And she was right – this was a lucratively successful duo in both senses. To escape into the unreal world of the Movies at this time was to escape from the poverty and uncertainty of the Great Depression – millions un-employed, often homeless and starving, soup kitchens, no social security, internal migrants constantly looking for work, – there was plenty to escape from.

Tamara de Lempicka: The Pink Tunic 1933


Otto Dix: The Triumph of War (1934) +  The Pragerstrasse (1920).


This subject matter relevant to post WW1 Berlin resonated with me on my early visits to London the 1950s – I was 5 in 1950, so the sight of poor crippled men – several of them –  selling matches in Oxford Street was a visceral shock and I still remember this psychic shock decades later. Whole war-hero life-stories bundled-up in demob suits, sitting on old chairs or wheelchairs effectively begging for their lives – all this in the second Elizabethan Age where we were soon to be told (by Harold Macmillan) that ‘we’d never had it so good’. ‘Look back in Anger’ was more appropriate.

Al Capp: Lil Abner 1934-1977


Paul Otlet: Traite de Documentation + The Munduneum 1934


Microfilm plays a big role in the history modern media – especially in the development of hyper-media (hypertext-enabled media) such as we now enjoy in the World-Wide-Web and related networked media. From the perspective of the pre-modern-computer 1930s, microfilm seemed to offer unlimited scope for information storage – paper documents like account records, maps, legal documents etc could be photographed onto microfilm in the form of film-reels, and microfiche (multiple thumbnail-images on one sheet of film). Even early experiments of copying documentation onto film achieved compression ratios of 160:1. In 1896, Reginald Fessenden (the inventor of voice-broadcasting) suggested that microfilm would be a solution to the unwieldy documentation that engineers rely on. Fessenden suggested that 150 million words could be compressed to fit on a square inch of film. And in 1906 Paul Otlet proposed the livre microphotographique (microfilm-book) as a way of storing the vast quantities of information in print books. And the Traite de Documentation is his finalised plan to develop a world repository of information (the Mundunaeum) – a telephone- and TV-linked world library – that in many ways echoes H.G. Wells suggestion for a ‘world brain‘ or world-encyclopedia of common knowledge. Vannevar Bush, the American digital pioneer, brought a fresh insight to this idea in his proposals for a Memex (memory-extension) machine in 1945. Bush’s article ‘As We May Think‘ inspired many of the pioneers of hypermedia – such as Ted Nelson, Douglas Engelbart and Alan Kay.

Alex Raymond: Flash Gordon 1934


William Heath-Robinson: Absurdities 1934


Leni Riefenstahl: Triumph of the Will 1935


This has been hailed as the greatest propaganda film ever. And Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary of the 1934 Nazi Party Rally in Nuremburg is widely regarded as a significant contribution to the art of film. She introduced new techniques of multiple-camera views, tracking shots from automobiles, and from dollies on rails, and crane shots, as well as developing a very dramatic framing and editing technique. Her work was so well suited to the subject matter – the extraordinary adulation (almost deification) of Adolf Hitler at this massive, frighteningly regimented ‘made for film’ rally – that it is also regarded as the best propaganda film ever made. Riefenstahl’s co-writer was the  experimental film-maker Walter Ruttman -(Berlin Symphony of A Great City 1927), who had previously worked with Lottie Reiniger on her ground-breaking feature animation The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1923), was well-known as a leader of the cinematic avant garde. A member of the Nazi party, and on social terms with the leaders of the party, including Hitler, Riefenstahl was arrested after the war, but not charged with war crimes. However her association with the Nazi’s effectively truncated her post-war career.  The film still evokes a kind of chilled horror of the Holocaust and World War it presaged.

John Heartfield (born Helmut Herzfeld): Hurrah, the Butter is All Gone (1935)


Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: Filmic Dance partnerships (Top Hat 1935)


Holger Cahill + Franklyn Delano Roosevelt: Federal Art Project of Works Progress Administration 1935 – 1943


The Federal Art Project proved that state-sponsorship of the arts could be a powerful lever for national regeneration. The idea of giving artists $23 a week (the average wage was about $30/week), could not have sat easily with more right-wing Americans, but the FAP and WPA injected some badly needed liquidity into the American economy just when it was needed to rejuvenate the economy. (Sadly Cameron and Osborne did not follow this example post 2008 in the UK – and condemned us to a decade of austerity.) It was an investment not only in the national physical infrastructure (roads, bridges, railways, electricity grid, hydro-electrics etc) but importantly in the national psychological infrastructure – the means to employ, train, and educate Americans in the craft-skills and aesthetics of the soft cultural skills essential to the esprit de corps of the nation.

