Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Fancy Dress for Fun and Profit

It’s 12 years since our last look at the world of fancy dress in the 1930s. The modern consumer is totally compliant with the strategies of the high priests of the branding industry and more than willing to clothe themselves in garments that are designed to publicise the brand name of their designer and extend their reach in the marketplace. Many of the fancy dress costumes in this catalogue had a similar ambition to personify the brand in a public place with wearable advertising. Party goers could pledge allegiance to their favourite product and be seen as ‘influencers’ in the battle for market supremacy. OK Sauce and Ovaltine, Maclean’s Toothpaste and Anchor Butter, could fight it out on the dance floor or at the cocktail bar. The Man from Mars, Syncopated Sue, Fluffy Ruffles, Percy the Penguin, Mephistopheles and Lucifer would make up the numbers. Today’s fancy dress industry is divided between those who are licensed to market costumes with movie tie-ins (where Disney and super-heroes dominate) and the rest who have to depend on their own ingenuity and observation of market trends. Whatever the pedigree, they are most likely made in China. Halloween is the best night of the year for business but the British appetite for mindless distraction means there a few events in the calendar that don’t represent an opportunity. For anyone who cares, there is an expert analysis of the industry to be seen here – yours for only £350.

Friday, 4 October 2019

Félix Vallotton at the RA

The largesse of Big Pharma is still honoured at the Royal Academy where the wing that bears the infamous Sackler name has been hosting a show of paintings and prints by the Swiss born artist, Félix Vallotton (1865-1925). Vallotton’s position in art history rankings is not especially elevated. Until recently, his reputation rested mainly on the stark and brilliantly inventive satirical woodcuts and illustrations produced in the 1890s while his paintings were little regarded – widely considered bourgeois, academic and unadventurous. The quality of his prints is beyond dispute and the paintings have, in recent years, attracted a wider audience, more receptive to narrative values and the dark, psychological undertones often to be found beneath the smooth, untroubled paint surfaces.

In 1913 Vallotton was looking back half a century to Manet’s Olympia and making his own reworking of Manet’s original. Vallotton has pushed Olympia’s head back into her pillow and closed her eyes – her hips and lower body have been rotated towards the viewer. The power of Manet’s image drew on the confrontational pose of the model, which Vallotton reversed, replacing insolence with indolence. The servant figure shares the same ethnic identity as her original but her relationship with the model has changed from respectful anonymity to that of a companion with her own assertive characteristics. She has stepped forward and sat at the end of the bed from where she directs an unfathomable stare toward the model. The hand-rolled cigarette between her lips suggests a feeling of indifference bordering on low level hostility. But none of this can be claimed with any great certainty because the artist has taken great care to confound any easy interpretation.

Vallotton kept returning to the female nude throughout his career. It was the most problematic part of his output for contemporary audiences and remains so to the present. Concerns about immodesty and exposure may have faded over the century but today’s spectator would be hard pressed to examine most of Vallotton’s paintings of the nude figure without at least a twinge of embarrassment or incredulity. As a cold and dispassionate recorder of female flesh, Vallotton strikes a discordant note, confronting the viewer with a disconcerting sense of physicality that is both emotionally distant and assertively present. An element of distortion and a tendency toward an intentionally clumsy articulation of form, compounds the unease. We have to conclude that Vallotton was not immune to the current of misogyny typical of the Symbolists. Confirmation of this tendency could be found in his writings (he wrote 3 novels, two of which were published in his lifetime) – in 1918 he wrote, “What great evil has man committed that he deserves this terrible partner called woman?” The sentiment, if not the idiom, would gather him a legion of alt-right, incel followers on Twitter.

What little we know of his character and personality suggests a complicated man, remote and sceptical by nature with a capacity for acute observation of human folly. As a Swiss born artist making his way in avant-garde circles in fin-de-siècle Paris, he was always something of an outsider – an acquaintance from that period noted how Vallotton would appear to enter a room sideways and always seemed to be on the defensive. Vuillard and Bonnard became friends and comrades and association with Les Nabis influenced some of the most adventurous compositions of his entire career in the late 1890s. Like Seurat, he seemed attracted to the ideology of anarchism without ever making a single gesture of commitment other than the portrait of “Félix Fénéon at the Revue blanche”. Resistance to social injustice was a frequent theme in his prints but there is no evidence of any involvement in radical causes.

