Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Postcard of the Day No. 90 – Houlgate, La Plage

Our photographer here in the respectable Normandy seaside resort of Houlgate, west of Honfleur, has done an excellent job of choreographing his human subjects, almost all of whom are fully focused on their tasks. Groups of junior excavators dig energetically in the sand while the foreground boat crew prepare for launching forth into la Manche. Children outnumber adults by about 3 to 1 but irrespective of age, every single person wears a hat and dutifully poses for the camera. The solitary dissenter is the mysterious Man in White who appears to be making his escape between two beach huts. Overlooking the beach is the Grand Hôtel, once the haunt of literary celebrities such as Zola and Proust. To this day Houlgate is mostly unspoilt and its 19th. century grand villas still dominate the foreshore and the town behind. It also lacks the upmarket exclusivity that makes some other resorts so uncomfortable to anyone without a private income. A previous visit to Houlgate can be seen by following this link.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Warhol’s Brillo Boxes

In 1964, Andy Warhol got his assistants to make full-scale wooden replicas of the cardboard cartons used to ship Brillo pads to shops and supermarkets. When complete, they were silkscreened to resemble the original boxes in every detail. The same process was repeated for cartons of other consumer products by Kellogg’s, Motts, Heinz, Del Monte and Campbells. The finished boxes were all assembled in April for an exhibition at the Stable Gallery. When the Manhattan sophisticates turned up for the opening they were confronted by a room where nothing hung on the walls and the floor was stacked high with facsimile cartons of the sort that would never merit a second glance unless you were a shelf-stacker. Visitors had to pick their way with care through the scattered exhibits and soon discovered they no longer had the space in which to cluster and share art world gossip and banter. The popular conception of a private view audience studiously ignoring the work on the walls in favour of free drinks and an exchange of insults suddenly became unavailable. Despite being priced between $100 and $200, sales were disappointing – it seems that Warhol had succeeded in discomforting his core audience as well as raising all sorts of issues about appropriation, authenticity and aesthetic value.

While critics argued over whether or not the boxes were artworks, a commercial artist named James Harvey questioned Warhol’s ownership of the Brillo pack by announcing himself as the designer of the original Brillo carton. Harvey and Warhol were near contemporaries, both of whom had subsidised their fine art ambitions by accepting commercial work. They differed only in their personal choices – while Harvey aligned himself with the serious-minded traditions of Abstract Expressionism, Warhol launched himself in the opposite direction. In 1964 it was Harvey who looked like an anachronism, although his work is not entirely lost to the world – his 1963 design for the Marlboro cigarette pack survives, with minor modifications, to the present day.

I’ve enjoyed Robert Hughes’s magisterial diatribes denouncing Warhol as a meretricious fraud but I’ve never been fully convinced he can be dismissed so lightly. During the 1970s Warhol’s Factory aesthetic rapidly metastised into a sinister driver of celebrity culture but the earlier output had many interesting things to say about consumer culture and the hidden power of the image. I’m less squeamish than Hughes (which is to say my critical standards are not so high) and I’m not offended when the artist’s handiwork is outsourced. The artist as venture capitalist, self-publicist and manager of his or her own image rights may be a little unsettling but it’s nothing new. Where Hughes sees a dangerously value-free void I see a complex character replete with unresolved inner conflicts that largely don’t concern me. Warhol, for Hughes, is the person most responsible for flattening the distinction between high art and the endless noise and turbulence of popular culture. He is amusingly dismissive of Andy the Silver Angel of Death and unimpressed by the images of death and violence that distinguish some of the early silkscreen paintings – car crashes, race riots, electric chairs – that wealthy patrons paid large sums to display in their gated apartments. Hughes must have taken a sardonic pleasure in reading about the proliferation of fake Warhols and the interminable disputes over attribution.

Which brings us to the wooden building blocks in the form of miniaturised Warhol Brillo cartons that went on sale last year in packages of eight, seven of which featured the standard pack while the eighth was a replica of the 3¢ Off variant in yellow. A wonderful opportunity to start your own table-top art museum and arrange the boxes in a deeply personal way. In a helpful note to the purchaser we are reminded that Warhol once said, “Art is what you can get away with” – just the sort of thing to have Robert Hughes turning in his grave. A 2016 documentary film, Brillo Box (3¢ Off) tells the story of a single box and its 40+year journey through the art world, accruing value at each change of ownership until it maxes out at $3million.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Mid-century American Illustration – a selection of double pages

To start 2018 we present some double page spreads from US magazines, mostly Saturday Evening Post with a few from Ladies Home Journal. In some we see the illustrator doing no more than take advantage of a broader space to add impact but in the best the illustrator has found fresh and innovative ways to integrate image and text to dynamic effect. The very best are those where the artist has exploited facial close-ups, dramatic lighting and tonal modelling to spring the image off the page and into our eyes – Jon Whitcomb and Alex Ross being masters of this technique. Artists include George Hughes, Melbourne Brindle, Robert Patterson, Halleck Finley, Peter Stevens and Walter Baumhofer. Baumhofer’s contribution (This time it’s Goodbye) artfully frames the text extract while maintaining a powerful spatial tension between the foreground figure and the distant couple she observes from behind the curtain.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Bridge Postcards of 2017

There are lifting bridges, cantilever bridges, box girder bridges, suspension bridges and swing-bridges in our 2017 selection as we journey from Bremen to Waterford via Cairo and St Louis. Some are simple and utilitarian, others are grandiose and ornamented at great expense. Major rivers are crossed – including the Nile, the Mississippi, the Rhine and the Forth. Waterford and Rotterdam have lifting bridges. Newcastle and Brest can boast a two-level bridge while in St Nazaire the bridge trundles back and forward over the entrance to the docks.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Bridges of 2017

After last year’s bridge bonanza, 2017 was a very modest year. Just 3 to display – one from Mizen Head in County Cork, one from the Dortmund-Ems Canal and lastly from Berlin, the Oberbaumbrücke. Mizen Head Footbridge is a concrete through-arch structure that links the Mizen Peninsula with the island of Cloghán, at the south westerly tip of County Cork. It replaced a life-expired original with a visually identical new bridge in 2011.

