Thursday, 31 December 2009

Brand New Monkey Year

Our simian jester braves the cold to glide with grace across the frozen lake to wish us all A Happy New Year. The year in question was 1900, the last year of the 19th. century. Oscar Wilde and John Ruskin died that year; Aaron Copland, Ayatollah Khomeini, Luis Bunuel and Jacques Prévert were born. The Exposition Universelle opened in Paris in the spring and the first Métro trains ran in July. In South Africa the Boer War was in full swing providing the indigenous population with the diverting spectacle of two groups of colonists slaughtering one another in pursuit of gold. The "Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists" was engaged in violent resistance to Western Imperialism in China and lay siege to Beijing for 55 days.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

A Crockwell Christmas

Render yourself flat, lose an extraneous dimension, enter the world of minimal density and prepare yourself for a Crockwell Christmas where the picture plane is triumphantly flat. The smiles are cryogenic and the gestures come deep-frozen. The decorations and the mistletoe go up as spirits go down. Disaster is only inches away. Joy is obliterated by tragedy. At its own expense, the American insurance industry warns us all of the awful dangers that haunt the festive season. If the young girl trips over the rug, if Father drops the hammer on her brother’s skull while Mother is convulsed by an electric shock, they can all take comfort from the protection that insurance provides.

It is said that Douglass Crockwell enlisted friends and neighbours to model for his illustration assignments. It would be pleasing if the muscular sculptor, David Smith, a neighbour and occasional cinematic collaborator, could be identified in one of Crockwell’s images. Just to see him out of his customary proletarian clothing and dressed for suburban respectability would be an intriguing prospect. Finally, an undiluted pleasure. The divine Joan Crawford comes a-knocking at the door bearing Tobaccoland’s Finest Gift. Cough your way through Christmas.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Blue-Collar Painters

These men are employees of the R. C. Maxwell Company, America’s oldest existing outdoor advertising company. On this occasion we see them enjoying a well-deserved ground level break from their high altitude brushwork, to accompany a carnival float celebrating the achievements of the Maxwell Company. Everything about this float is sheer delight from the gigantic palette to the threatening tone of the slogan Here and Everywhere. A generous selection from the Maxwell photographic archive can be viewed at the Emergence of Advertising in America website hosted by Duke University and presents a fascinating insight into this essential component in the all-American landscape.

Back in July 2007 we paid tribute to America’s billboard painters, (Billboard Artists – All American Heroes) blue-collar heroes of capitalism. The Maxwell cameras were on hand to record their epic risk-taking in the service of publicity as they crawled over the massive steel skeletons steadying their brushes to create images of joyful consumption. Another treat is the final image exposing what lies behind every billboard. The Maxwell photographer’s priority was to produce the best possible record of the company’s output, everything else was secondary. This dictated the point of view and composition with the result that some very unusual figure compositions that would have pleased the eye of Degas can be seen. Ralph Steiner, one of America’s unsung photographic heroes, noted the intimidating power these images exerted in the visual environment and made a number of photographs carefully calibrated to confront their massive scale.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Showplace of the Nation

A postcard trip to one of New York City’s landmarks, Radio City. The very name reminds us of a time when radio was the foremost broadcast medium and it survives to the present as the venue for the annual Radio City Christmas Spectacular. It was constructed as part of the vast Rockefeller Center development and the doors opened in December 1932. An Art Deco aesthetic prevailed over the design and presentation and it quickly earned itself a much loved place in American popular culture. Millions of postcards exist of which this is just two, together with a card of a nearby hotel and a programme brochure from July 1934.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

“I’ll be Home for Christmas”

The trusty Greyhound bus barges its way through the snow to reunite the post-war family for Christmas. The illustrator paints a picture of togetherness embedded in the deep shadows of Forties film noir. The copywriter rises to the occasion with “millions of men rolling home, framed in the windows of every bus”, evoking the photographs of Esther Bubley and Robert Frank. A new car may seem an extravagant Christmas gift but a new truck really stretches the bounds of credulity. The theme is that all the trappings of Christmas are conveyed to us in trucks for which we should all be grateful. There was a time before road transport when Christmas trees travelled by train. Ernest Hamlin Baker imagined what this would have looked like for a characteristic Fortune cover in December 1931.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Félix Potin

An assembly of carnivores, clad in winter coats is gathered in the Boulevard Sébastopol on a Saturday morning to attend the grand opening of a new butchery department in the Félix Potin store. The date is January 14th. and the best estimate is that the year is 1905 when January 14th. fell on a Saturday. Potin (1820-1871) was an innovative retailer who pioneered the concept of manufacturing a wide range of goods, branding them as his own and selling them in his own stores. This store, opened in 1860 was his flagship. The cavernous food hall with its grand arched ceiling and lavish decoration is piled high with carcasses awaiting the attention of the butcher’s knife. Look for the Adoration of the Golden Calf that adorns the back wall. These are timely images of over-consumption as the season of gluttony overwhelms us.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

