Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Leslie Carr

Leslie Carr was an accomplished illustrator and poster artist active from the 1920s to the 1950s. Transport subjects were his speciality and his work can be viewed in the National Railway Museum and the London Transport Museum. Motoring, aviation and shipping also feature in his output. Many children’s books of the period included his thrilling evocations of the age of steam and this is a fine specimen. Examples of his vintage posters have been selling for up to £1,000 in recent months but despite his lasting achievements, biographical data is extremely sparse. There is a single source that gives his year of birth as 1891 but nothing accessible to support it. Perhaps in the future, the life and times of Leslie Carr will emerge from the lost pages of the historical record but I shan’t be holding my breath.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Vidocq Détective

Eugène François Vidocq often seems as much a fictional character as Fantômas. A career criminal and master of disguise who crossed over to the forces of law and order where he rose to the very top, being installed as the first director of the newly formed Sûreté National. His surveillance techniques included disguising himself as a foul smelling heap of refuse – he also faked his own death to disconcert his enemies. Vidocq’s unorthodox approach to crime-fighting was a remarkable success until the implementation of a new regulation, rather late in the day, excluding officers with criminal records forced him to resign in 1832. His next move was into the private sector where he set up the Bureau des renseignements (Office of Information), the world’s first private detective agency.

From premises at 13, Galerie Vivienne Vidocq ran a team of 11 detectives, mostly recruited from the criminal classes, and offered his services direct to Parisian victims of fraud, blackmail and theft. It was a smart address from which to operate although the provision of three exits from which to make a rapid escape may have been a factor. Balzac borrowed aspects of Vidocq for the sinister character of Vautrin in the novel Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes. There’s a dense cloud of mystery over all Vidocq’s activities and truth and fiction are indistinguishable. Vidocq’s published memoirs only add to the confusion and all written records of the era were destroyed by the Communards when they burned down the Hôtel de Ville.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Postcard of the Day No. 37, Ship Hotel, Venice, California

When buildings take on the appearance of things they are not, architectural purists are appalled while the rest of us are silently rejoicing at the absurdity. Property developers are tempted to counterfeit appearances in hopes of maximising commercial opportunity by appealing to the public thirst for novelty. Tobacco baron and cosmopolitan, Abbot Kinney was one such individual. His inspiration was to recreate the splendour of Venice on the Pacific seashore near Santa Monica and he set about doing so with all the entrepreneurial vigour at his command. A Grand Lagoon and several miles of canals were excavated and filled with water from the ocean. Gondolas were imported from Italy and in no time, authentic looking gondoliers were navigating their way beneath the latest in ornamental footbridges. Meanwhile down by the ocean the Ship Hotel opened for business on the pier – just a few years too late for a visit from Mr John Ruskin. It seems that Mr Kinney overestimated the public appetite for Venetian culture as it became apparent that the freak shows and roller coasters at the amusement park were many times more profitable. Displaying the flexibility typical of moguls of commerce, Mr K switched the focus to the construction of bigger and better amusements and the Venetian dream died and Mr K prospered. The “Coney Island of the Pacific” was born.

The bonus card shows another maritime impostor. The Restaurant de la Réserve clings to the edge of the Mediterranean Sea at Nice. The conceit was to transform the outermost rocky outcrop into an approximation of an ocean going yacht. The restaurant is still there, as is the rock, but it now serves as the location for a multi-level diving platform. The watercolour below is from a book on the German artist Karl Hubbuch who visited in 1928. Hubbuch was a superb draftsman with a rare talent for wrapping a crisply flowing line around the most complex forms and making it all look easy.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Menschen am Sonntag 1929

I’ve watched this exhilarating and fascinating film three times in the last week and shall do so again before long. There is no colour, no sound, no actors and no plot. Instead we have much invention and cinematic audacity all served up in dazzling black and white. A group of young and experimental film-makers in 1920s Berlin have taken the intoxication of youth and framed it with the energy and dynamism of modern city life to create an artistic triumph in terms of technique and sensibility. Four young friends, all in employment, escape from the daily routine to spend Sunday flirting and frolicking in the suburban parklands on the edge of the city. Their adventures may be modest in scale but they explore the complications and ambiguities in relationships expressed in the visual language of documentary realism enhanced by stunning extreme close-up photography inspired by narrative cinema.

