Thursday, 25 September 2008

Won’t Wash Clothes

Cradled by the crescent moon
The monkey strums an idle tune
Lost in a world where anything goes
What a shame it Won’t Wash Clothes.

He’s the hardest working brand character of the Victorian era. On his shoulders rested the responsibility for persuading the great British public that a block of Monkey Brand soap was an indispensable household commodity even though it Won’t Wash Clothes. This is our second visit to the bizarre imagery of the strange world of Monkey Brand publicity and some very curious images are on display. This refugee from the wild and untamed jungles of the Victorian imagination is pressed into service in an astonishing variety of disguises from commedia dell’arte to mandarin, tamed and costumed in an elaborate sequence of charades calculated to break down customer resistance by indulging the secret fears and prejudices of the prosperous readership of the Illustrated London News and similar publications. A world without order and a world without hygiene being uppermost among their concerns.

There seems no end to the indignities that our simian hero must endure. Portrayed as a beast of burden, crushed by the weight of an outsize bar of Monkey Brand, then reduced to the proportions of a child, clad in evening dress and posed on the ample thigh of John Bull. But for sheer horror nothing can equal the image in which the hapless creature is skinned and mounted by a grinning child brandishing a whip. This image of sadism and subjugation is almost overloaded with peculiarly Victorian obsessions including an unhealthy preoccupation with the forms of naked children. I like to think that the uncanny resemblance between the monkey fur and the hair of the child was a sly comment on the part of the artist. Perhaps we are looking at a celebration of the triumph of imperialism or an allegorical rejection of Darwinism.

Surrealist poets and painters were much attracted to the notion of the incubus – a supernatural creature of the night that invaded the bedchambers of the innocent for the purpose of illicit sex. The image of the Monkey Brand as cherub (previously seen perched in the lap of the seductive figure of Leisure) has all the characteristics of an incubus except, of course, for reproductive organs. A sensible omission to avoid fatal contamination of the brand! Incubus or not, this curious flying figure, with an ability to insinuate itself into the most private of spaces, possesses formidable power to threaten and disturb. Redemption finally came in the form of a trip to the Universal Exhibition of 1900 in Paris where he is solemnly invested with the order of the burnished frying pan by a comely demoiselle. A trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower and a drink of champagne from the demoiselle’s shapely slipper is the least he deserves in return for all the years of faithful service.

Victorian commerce created the modern advertising industry. Advertising proliferated in the absence of regulation to cover virtually every surface in the modern metropolis. Advertising agencies were a Victorian innovation and we have them to thank for developing the concept of branding and brand characters. The latter half of the 19th. century was a period of massive expansion in marketing and promotional techniques. The activities of the industry with the Victorian passion for outlandish stunts would make the basis of a fascinating TV drama series along the lines of Mad Men, based on mid-century Madison Avenue. Alternatively, if only Gilbert & Sullivan had turned their attention to the world of Victorian advertising, the gimmickry, the sharp practice, the outrageous claims and the ubiquity of publicity would have made perfect targets for their brand of satire.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Celebrity Endorsement Victorian Style

This is the great Emile Zola, boyhood friend of Cézanne and pioneer of French Naturalism, in 1894 giving his support to a marketing campaign for Mariani Wine. By the time this advert was published Zola had completed his Rougon-Macquart series of novels, Captain Alfred Dreyfus had been arrested and the final chapter of Zola’s career was underway. Zola’s grave expression suggests that he might have some premonition of the great miscarriage of justice that would engulf the last 5 years of his life. According to Zola, Mariani Wine was “The Elixir of Life, which combats human debility, the one real cause of every ill – a veritable scientific fountain of truth, which in giving vigour, health and energy, would create an entirely new and superior race.” Even his harshest critics never accused Zola of understatement. Zola’s destiny, tragic as it was, could not be compared with that of his fellow celebrity endorser, the composer Charles Gounod. Despite the benefits of “The admirable Mariani Wine, which has so often rescued me from exhaustion”, Gounod had been dead for over a year by the time this advert appeared in the press.