1961: The Adrian Mole Years

This is an image of our unforgettable family holiday destination in the summer of 1961. Modest accommodation with few concessions to comfort, it fully embodied traditional Norfolk hospitality, a county where the locals are quick to establish their superiority with constant corrections of mispronounced place names. We found ourselves in a landscape of remarkable desolation with vast windswept beaches, tides that receded halfway to Holland and battered stumps of ruined church towers rising unsteadily from the waves – grim reminders of long since inundated villages. I bought this postcard in the local timber built store in case an opportunity arose to show it to a social worker. It’s entirely possible that my lifelong interest in marginal communities poised on the edge of oblivion, dates from this time. The Bush Estate survives to this day with, it would appear from this link, some of its unattractive features carefully preserved.

Meanwhile in the wider world, the news was all about the construction of the Berlin Wall and I found myself thinking, with all the captious reasoning of the adolescent intellect, how unfair it was that the good citizens of the DDR were so brutally denied access to the wonders of the free world and the chance to spend their holidays in such distinguished surroundings. It’s easy to imagine W G Sebald (who would find himself, decades later, only a few miles away) tramping through this landscape, silently rejoicing at the dismal prospect. The other cards show the local churches losing their battle with the might of the North Sea. More evidence of an unhealthy juvenile interest in decay.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

North Country Arcadia

This is a tale of two arcades in the north of England, either side of the Pennines in Manchester and Huddersfield. Two multi-level Victorian shopping arcades that display some striking contrasts in the contribution they make to local distinctiveness. The Barton Arcade in Manchester, built in 1871, is an “h” shaped arcade constructed in iron and glass with two octagonal glass domes. The two balconies are graced with handsome ornamental balustrades with mahogany handrails. The paintwork is a dazzling white, with ornamental detailing picked out in gloss black and a tiled floor (not original) in shades of grey. The Byram Arcade in Huddersfield was built in 1881 within the interior of the Byram Buildings designed by local architect, William Crossland (who would later design Royal Holloway College). Like the Barton, there are two upper levels with decorative ironwork. The glazed roof is of simple pitched construction.

The eye is drawn upwards to the complex roof structure in the Barton Arcade and a cool and airy sensation is created. The upper levels are given over to office accommodation and access is via large plate glass doors making them feel like private space. The retail activity includes a travel agent, a sandwich shop, a wine shop, and a restaurant as well as menswear and fashion shops; not as high-end and exclusive as it appears at first glance. The fabric of the building is in excellent external condition but it feels as if the presence of a plethora of glitzy outlets in surrounding streets make it difficult to attract much footfall into the rarefied atmosphere of the arcade.

The Byram Arcade has a warm and enclosed feeling. The upper levels are all retail with an eclectic mix of shops selling art materials, leisurewear, musical instruments and haircuts. There’s a superb restaurant (The Oak Rooms) on the ground floor that attracts a lot of custom but there’s no through traffic, the entrance and exit being one and the same. The Byram has fine spacious architecture and wonderful decorative detailing and the excellent condition to which it has been restored is a joy to behold. Both arcades offer a special experience but seem to fall short of their full commercial potential, but for the disinterested observer, therein lies their charm.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Postcard of the Day No. 32, Sur la Plage

A gourmet’s dream. An itinerant Maître Pâtissier in full dress uniform cruises the foreshore with a choice selection of the very finest in Viennoiserie for the comfort and pleasure of ozonally invigorated and parasolically sheltered ladies of privilege. The overcast conditions suggest we might be in Normandy or Britanny – so Breton Far or Kouign-Amman could be on offer. Breezy conditions could leave a dusting of sand on the glaze of the tartelettes but we cannot allow even the smallest shadow to fall across this vision of a life of leisure, whether earned or unearned.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Paris 1937

The Paris exhibition of 1937 was a famously ill-tempered affair. With the Spanish Civil War in progress the exhibition became a battleground for competing ideologies. The prevailing architectural style was an angular, monumental Neo-Classicalism stripped of ornamentation. These contrasting advertisements come from Britain and the US. The American visitor was tempted by a colourful image, made attractive with some lively line drawing, creating a light-hearted mood at variance with the sombre character of the exhibition. The British publicity seemed better calculated to catch the feel of the times with a heavy font and monochrome cuboid blocks arranged into an intimidating tower. The Tour Eiffel has been reduced to the status of a cut-out.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Douglass Crockwell’s Double Life

