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John and Ruth Vassos

April 19, 2009

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I found this book called Humanities nestled into the Social Science section in a used bookstore in Pittsburgh a few years ago. A thin handsome old spine, I pulled it and was surprised to find full pages of illustrations going along with scathing political text about the state of the world in 1935.
The illustrations were by John Vassos, who was a fairly successful graphic and industrial designer. The text was by his wife Ruth Vassos, and I was taken aback by the cynicism, absurdity and bitterness shown, reminded me more of Crass then anything I’d ever seen from the 30s.
John Vassos was born to Greek parents in Istanbul. A political illustrator for liberal newspapers in his youth, he fled to Britain in time to be drafted into the navy in WWI. Following the war he moved to NYC and worked predominantly in advertising and design. At least from the internet I can find no reference to Ruth Vassos at all (except that she was married to John- surprise surprise).
John and Ruth had about a ten year run of making books like this. John went on to design radios, accordions, advertising, etc… Dover reprinted some of his stuff in the 70s.
Anyway the work speaks for itself. More images if you click below….


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PS- and somehow related in my head is an essay by George Orwell I had to read yesterday for a class where he is making fun of political writing and its use of nonsensical metaphors. His example, “The fascist octopus has sung its swan song , the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot”.

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One comment on “John and Ruth Vassos”

wow — these images are amazing, and the text is so cutting and cynical. Are they originally in black and white and gray, or was there color? Bold graphics like 30s fabric patterns… but with layers of complexity & political content. I would love to see more of this book… did you make these scans? or is it archived any where on the internet? could you scan more of it?
My housemate has a really interesting book that could be seen as a counterpart to this one, that used to belong to his great-uncle. Written in Italian, it’s a kids’ storybook for “Italian Schools Abroad” from 1932. The illustrations are classic 30s style (but not as stylized as those of Vassos). It has nice stories in large typeface: some are about seasons and animals, and some about airplanes and industry and what hard workers the Italians are, about unity among Italians and their fatherland, and also a short piece on “Il Duce”, and also on “Il Fascio” (translation):
“What is weaker than the twig that bends docilely to the least gust of wind? However, so many of these twigs bound together, form a bundle as strong and resistant as steel. Only the unity and the concord of all the citizens creates the force and the power of a people. This is why the ‘fascio’ of sticks has been chosen as the symbol of the new Italy.”
total propagandizing of the youth…

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