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Art and Letters: 'Little Magazines' in the Early Twentieth Century

22 Nov 2021 – 20 Mar 2022

Art and Letters explores the intersection of literature and the visual arts in magazine and journal culture during the first half of the twentieth century.

“All the “Islanders” share a belief in the sound traditions of Art and Letters in England. English artists and poets have always found ways to create true and beautiful things, in a playful spirit yet with an adult mind and adult emotions. ”

Joseph Bard, The Island, Vol. 1, No. 1

15 June 1931

With new developments in printing technologies and the availability of cheap paper, the early 1900s witnessed a surge of new periodicals, including the emergence of so-called ‘little magazines’. These magazines, named owing to their small sheet size and circulation, were primarily literary publications which published poetry and short stories alongside art, reviews and comment pieces.

Championing experimental content and little known writers, magazines including The Little Review and The New Age became crucial to the dissemination of modernism across both art and literature. Many of the magazines incorporated striking visual elements and invited noted avant-garde artists to produce cover designs, such as the quarterly review Coterie, which commissioned covers by artists William Roberts and Nina Hamnett.

Some magazines became the mouthpieces for particular literary or artistic movements, such as the short-lived Blast magazine, which under the auspices of Wyndham Lewis announced the arrival of the Vorticist movement. While Blast has most commonly been associated with the visual arts, it also included important works of poetry, fiction and drama, and its central manifesto used varying font sizes and typefaces to playful effect.

Similarly, the London Bulletin, the pre-eminent publication for surrealism in Britain, provided a platform for both surrealist art and poetry, declaring itself ‘the only avant garde publication in this country concerned with contemporary poetry and art’. The Bulletin gained a reputation for publishing experimental pieces combining text and image, including the serialisation of Roland Penrose’s The Road is Wider than Long (1939), a hybrid of poetry, photography and typography, and Yves Tanguy’s textual collage ‘In the Margin of Crosswords’, which plays on the surrealist tradition of word games.

Problems of paper shortages caused many little magazines to cease publication at the beginning of the Second World War. For those that survived beyond the war years, their lives were inevitably cut short by rising publishing costs. ‘Little’, therefore, in both lifespan as well as size and circulation, these magazines today serve as an important document, offering a glimpse of the culture of art and letters that permeated early twentieth-century art and literature.

Sculpture & Poetry Research Season

This display accompanies our Sculpture & Poetry research season, celebrating practitioners and scholars who explore the connections between these subjects. As part of this research season, we are holding two academic conferences and four public discussions between renowned artists and poets.

Find out more about our Sculpture & Poetry events