Thursday, 20 December 2012

Postcard of the Day No. 59, Merton Park footbridge

This postcard is a fine example of the “why on earth did they do it but thank goodness they did” tendency. As a visitor attraction it resides at the opposite extreme from the Tower of London or Westminster Abbey – nobody ever travelled to London to see the Merton Park footbridge. Here we see the cast-iron lattice structure in its prime, spanning the tracks of the Southern Railway and connections to West Croydon, Wimbledon and Tooting. The last train passed in 1997 but the Croydon Tramlink now serves what remains of the station. Part of the footbridge is still in existence and can be seen in a new location at Corfe Castle station on the Swanage Railway in Dorset. Note the solitary representative of the regiment of gawkers, posing on the steps, resolutely immobile in his determination to be part of the picture. Merton Park is a distinctive Victorian suburb designed in emulation of Bedford Park but this image, for me is a perfect evocation of South London as a whole – a patchwork of Edwardian semis with long narrow back gardens wedged into the spaces between Victorian railway embankments together with allotments, light industry and even now in the 21st. century a few puddled and pot-holed unadopted roads. 

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Liverpool India Buildings

As the coalition proceeds with its ideologically driven “bonfire of regulations” property developers are tempted to employ ever more extreme measures to “sweat their assets”. The notion that buildings of architectural merit should be protected is perceived as an inconvenient bureaucratic barrier to economic growth. Listed buildings are never more vulnerable than when a new owner comes on the scene, all puffed up with the conceit that here is an asset just waiting to be transformed by his unique vision. Such a fate has befallen a grade II listed office building in Liverpool, India Buildings in Water Street, completed in 1930 where owner Green Property plans to do away with the handsome vaulted shopping arcade that runs through the building. Gavin Stamp writing in Private Eye 1329 makes the case for retaining the arcade and correctly describes India Buildings as “a monumental essay in modern commercial Classicism”. Local campaigners are doing their best to oppose this vandalism but history is not on their side. The city of Liverpool has, in the last decade, been a test bed for the privatisation of public space. All of which only encourages developers to disregard public access issues in the interests of maximising their revenues. 

Monday, 10 December 2012

Sleep Well

It’s 1937 again and here comes Nanny climbing the stairs with an armful of hot water bottles for all the family, still smiling as she toils on into the hours of darkness. Dunlop offered a wide range of options utilising the rubber technology developed for high performance car tyres, tempting the consumer with such delights as the non-splash funnel and the Ronoleke patent stopper. To keep your offspring warm and contented, choose from the Animal series – the quaint moulded bodies can be encased in a velvet cover for a premium. What responsible parent could deny their child that additional luxury and safety? For the child of a nervous disposition it might be wise to avoid the disquieting bifurcations of the “Teddy” model with faintly sinister facial features.

Today the hot water bottle is making a comeback as the shivering and penniless citizens of Austerity Britain (version 2) try to save money on their energy bills. Hats off to the Daily Mail, apparently a newspaper, for campaigning to warn us all about the hideous scalding that can result from using cheap hot water bottles imported from that dreadful place, overseas. (I refuse to provide links to the Daily Mail – search for it if you must.) In the interests of security I recommend making your own cover from Osborne & Little fabric supplied by the family firm of the great architect of austerity and Chancellor of the Exchequer. 

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Museum Dr. Guislain, Gent

These are some impressions of a visit to the history of psychiatry collection held in the Museum Dr. Guislain in Gent. We venture into delicate territory here – a place where careless language and lazy thinking can easily give offence. Contemporary attitudes to mental illness seem to be conflicted between pious public expressions of sympathy for the victims of depression and a generalised complaint that the NHS is failing in its responsibilities to them and on the other hand, vociferous complaints that sufferers of schizophrenia are inadequately incarcerated and allowed to roam free to inflict terrible acts of random violence on members of the community. The use of emotive language (dysfunctional, abnormal, insane, delusional, deranged) and pejorative terms (nutjob, headcase, loony, mentalist, psycho) is hard to avoid. The museum is housed in part of one of Europe’s pioneering institutions in the humane treatment of mental illness in civilised surroundings, established in the second half of the 19th. century. Exhibits reflect the desperate measures resorted to by clinicians in their efforts to modify, control or inhibit aberrant human behaviour and shock-therapy treatments involving lengthy immersion in cold water and the administration of high-voltage electricity are thoughtfully displayed. 