The Lucasbrücke road bridge crosses the Dortmund Ems Canal at Datteln, near Waltrop. An earlier bridge, built in 1899 was destroyed in the war in 1945. It was replaced by this structure that had been built for use in the Russian Campaign and had been left unused in a factory in Duisburg.

The Oberbaumbrücke crosses the River Spree, connecting Kreuzberg to Friedrichshain. It’s a two-level bridge with an elevated railway on the upper deck, built in 1894-96 to a design by Otto Stahn (1859-1930). Architecturally, it’s a mediaevalist fantasy every bit as silly as Tower Bridge in London with two defensive towers, cousins to London’s absurd Gothic grandeur. Inspiration for the towers came from the Mitteltorturm in Prenzlau. The Wehrmacht blew up the central section in 1945 to obstruct the advance of the Red Army. When Berlin was divided between the allies it became a crossing point between the Soviet and American sectors. The bridge itself came under the control of the DDR and following construction of the Wall in 1961 it was reduced to a pedestrian crossing. After German reunification the bridge was substantially rebuilt after decades of neglect. U-Bahn trains resumed running over the bridge in 1995.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

A Victorian Christmas in Somerset

Deep in the folds of the Mendip Hills, yet only a few miles from the cosmopolitan liberal elite stronghold of Bristol stands a Grade II* listed country house. On a chill winter evening the red sandstone glows in the moonlight – a Special Edition Gothic Revival Range Rover is parked on the gravel drive. To step inside is to travel back in time to the 1850s when Victorian Britain’s economic and military power was the envy of the world. In the world that the rest of us inhabit the Victorian ascendancy unravelled over the next 150 years but inside the clock was stopped and nothing had changed since the Crystal Palace stood in Hyde Park. In the inner hall, wooden panelling and Pugin wallpaper echo to the distant sounds of jaunty choral music. Approaching the inner sanctum the music becomes identifiable as the Act 1 Finale to Iolanthe. A fastidiously pin-striped seated figure taps an elegantly shod foot to the stirring rhythms of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Eton Trinity Oxford Parliament! 
Into Parliament he shall go! 
Backed by their supreme authority, 
He'll command a large majority! 
Into Parliament, into Parliament, 
Parliament, Parliament, he shall go! 
Into Parliament he shall go! 
Into Parliament, into Parliament, 
Parliament, Parliament, he shall go! 
Into Parliament he shall go! 
Eton Trinity Oxford Parliament!

For this is no ordinary person of the sort his colleagues refer to as the inspiration for their mission in politics. We are in the presence of the much esteemed Member of Parliament for North East Somerset – the nation’s favourite undertaker and a man for whom the Twentieth Century still lies in the future. In front of him is a list of Christmas shopping on which he attempts to focus. But the mind keeps wandering back to the year just ending. Moggmentum had struck a chord with the great British public. It was not inconceivable that in 2018 a troubled nation might turn to him in its hour of need. The only cloud on the horizon was garrulous Pope Francis and his irritating obsession with social justice. Compassion (good) can so easily mutate into sentimental egalitarianism (bad) and misguided philanthropy (worse). Perhaps the next Pontiff could be recruited from Goldman Sachs or the Legatum Institute. Back to the matter in hand – as well as the staff and old chums like Gilbert & George, there are 6 amusingly named children and the Lawful Wedded Spouse to shop for. Most importantly, there is Nanny whose 50 years of service demands the utmost in personal attention. With the assistance of the Christmas gift recommendations from the Catholic Herald and the Daily Telegraph, ideas begin to form: 

Opus Dei leather case for iPhone X 
Steve Bannon Devotional Rosary 
St Sebastian Gorka Tea Cosy 
Roger Scruton Book of Favourite Prayers 
Brexit Militant Combat Rosary 
The Appleby Atlas of Tax-favourable Jurisdictions 
William Morris Dartboard 
Somerset Capital Management 1851 Desk Diary 
St Ignatius Loyola Crystal Decanter 
I-Spy Book of Saboteurs 
Vatican Guide to Bitcoin Indulgences

The choices quickly made, the orders dispatched and the tracks of the Somerset & Dorset Railway will soon be humming beneath the wheels of the speeding parcel wagons destined for Midsomer Norton whence the horse-drawn conveyances of Hermes and DHL shall sally forth. In the kitchen, Cook loads the William Burges dishwasher while upstairs the children stand in line for a fingernail inspection. To be followed by a quick test on the Wall Street closing prices and a bedtime reading from the Ann Coulter audio-book, Atlas Shrugged. And finally to bed, to dream, to dream of the Sacred Chalice of Brexit, fashioned by the Lord to restore the nation to its rightful inheritance. A new dawn where men of wealth and status can exercise their entrepreneurial talents for self-enrichment without let, hindrance, taxation or regulation. Steam locomotives will again rule the rails and Brunel’s Broad Gauge will be reinstated. Ordnance Survey maps will be recalibrated to a scale of an inch per mile. Global Britain will lead the world in steam powered robots and driverless motorcycles. Opportunities will abound for disaster capitalists. Freedom and serfdom will become one and the same. Yeomen of England unite, you have nothing to lose but your supply chains.