Thursday, 28 July 2011

Minefield of Memory

There are those who have little regard for books as objects but place a high value on the activity of reading. The attitude to books in the home I grew up in was just this. Reading was greatly encouraged in the interests of both moral and material improvement but there was little in the way of illustrated literature – staring at pictures was construed as time wasted that could have been better employed with a text. I recall only two books of predominantly visual material - the first was a book of Fougasse wartime cartoons and the second was this item, a copy of which I recently rediscovered in a box-full of literary detritus at a local car-boot sale. It’s a 1940 mass-produced portfolio of contemporary photography, mainly taken in pursuit of technical excellence in the form of the perfect exposure or the widest possible tonal range. Photographic societies existed to promote these arid values in the sadly mistaken belief that their work would be thus elevated to the status of fine art.

My best estimate is that I was 7 years old when I first browsed in this book – the first glimpse of it after at least five decades was a classic shock of recognition followed by a series of detonations as I leafed through the contents. There were landscapes, seascapes, still lives, portraits and un-erotic nude studies, many of which I remembered but there was a small group of four that I recalled very powerfully – the act of looking at them reopened a channel that led directly back to my 7 year old self. The image that most engaged my infant eye was this aerial view of a lakeside car park in Baton Rouge by Clarence John Laughlin. It is an untypical Laughlin photograph, most of whose work reflects a Romantic/Surrealist sensibility – a Joseph Cornell of the Deep South – and if I’m right about its influence on my own visual preferences it took me in an entirely different direction. There’s an awareness of abstraction, an oblique geometry, repetition of forms and a sense of a world encapsulated in miniature. It could explain why I later fell instantly for the formal detachment of Gustave Caillebotte’s birds’ eye views of les Grands Boulevards, Ed Ruscha’s deadpan Thirtyfour Parking Lots, the vertiginous photographs of Rodchenko and Moholy-Nagy and the dizzy excitement of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera.

The other three images took the infant eye through the wonders of massive Soviet industrial structures, atmospheric night scenes and mighty North American locomotives, imprinting a machine aesthetic on the developing brain that has endured to the present day. If there’s any other common theme, it’s a sense of visual dramatics that was in short supply in the monochrome world of North East England where the infant eyes resided. This is troubling territory – we like to imagine that our aesthetic preferences are the result of a continuing principled interior dialogue involving countless discriminating judgements and exercises in taste, all of which lead to a clearly defined and defensible position. The reality is more like a patchwork of prejudices combined with a cluster of predictable responses – a place where most of us feel more comfortable. And sometimes we just have to own up to the profound impact that trivial and banal experiences can have upon our visual receptors.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Lucian Freud (1922 - 2011)

On an autumn day in 1976 I was riding a motorcycle along Holland Park Avenue in the direction of Shepherds Bush Green when a middle-aged man and an elderly, neatly dressed female of Middle European appearance stepped off the pavement in front of me. As I applied the brakes they registered the threat to life and limb and smartly stepped back from the road to the safety of the pavement. When I rode past I recognised the sharp and compact features of Lucian Freud and for a microsecond sensed the famous penetrating gaze that so many have been writing about in the last few days since he died. I’ve always suspected that Freud’s companion was his mother – I vaguely recall she wore a fox fur or something similar – but I could well be wrong on both counts. Freud made productive use of the next 35 years as he transformed himself from a somewhat marginal figurative painter in an age of abstraction and conceptualism into a major star of the international art market, entirely on his own terms.

It seemed to me that Freud steadily migrated from a modified Surrealism to a Neue Sachlichkeit vision of the world. The preoccupation with human tissue and the tribulations of the flesh was perfectly proper but for me it was hard work looking at his paintings despite my admiration for the brilliance with which he manipulated paint into an disconcertingly brutal facsimile of the human form in all its imperfections without compromising the autonomy of each highly charged brush stroke. In the 1970s he briefly turned a cool and beady eye on to the urban scene with paintings of the backs of factories and Victorian terraces. His gaze seemed to linger longest on the most banal and displeasing forms and his brush paid its respects in full to the majestic squalor on display. Freud’s minute examination of all that is most decrepit and debilitated in the human condition seems many times more interesting than Francis Bacon’s soap opera of human cruelty and dissipation. A final thought – perhaps instead of wasting valuable painting time on a vacuous nitwit like Kate Moss, Freud might have been better occupied painting Amy Winehouse.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Say McVitie’s!