As for Mariani Wine, it was a powerful concoction fortified with 6 mg of cocaine per fluid ounce of wine. Little wonder it was so popular with sovereigns and pontiffs. Leo XIII and Pius X and Queen Victoria herself were all known to be satisfied consumers. There’s even a story that, stripped of alcohol and carbonated, it was an ancestor of Coca-Cola. Given that Coca-Cola had been in existence since 1886 and its origins are shrouded in mystery, it’s not a claim that’s easy to verify.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Art, money and shit

Watching Robert Hughes battering away at the iniquities of the art market on Channel 4 (The Mona Lisa Curse) last Sunday I found my mind wandering to Piero Manzoni and his tins of artist’s shit (Merda d’Artista). An artist of sly wit and a beguiling manner, Manzoni’s work posed all the great questions about the relationship between art and money, about the definitions and boundaries of artistic activity and about authenticity, originality and the limits of public acceptability. His life’s work was completed by 1963 and he explored his chosen territory with charm, humour and a lightness of touch that never excluded the possibility that the entire enterprise was a satirical exercise. The first generation of conceptual artists began to emerge in the late 1960s and stretched the ideas that Manzoni had played with in every direction possible. Within a decade those possibilities appeared to be exhausted. By 1980 the market had to be refreshed and the chosen vehicle was the reappearance of hand held brushes and paint on canvas. Another decade had to pass before a new generation of artists began to excavate the conceptual heritage and discovered a rich vein of material that has been exploited ever since. At the same time a deal was sealed with the dubious world of celebrity culture. It’s the work of this generation over the last 20 years that has dominated the market for new art and finally triggered a massive critical meltdown for Robert Hughes. He loathes this stuff with a genuine passion and in his recent incarnation as ancient, battle scarred curmudgeon, dispatched a barrage of withering scorn and contempt at it.

It was amusing to read the thoughts of Germaine Greer in yesterday’s Guardian as she strapped herself to the Brit Art bandwagon and delivered an imperious rebuke to Hughes. Greer’s opinion is that Hughes is incapable of “getting” artists such as Hirst, Basquiat and Baselitz and an enemy of innovation in the visual arts. The beauty of all this is that she exhibits precisely the intolerance that she identifies in Hughes. What matters to Greer about art is whether she gets it or not; what matters to Hughes is whether the art is good or bad. There’s a lot of art that I like that, by the definition of Hughes, is bad art and there’s a lot of art that he defines as good that I don’t like. Liking something doesn’t make it good but on the other hand, nobody can oblige you to like something because they say it’s good. In between liking and good lies respect – a position where it’s perfectly possible to appreciate the value and importance of art without actually deriving any great pleasure from it. In the end I prefer Hughes because he continues to make the effort to distinguish the good from the bad which puts him in an awkward and uncomfortable place where it’s all too easy for the likes of Greer to toss a little light abuse at him.

Returning to Manzoni, he seems to be genuinely subversive in a way that none of the artists Hughes had in his sights could possibly claim to be. His work undermined the commodification of art and the personality cult of the artist. His tins of shit were sold for a sum equal to the value of their weight in gold on the day of sale. He produced lines on paper cylinders of various lengths that were sealed in chromed containers, he made artworks out of bread rolls and fur, he distributed hard-boiled eggs that bore his thumb print and he claimed the entire planet as his own creation by constructing and positioning a giant inverted plinth into which were incised the words “Source du Monde”. I love his work for its insolence and humour but was he a good artist? I believe he was, because he pushed on doors and rattled cages that nobody else had thought of doing. He presented a master-class in the art of logical absurdity and in doing so he shifted some of our ideas and preconceptions about the relationship of art to consumer culture. That’s good enough for me.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Vanishing Points

A slender excuse to show some favourite postcard images where perspective is pushed to breaking point. In these examples we get vast and empty spaces opening up in the foregrounds in the very place we might expect to find a point of interest thus creating a kind of postcard paradox. Postcards are intended to function as carriers of information but here the tyranny of the vanishing point has the effect of banishing anecdotal detail to the margins.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Métro Parisien

For anyone with recent experience of London Transport, the Paris Métro is a revelation. The average wait for a train during the working day is about 3 minutes. There is nowhere on the entire system where you can be faced with the sort of 20 minute service gap that occurs so often on the Circle Line in London. Trains are clean, brightly lit and spacious when compared with London’s “deep tube” trains. Rubber tyres are employed to produce a much smoother and quieter ride than conventional track. Other novelties include driver-less trains on line 14 and inter connected carriages on line 1 that enable the traveller to walk the length of the train. The Métro was built some 40 years after the development of London’s Metropolitan railway and the French had the advantage of learning from the structural problems that follow when two or more services share the same tracks. All 14 Métro lines are out and back shuttles though a few of them divide in the suburbs to serve more than one terminus.

