Saturday 9 January 2016

Car Plants

This is from the pages of Fortune magazine dated April 1944, two months before the Normandy Landings. A brace of shirt-sleeved execs, draft-exempt, kneel on the grass planting the seeds of the post-war rebirth of the auto industry. A hefty block of text explains what’s going on. In the flowery prose favoured by Ivy League-educated copywriters too old to be sent to war, we’re informed that this is the Victory Garden in which a new generation of cars is incubating. The technical advances of a war economy will lead to an innovatory paradise in peacetime. It’s a very odd way to illustrate a concept that most would think so slight as to be not worth the bother. Fortune was full of ads like this where the reader can be forgiven for concluding the entire exercise is otiose. My suspicion is that the advertising sales team at Fortune were adept at out-thinking the masters of persuasion and all too easily induced businesses to take out full page ads they had no real need for resulting in page after page of almost content-free advertising. The killer line was “Tell the readers what you’re contributing to the war effort because all your competitors are.”

The illustration is the work of Slayton Underhill (1913-2002) - a name that sounds more like a Wall Street brokerage or a Purveyor of Fine Tobacco. Underhill was one of many mid-century illustrators who toiled away in the industry without reaching the top flight of illustrators that commanded the highest fees. Underhill’s fame rested on his ability to create a paint finish utterly depersonalised and anonymous, scrupulously eliminating all evidence of material handling. This early example shows a certain technical bravura that the mature Underhill would never have allowed. The companion piece from Underhill was painted for Metropolitan Life Insurance. It’s a limp image of listless horticulture – a middle-aged widow sorrowfully reflects on the financial irresponsibility of her late husband in failing to provide the security of a Metropolitan policy. She is presented to us as a fallen woman, raising the fear she may be forced into prostitution to survive – an unthinkable fate for a decorous, unassuming flower of American womanhood. We will feature more of Slayton Underhill at a future date – be assured, it’s not all as dull as it appears here.

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