We seem to be faced here with a scene from a mediocre and depressing comic opera set in the Swiss Alps. It looks like the moment when a passing prosperous lederhosen-clad traveller pauses to get his glass of local wine refilled by the innkeeper’s wife while an unprepossessing agricultural labourer looks on in silent resentment. But what brings the image to life is the magnificently irrelevant presence in the distance of a tiny train lead by two locomotives, blasting its way uphill with copious clouds of smoke and steam trailing behind. The horse and cart represent old technology while the railway viaducts that scale the mountainside are a triumph of the most advanced civil engineering. The card is a pleasing addition to the select group of postcards that feature a wheelbarrow. The spectacular Albula railway was constructed between 1898 and 1903 and since 2008 has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are 55 bridges and 39 tunnels over its 39 mile length. To conclude we offer a further selection of cards in which trains can be seen crossing bridges.
Friday, 6 December 2013
Tuesday, 3 December 2013
This is a series of 25 collectors’ cards issued in 1928 by Typhoo Tea. It’s a tribute to the anonymous individuals who keep us safe and ensure the wheels of commerce keep turning throughout the night. We are presented with a sober law-abiding group, responsibly and purposefully occupied in the interests of an orderly productive society. So, no place for the courtesan, the croupier or the cat burglar. Most of these worthy folk would today be working for Serco or G4S on Zero Hours contracts, clad in Hi Vis jackets. Today’s Pantheon of Heroes of the Night would have to include the office cleaner, the Paramedic, the Amazon order picker, the all-night DJ, and the Samaritans volunteer. The images are ideally suited to the elongated vertical format designed to fit inside a packet of tea and, unlike cigarette cards could be collected without exposure to the health risks associated with smoking.
Sunday, 1 December 2013
Italy was slow to adopt the poster form of advertising and when Les Maîtres de l’Affiche publication was complete in 1900 there were only 3 examples from Italy out of a total of 256. Although Italian graphic arts never quite acquired the distinctive national flavour or global influence of the French, German or Swiss traditions there were many fine artists and illustrators whose work combined visual wit with a directness of approach. These images come from 1919-20 when the most influential Italian illustrator for advertising was the incomparable Cappiello (who largely lived and worked in France). The Cappiello style of an arresting, gently humorous central image and a detailed portrayal of the product package against a flat colour ground can be seen in Italian advertising as late as the 1960s. What we see here include some examples from an earlier Art Nouveau influenced genre as well as some robust examples of the Cappiello tradition.
Wednesday, 27 November 2013
Fortune magazine advertised itself to the trade in the 1930s as the premier medium for steel industry advertising, gathering testimonials from major producers including Republic Steel praising the efficacy of Fortune in an exercise of mutual back-slapping. These examples come from an extended advertising campaign that Republic Steel placed in Fortune magazine. They seem to be themed around weight and mass. A heavy style for a heavy product. It’s a bulk commodity so most readers will not be placing an order for a thousand tons of steel plate in the near future so the value lies in keeping the company name in the public eye. This was an era where weight really mattered – public opinion was easily impressed with heavy construction and engineering ingenuity was more widely admired than it is today when portability and weightlessness are the most desirable characteristics in a consumer product. Back in the Thirties, the image of the white hot crucible in a dark and cavernous industrial space still had the power to impress the audience.
The message was reinforced by some muscular drawing and restrained use of high colour tones. Sploshy brushwork and vigorous scrubbed-on paint was the visual language of the mass-consumption conventional landscape where the intention was to catch the eye without opening any sort of dialogue with the viewer. These images strive for a romanticised industrial heroism – a sense of hard-won productivity in harsh, elemental conditions. The smell of hot oil and burning cinders and the thunderous noise of steel-hammers and forges are all invoked.
Republic Steel at the time of this campaign was a newly-merged business struggling with the collapse of demand for steel in the Great Depression. It was not a great place to work being notorious for adversarial labour relations. A refusal to recognise unions at the Chicago plant provoked a strike in 1937 that culminated in the Memorial Day massacre when 10 unarmed demonstrators were shot dead by Chicago police. Republic was number three in the US (behind US Steel and Bethlehem Steel) and keenly felt the need to publicise itself. But while US Steel was busy attempting to humanise itself via Rockwell inspired scenarios Republic remained committed to a hard-line industrial aesthetic. By contrast, U S Steel would abandon its longstanding opposition to unions in the workplace in 1937 when it accepted collective bargaining.