Vallotton’s woodcut prints offer a convincing portrait of turn-of-the-century Parisian street life, dramatically expressed in harsh contrasts of black and white in which fast moving events are compressed into radically simplified compositions by adapting techniques of visualisation borrowed from the art of Japan. Complex forms made simple without any loss of vitality or animation. The themes he explored – political protests, riots, accidents, parades, street performers, itinerant traders and arrests had all the elements that would fascinate a later generation of photographers. When he had the chance, Vallotton would leave his prints behind to focus exclusively on painting. There was some continuity of subject matter but street life would be an infrequent area of interest, unlike the world of interiors.

In a series of woodcuts entitled “Intimités” Vallotton turned a jaundiced eye on the field of relationships between the sexes. The visual language was even more stark as he intruded into the private lives of couples behind closed doors, captured in the act of mutual seduction, pleading, bartering, and deceiving. The air is heavy with hypocrisy, boredom, resentment, lust, betrayal and isolation. In Vallotton’s universe there is no contentment that is unaccompanied by remorse, shame or regret. His eye is tuned to record brief moments of furtive bliss, doomed to evaporate in an instant of disillusion. Couples illicitly embrace in a suffocating airless environment as the anguish of exposure curdles their pleasure. Every amorous encounter is a source of high anxiety or a product of soulless negotiation.

At the age of 34 in 1899, Vallotton married a wealthy and well connected widow, two years his elder. The bride was a daughter of the Bernheim art dealer family, Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques. His fortunes were transformed as he embarked on a new life of domesticity and prosperity. Relocated from his Left bank studio to the haut-bourgeois comforts of the 9th. arrondissement and freed from the imperative to pay his way, he redirected all his energies to painting. With an irony that may not have escaped him, he would go on to paint an extensive set of interiors in which the bourgeois dream of respectability, and financial and emotional security that he now enjoyed, is forensically undermined and exposed as a fraud.

I’ve been fascinated by Vallotton since 1976 when the Arts Council put on an exhibition of his prints. The blend of sensuality and political and social comment, so thrillingly expressed was immediately attractive. The recent discovery of Frans Masereel’s wordless novels and an addiction to Film Noir smoothed the way for Vallotton’s terse and uncompromising graphics. It was interesting that while Masereel maintained a lifelong commitment to revolutionary politics, for Vallotton it was a very brief stop on a long and meandering road that led to material prosperity and a spiritual disillusion that seemed to consume him. He would track backwards and forwards through his favoured subject areas from portraits to interiors, from nude studies to still life, and from landscape to allegories but nothing would equal the impact of the graphic work from his first decade in Paris. The paintings that preoccupied his last 25 years had their admirers and patrons but a lack of quality control and a sense of detachment from contemporary developments left him overlooked and largely ignored. It’s only right that recent generations have revalued his work and found much that intrigues in terms of psychological complexity. The shadow of misogyny that hangs over his more problematic work is not so great as to diminish the emotional power of his best paintings.

Apollinaire, the most flamboyant critic of his age, found very little good to say about Vallotton. At best was some grudging praise for his technical facility but Apollinaire could not accept the comparisons made between Vallotton and Ingres – repeatedly dismissing Vallotton for his “cold sterility” and “funereal qualities”. He was offended by Vallotton’s self-satisfaction and went so far on one occasion to advise his readers “not to stop this year in front of Vallotton’s painting”. Vallotton was scornfully described as owing more to Douanier Rousseau than to Ingres. Apollinaire included Vallotton in a list of artists whom he condemned for “debasing the last vestiges of great Classical art”. Vallotton responded to Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein of 1906 by requesting Stein to allow him the same access. Stein agreed and the finished painting was noted for its affinity with Ingres’s portrait of “Monsieur Bertin” that hangs in the Louvre. She revealed her surprise at how Vallotton would work his way in stages down the canvas from the top, never revising or retouching after arriving at the bottom. This was confirmed by other sitters and may be the only thing that Vallotton had in common with Stanley Spencer.

