Thursday, 26 November 2009

Douglass Crockwell’s Double Life

On the day that America celebrates Thanksgiving we give our thanks for Douglass Crockwell (1904-1968), one of the most singular characters in the world of American illustration. Crockwell led a double life and while submitting to the demands of full-time editorial and advertising illustration, in his spare time he pursued his passion for avant-garde film-making. Among his friends, and occasional collaborator, was the great American sculptor of the Abstract Expressionist era, David Smith. The meticulously painted images above were produced for the United States Brewers Foundation as part of an extended campaign that ran for years in the late 1940s and well into the 1950s. The message is that beer is the all-American drink and in every way preferable to the pretensions of wine drinking. Nobody knew the geography of the American dinner table better than Douglass Crockwell and very few even attempted to express the air of unease and social anxiety that he explored below the surface bonhomie. The glances that never quite meet, hands that flutter in empty nervous gesture and smiles that threaten to rupture the face, all convey a sense that an unspoken truth or a hideously transgressive secret is about to break the surface. Every element in a Crockwell composition was rendered with equal attention giving rise to a claustrophobic flatness that contradicted the careful observance of perspectival conventions. There was never a hint of the ingratiating sentiment that undermined the vision of his near namesake, Norman Rockwell.

Chris Mullen (at VTS) correctly compares Crockwell’s mise-en-scène to that of Douglas Sirk, acknowledging his mastery of cinematic composition. Yet when Crockwell himself turned to film-making his ideas ran in entirely the opposite direction. Figuration was discarded as he plunged into a universe of surrealism-inflected abstraction. Absorbed in technically demanding and time-consuming frame by frame endeavour, Crockwell created a body of work of surpassing strangeness. A variety of biomorphic forms collide, mutate and transform on screen. Cell-like creatures parade in formation, do battle with one another and even get crucified. There’s an illuminating essay (Machines That Give Birth To Images: Tom Gunning) that can be read by following this link. A modest selection of Crockwell’s commercial illustration is displayed here. The free and luminous touch in the earlier work (Camel cigarettes) gave way to intense concentration on surface values as he voyaged through Suburbia as a servant of the United States Brewers Foundation. For the definitive Crockwell experience a trip to the cabinet of enchantment at Visual Telling of Stories is essential.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Paris de Nuit

In 1933 Brassaï published one of the greatest of all photo-books with the title Paris de Nuit. These Parisian postcards from a series published by Yvon (Féeries Nocturnes de Paris) are contemporary with Brassaï’s book. The image above shows Métro line 2 on its elevated trajectory overshadowed by the oppressive profile of Sacré-Coeur, a standing reproof to communards everywhere. A velvety darkness descends upon the city. The lights of the station platform and the café below at street level offer a warm, welcoming glow. The station is La Chapelle, not the most salubrious in the city. Out of sight on the left is the vast expanse of tracks leading into Gare du Nord. The image below is a magnificent set of Parisian clichés gathered around La Rotonde café in Montparnasse. An artist crosses the road complete with beret, pipe, beard, plus-fours and a portfolio under his arm. In front of the café an African street trader attempts to interest passers-by in his ethnic craft products. The glow of the café interior is reflected in the rain washed pavement. A Guimard style candlebra looms over the Métro entrance. Simone de Beauvoir lived in a family apartment above La Rotonde when she was a child and on August 12th. 1916, Picasso and a group of friends, including Max Jacob and Modigliani, had lunch here and clowned around outside in front of Jean Cocteau’s camera. These photographs were traced and expertly collated by Billy Klüver in his fascinating book, A Day with Picasso.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Passage du Caire