In later years Republic would become a voluble cheerleader for capitalism and free enterprise in the 1940s and a militant cold warrior in the post-war era. It was an age of high anxiety and Republic was not the only business to sense a responsibility for educating the public in the virtues of free-enterprise and the perils of socialism Demotic language and a matey directness was typical – the voice of good sense from a concerned neighbour. There was also an unrealistic expectation that consumers would happily settle down to a good long read, at the end of which collectivism would be permanently renounced. The real function of message-lead advertising was corporate self-flattery confirmed by the offer to supply reprints for circulation among friends and colleagues who may be showing signs of straying from the path of freedom. For a blood-curdling selection of these ads, please visit Chris Mullen’s Advertising Hall of Shame (The Visual Primer of Advertising Clichés).
Wednesday, 6 November 2013
Depending on who you listen to, Duchamp today is the Oracle of Conceptualism, progenitor of a golden age of ideas-based contemporary art or the Great Iconoclast, responsible for the irreversible subversion of all that was great and good in the Western tradition of painting. His admirers claim that he broke down the barriers between art and life enabling the artist to designate anything or anyone as a work of art. All subject taboos were lifted leaving artists free to explore the world at will in any chosen medium. A vocal minority of detractors deplore the death of the hand-crafted object in favour of assembly line methods that Duchamp prefigured and attribute every affront to common decency and good taste in the art world to his malign influence. Duchamp’s parodies of the process of making art and his intellectual game-playing are anathema to the high-minded defenders of autonomous artistic integrity for whom the only art that counts is a product of endless struggle and toil with intractable materials.
Duchamp would turn 65 in 1952 and had assisted the organisation of an exhibition (Duchamp Frères et Soeur) at the Rose Fried Gallery, New York in February and March. Chess remained his most ostensible preoccupation, while he continued to live in the top floor apartment at 210 West 14th. Street which he had occupied since 1943. All this publicity in the nation’s leading mass-circulation magazine must have tested Duchamp’s celebrated nonchalance about his own reputation. One of the earliest signs of his growing celebrity status may well have made him feel queasy. Whether Duchamp was a regular reader of Life magazine is not a matter of record. Was he more interested in the latest Erle Stanley Gardner story in Saturday Evening Post? Perhaps he leafed through the pages of the New Yorker and Esquire. A secret passion for Breezy Tales and Amazing Stories is not impossible. Chess magazines, View and Cahiers d’Art are more likely to have had his attention. Of course he may also have glanced at Teeny’s copies of Vogue or Harper's Bazaar.
Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise (shown across a double spread) had been a work in progress since 1935 and the first completed examples appeared in 1941. The business of assembly went on for years. A small team (including Joseph Cornell) laboured away as the component parts arrived from France where Duchamp had prepared them before the war. Later editions of the Boîte-en-valise would be more professionally produced and Duchamp would permutate the contents and vary the box to offer 300 versions in 7 editions in much the same way as the fashion industry extracts the maximum revenue from designer brands. In effect, Duchamp curated his own retrospective in compact form. For a collector the finished article was a precious object to be lingered over, cherished and carefully conserved, catering to the instinct for connoisseurship that Duchamp so actively despised. The Boîte-en-valise has a fetishistic fascination linking us to the world of toys, dolls’ houses and model trains via the idea of condensing a lifetime’s creative activity into a single small and confined space.
Tuesday, 22 October 2013
It is 80 years since the city of Chicago hosted the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair. As World Fairs go, in popular esteem it ranks well below the New York event in 1939 where the sheer volume of commercial exuberance left a legacy that has been analysed at length in an extensive literature. And yet, the architectural achievements of the Chicago Fair were impressive, being held together by an extravagant colour scheme devised by the Broadway set designer, Joseph Urban. Urban deployed a memorable palette of brilliant colours, perhaps inspired by his work for the Ziegfeld Follies. He died the day before the Fair opened on May 27th. 1933, the same day that Roosevelt’s New Deal was signed into law.
