Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Postcard of the Day No. 58, Burmese Holiday

Today’s card has a colonial flavour. More than twenty girls aboard an open sided tramcar have lined up to be photographed. Schoolchildren, almost certainly – orphans, quite possibly. Their chaperone stands tall in his tropical suit and hat, an imperial authority figure from a minor public school, responsible for the rule of law and promoting the Christian gospel. The driver, his eyes fixed on the far distance and his hands welded to the controls, exhibits the sort of fierce concentration that inspires confidence. It’s a special occasion and the girls are going on holiday, in practice this may be no more than a day trip to the Cantonment Gardens or other local attraction, and spirits are not conspicuously high. Resignation is the default expression - expectations appear to be low. The life that lies ahead of them will be very hard - in their mature years they will have to endure the devastation of their lands as the Japanese and British forces battle for supremacy between 1942 and 1945. In the bonus cards below we see some early motorised visitors to British Columbia and California enjoying their new mobility and easy access to the great outdoors.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Deauville Dossier

Some genre scenes from the fastidiously manicured Normandy resort of Deauville recorded by early postcard photographers on their rounds. In search of a fresh angle on the newly opened Casino the camera has attracted a disparate cast of onlookers – from the left, a gentleman of leisure and his female companion, a stocky artisan with a ferocious dog under restraint, two small boys posed on a see-saw and some offspring of privilege in the care of a nanny. There is an air of first position here – an unseen hand has directed our characters in a tableau of his own devising. One of the boys looks back over his shoulder as if to seek reassurance that he’s doing the right thing. Jean-Pierre Melville’s cinematic exercise in moral ambivalence reached its climax outside the building in the background when the eponymous Bob le flambeur’s criminal career came to a sudden end when a botched attempt to steal the casino takings unravelled. 

These elevated views of the central Place Morny display the Normandy rustic revival heritage style that was widely employed to deceive the casual eye that this was a place with deep roots in the warrior kingdom of the Normans. Deauville has long fancied itself as the 21st. arrondissement and the Parisian sophisticate could shop in a micro version of the great Printemps department store. What makes this view compelling is the sense that we are once again, back at first positions, observing the opening moments of a dramatic presentation. An alternative view is that we are admiring a beautifully detailed model village and at any moment, gigantic feet may advance towards us, scattering the diminutive cars and figures. 

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Au Bon Marché with Picasso 1912

One day towards the end of 1912 Picasso, in his new studio on boulevard Raspail, got hold of a display card or label from the Lingerie department at Bon Marché that would form the centrepiece of a papier collée together with an assortment of striped wallpaper and some advertising for la Samaritaine store clipped from Le Journal dated January 25th. 1913. Drawn and painted elements were also added with a wine glass on the right and a carafe on the left. For several months Braque and Picasso had become increasingly preoccupied with extending the vocabulary of Cubism with the addition of more and more collaged material from the world of interior design, print and publicity. When completed in the spring of 1913 the finished work (now in the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, Aachen) would measure a compact 24 by 36 cm. and later generations of hawk-eyed art historians, undeceived by the deceptively casual composition and apparently randomly sourced material, would look beyond the formal qualities and begin uncovering layers of concealed meaning. Some saw a critique of bourgeois consumer culture in the references to the city’s most prominent department stores. Others were more impressed by the sexual innuendo, finding sly allusions to prostitution and female genitalia – the artist with a dirty mind, an accolade frequently bestowed on the Catalan collagist. 

All these interpretations carry some weight but the formal picture-making qualities and the games played with spatial illusion and perception would seem to come first. Visual ambiguity was second nature to Picasso and manipulating collaged elements was a speedy way to explore alternate modes of description and if the materials themselves, by association, spiced things up with humour or satire then so much the better. Below we have a selection of items from the 1912 Bon Marché leather goods catalogue, conventionally and unimaginatively represented in meticulous line drawings. Mass-produced goods, neither luxuries nor essentials, they reflect a middle-class taste that would have little appeal for the bande à Picasso. It’s not easy to imagine Picasso dragging one of these compendious travel cases aboard the train for Avignon and Céret. Like most of his contemporaries Picasso sent a lot of postcards to his acquaintances – of the ones he received, many have survived in the archive of the Musée Picasso but lovingly collecting them into albums would have seemed ridiculous. As an infamous voyeur the only objects on offer in these pages to tempt Picasso would have been the binoculars. 

Monday, 5 November 2012

Jackfield Tile Museum

Opulent decorative architectural ceramics define the Victorian architectural legacy – the voracious appetite for complex ornamentation sustained a large industry manufacturing fired clay terracotta and faience products. Companies involved include Doulton, Maw, Burmantofts and Craven Dunnill. In the form of cladding these products both protect and enhance and remain in use to the present. Some of the better known examples have been described here in the past (Michelin Building, Edward Everard in Bristol, Usine Menier and the County Arcade in Leeds) and this is a record of a visit to the Jackfield Tile Museum near Ironbridge that offers a spectacular display of tiling schemes in the Craven Dunnill factory. In the former Drawing Office and Trade Showroom an extraordinary range of mostly Victorian tiles reflects the global span of inspiration derived from Owen Jones’s Grammar of Ornament and the influence of Victorian illustrated books. Elsewhere there are recreations of a 1920s butcher’s shop and an Edwardian pub interior plus examples from London Underground. I have an aversion to museums that insist on guiding the visitor along a didactic track but happily at Jackfield the sheer volume of exhibits allows the visitor to wander at will. 

Friday, 2 November 2012

Coast Daylight

The Southern Pacific (SP) Coast Daylight train made its first trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco on March 21st. 1937 being waved off in style by Hollywood star, Olivia De Havilland. This was a prestige effort with custom-built steam locomotives and rolling stock. At a time when competitors were turning to diesel traction in the early streamline era, the SP kept faith with steam power despite the risk of being associated with obsolete technology. To emphasise the sense of modernity, cosmetic streamlining was applied to the locomotives together with a highly visible colour scheme of red, orange and black quite unlike any of its rivals. Contemporary observers commented that the effect was similar to that of a circus train. The vision of senior execs and Hollywood moguls shuttling up and down the coast in air-conditioned luxury turned out to be short lived as the business travellers soon defected to the airlines. The residual traffic was significantly less profitable and in the post-war years all the special facilities, the tavern car, the coffee shop, the parlour car, the hairdresser and clairvoyant, were gradually withdrawn until the final indignity when the restaurant car was replaced by an automat. The rapid decline in rail passenger travel in the US is well documented and although Amtrak continues to operate this and many other services the original Coast Daylight offered a lustre and glamour that can never be repeated.