The city of Berlin is presented as a place of perpetual motion where vectors of vehicle traffic continually intersect, combine and disperse at ever accelerating velocity. Trams, trains, trucks and taxis slice across the screen on diagonal trajectories while the populace swarms in whatever space remains to them. Street frontages, kiosks, advertising columns and overbridges are dressed in Schutzmarken style super-charged graphics in bold shouty fonts – consumer culture Weimar style. Early in the film there’s a mesmerising sequence where two young people slowly and gradually register one another’s presence as they circle around an island in the traffic enclosed by chains of passing vehicles. Eventually they meet and as a couple they depart the security of the island and stroll off through the maelstrom of traffic, unconcerned and miraculously unharmed. This scene is later inverted when their relationship takes a turn for the worse when swimming in a lake and they separate to opposite corners of the screen as the airborne camera observes the growing distance between them.

The great Billy Wilder as screenwriter reveals his beady eye for human frailty. The young men’s boisterous charms cannot conceal a selfish disregard for the feelings of their female companions as they switch their affections as the fancy takes them. The working girls (one is a film extra, the other a sales assistant in a record store) are more reserved and rather emotionally needy – their search for commitment is certain to end in disappointment. There is a third female character. She works as a model and is something of an indolent sensualist, preferring to stay in bed all day in the confines of a stuffy apartment rather than accompany her chubby cab driver partner on a plein-air expedition. The acting is consistently fresh and spontaneous and never lacking conviction. Remarkably so given that they’re all amateurs and in real life follow the occupations they have on screen. The camera gets right in their faces but there’s never an instant when anyone steps out of character. The close-ups are compelling for their emotional intensity and the care with which they are composed. In an extended sequence we see a portrait photographer at work. His subjects are shown in close-up as a gallery of gurning grotesques, each in turn freezing into a single still photographic image.

Six of the young film-makers involved in this project would later enjoy varying degrees of success in Hollywood as directors, writers, producers and photographers. Billy Wilder was the most successful but Edgar Ulmer had the distinction of making what must be the most extraordinary of all film noirs, Detour. Robert Siodmak would also contribute to the film noir genre and Wilder directed one of the greatest of them all, Double Indemnity.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Long Lasting Flavour

These budget-priced sweets could have been designed to inflict maximum damage on young teeth. They have the consistency of vulcanized rubber and demand an inordinate amount of chewing, leaving every crevice and cavity compacted with sugary tarry substance primed to corrode tooth enamel and dissolve dentine. And thus a legend was born – the hapless Limey victims of socialistic medicine, their cakeholes disfigured by ravaged, rotting teeth and cack-handed dentistry. What a contrast with transatlantic orifices where a sublime radiance of dental health illuminates serried ranks of armour-plated turbo teeth and weapons grade incisors, all perfectly formed and equal to the task of reducing mountains of donuts, waffles and pancakes to a viscid emulsion.

Rowntree’s Fruit Gums have been in production since 1893 - one of the few Nestlé products to retain Rowntree branding. The height of their popularity seems to coincide with the post-war era of sweet rationing and they were intensively advertised in magazines of the period to children and adults alike. In a decade when prose frequently dominated images these bright and clear messages with their flat colours and simple imagery were certain to stand out. Unsurprisingly, dental devastation went unremarked, in favour of invocations of a sunnier world of fresh fruit and outdoor pleasures. In the monochrome Age of Austerity this was a very shrewd strategy.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Castel Béranger

For nearly 20 years the Divisionist painter Paul Signac lived here in a sixth floor studio apartment. It was November 1897 when he moved in and he seems to have been delighted with his new home, describing it to his friends as “ultra-modern”. That reminds us that today’s period piece was once the last word in modernity. The architect, Hector Guimard, created a design vocabulary of such intensity that it persists in the contemporary imagination as a uniquely powerful emblem of fin-de-siècle Europe. This was Guimard’s first major building and challenged all the principles and conventions that defined Haussmann Paris. Homogeneity in appearance and proportion was discarded in favour of a facade divided vertically rather than horizontally, finished in a variety of surface treatments and supplied with windows of different sizes and shapes.

For such an individual building this one is quite easy to miss. It’s on a busy street in the 16ème, partially concealed by trees, opposite La Poste with a large produce market outside. It’s not a building that loudly proclaims its presence and its eccentricities reveal themselves slowly. But once you get your eye in, it’s stuffed with extraordinary details and what you see is a virtuoso performance in the art of imposing organic form on resistant materials.

History records that the developer employing Guimard on this project was a model of compliance, permitting the architect almost complete control over every aspect. Though it may seem that Guimard’s passion was to create an Art Nouveau extravaganza he was equally dedicated to building light, airy and spatially efficient apartments that would be a pleasure to inhabit. It was intended as the affordable housing of its day. Each of the 36 apartments was unique in terms of layout and came supplied with fixtures and fittings designed by Guimard. The shared spaces were furnished with carpets, hand rails, stained glass, wallpapers and decorative ceilings, all from the architect’s drawing board.