As an airless image of 1930s upper middle class cosy domestic bliss, it’s hard to improve on. An absent father toils away with his fountain-pen in a City office – perhaps a barrister, stock broker or a senior actuary – to support this comfortable lifestyle of unlimited digestive biscuits and Mickey Mouse bendy toys from Gamages. Home might be a Blunden Shadbolt Tudor Revival house in Redhill. Mother perches on the edge of a deco-print day bed, wearing a puce satin dress from Marshall & Snelgrove with a necklace of cornelian and jade, a birthday present from an attentive husband, bought at Mappin & Webb in Moorgate. Like the day bed, the swirly deco-styled rug and bookends came from Heal’s. The daughter, Hermione (or Constance), proudly wears her new Shirley Temple outfit, her brother, Hugh (or Guy), is clad in a curious truncated velvet jump-suit. Hugh would be well advised to go no further in Hermione’s “let’s pretend you’re a puppy” game if he wants to avoid a life of deviant behaviour. The shadow of the Great Depression has not disturbed this happy home but the outbreak of war in four years time will not be so easily escaped. As Hugh and Hermione look back from the age of 80, they will find at least one thing unchanged in modern Britain – the unpretentious digestive biscuit remains one of Britain’s best sellers.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

C W Bacon book jackets

Designs for book jackets formed a significant part of Cecil Bacon’s workload and he put a great deal of effort into something that about 90% of book-buyers threw away at the first opportunity. These examples came direct from the artist on the same occasion as the Radio Times scraperboards featured recently. I chose these for their stylistic range and for their association with hard-boiled fiction and science fiction. Bacon varied his approach for each commission, opting for an Alajalov New Yorker-style drawing for The Little Sister, a light touch of Cubism for Mildred Pierce, a streamline look for Red Gardenias and magic realism for The Lost Planet. All the title information appears to be hand-lettered. It would be interesting to know more about the commissioning process and to what extent the approach was prescribed by the publisher. How many ideas were rejected or returned for re-drafting? We may never know the answers to these questions but we can be certain that publishers placed a high value on Bacon’s reputation for conscientious effort, for reliability and for delivering on time.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Barnett Freedman, illustrator for industry

In an era when a romanticised image of the rural idyll was defining the English sensibility there were a few contrarians who preferred to explore the enigmatic poetry hidden deep within the damp and chilled drabness of the inter-war British urban environment. Freedman’s command of a light chalk technique produced granular images of great tonal subtlety. Adding a crisp drawn line to define forms completed the effect. Smudgy, hunched figures hidden beneath umbrellas, pools of light reflected on rain-swept tarmac, and the welcoming glow of light from the windows of the tram, all part of the intrinsically British urban experience, are vividly recalled. Freedman was working for Shell when he produced these images – other clients included the Post Office and the Brewers’ Society. In his 1948 monograph (published by Art and Technics) Jonathan Mayne was unimpressed by examples of Freedman’s commercial work, declaring them to be “calculated, somewhat inhuman performances”. This seems an unduly harsh verdict on work that, looking back, seems to embody all the fine qualities that made Freedman’s Curwen Press published work so highly regarded.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Graphis Magazine Covers

Graphis magazine was an immensely influential Swiss publication founded by Walter Herdeg that showcased the best in graphic design and illustration from its first issue in 1944. An Helvetican air of cool sobriety distinguished its pages and the editorial material was truly international and included tri-lingual texts. Most issues featured at least one digression into the world of fine and applied arts with features on such arcane topics as carved pulpits in Bulgaria, apothecarys’ signs in medieval Salamanca or the corporate graphics of the Hanseatic League. The cover artists had complete freedom to adapt the magazine’s masthead to their own designs and we present six examples from the early years of Graphis when it was virtually unchallenged as the pre-eminent house magazine for graphic designers everywhere. Details of the artists follow below.

Graphis 20 Piero Fornasetti (1913-1988)
Graphis 17 Hans Erni (b. 1909)
Graphis 31 Tom Eckersley (1914-1997)
Graphis 22 Jacques Nathan (1910-2001)
Graphis 26 George Giusti (1908-1990)
Graphis 27 Jean Picart le Doux (1902-1982)

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Peter Brookes in Radio Times

For many decades, Radio Times was the most generous and enlightened patron of illustration of any mass-circulation British magazine. From its inception in 1923 a succession of art editors commissioned the finest of British illustrators to enliven the broadcasting schedules with visual wit in a wide variety of idioms. The tradition persisted into the 1980s before finally succumbing to the remorseless advance of technically competent but frequently boring editorial photography. Prior to the death of illustration there was a brief golden age from the mid 1970s to the mid 1980s when a generation of 1960s art college graduates brought new sophistication with imagery that simultaneously referred back to previous decades while being stylistically adventurous. Nobody better exemplifies this era than Peter Brookes. Now better known as political cartoonist for The Times (behind a paywall), it was entirely appropriate that Brookes was commissioned to illustrate the cover of The Art of Radio Times when it was published to accompany an exhibition at the V & A some thirty years ago in 1981. A love of pastiche and visual puns, pointed but never savage satire and an enthusiasm for inverting ancient visual clichés distinguished his work for over a decade in Radio Times. Above is Brookes’s first cover design for Radio Times from September 1974 – a melancholy reminder of the eternal circularity of British political debate. Below is a group of four covers from the period 1975 to 1978 and finally – seasonal illustrations from a calendar for 1989 issued as a supplement to Radio Times that play games with the initial letters.

