Friday, 12 July 2019

Bad Timing

It was impressed on me as a child that complaining about personal misfortune was undignified and unacceptable. Despite that I shall tell this tale of good intentions frustrated without losing sight of the fact that as misfortunes go, this is a very small one. One of the great treasures in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago is Gustave Caillebotte’s magnum opus, Paris Street; Rainy Day, first exhibited at the Third Impressionist Exhibition in 1877. It represents the high point in Caillebotte’s output and nothing quite like it was produced by any of his contemporaries. At the age of only 28 the artist had examined the new Parisian urbanism of large scale speculative building and vast ambitious street planning to uncover the sense of psychological displacement experienced by the wider population as they navigate through the new cityscape. Perspectival distortions and a judicious elimination of distracting detail reveal the wide open spaces of the rapidly expanding metropolis and emphasise the insignificance of the occasional human presence. Meticulously planned and executed on a monumental scale, the painting was little more than a footnote in the great Impressionist narrative until it was acquired by the Art Institute from Wildenstein in 1964. In the 1970s, Kirk Varnedoe’s exhaustive, inspirational researches began a process of re-evaluation that has continued into the present and its current status as a major masterpiece of the late 19th. century seems secure.

I had every confidence that I would see the painting when I visited Chicago last month, secure in the knowledge that it was museum policy to turn down all requests for loans from overseas on the not unreasonable grounds that the safety of such a large and bulky item could not be guaranteed if it was shipped around the world. But I was to be disappointed and if I had enquired more deeply I would have learned that it had been loaned to Essen and Paris in the last decade. Paris Street; Rainy Day had buggered off to Berlin as part of a trade that brought Manet’s In the Conservatory in the opposite direction. Insult was added to injury in the museum shop where the display of Caillebotte-related merchandise ran from floor to ceiling, smirking at me. There’s a pattern here – last year in the Kusthalle, Hamburg, I discovered the object of my interest, the Wanderer above a Sea of Fog (Caspar David Friedrich) had wandered off to Berlin (again) in search of a better offer. I have learned from experience the necessity of checking whether a place I plan to visit is closed for a 75 year programme of refurbishment, but clearly I must take my due diligence to a higher level if I’m to avoid future disappointment. In the meantime, a trip to Berlin before September 26 seems called for. 

Previous posts relating to this painting are here, here and here.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Art Deco Chicago – the Field Building

The Field Building was designed by the Chicago firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White (GAP&W), architects of the Wrigley Building and Merchandise Mart and constructed between 1931 and 1934. It would be the last major building completed in the city for 20 years, thanks to the Depression and Second World War. The Field was the climax of GAP&W’s journey from a florid Beaux Arts style to Art Deco, via the unadorned functionalism of the Merchandise Mart. The lavish, extravagant decor featured in the 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Décoratifs had made its way to the prairielands of the Mid West. A recent publication tells the story.

From the outside the Field Building is a bit of a brute – a massive 45 storey central slab with four 22 storey towers - one at each corner. Its reputation as an exemplar of Art Deco in architecture rests on the treatment of the circulation areas inside the building. A polished black granite surround to a soaring entrance that rises up to the 4th. floor is a foretaste of what lies within. Reflective marble and Terrazzo surfaces line the corridors, vertical light splashes from purpose built uplighters mark the route while fluted cladding draws the eye upwards. The progress of the high speed elevators can be monitored from the display panel in the lobby, formed in the shape of the building. Embedded in the panel is a brass finish US mailbox complete with Art Deco fonts and American Eagle. A public walkway connects Clark and LaSalle Streets – an overhead footbridge with an exquisitely detailed Art Deco clock face has a mirrored underside that adds to the sense of theatre. The materials, surfaces, finishes and trims were chosen to flatter the corporate client with their luxury value. The general effect is more restrained than, say, the Moscow Metro but it’s a step in that direction. Its completion ironically coincided with the lowest point in the Great Depression which, unlike the one we’re living through now, brought speculative and prestige development to an abrupt standstill.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