Guimard’s professional practice challenged the notion that the natural place for Art Nouveau styling was the luxurious, hand-crafted and extravagant. Flamboyant designs for entrances to the new and rapidly expanding Paris Métro put his work on hundreds of street corners across the city. Two things followed. Firstly these visually lavish structures rapidly became a familiar part of the background to everyday Parisian life and secondly, the individuality and exclusivity of Guimard’s designs added a unique flavour to the image of glamour and refinement that Paris was presenting to the wider world.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Stumped for Ideas

All over England there are Men in White anxiously staring at the leaden sky while the north wind freezes their fingers wondering whether there will be play today. One of England’s great gifts to a grateful world, the game of cricket met with studied indifference beyond the boundaries of Empire but inside the imperial realm enthusiasm was unlimited. Demotic English is saturated in the language of cricket to the extent that if we denied ourselves recourse to cricketing clichés many of us would struggle to express ourselves at all. Such scruples have never bothered the British advertising industry for whom cricketing metaphors were a constant source of inspiration especially in the distant days when England’s cricketers were able to compete with a sporting chance of actually winning. Genuine inspiration in these examples was in short supply with the exception of Rowntree’s Fruit Gums – one of the few products of its period that was consistently promoted via simple, clear and punchy graphics.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Postcard of the Day No. 36, Cliff House

This postcard is a backward glance to a vanished landmark – its destruction being announced in the caption. It may also reflect a certain adaptability on the part of the publisher, anxious to dispose of a large volume of otherwise redundant postcards. The Cliff House has a complicated history that can be seen in a handy slideshow version by following this link. The hotel that burned down in 1907 was the most spectacular incarnation – a towering Victorian extravaganza that appeared to project forward into the mighty swell of the Pacific. Completed in 1896 to replace a predecessor that was incinerated in 1894, it was to last for little more than a decade. Despite its brief existence, the quality of confidence and conceit in the original conception has ensured it remains an object of lasting fascination. For the last hundred years it has survived in truncated form with a succession of makeovers, some of which can be seen in the cards below.

Friday, 7 May 2010

A brief return to Quartier de l’Europe

I keep returning to this place with my postcard of Caillebotte's Temps de Pluie in the faint hope I can get closer than before to photographing what Caillebotte saw. The traffic signals, trees and parked cars don’t make it easy but the truth is that Caillebotte massively enlarged the roadway in the foreground to create a deeper space for the figures and an unmodified photographic image cannot convey this. My photoshopped abomination (see below) is a crude attempt to show how this might have been done but I’m afraid it’s not very convincing.

Caillebotte chose well when he selected this point where traffic converges from no less than 8 directions. Oppressive wedges of masonry thrust into the field of vision and suggest that a significant part of the artist’s ambition was to explore discrepancies of scale and the impact of those discrepancies on the populace. This was the face of the modern metropolis in 1877 and there were many voices that deplored the loss of the city’s ancient street patterns and denounced the replacement buildings for their dehumanising geometry and scale. Temps de Pluie seems to express both fascination with the physical immensity and unease at the dominating presence. The painting has things to say about the ways in which the built environment can affect the deeper levels of human consciousness and how the texture of the world we inhabit contributes to the ways we define ourselves. What makes it a major painting is its poetic presence – the colour values, the tonal subtleties and the atmospheric saturation all combine to offer us a deeply mysterious image that embodies a disturbing sense of alienation in a world of minimal human interaction. A single instance has been abstracted from the great continuum of human experience and exhibited for contemplation as an object of wonder.

Parisian painters thoroughly colonised this corner of the city. Manet’s studio was less than 5 minutes away at 4 rue de St-Pétersbourg and the Caillebotte family home at 77 rue de Miromesnil was not much more than a 10 minute journey on a route that runs across le Pont de l’Europe (scene of Caillebotte’s other major painting) and along rue de Madrid. While in the neighbourhood we photographed some of these places, not to add to the sum of human understanding but because it would have seemed discourteous not to do so. With the added attractions of Gare St-Lazare and its associations with Monet, Zola and Jean Renoir I could be tempted, funds permitting, to buy myself a top floor apartment in the locality and enjoy the sort of views that this young woman can see from her balcony.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Hand Painted

The art of the sign painter is not quite dead. This example is on the wall of a Parisian boulangerie on the corner of rue de Marseille and rue Yves-Toudic near Canal Saint-Martin. The shop window serves as a shrine to LU products with a generous display of vintage packaging and ephemera. Below are a few more examples recorded over the last year or so. The one universal rule of sign painting seems to be that the quality of craft skill declines the closer you are to the sea.