Alongside this is an art gallery with a selection of Outsider Art in two and three-dimensions created by self-taught, marginal individuals for whom the creative act became an essential survival skill. Colour and composition are deployed in a directly personal way with little regard for pictorial conventions often with sensational results in terms of formal repetition and disharmonious but vibrant colour choices. Reading these paintings as if they were case notes is not for me. I prefer to look and respond to them out of a clinical context as I would any other painting. That’s not to disregard the circumstances in which they were made but simply to avoid over-valuing them.

André Breton, Surrealism’s Holy Father, was an early cheerleader for autodidacts and the art of the insane which for him embodied absolute freedom from convention. In his writing he deplored the “blind and intolerable prejudice which has for so long surrounded works of art produced in asylums”. It was a short step for Breton, with his head full of convulsive beauty and the wonders of delirium, to consider madness as a state of exaltation and a short-cut to creative nirvana. Sadly, in 1927 when the young woman whose dazzling personality had inspired Breton’s book Nadja was committed to hospital suffering from paranoid hallucinations, the great man couldn’t find it in him to visit her. The sublime but inglorious story of Breton and Nadja’s diabolic dance through the streets of Paris is the stuff of great melodrama. A transgressive vortex of divided personalities and erotic obsession flavoured with bad faith, exploitation and betrayal all leading to the publication of a literary landmark. Coming soon to a screen near you. 

The complex and dense paintings and constructions of Willem van Genk crackle with electromagnetic energy – a wild and intoxicating blend of grandiose architecture and explosive public transport networks. Supercharged linear grids barely contain the airships, helicopters and jumbo jets that drone overhead. Express trains scream through the sky on lofty viaducts. Trams and trolleybuses fight for road space in overpasses and tunnels, subway trains drill their way below the city streets, illuminated advertising defines the skyline. The photos below show van Genk’s disorderly, extemporary re-imagining of the bus station at Arnhem formed out of discarded packaging and paper refuse. Bruised and battered vehicles are entrapped in hopeless tangles of collapsed overhead wiring and uprooted poles – as if an experiment in matter transference has gone terribly wrong. The restless energy and magnitude of the modern metropolis got right under his skin and compelled him to find a visual equivalent. His achievement was to realise his vision with little more than an incisive line, cross-hatching and colour washes, over painting, cut and paste and collage. 

Thursday, 6 December 2012

When love comes to town

Wine and roses scattered on a moon river. Lachrymose balladry pledging eternal love, serenaded in unimpassioned vocals accompanied by an oceanic swell of a thousand strings arranged by Ray Conniff, and punctuated with an inebriated finger-snap from Dean Martin. This was the soundtrack of the Eisenhower years when these romantic illustrations illuminated the fiction pages of American mass circulation magazines. It’s a pictorial journey through the rituals of flirtation from the pick-up, via the proposition and the clinch to the rapturous kiss. Eyebrows are raised, eyelids are lowered, sidelong-glances are exchanged and audiences are scandalised. Cigarettes and alcohol calm the nerves and soothe trembling lips. Jackets and ties were not discarded lightly and the pressure to maintain a convincing show of outward respectability and suppressing all things erotic could not be disregarded. The artistic quality is highly variable – some images are resolutely banal while the best observe their subjects with wit and imagination often suggesting deeper and darker truths to be seen below the surface. Some of the female targets exhibit an air of apprehension as if they can already sense that a future of child-raising, home-making and acting the part of an executive wife may be a high price to pay for material security despite the wine and roses.