Félix Emile-Jean Vallotton - Laziness - Google Art Project

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Crystal Palace Dinosaurs

An unexpected pleasure in a South London park is to encounter these replica dinosaurs posing on their island enclosure. When Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace migrated from Hyde Park to Sydenham Hill, the area was greatly remodelled and the dinosaur display was one of many new ancillary attractions in what would become Crystal Palace Park. It was a great mid-Victorian project that rested on the popularity of palaeontology and the discovery of ever more exotic fossil records. At the same time it was conceived to meet the Victorian public appetite for bizarre attractions, making for a perfect combination of high mindedness and sensationalist entertainment.

The task of design and construction fell to Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. Drawings were produced in consultation with scientific experts and manufacture took place in Hawkins’s Sydenham workshop illustrated here. The figures were cast in concrete using moulds derived from original clay models. When complete they were installed on a string of three islands and following a celebratory dinner hosted by Hawkins in the interior of the Iguanadon, opened to the public in 1854. The public imagination was instantly captured and has remained so to the present day.

Conservation is a massive challenge and the most recent efforts in 2003 and 2016 brought much needed improvements. Since 2007 the site has been protected by a Grade I listing from Historic England. A community-led charitable trust (Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs) has brought fresh energy to ensuring long term survival since its formation in 2013. Their latest project is the construction of a bridge which will enable guided visits much closer access (under supervision). It seems the funding is in place to achieve this in the near future.

Crystal palace iguanodon

The "Crystal Palace" from the Great Exhibition, installed at Wellcome V0013783

Monday, 16 September 2019

DB Museum Nürnberg

These photos were taken on a visit to the German railway museum in Nürnberg where the social and technological aspects of railway history are given equal attention. Founded in 1882, it was the first railway museum in the world. There are historic locomotives and rolling stock and a superb display of 2,000 beautifully made models with staggering levels of detail, most of them built by railway workshop apprentices. Displays are thoughtfully arranged and intelligently lit to allow full scrutiny. And there’s a refreshing absence of interactive exhibits reflecting an institutional confidence about curation and interpretation. A separate section for children doesn’t impact on the rest of the collection. The work of engineers, designers and manufacturers is examined alongside the contribution of a highly trained and disciplined workforce. The vital importance of railways in the expansion of industry is explained together with the impact on leisure activities. Marketing and publicity are represented by posters, brochures, guide books and examples of advertising. Railway architecture from the signal box to the engine shed and the great 19th. century palaces of steam are well covered.

Given the importance of Nürnberg in the development of Nazi mythology it’s appropriate that the role of the Reichsbahn in the Holocaust is not evaded. The display of file drawers stacked with records of each Jewish victim of deportation tells the grim story of a dispassionate and mechanistic approach to the business of extermination. The museum is on two sites – an indoor collection of mostly small scale exhibits and a nearby outdoor site where full size exhibits can be seen. Torrential rain on the day deterred us from visiting the latter. An event which is not commemorated is the 2005 fire that swept through the museum roundhouse destroying a total of 24 historic locomotives.

Thursday, 29 August 2019

Edith Farnsworth and Mies van der Rohe

The first 30 miles of the journey from Chicago to Plano, location of the Farnsworth House, is spent escaping the gravitational pull of the city and its suburbs. For the next 25 miles the route crosses the flattest of farmlands along arrow-straight roads, punctuated every few miles by a cluster of agricultural buildings including a large barn, feed store, gasoline tank and a farmstead with a stand of mature trees to offer some shelter from the elements. The vernacular styles are recognisably part of the same family that frequently featured in the inter-war paintings of American Regionalists and Precisionists from Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood to Charles Sheeler and George Ault. The house we are visiting has more in common with the latter than the former.

After a week long exposure to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, the Farnsworth comes as a blast of cold air. No place here for Wright’s spatial dramas, warm colour palette or decorative flourishes – just a bracing, austere, single-storey rectilinear form that hovers in a woodland setting close to the Fox River. Basically it’s a glass-walled, slab-topped box with an extended canopied porch, supported about five feet above the ground by 8 white-painted I-beams. Another slab, offset and closer to the ground, serves as a transition between the house and its surroundings with connections being made via two flights of slab-formed steps. Inside is a single undivided living space with a central timber panelled core that conceals basic services such as heating, sanitation and minimal storage. A fireplace is set into one side of the core – on the other side is a kitchen area.