As a pageant of multi-coloured Streamline Moderne it was a highly effective antidote to the economic gloom of the Great Depression. Enormous effort went in to developing tempting visions of a brighter future such as the Home of Tomorrow exhibit and a range of concept cars from most of the major manufacturers. The Burlington Route railroad brought its streamlined Zephyr to the show and Union Pacific displayed its M-10000 train. Most of the pavilions were designed by an in-house team of local architects with a brief to avoid pastiche and step boldly into the glorious future. One exception was the General Motors Pavilion which was the work of favoured GM architect, Albert Kahn. In line with the theatricality of Urban’s colour scheme the buildings were planned for a short life and mostly constructed from plywood and Masonite, Sheetrock and Maizewood with profiled metal cladding. When the Fair closed the site was rapidly cleared and now functions as a city park.
The advertising and postcard imagery comes from my collection, including the final souvenir card – one of many thousands for which visitors must have posed. Prohibition remained in force until December 1933, by which time the Fair had closed – so what was in the foaming glass? And whence came the Bonzo dog cut-out? Other cultural landmarks of 1933 included the debut of King Kong, the Lone Ranger and Disney’s Three Little Pigs, not to mention the opening of the first Krispy Kreme doughnut store.
Friday, 4 October 2013
Another trip to Borisopolis, world capital of financial malpractice. The destination is the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (henceforth, the FCO), open to the great unwashed for just two precious days by virtue of the Open House London annual event. It’s big, but not huge – it’s not Versailles, it’s not the Winter Palace. The internal spaces are scaled-up to make an impression but not so large as to overwhelm. William Hague has recorded a comforting video welcome in his much-imitated South Yorkshire vowel sounds, assuring us that the FCO will keep us safe in a hostile world and stands ready to assist when we do stupid things abroad.
The reception rooms and ceremonial spaces are lavishly decorated – it’s easy to imagine the teams of highly skilled craft-workers applying paint, plaster and gold leaf, reminding us that this is part of a world that exists outside our normal experience or comprehension. The decorative schemes belong to a distant era but their painstaking preservation is indicative of the quality of permanence to which all national institutions aspire. These over-sized opulent salons with their profusion of exotic decor form the natural habitat of a higher order of species – the well-bred products of ancient families and exclusive seats of learning, instinctively at home in these surroundings where the rest of us are likely to become self-conscious mutes.
To enjoy the spectacle we must set aside these dissonant elements and just look at the stuff. The staircases are really special, designed to literally and metaphorically, raise the visitor to a higher level. Ceilings come alive with dazzling white plaster goddesses of plenty or head-spinning paintings and the visiting dignitary must maintain composure while navigating thickly carpeted steps with marble handrails and floors of polished stone and mosaic tile-work. Illustrious predecessors peer down from their stone-cold plinths and in the background murals (by Sigismund Goetze) celebrate Britain’s civilising influence on an often ungrateful world.
The beautifully proportioned façades of the Durbar Court in the former India Office remind us of the extraordinary extent to which the image of India haunted the Victorian imagination. Its enormous space groans under the weight of colonial associations and iconography. Embedded in the classical detailing are portrait busts of eminent colonials alternating with decorative, swagged tablets inscribed with the names of Indian cities and provinces together with full length figures of the great and good and smaller relief carvings of episodes from the Anglo-Indian narrative.
There was a plan to demolish the FCO in 1963 and a display of vintage photographs illustrated the state of decrepitude into which it had fallen by the early 1980s when a decision to renovate was taken. Somehow the images of peeling paint and collapsing ceilings come perilously close to inducing nostalgia for the days when British diplomats were either raffish Denholm Elliot-like characters, scripted by Graham Greene or pin-striped buffoons as portrayed by Richard Wattis. It would be comforting to conclude that a renovated FCO would lead to improved international relations but xenophobia remains undiminished as the nation’s default position.
Not to be churlish, the extent to which the public could wander was generous, the bag-searching was courteous and the security was present but unobtrusive. Those who worked there took a genuine pride in their surroundings and seemed pleased to be sharing it with the public. It’s important to acknowledge this because one day, a hawk-eyed accountant, perhaps as yet unborn, will question whether, as a nation, we can continue to ask the hard-working taxpayer on a low income to contribute towards this sort of event catering to the curiosity of an arty and pretentious minority. After all, by declining to support this year’s Open House London, the London Borough of Bromley has saved the princely sum of £5,000 from a budget of £209 million in 2013-14. To put this in context, this is equivalent to someone earning £20,900 per annum trimming 50p off their annual expenditure. Depressingly, Barnet, Harrow and Kingston-on-Thames have done likewise.