The great age of London Transport (LT) came between the wars when Frank Pick created and developed a design-led network in which all aspects of operation were subject to a co-ordinated design process. In two respects LT achieved standards of excellence that the Métro never did, namely, posters and publicity and station architecture. To be fair to Paris, there are virtually no street level station buildings, access being via clearly signed staircases. The elevated sections are served by undistinguished elevated stations with either platform canopies or all-over roofs. The only areas where design played a significant part were the station interiors at platform level and the signage at the station entrances. There is no other graphic tradition and in the matter of graphic design and illustration for advertising London wins hands down.

Branding distinction has been achieved by careful preservation of the Art Nouveau derived designs of Hector Guimaud. Some of Guimaud’s finest achievements were destroyed in the years when Art Nouveau bottomed out in terms of public esteem but since the 1960’s the Guimaud heritage has been assiduously cultivated and replicated to the point where it now stands in the first rank of Parisian icons. Organic letterforms and twisting plant-like cast iron structures all contribute. The bizarre candelabras that loom owlishly over many an entrance have an almost sinister presence. Insect-like hooded light fixtures complete the picture.

Below street level the station platforms have been graced by a succession of ceramic-based decorative schemes that over the decades have been covered over in pursuit of a more contemporary acrylic-panelling look and then later reinstated and restored to their former glory. There have been a number of prestige projects to develop themed station decor (Louvre-Rivoli, Concorde, Bastille, Assemblée Nationale) but in central Paris at least, ceramic tiling remains the order of the day. The holy grail for connoisseurs of Métro architecture is the long closed station of Saint-Martin where a series of hoarding sized ceramic tiled advertisements have survived intact from the 1940’s. Urban Explorers have penetrated the security to gain access and photographs of their discoveries can be seen by following this link.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Hats off in Oklahoma

Contrasting styles from neighbouring states. Oklahoma is famous for oil and gave its name to a musical. Arkansas has yet to be honoured with a musical but it is the home state of Bill Clinton. The Oklahoma City Rangers have a louche and carefree air about them that contrasts with the sober suited donkey riders of Hot Springs. Hats stay firmly clamped on Arkansas heads while in Oklahoma they are launched to the sky in a gesture of jaunty exuberance. It’s not clear whether the Oklahoma City Rangers have some law enforcement functions or whether their role is purely ceremonial but they have the swagger of Western Swing about them. There’s only one smile in Hot Springs – it belongs to the man in the middle of the card. On closer examination it turns out that not everyone in Hot Springs is mounted on a donkey – the rider on the extreme right has an alternative quadruped for reasons that are unexplained. Hot Springs has a chequered history. Originally developed as a citadel of cleanliness with thermal springs, it later declined into a cesspool of crime when gambling became established. Al Capone was a visitor to Hot Springs in the 1930’s and was photographed wearing a cowboy hat and mounted on a donkey, neatly combining aspects of both these postcards.

Thursday, 11 September 2008


In the years between the wars the word Chinatown carried an immense variety of transgressive associations. It was the exotic locale for an endless sequence of detective fiction, white slave melodramas, musical comedies, gangster movies and tales of opium smoking and heroin smuggling. Even contemporary authors as sophisticated as Philip Pullman have been seduced by the concept of Chinatown as a reliable vehicle for the creation of instant mystery and exoticism (The Ruby in the Smoke). Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op was a frequent visitor to do battle with the Oriental forces of evil.