The Passage du Caire has the distinction of being the longest passage in Paris and dates from 1798. In the hierarchy of these things, if the Galleria in Milan is placed at the top, then the Passage du Caire is perilously close to the bottom. That’s not to say it’s any less interesting or not worth visiting. There’s an air of bustle and purpose and it has its own raffish character, refreshingly free of ostentation. It runs off the west side of rue Saint-Denis in the 2ème and most of the businesses service the garment and textile traders that still survive in the neighbourhood. It’s the place to go if you’re in urgent need of a mannequin, some protective clothing and a surgical appliance. And, if you really want to blend in, you’ll need your own sack-truck. The passageway is cluttered with bales of bubble-wrap, outsize cardboard boxes, chrome-plated retail display fixtures, stepladders, café tables and families of mannequins. As for rue Saint-Denis, there’s little sign of gentrification here. Apart from the stampeding herds of overloaded sack-trucks, on the eastern side of the street the visitor can admire les demi-mondaines smoking and posing in shop doorways in search of passing trade. These exotic creatures are even more numerous in the nearby, and appropriately named, rue Ponceau.

Monday, 16 November 2009

The Oxo Factor

The Oxo stock cube has been around for more than a century. Over the years this modest product has been advertised with great persistence; stylistically conservative and wholesome in tone. Right now there’s a TV campaign entitled The Oxo Factor that seeks to capitalise on the success of ITV’s X Factor by inviting the public to make their commercials for them. Submissions have to follow a script and last 30 seconds. Prizes can be won and there’s on-line voting and fame of a sort for the winners. The entire dreary user-generated charade can be viewed on-line. (No link – find it yourself, if you must). The examples displayed here have been excavated from the subterranean layers of past publicity. They are typical in their emphasis on family values and show only a modest development in graphic presentation as the decades roll by. In the 1950s a certain jauntiness creeps into the picture (with the subversive notion of a man in the kitchen) but for the most part, sobriety rules. Press advertising was complemented by free recipe books and painting books for the nation’s children. W Heath Robinson supplied some light relief for the wartime consumer with a characteristic blueprint for expanding wartime production.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Crespi d’Adda – factory village

The Italian association with cotton goes back to the 12th. century when the Venetians began importing from Asia. The techniques of mass production of textiles developed in the Industrial Revolution and the Owenite philosophy of model factory communities jointly inspired the planned industrial settlement of Crespi d’Adda near the city of Bergamo on the border between the Duchy of Milan and the Republic of Venice. Work began in 1878 with construction of a massive cotton mill that at the height of its activity employed 4,000 workers. The proprietors, the Crespi family, planned and developed homes for the workforce plus social infrastructure, including school, church, community centre, shops and an enormous cemetery. The provision of a cemetery ensured that employees could catch a daily glimpse of their final journey on this earth with a leftward glance as they passed through the factory gates.

The factory was conceived on a grand scale and entry was via decorated wrought iron gates, a central courtyard, two-storey administration and office buildings of symmetrical appearance and a central towering factory chimney, the whole ensemble calculated to impose and impress. An extensive sequence of single storey workshops with elevated galleries to maximise the daylight produces an impressive perspective enhanced by the repetition of terracotta detailing. Aerial views reveal the full scale of the factory complex and the rectilinear grid on which everything has been planned. The business was immensely profitable and like many others before and since, the Crespis bought themselves a national newspaper (Corriere della Sera) as a vehicle for their opinions. The slump in demand for textiles that followed the Wall Street Crash bankrupted the business and the Crespi’s wealth rapidly evaporated.

Silvio Crespi, son of the founder had spent some time in England working at Platt Brothers (manufacturers of textile machinery) in Oldham and there was an English flavour to the project. The worker housing is opposite the factory and set out on the same axis, in a network of streets running either side of a central avenue leading in one direction to the factory gates and in the other to the shops and recreational space. The fifty houses are semi-detached, with hipped roofs and were consciously designed in what was considered to be an English style and came complete with garden plots intended for growing produce to encourage self-sufficiency. The repetition of forms, the absence of pavements and the ubiquitous lattice fencing of uniform height create a very distinctive streetscape that somehow feels neither Italian nor English.

Social distinctions were preserved with the provision of generously proportioned detached villas for directors and senior staff. The villas were each individually designed and built to a high standard with lavish architectural ornamentation to reflect their status. The air of exclusivity is reinforced by an abundance of mature woodland. The doctor and the priest were rewarded with especially large detached villas on the hillside overlooking the village and factory. From his vantage point the priest would be well placed to keep an eye on his splendid church below, a replica in every detail of the Renaissance basilica at Busto Arsizio, home town of the Crespi family. The Crespis themselves occupied an extraordinary medieval fantasy castle topped by row upon row of battlements that towered over the entire settlement. The Italians describe this style rather neatly as feudo industriale.

