Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Darmstadt Dioramas

The Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt houses a great and disparate variety of collections, bringing together areas of interest that are normally widely dispersed. It includes a large collection of paintings from the 13th. to the 20th. century, a comprehensive display of fossils from the Grube Messel, classical and Egyptian antiquities, Jugendstil arts and crafts, contemporary German art, Europe’s largest public collection of the work of Joseph Beuys (Block Beuys) and a natural history museum that includes one of Europe’s oldest and finest sequence of zoological dioramas.

The Darmstadt dioramas date from 1904 to 1910 and were the work of Gottlieb von Koch (curator of zoology) and Karl Küsthardt (taxidermist). Over a thousand specimens are displayed in ten dioramas, each populated by a specific region or continent. Generic local environments were simulated with landscape reconstructions, casts of trees and natural forms in front of painted scenes. Much hemp, plaster and chicken-wire was consumed in the process. Conservation has always been a challenge and by the time the museum closed in 2006 for an extended period of refurbishment, every single specimen exhibited evidence of pest infestation. Each item spent two periods of four weeks in a Thermo-King container at -35°C – the first to kill off the pests, the second to destroy any surviving cold-resistant clusters of eggs. In reassembling the displays a conservative restoration strategy was employed to ensure that as far as possible their value as historic records of categorisation and selection priorities remained unimpaired.

For the idle and uninformed observer such as myself the charm of these dioramas is the window they provide into past ways of thinking about the natural world. The sense of wonder they generated in the early decades of the last century has not been entirely diluted by contemporary familiarity with high-definition digital imagery. Indeed in a visual culture that has normalised the Surrealist appetite for the bizarre, the appeal is enhanced when we contemplate the strange and unfeasible combinations of life-forms arranged into unlikely co-existence in confined spaces. As my old friend Chris Mullen put it – where else does the ferret lie down with the Foo Foo bird?

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Past and Present No. 9: Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof

Two images of Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof a century apart revealing a remarkably well preserved façade on a grandiose building completed in 1888 after nine years in construction. The mighty Atlas still struggles to support the globe even with the assistance of Iron and Steam. Two more photographs taken on the platform of this monumental terminus under the vast uninterrupted canopy of glass and cast-iron of which this is the second of three. The station largely escaped wartime bombing and its imperial grandeur survives unimpaired. A major operational inconvenience is the fact that through trains must reverse out of the station to resume their journeys, occupying track space that could be used more efficiently. An unintended consequence of the 19th. century civic leaders of Frankfurt believing their city to be everyone else’s ultimate destination. 

Monday, 25 April 2016

Behind the Curtain – Beamish

I approve of museums that take the trouble to offer public access to some of the treasures that would otherwise lie buried in their vaults. At Beamish there’s a building that holds a reserve store of accumulated items that have yet to be deployed on public display. It’s open to visitors and contains a fascinating miscellany of uncelebrated objects, for the most part arranged thematically but allowing for some strange and bizarre juxtapositions. These are the raw materials of future projects, destined for a set-dressing role but, for now at least, allowed to speak for themselves and available for singular contemplation. The totality of the Beamish experience – the colliery village, the North Country main street, and the period-costumed staff, is rather more problematic and raises all sorts of issues around conservation, authenticity and the dignity of labour. To be addressed in a future post.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Mustardman on the High Seas

Another in the long series of small books for children distributed free of charge by Colman’s of Norwich, Mustardman Ready. Our dapper seafarer sails to distant lands where his cargo of Colman’s products restores the health of the local despot, transforming King Krosspatch into King Kontent and fortuitously, opening up a new export market for British-made Mustard, Starch and Krusto. An inspiring tale of entrepreneurial economics. It turns out that Colman’s Krusto was a pastry-maker that with the addition of water produced a perfect pie crust and thanks to the East Anglian Film Archive (EAFA) we can all watch a 7 minute promotional film from 1928 where Krusto comes to the rescue of an uxorious husband and a desperate-to-please spouse. A dismal succession of granite-like baked offerings that even the dog rejects is brought to an end by the entry of a sophisticated friend who brings Krusto into the unhappy household. The resulting pie is a triumph and domestic harmony is restored. The EAFA is worth exploring for more treasures from the strange world of Colman’s publicity – the Mustard Club film is a riotous celebration of gluttony – Bunuel at the Bullingdon Club.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Bateman Through the Guinness Glass

The cartooning abilities of H M Bateman fitted very comfortably into the Guinness tradition of humorous, quirky and eccentric advertising. The standard had long been set by the work of John Gilroy but Bateman brought something fresh with his carefully considered variations on themes of shock and social outrage. Most of Bateman’s contributions came during World War 2 or immediately after and provided welcome splashes of colour in an otherwise drab and dreary Britain, relentlessly pressured by the exigencies of war. Compared with the illustrations Bateman produced for Bar One cigarettes in the 1950s the Guinness drawings have a precision and bite that would later be replaced by a more slapdash approach. This is less than half of Bateman’s Guinness output but it’s enough to give a flavour of what he achieved.

Monday, 4 April 2016

On Either Side with Bryan de Grineau

Today’s images are the front and back cover of a pamphlet produced in the 1930’s by the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) to promote the visual delights to be experienced through the carriage window on a trip from London to Edinburgh on the route of the ‘Flying Scotsman’. It’s a companion piece to a brochure featured here in June 2008. On this occasion the artist signs himself Bryan de Grineau, thinly disguising his true identity, Charles William Grineau (1883–1957). Grineau’s reputation seems to rest on his spirited motoring illustrations (described here) but he also produced several improbable visions of future transport (including a spectacular city airport suspended over the River Thames) for the covers of Modern Wonder magazine in the late 1930s that are reproduced below.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Postcard of the Day No. 82 – Seeing Niagara

Both Canada and the United States are proud hosts to one of Nature’s greatest spectacles – Niagara Falls. With such an enormous number of visitors it’s never long before the collector of postcards encounters one of the many hundreds of cards to feature this awe-inspiring sight. I salute the anonymous buyer of today’s card for having rejected all the conventional views on offer in favour of this distinctly sidelong glance. Half a dozen of tourists encased in heavy-duty rainwear pose for the camera in a rather random grouping. They are about to depart on a cruise that will expose them to a ritual soaking at the base of the Falls, visible behind them. Below is a selection of postcards where the publishers have focused on the local infrastructure or the transformation of the Falls in the depth of winter.