This fold-out postcard (undated but probably from the inter war years) makes its own small contribution to the enduring myths about China and Chinese culture as transplanted to California with generous displays of exotic costume and architecture. Fortune-tellers and a soothsayer pose for the camera and underline the association with gambling and the occult. There’s evidence of an extravagant quantity of photo retouching to the point where many figures are left floating in space, detached from their surroundings by an over-enthusiasm for eliminating shadows and textures. This was truly the first golden age of the air-brush.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Passages Couverts

Boulevard Montmartre in the 2e runs east-west between métro stations Richelieu-Drouot and Grands Boulevards. To north and south of the boulevard extend a network of shopping arcades (passages couverts). There are 4 such clusters to be found in Paris of which this is one, comprising the Passage des Panoramas, the Passage Jouffroy and the Passage Verdeau. These locations have long been a great source of fascination to Parisian intellectuals and flâneurs, valued for the strange and esoteric selection of goods on display as well as for the alternative routes that they offer through the city.

They are structures that lack any external facade (other than an entrance portico), thereby overturning some of the basic rules of architecture. In this sense they have as much in common with a tunnel as they have with a conventional building. Unlike a tunnel they possess cast iron ribbed, glazed roofs that even on a dull day of incessant rain can be depended on to admit a generous amount of daylight. With bright tiled floors and reflective glass facades, the light is doubled and redoubled. The noise and clamour of Parisian street life is left far behind and pedestrian progress is unimpeded by conflicting streams of traffic. It’s not long before you begin to suspect you may have entered a parallel form of existence.

Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant has appeared before in these notes and should be referred to sparingly lest one is accused of seeking an unearned note of intellectual respectability so caution is called for here. Aragon celebrated the idiosyncratic life of the Passage de l’Opéra at a time when it was due to be demolished to permit the inexorable advance of the boulevard Haussmann in 1924. For Aragon the passage represented an alternative universe of infinite possibilities, a closed world where bourgeois conventions had no force and a Surrealist playground where the absurd and the ridiculous, the bizarre and the pompous, the monumental and the trivial were continually colliding with one another.

Each of the arcades featured in these photographs has an individual flavour. Passage des Panoramas, on the south of bd. Montmartre has a simple pitched glazed roof and a floor of cracked paving stones. It starts brightly with a flurry of restaurants and dealers in vintage postcards, stamps, coins, medals and printed ephemera but at the extremities it peters out into two dark and neglected corridors where rainwater drips down the damp but perfectly tailored collar of the passing flâneur. The carefully preserved vintage signs for Stern Graveur supply a note of distinction.

Passage Jouffroy with an entrance on the north side of bd. Montmartre in the 9e is the longest of the three. There is a central section where it turns through two right angles and descends a short flight of steps before continuing in the same direction at a lower level. At this point are the entrance to the Hôtel Chopin and the exit from the Musée Grévin. The passage is broader and lighter than Passage des Panoramas with a vaulted roof and a more eclectic range of retailers. This is the place to purchase antique dolls and toys, dolls’ houses and accessories, walking sticks, canes and animal skins, movie memorabilia and vintage posters. The second (and shorter) section is narrower with shops on the left and false shop fronts to the right where a book seller (Librairie du Passage) displays a wide selection of reduced-price books on art and design. There always seem to be interesting books to be found here.

Walter Benjamin’s intimidatingly huge book (or 1,000 page collection of notes, clippings and drafts) published under the title The Arcades Project has many interesting observations based on the author’s heroic effort to comprehend the vast sweep of human history by means of intensive scrutiny of the cultural values of the 19th. century bourgeoisie but as a linear read, it’s a major challenge. Embedded in the aggregation of raw data are many real gems. For Benjamin, the Parisian arcades represented a focal point for the examination and understanding of the way that commerce shaped the history of the period.