On the day that America celebrates Thanksgiving we give our thanks for Douglass Crockwell (1904-1968), one of the most singular characters in the world of American illustration. Crockwell led a double life and while submitting to the demands of full-time editorial and advertising illustration, in his spare time he pursued his passion for avant-garde film-making. Among his friends, and occasional collaborator, was the great American sculptor of the Abstract Expressionist era, David Smith. The meticulously painted images above were produced for the United States Brewers Foundation as part of an extended campaign that ran for years in the late 1940s and well into the 1950s. The message is that beer is the all-American drink and in every way preferable to the pretensions of wine drinking. Nobody knew the geography of the American dinner table better than Douglass Crockwell and very few even attempted to express the air of unease and social anxiety that he explored below the surface bonhomie. The glances that never quite meet, hands that flutter in empty nervous gesture and smiles that threaten to rupture the face, all convey a sense that an unspoken truth or a hideously transgressive secret is about to break the surface. Every element in a Crockwell composition was rendered with equal attention giving rise to a claustrophobic flatness that contradicted the careful observance of perspectival conventions. There was never a hint of the ingratiating sentiment that undermined the vision of his near namesake, Norman Rockwell.

Chris Mullen (at VTS) correctly compares Crockwell’s mise-en-scène to that of Douglas Sirk, acknowledging his mastery of cinematic composition. Yet when Crockwell himself turned to film-making his ideas ran in entirely the opposite direction. Figuration was discarded as he plunged into a universe of surrealism-inflected abstraction. Absorbed in technically demanding and time-consuming frame by frame endeavour, Crockwell created a body of work of surpassing strangeness. A variety of biomorphic forms collide, mutate and transform on screen. Cell-like creatures parade in formation, do battle with one another and even get crucified. There’s an illuminating essay (Machines That Give Birth To Images: Tom Gunning) that can be read by following this link. A modest selection of Crockwell’s commercial illustration is displayed here. The free and luminous touch in the earlier work (Camel cigarettes) gave way to intense concentration on surface values as he voyaged through Suburbia as a servant of the United States Brewers Foundation. For the definitive Crockwell experience a trip to the cabinet of enchantment at Visual Telling of Stories is essential.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Paris de Nuit

In 1933 Brassaï published one of the greatest of all photo-books with the title Paris de Nuit. These Parisian postcards from a series published by Yvon (Féeries Nocturnes de Paris) are contemporary with Brassaï’s book. The image above shows Métro line 2 on its elevated trajectory overshadowed by the oppressive profile of Sacré-Coeur, a standing reproof to communards everywhere. A velvety darkness descends upon the city. The lights of the station platform and the café below at street level offer a warm, welcoming glow. The station is La Chapelle, not the most salubrious in the city. Out of sight on the left is the vast expanse of tracks leading into Gare du Nord. The image below is a magnificent set of Parisian clichés gathered around La Rotonde café in Montparnasse. An artist crosses the road complete with beret, pipe, beard, plus-fours and a portfolio under his arm. In front of the café an African street trader attempts to interest passers-by in his ethnic craft products. The glow of the café interior is reflected in the rain washed pavement. A Guimard style candlebra looms over the Métro entrance. Simone de Beauvoir lived in a family apartment above La Rotonde when she was a child and on August 12th. 1916, Picasso and a group of friends, including Max Jacob and Modigliani, had lunch here and clowned around outside in front of Jean Cocteau’s camera. These photographs were traced and expertly collated by Billy Klüver in his fascinating book, A Day with Picasso.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Passage du Caire

The Passage du Caire has the distinction of being the longest passage in Paris and dates from 1798. In the hierarchy of these things, if the Galleria in Milan is placed at the top, then the Passage du Caire is perilously close to the bottom. That’s not to say it’s any less interesting or not worth visiting. There’s an air of bustle and purpose and it has its own raffish character, refreshingly free of ostentation. It runs off the west side of rue Saint-Denis in the 2ème and most of the businesses service the garment and textile traders that still survive in the neighbourhood. It’s the place to go if you’re in urgent need of a mannequin, some protective clothing and a surgical appliance. And, if you really want to blend in, you’ll need your own sack-truck. The passageway is cluttered with bales of bubble-wrap, outsize cardboard boxes, chrome-plated retail display fixtures, stepladders, café tables and families of mannequins. As for rue Saint-Denis, there’s little sign of gentrification here. Apart from the stampeding herds of overloaded sack-trucks, on the eastern side of the street the visitor can admire les demi-mondaines smoking and posing in shop doorways in search of passing trade. These exotic creatures are even more numerous in the nearby, and appropriately named, rue Ponceau.

