Art and the Modern Classics

Penguin Modern Classic_Nineteen Eighty Four_Orwell
Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell, 1949

In the 1960s, Penguin art director Germano Facetti revised the cover design for Penguin Modern Classics. He wanted a bold, impactful look, with large full-colour images and sans serif headings to match. His new layout used existing artworks instead of commissioned illustrations as before. The images were from the history of art and were carefully matched to the contents of the book, they were chosen for their thematic aptness and were from the same period as the book.

The selection of image depended on Facetti’s understanding of the text. His knowledge of what cultures produced what kind of imagery at a given moment is prodigious, backed by a visual memory and a systematic storing of reference. (

Facetti’s method is shown in these covers for the three key dystopian novels of the the twentieth century, Nineteen Eighty-Four, We and Brave New World. Note how well each painting reflects the content of the book, as summarised in their backcover blurbs:

William-Roberts_The Control Room
William Roberts, The Control Room, Civil Defense Headquarters, 1942

1984 presents a nightmarish regime of totalitarianismmass surveillance, and repressive regimentation of all persons and behaviours within society. The Ministry of Truth deals with propaganda, the authorities keeping a check on every action, word, gesture or thought. The painting on the cover is by the English artist William Roberts and shows the workings of a wartime department.

Abstract geometric shapes in different colours used to illustrate novel's idealistic dystopia//////Suprematist_Composition_Malevich

Penguin book: We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, 1921
Painting: Suprematist Composition by Kasimir Malevich, 1916

We “tells the story of persons known as numbers living in the One State. All numbers live by a rigid timetable, performing exactly the same motions in time with one another.” Suprematism was a Russian avant-garde movement at the forefront of the new abstract art. It concentrated on purity of form and reduction to elemental shapes.

Fernand Leger painting of abstracted mechanical shapes as metaphor for futuristic society .//…

Penguin book: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, 1932                   PaintingMechanical Elements, Fernand Léger, 1924

Brave New World satirises the idea of progress put forward by the scientists and philosophers.” Léger’s paintings at this time were inspired by his wartime experiences, the excitement of industrial technology in conflict: “I was stunned by the sight of the breech of a 75 millimeter in the sunlight. It was the magic of light on the white metal.” 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s