Exploring the settlement on foot is a theatrical experience. The factory buildings are deserted and locked (production finally ceased in 2004 after decades of decline) while the residential areas are fully occupied and exude an air of prosperity. The homogenous character has been preserved as part of the management plan conditional upon World Heritage Status, which makes for a tidy appearance at the expense of diversity. The long perspectives of dwellings and factory premises leave a dreamlike impression in the mind – it requires an effort to associate them with the smoke, grime and cacophony of the industrial process. The great citadels of industry possessed a majesty of scale that exercised a powerful hold on the imagination of painters in various genres from the Impressionists to the Precisionists via the Surrealists and die Neue Sacklichkeit. Giorgio de Chirico spent some of his formative years in Milan and Turin, Italy’s industrial heartland and it’s tempting to suggest that the image of the factory became part of his consciousness and re-emerged in the pictorial vocabulary of his compartmented still-lives. More information and pictures can be seen by following this link.

Friday, 13 November 2009

American Streamline Lite

Four examples of magazine advertising from Alcoa Aluminum in the pages of Fortune in the 1930s. Fortune was printed on heavyweight coated paper stock and was able to offer advertisers like Alcoa the facility to use metallic-finish printing inks. Although the typical Fortune reader would be seated at an outsize desk in a plush executive suite there was an editorial assumption that the executive pulse beat faster when presented with industrial imagery in the form of gas tankers, suspension bridges and urban transport. Alcoa’s graphic designers constructed their layouts on conventional rectilinear grids while allowing for the occasional acute angle to suggest some gentle visual dynamism. Fortune’s page designers favoured an even less flexible grid in their efforts to convey a sense of gravitas and self-importance. Thus although the Alcoa ads may seem rather timid in their departures from convention, in the context of the editorial content, they have the impact of a comic strip.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Distillers of Venom

France in the inter-war years had more than its share of vociferous extremists of the right fanatically dedicated to the destruction of the Third Republic and to violent anti-Semitism. Many of them were collaborators in waiting whose day finally dawned in July 1940 when France was occupied by the Wehrmacht. Industrial unrest in the Thirties led to obsessive anti-Communism in the French business community and many of them gave generous financial support to fascist groups. Carmen Callil, in her book, Bad Faith, names three in particular who went further than others in their devotion to the cause. All remain active today as global brands and it’s the brand that most assiduously promotes itself to the public that has the most to answer for. It is little comfort to know that we can continue to enjoy all these wonderful products despite the deep stain that saturates their hidden history.

What unites these three businesses, other than politics, is a shared dependence on the process of distillation. One was a producer of alcoholic drinks (Taittinger champagne) and two were producers of perfume and cosmetics (Coty and l’Oréal). Their political vision was one of distilled hatred and each contributed to the legacy of murder and betrayal that post-war France has had to painfully come to terms with.

Eugène Schueller (1881-1957) was the founder of the l’Oréal empire and sponsored the activities of a thuggish offshoot from Action Francaise by the name of La Cagoule. This notoriously violent group carried out political assassinations, bombing campaigns and sabotage. Former cagoulards were to find employment with l’Oréal after the war. This tale of infamy is well researched and told in detail in the book, Bitter Scent written by Michael Bar-Zohar. The name of l’Oréal is paraded before the consumer with insulting regularity. The plan is to persuade us to choose from their extensive range of products designed to conceal blemishes and imperfections. The misfortune of l’Oréal is that none of their products could in a million years remove the shame and misery that followed from the activities of their founder.

François Coty (1874-1934) was a pioneering creator of mass-market fragrances and by nature, reclusive. His passion for right wing politics and anti-Semitism had a less pleasant odour and in 1933 he founded a paramilitary organisation, Solidarité Francaise. The group looked to the Nazis and Hitler for its inspiration and was an active participant in the attempted overthrow of the Third Republic in February 1934. Coty Inc. is today a German owned business and the world’s largest fragrance company.