Alan Turing: The Turing Machine 1936


The computer-scientist Mike Davey has produced a detailed analysis of the Turing Machine at http://aturingmachine.com/software.php which includes detailed block diagrams, and especially interesting –  a wonderful working model demonstration of Turing’s universal computing machine in action. Turing is one of the two great founders of modern computer science (along with his fellow mathematician John von Neuman). Between them, in the life or death pressures of WW2, and including as well as the experimental and developmental work by practical engineers like Turing’s assistant Tommy Flowers, and like Stibitz, Maudsley, Eckhart and Atanasoff in the USA, they created modern computing. The German independent engineer Konrad Zuse played an important role in bringing digital-computing into fruition, but largely because of the war, his  experiments and brilliant achievements were initially unrecognised by historians – like a lot of British developments that remained secret for many years after WW2.

Alfred Barr: Cubism and Abstract Art 1936


As indicated above, the graphic treatment of Barr’s important diagram is entirely appropriate to the period, informed by the design principles espoused in Tschichold’s The New Typography – itself a summary of the design principles emerging from the Modernists teaching at the Bauhaus and in other seminal art movements of the first two decades of the 20th century; and using Renner’s beautiful Futura – a sans-serif face thoroughly attuned to the new Modernist vision – no decoration, clean machine-like lines – itself inspired or influenced by  Jakob Erbar’s breakthrough typeface design Erbar (1922-1930). Tschichold was a great designer and an interpreter of Modernism principles – so the designers of Barr’s diagram were using the latest and most relevant typographic ideas and design innovations for this job – a diagram that sought to clarify the evolution of Cubism – the most essential well-spring of Modernism.

Otto + Marie Neurath: Isotypes 1936


I still love finding examples of the Neurath’s work in various old encyclopedias, text books and even magazines – mostly found in charity bookstores, antiquarian book stores and jumble sales, nowadays. The modernity of their idea – the Isotype – was part of a more universal modernist quest to create an international language – and an international style – of architecture and design still shines through their brilliant graphical information-design.

Dorothea Lange: Migrant Mother (Alternative) + Migrant Mother 1936


Charlie Chaplin: Modern Times 1936


Robert Capa: Spanish Civil War photographs 1936


Janusz Maria Brzeski: Zwotnice (Crossover) Series 1936


If the definition of a pop artist is that the artist is both inspired by contemporary popular culture and uses the tools and media of that culture, Brzeski must qualify as a prototypical pop artist – creating fascinating and up till now completely under-rated work – mostly in photo-montage – a decade or so before the earliest emergence of British pop art (Eduardo Paolozzi’s collages of the mid 1940s -eg  I was a Rich Man’s Plaything – 1947).

Edward Steichen: Heavy Lilies 1936 + Vogue ‘art-deco’ page 1925


The dominant styles of any period permeate all the arts, and none so rapidly as that cultural mirror – fashion photography. Here Steichen – already renowned as an art photographer, and responsible for the first fashion photographs (for Art et Décoration, 1911) – and now staff photographer on Vogue – makes these images inspired by Surrealism and by the Art Deco motifs that were appearing in the popular arts since the great Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925. Steichen brought a painter’s sensibility to the art of photography  – he was self-taught as a painter, but had also trained as a lithographer – and in the iconic Heavy Lilies and in the mise-en-scene of his deco fashion spreads he brings his brilliant compositional eye into focus perfectly.

Walt Disney: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs 1937


Phyllis Pearsall: London A-Z 1936


Leonora Carrington: Self-Portrait: The Inn of the Dawn Horse (1937–38)



Lee Miller: Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst 1937


Yves Tanguy: Deux Fois du Noir (1942) + Le Soleil dans son écrin (1937)



Yves Tanguy: Equivocal Colours 1943


Johan Huizinga: Homo Ludens – A Study of the Play Element in Culture 1938


H.G. Wells: The World Brain 1938


Orson Welles + Mercury Theatre of the Air + CBS: War of the Worlds 1938


The programme broke new ground in Broadcasting, with Welles narrating the introduction, then the programme continuing with the broadcast music of the CBS Orchestra (conducted by Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrman), gradually but relentlessly interrupted by news flashes reporting weather disturbances over the North-East USA and strange explosions on Mars, and culminating in reports of a meteorite crashing into New Jersey. The news flashes document the landing of the Martians, interpolated with interviews with important scientists (played by Welles himself), testifying to the unlikelihood of life on Mars – the interplay of fact and fiction tending to confuse listeners and add to the verisimilitude of the news/drama format. This effect was exacerbated by the then newish habit of retuning the radio (equivalent to ‘channel hopping’  now) – listeners retuning while commercial or musical breaks were on, therefor not hearing the disclaimers, and listening to what they considered to be a news broadcast…

though read a recent article The Telegraph for another POV:


The best biography of Welles is multiple volumes by Simon Callow. See Callow: Hello Americans (2006) for a brilliant account of this phase in Welles’ life.

New York World’s Fair Corporation: The New York World’s Fair 1939



World’s Fair postcards 1939 – glorious collectables and sci-fi pop art in UK jumble sales in the 1960s…

Cab Calloway: Jitterbug Jive 1939


David Low: Rendezvous 1939