General Tire – the Blow-out Proof Tire

The General Tire company began operations in 1915 as a challenger to the well established duopoly of Goodyear and Firestone. Company policy was to employ a publicity blitz to fight for market share. During the Depression, radio stations were acquired, beginning in the home state of Ohio, to access broadcast advertising on preferential terms. Media interests expanded across the US, culminating in the purchase of RKO Pictures from Howard Hughes in 1955. The business was a regular advertiser in the pages of America’s mass circulation magazines, from where these examples are drawn. A recurring theme was an invocation of American family values in the affluent middle class. Familial stereotypes addressed the readership on the importance of the protection that a General Tire offered, calming anxieties about traffic safety. Think about the children was a frequent message. An early draft captain of industry looks up from his economics textbook to gaze dreamily into the future – the caption brutally reminds us, “It would take 17 years to replace him”.

Characters from the polo playing, Long Island resident plutocracy were introduced for the aspirational customer to identify with. The social ambience became even more rarefied in the ads placed in Fortune magazine – impossibly elegant and expensively groomed couples posed in a world of art deco furnishings and cocktail shakers. A morbid strapline, “For those who would be missed in the community”, made an appearance. The senior executive readership would certainly understand. When the war ended in 1945 the tone changed again as advertisers sought to connect with the mass market of well paid car owners in the rapidly expanding middle class. A world in which smiling well-adjusted schoolchildren are escorted safely across the road, and cheery, happy families enjoy the fruits of prosperity in the form of gadgets, pedigree pets and exotic vacations was created. Throughout these decades, illustrators were preferred to photographers – a regular performer was Dal Holcomb (1901-78) but most images were unsigned. The only other signed examples are an uncharacteristic work by Hananiah Harari and a typically folksy Thanksgiving turkey by Dave Mink.

Monday, 24 June 2019

London Stations in Postcards – Kings Cross

Kings Cross Station is the London terminus of the East Coast Main Line serving Yorkshire, the Northeast and Scotland. It was built by the Great Northern Railway to a design by Lewis Cubitt and opened in 1852. Notable for the simplicity of its brick-built façade with two grand arches corresponding to the two great train sheds that covered the platforms and a clock tower. It was the most restrained frontage of any London termini and owed very little to the Gothic, Classical or Baroque traditions that prevailed elsewhere. The façade was hidden in post-war years by an accretion of undistinguished commercial premises and later by a purpose built ticket sales building. It was 2014 before these additions were removed and the station regained its former glory. In the Thatcher era the station and its environs acquired an unenviable reputation for drug dealing, prostitution and homelessness. This was addressed in the early 2000s since when commercial and residential development of redundant railway land to the north of the station has gentrified the area. In 2012 a new departures concourse opened – designed by John McAslan with a steel roof engineered by Arup, complete with spectacular lighting scheme.

Monday, 3 June 2019

London After Dark in Postcards

Until recently London was emphatically not a 24 hour city in the way that Paris and New York are. But, due to its northerly latitude there was no shortage of darkness to portray on postcard views of the city. Whistler and Monet may have found visual poetry in the mysterious crepuscular gloom of the fog-bound metropolis but this did not readily translate to the postcard although that hasn’t stopped some from trying. The best results were some rather sombre nocturnes. London was never the most glamorous of cities, even under cover of darkness a starchy sobriety prevailed. The night life was often seedy and prudish. Perhaps the only city where discomfort was an aphrodisiac. Timidly transgressive when compared with Rome or Berlin - cities where human depravity was catered to without inhibition or apology. London’s High Court Judges, Peers of the Realm, stalwarts of the armed forces and senior clergymen may have earned a reputation for dissolute behaviour but they took care never to remove their socks. At a time when Parisian “maisons closés” offered elaborately decorated exotic fantasies to their clients, their counterparts across the Channel were resolutely joyless establishments for functional transactional couplings. So I’m told. All this talk may have raised expectations that something salacious is to follow. Sadly, nothing more than a parade of rain swept streets, neon lit advertising and all but impenetrable fog.