The house was first conceived as a weekend retreat at a dinner party in 1945 when Dr. Edith Farnsworth made the acquaintance of Bauhaus exile, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Plans were developed over the next two years and placed on hold while Edith waited for the death of an elderly and ailing relative from whom she would inherit the money to finance the build. Construction took place in 1950-51 but before completion, architect and client were embroiled in a legal dogfight over the issue of unforeseen cost inflation. When Edith reached the point of refusing to pay any further costs, Mies sued for unpaid construction invoices and professional fees. Edith’s countersuit demanded repayment of all the sums she had already paid in excess of the original estimate on the basis that Mies had fraudulently misrepresented his abilities as an architect. The court decided in favour of Mies who withdrew from the project, ended all contact with Dr. Farnsworth (with whom he had had a cordial friendship) and never saw the completed house – the task of completion being left to a colleague. There’s a comprehensive and admirably level-headed account of all this to be found at arch daily. According to Wikipedia, there’s a plan to make a movie out of these fraught events with Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ralph Fiennes in the leading roles. Without a lot of fictional embellishment, it sounds like an unlikely pretext for a romantic drama. A stronger subject for a Mies-based drama might be the Villa Tugendhat in Brno.

The sheer force of Mies’s obsessive quest for formal purity was never going to produce the kind of comfort and convenience that a client would have expected in a weekend retreat. Uncluttered spaces and clean, exposed lines mattered far more than the provision of internal storage or personal privacy. When the doctor expressed her reluctance to place a much needed pedal-bin in the kitchen for fear of incurring the displeasure of her architect, she was describing a relationship in which the architect outranks the client, whose role is reduced to that of humble facilitator. Nothing could be allowed to get in the way of Mies’s perfectionist instincts – to do otherwise would be to deny posterity the opportunity to appreciate a masterly demonstration of a reductivist aesthetic. The good doctor’s compensation was the undisputed ownership of a widely acknowledged architectural masterpiece. The cultural capital embodied within must have carried her through many a dinner party.

Mies was insistent that his design priority was to link the house with its natural environment and this aspect is the one positive that almost everyone takes away. The glazing wrap offers an abundance of exquisitely framed views of greensward and foliage on all sides. Many visitors find the absence of creature comforts unforgiveable – the idea that the eminent but inflexible architect should be given a pass in these matters gets little support. This I understand, but I might be a little more generous with the pass. The way that the house and furnishings resolve themselves into a sequence of beautifully composed and layered compositions is a source of such visual delight that I can overlook the issues that others can’t. It may be wrong of me but I can’t help admiring the effrontery of the architect in imposing his vision with complete indifference to the wishes of his client. Something I would normally deplore – only the intensity and severity of vision and the powerful clarity of expression persuades me otherwise.

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Folkestone Warren and a Railway through the Chalk

Folkestone Warren is an area of landslip between the cliffs and the coast to the east of the town. It’s composed of fossil-rich chalk and provides an excellent habitat for birds, insects and plant life. Since 1884 a railway connecting Folkestone with the port of Dover has run through it – there’s a network of footpaths through the thick vegetation but no public roads traverse the site. Two years later a station (Folkestone Warren Halt) was built on the landslip, much to the displeasure of the landowner, the Earl of Radnor whose objections forced it to close within a few months. In a more favourable climate it reopened in 1908 and tea rooms, ornamental gardens and picnic sites were developed to attract visitors by train. Between 1915 and 1919 it was out of action following a major landslip that necessitated complete rebuilding of the railway. Final closure came in September 1939.

Panoramic views of the entire undercliff and the railway can be seen from the cliff top at Capel-le-Ferne. The area is designated and managed as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and operates as a Country Park. Such a photogenic location offered lucrative opportunities for the postcard industry and cards were printed and sold in great quantity. Many of them include the railway, and a few focus on the station itself. Some even succeed in capturing something of the incongruity of a station in such a remote location – an effect that the Belgian Surrealist, Paul Delvaux brought to life in his Gare Forestière.