The Neoclassical entrance to Passage Verdeau is just across the road (rue de la Grange-Batelière). This passage has a cooler, uncluttered look lined with galleries and rather forbidding dealers in water-colours, prints and old photographs. Of course, it being August, le congé annuel had brought the shutters down on a fair number of businesses. Even on a wet day traffic was light and the long and deserted perspectives began to assume a melancholy air.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Métro Parisien, Line 2

The pleasures of line 2 on the Paris Métro include the last surviving Hector Guimard édicule at Porte Dauphine, Parc Monceau, Père Lachaise cemetery and an elevated section from Jaurès to Barbès Rochechouart that discreetly dives back underground at Anvers to spare the traveller from the sleaze between Pigalle and Place de Clichy. A less celebrated highlight is the opportunity to admire the commercial effrontery of the wonderfully egregious ribbon of Tati stores at Barbès. At Jaurès there’s easy access to the Canal Saint-Martin and Bassin de la Villette. Also at Jaurès is one of the last surviving Parisian toll-houses (Rotonde de la Villette) built for Louis XVI between 1784 and 1791 to tax all goods entering the city and add to his already considerable unpopularity. Claude Nicolas Ledoux was the architect responsible for the Neoclassical designs. Most of these detested structures were demolished by an ungrateful populace soon after the Revolution but another survivor can be found some 10 stations to the west at the entrance to Parc Monceau.

I have written before on the subject of the métro aérien and the splendour of the elevated sections. Revisiting in summer brings the additional delight of a sense of cruising through the treetops as the foliage encroaches on the rippling profile of the viaduct. The architectural style of the métro aérien is robust bordering on the brutal. Massive stone abutments and fluted Neoclassical cast iron columns along the central reservation support substantial steel trusses and a dark and uninviting space is created underneath. The métro entrances tend to be simple and unadorned and the exits are spectacular exercises in cast iron brutalism with security fencing and massive turnstiles that discourage even the most determined prospective intruder from attempting an illegal access. I rather like the association with the architecture of prisons and football grounds.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Temps de Pluie

The Art Institute of Chicago is the proud owner of Gustave Caillebotte’s ambitious grande machine, first exhibited in 1877 at the Third Impressionist Exhibition under the title, Rue de Paris; Temps de pluie. It is a compelling image with its perambulating figures frozen in mid-step, its Parisian apartment blocks with plunging perspectives and its striking tonal and surface qualities that capture the watery essence and unexpected luminosity of a wide and open urban space on a day of incessant rain. The finish is smooth and closely controlled with none of the surface agitation that typified the Impressionist approach. The current position of the Art Institute is that this painting is not sufficiently robust to travel and it’s unavailable for loans to other museums. All of which means that to see it, you must travel to Chicago.

Thirty years have passed since I made the journey to Chicago and saw this painting for myself. I can still recall the tremendous quality of physical presence and its capacity to totally absorb the senses. With a narrow range of colours the artist created an immense diversity of chromatic notes to compel our attention. The composition is bold and unconventional, drawing heavily on the vocabulary of photographic imagery in the portrayal of space and depth. The location is the Place de Dublin at the heart of the Quartier de l’Europe, a massive Parisian residential development that in 1877 was little more than 10 years old. By engaging with photography and contemporary architecture and turning his back on monumental and historic Paris the artist made a clear declaration that the modern world was his chosen subject.

In the last 30 years the reputation of this painting has increased enormously and public estimation of Caillebotte has graduated from that of a footnote in the standard account of Impressionism to a respectable position just below the first tier of Impressionist masters. There was a touring retrospective in 1994-95 and the sterling efforts of the late Kirk Varnedoe (organiser of the pioneering Houston retrospective in 1976) and Marie Berhaut (compiler of the Caillebotte catalogue raisonnée) have contributed greatly to the revaluation of this long under-rated artist.

All of which is by way of preamble to a Saturday evening stroll south from Place de Clichy down rue St-Pétersbourg to visit the original location of the painting at the Place de Dublin. The photographs I took from rue Turin (the original vantage point of the artist) show that it is possible to obtain a rough approximation of what Caillebotte recorded but due to tree planting and some remodelling of pavements it was impossible to recreate the scene in the way that Varnedoe did in his research in the mid Seventies. The last image below is a more general view of the Place de Dublin, showing from the left, rue Clappeyron, rue de Turin, rue de St-Pétersbourg and rue de Moscou. I have a suspicion that somewhere there’s an error in my positioning but the time of day (Saturday at 19.45) turned out to be good because of the absence of traffic. Though somehow the timing is never completely right because the previous day would have been ideal – it rained without a break from dawn till dusk.