Friday, 15 July 2011

C W Bacon illustrates Radio Times

Cecil Bacon (1905-92) was a commercial illustrator active from the late 1920s up to the 1970s. He could turn a hand to any task in the advertising industry but the mainstay of his work was editorial – for magazines such as the Listener and Radio Times for whom he produced spot illustrations, mostly executed in scraperboard for over thirty years (1935-1968). These examples of original artwork for Radio Times were acquired direct from the artist in 1982. When Chris Mullen and I visited him at his home in Sussex, near Fairlight, he proved to be a delightful host, modest and self-effacing. He was remarkably generous with his time, gave a conducted tour of his studio and archive and seemed genuinely surprised that anyone should be taking a serious interest in his work. Scraperboard drawing was his preferred technique and in 1951 he published a book on the subject. He may not have been the equal of the likes of Fraser or Bawden but he brought precision and verve to a somewhat neglected medium. The images posted here are as follows:
In Town Tonight (above) from Radio Times dated November 11th 1940
Mystery of the Seven Cafés from Radio Times dated September 6th 1935
Black-outs for the Black-out from Radio Times dated May 3rd 1940
Easter Day border from Radio Times dated April 15th 1949
Summer Showtime from Radio Times, July 1951
The Fleet’s All Lit Up from Radio Times dated June 12th 1953

Thursday, 7 July 2011


A Sunday morning in Paris is one of the best times to find a deserted Métro station – especially if two trains cross and the handful of passengers speedily drains into the exits. These platforms display the distinctive tiling of the former Nord-Sud railway (now line 12), tastefully restored in recent years and pleasingly devoid of human presence. The sign of a Nord-Sud station is the directional information lettered on the tunnel headwalls. The deployment of white bevel-edged tiling over the tunnel lining creates a beguiling fantasia of reflected colour and light with minimal means.

Sèvres-Babylone is the station for Bon Marché and an example of the compound names favoured for Métro stations formed in this instance from the names of two stations combined into one. Road intersections provide another source of similar names. These names are valued for their unintended poetry – in this instance the association with fine porcelain (Sévres) and Orientalism (Babylone) blends into an exotic note.

Since they were downloaded more than a year ago these images have languished, unexamined in the iPhoto library in the form of intractable black rectangles, evidence of the limits to my photographic competence. Thanks to the sorcery of Photoshop they have been extracted from the darkness to tell their own penumbral story.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Musée Horta

Victor Horta designed and built his own home and studio at 25 rue Américaine in the commune of Saint-Gilles, about 2 miles south of the centre of Brussels. Construction took place between 1898 and 1901 and the house was extended in 1906 and 1908. Positioned on a double width plot, Horta divided the space vertically to separate living accommodation and studio and business space. Horta’s talent for exuberant decoration was more than equalled by his command of spatial organisation, seen at its best in the separation of rooms around the central staircase by minor but defining changes in levels of two, three or four steps. These subtleties enable the spatial flow to match the flowing forms that coil and twist throughout the house. The visual language of Art Nouveau perished instantly in the mechanised slaughter of the Great War and when Horta moved out in 1919 to a town-house on avenue Louise, he left behind what was already an extraordinary anachronism. He adapted to the times and developed an architecture of geometric sobriety that brought some prestigious projects (Palais des Beaux-Arts and Brussels-Central railway station) that resulted in worthy but unmemorable buildings. With the ascendancy of Modernism, the rising execration of the style of his early maturity was something Horta had to endure until his death in 1947, some two decades before the rehabilitation of Art Nouveau as part of a new narrative of architectural and design history.

Horta’s house is now a national monument and a significant part of it is curated and open to the public. Visiting is a strange experience. Modern museums are not unreasonably, generally unwelcoming to backpacks and large bags, requiring them to be deposited in cloakrooms. But the Musée Horta has extended this to include virtually all hand held bags including handbags of purse-like dimensions. The result is an enormous cloakroom queue held up by protesting visitors, mainly female, angrily transferring cash, cards and valuables to their person before consigning their handbags into the custody of museum staff in whom they have absolutely no trust. Admission tickets are sold by a functionary perched halfway up the stairs at a tiny table while members of staff self-importantly bustle around continually creating unwanted turbulence in the confined spaces. A ban on photography is rigorously enforced which does induce caution on the part of those unwilling to comply.

None of this makes for a contemplative experience but nevertheless it is fascinating to explore a space that offers such a total design experience where almost every feature has been subordinated to the designer’s brief. Movement around the stairwell and through the rooms is a genuine visual and physical pleasure, greatly enhanced by the flow of forms that gather and surge throughout the building. Almost every feature bears examination for its formal ingenuity and visitors can be seen staring intently at banisters, tie-rods, light pendants, matchbox holders and keyholes, all specially designed and custom-built. Horta’s vision was unusually intense and triggered an explosion of Art Nouveau architectural exuberance across Europe and North America and in doing so boosted the first 20th. century art movement to explode into life and expire in little more than a decade, pioneering a tradition of rapid transience that shows no sign of changing.