Champagne Taittinger is one of France’s most exclusive brands and the founder of the business, Pierre Taittinger (1887-1965), was yet another extremist of the right. He created his own group of fascist street fighters in 1924, Jeunesses Patriotes, and became an elected politician. During the Occupation he exploited his political power to extract for himself a generous slice of the proceeds of Aryanisation of Jewish owned property. Amazingly as Paris fell to the Allies in 1944, Taittinger successfully reinvented himself as a member of the resistance and was never held to account for his sordid past.

Three contaminated brands, three hidden histories, three reasons to think before you buy.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Darquier de Bellenoix

The adjective egregious is extremely useful when describing something surpassingly unpleasant but it’s pitifully inadequate when it comes to describing Louis Darquier, fascist rabble-rouser, professional anti-Semite and enthusiastic deporter of Jews from Vichy France. Carmen Callil, in her grimly fascinating book, Bad Faith (2007) paints a portrait of a man in possession of every known defect of character and totally devoid of human decency. Darquier’s progress from drunken, lecherous, homeless scrounger to a senior position in the bureaucratic machine for the elimination of French Jewry, in the pay of both the Nazis and the Vichy government is set out in great detail by Callil. The misadventures of his Australian wife and the damage they collectively inflicted on their abandoned daughter form another strand in the book. One of Darquier’s distinguishing characteristics was his absurd personal vanity and self regard. This inspired him to add the suffix, de Pellepoix, to his name to elevate himself into the nobility and by doing so provided his critics in the Left wing press with a wonderful opportunity to remix his name for comic effect. Carmen Callil listed a selection of them for our enjoyment. Even to an English ear they have a splendid ring to them.

Darquier de CarQuoi
Barbier de Pellepoix
Darquier de Pelleharicots
Darquier de Pellepouah
Darquier von Pellepoix
Darquoi de Quel Pied
Carquoi de Quelpied
Cartier de Petitpois
Darquoy de Pelletier
Darquier de Montcuq

It would have been a fine thing if the combatants in France’s culture wars could have confined their activities to the exchange of inventive insults, but sadly this was not to be the case.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Postcard of the Day No. 31, Traction Terminal, Indianapolis

This postcard was selected by the Danish-born photographer, Peter Sekaer, to send to his friend and colleague, Walker Evans. The card is postmarked in September 1936, less than 6 months after Sekaer completed an extended tour of the southern states, accompanying Evans on an FSA assignment. In that time spent together, Sekaer had clearly developed a good understanding of the type of vernacular imagery that appealed to Evans. The photographs that Sekaer took certainly bear comparison with Evans; they are technically competent and selected and composed with an educated eye. But even when the two men photographed the same location there is a quality of gravitas and evidence of an intensely self-critical faculty in Evans’s work that can’t be detected in Sekaer’s. This is what makes Evans a great photographer.

As for the Traction Terminal, it was built in 1904 and with nine tracks, it was the largest in the world. Electric streetcars ran through the streets of Indianapolis from 1890 to 1953. Plans are under development for the reintroduction of streetcars into the city. To read more about this, please follow the link.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Boulevard Bonne Nouvelle

The church of Notre Dame de Bonne-Nouvelle has given its name to a long defunct department store, a boulevard and a Métro station. By the time that the young Richard Cobb (future historian and writer on all things French) arrived in Paris in 1935, the Bazar Bonne-Nouvelle had been destroyed by fire (in 1930) but much more remained to delight the ever observant Cobb as he commenced his travels around the city that inspired his best writing. Cobb’s first home in Paris was at 26 boulevard Bonne Nouvelle (he wrote extensively about the other inhabitants of the building) and the image above is the view he would have seen every day as he set out on his exploration of the city. This exploration studiously ignored the famous and celebrated in favour of the unfashionable and overlooked. The Métro entrance was right outside his front door and Cobb was an inveterate user of public transport but he also had an instinctive understanding of the need to travel on foot to have any chance of acquiring some understanding of new and unexplored territory.