Monday, 16 November 2009

The Oxo Factor

The Oxo stock cube has been around for more than a century. Over the years this modest product has been advertised with great persistence; stylistically conservative and wholesome in tone. Right now there’s a TV campaign entitled The Oxo Factor that seeks to capitalise on the success of ITV’s X Factor by inviting the public to make their commercials for them. Submissions have to follow a script and last 30 seconds. Prizes can be won and there’s on-line voting and fame of a sort for the winners. The entire dreary user-generated charade can be viewed on-line. (No link – find it yourself, if you must). The examples displayed here have been excavated from the subterranean layers of past publicity. They are typical in their emphasis on family values and show only a modest development in graphic presentation as the decades roll by. In the 1950s a certain jauntiness creeps into the picture (with the subversive notion of a man in the kitchen) but for the most part, sobriety rules. Press advertising was complemented by free recipe books and painting books for the nation’s children. W Heath Robinson supplied some light relief for the wartime consumer with a characteristic blueprint for expanding wartime production.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Crespi d’Adda – factory village

The Italian association with cotton goes back to the 12th. century when the Venetians began importing from Asia. The techniques of mass production of textiles developed in the Industrial Revolution and the Owenite philosophy of model factory communities jointly inspired the planned industrial settlement of Crespi d’Adda near the city of Bergamo on the border between the Duchy of Milan and the Republic of Venice. Work began in 1878 with construction of a massive cotton mill that at the height of its activity employed 4,000 workers. The proprietors, the Crespi family, planned and developed homes for the workforce plus social infrastructure, including school, church, community centre, shops and an enormous cemetery. The provision of a cemetery ensured that employees could catch a daily glimpse of their final journey on this earth with a leftward glance as they passed through the factory gates.

The factory was conceived on a grand scale and entry was via decorated wrought iron gates, a central courtyard, two-storey administration and office buildings of symmetrical appearance and a central towering factory chimney, the whole ensemble calculated to impose and impress. An extensive sequence of single storey workshops with elevated galleries to maximise the daylight produces an impressive perspective enhanced by the repetition of terracotta detailing. Aerial views reveal the full scale of the factory complex and the rectilinear grid on which everything has been planned. The business was immensely profitable and like many others before and since, the Crespis bought themselves a national newspaper (Corriere della Sera) as a vehicle for their opinions. The slump in demand for textiles that followed the Wall Street Crash bankrupted the business and the Crespi’s wealth rapidly evaporated.

Silvio Crespi, son of the founder had spent some time in England working at Platt Brothers (manufacturers of textile machinery) in Oldham and there was an English flavour to the project. The worker housing is opposite the factory and set out on the same axis, in a network of streets running either side of a central avenue leading in one direction to the factory gates and in the other to the shops and recreational space. The fifty houses are semi-detached, with hipped roofs and were consciously designed in what was considered to be an English style and came complete with garden plots intended for growing produce to encourage self-sufficiency. The repetition of forms, the absence of pavements and the ubiquitous lattice fencing of uniform height create a very distinctive streetscape that somehow feels neither Italian nor English.

Social distinctions were preserved with the provision of generously proportioned detached villas for directors and senior staff. The villas were each individually designed and built to a high standard with lavish architectural ornamentation to reflect their status. The air of exclusivity is reinforced by an abundance of mature woodland. The doctor and the priest were rewarded with especially large detached villas on the hillside overlooking the village and factory. From his vantage point the priest would be well placed to keep an eye on his splendid church below, a replica in every detail of the Renaissance basilica at Busto Arsizio, home town of the Crespi family. The Crespis themselves occupied an extraordinary medieval fantasy castle topped by row upon row of battlements that towered over the entire settlement. The Italians describe this style rather neatly as feudo industriale.

Exploring the settlement on foot is a theatrical experience. The factory buildings are deserted and locked (production finally ceased in 2004 after decades of decline) while the residential areas are fully occupied and exude an air of prosperity. The homogenous character has been preserved as part of the management plan conditional upon World Heritage Status, which makes for a tidy appearance at the expense of diversity. The long perspectives of dwellings and factory premises leave a dreamlike impression in the mind – it requires an effort to associate them with the smoke, grime and cacophony of the industrial process. The great citadels of industry possessed a majesty of scale that exercised a powerful hold on the imagination of painters in various genres from the Impressionists to the Precisionists via the Surrealists and die Neue Sacklichkeit. Giorgio de Chirico spent some of his formative years in Milan and Turin, Italy’s industrial heartland and it’s tempting to suggest that the image of the factory became part of his consciousness and re-emerged in the pictorial vocabulary of his compartmented still-lives. More information and pictures can be seen by following this link.