Thursday, 30 April 2009

Green Benches

Welcome to linen postcard country where colours are intense and saturated while form and contours melt and dissolve. A comforting vision of a world from which all imperfection has been banished. Three young and attractive females sit with legs crossed and hands neatly clasped together on a green painted bench. Behind them, two elderly gentlemen, dressed for leisure exchange a few words, their neighbour appears to doze off in the sunshine. Panama hats, pastel colours and lightweight fabrics are the order of the day.

It has often seemed to me that the provision of seating in American outdoor public space is miserly. The Florida city of St. Petersburg (an American equivalent of Sidmouth) was an exception. In American eyes, anyone who sits and watches the world go by is a symbol of economic inactivity and to be deplored by all right thinking enthusiasts for dynamic capitalism. But in St. Petersburg, where the population was predominantly elderly, it made good business sense to provide generous seating for resting ancient limbs. A dealer in real estate by the name of Mitchell is credited with installing the first benches (then painted orange) in 1908 to encourage pedestrian traffic to the areas of downtown where his properties were. The backs of the benches carried advertising for his business and the idea rapidly caught on with his competitors whose benches, in a wide assortment of colours and types, proliferated on the sidewalks of the city. It came to pass that the city administration, after overcoming much local opposition, imposed a standard size and type of bench and specified a universal colour – green. Looking back in 1927, the local paper (Evening Independent) celebrated their success in strongly associating St. Petersburg with the concept of hospitality to visitors.

It was the policy of the proprietors of the Evening Independent to distribute their paper without charge on any day on which the sun failed to shine before 2.00 pm. On average there were only 4 days per year when this happened. This may suggest a certain climatic monotony but it must be conceded it is especially conducive to sitting outdoors. There are at least two decades between the earliest of these images and the latest, which would appear to be from the 1940s and they provide us with a detailed record of prevailing fashions in clothing and personal grooming. Despite their fame, the benches were swept away in the 1960s by redevelopment although anyone interested can have a modern replica shipped flat-pack to their doorstep.

Despite the local pride in hospitality, not everyone was welcome to sit on a green bench of their choice. Jim Crow laws excluded all non-whites and the unpleasant realities of racial segregation undermined the carefully cultivated image of sunshine and friendship. Segregated lunch counters were to be found in St. Petersburg’s landmark drugstore, Webb’s City. The self-styled World’s Most Unusual was the creation of compulsive entrepreneur, “Doc” Webb whose commercial empire expanded from a single store in 1925 into a mega-store of more than 70 retail units occupying more than 7 city blocks. Webb was a master of creative marketing. The line between freak-show and department store became increasingly blurred. Publicity stunts and gimmicks were endlessly employed to attract shoppers including selling dollar-bills for 95 cents. Two days later, having recorded the serial numbers he offered to buy them back for $1.35. The most innovatory stunt was to break down the barriers between store departments and sell bed sheets at the soda fountain or underwear in the produce section. Consumer resistance must have crumbled in the face of this Surrealist assault on retail taxonomy.

Friday, 24 April 2009

City of Arcades

Cardiff has branded itself as City of Arcades. It’s an obvious destination for an arcade obsessive. An exploratory visit provided just enough time for an overview. Cardiff’s arcades may lack the decorative splendour of those in Leeds but they are nicely proportioned, well maintained and possess a wide range of retailers without the sense of exclusivity to be found in Leeds. There are second-hand bookshops, cafés and even an Authorised Apple Reseller alongside joke shops, tattoo studios and suppliers of fine cheese and fancy dress. The picture above comes from Morgan Arcade (opened in 1896) which has the pleasing feature of dividing into two curving branches. Slender glazing bars and delicate, perforated cast iron trusses contribute to a light and airy sense of space.

Castle Arcade (opened in 1887) has several distinctive features that enhance its L-shaped layout. Narrow flights of stairs provide access to an upper gallery (mostly given over to office accommodation) with narrow bridges that offer exciting elevated views. Best of all are the enormous mirrors that occupy the gable ends and visually extend the space into an infinity of glazing and roof trusses. The dimensions and mix of traders are more reminiscent of Passage des Panoramas in Paris than anywhere else I’ve visited in the UK. On that basis, Cardiff can be recommended to flâneurs everywhere.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Killing Floor

Today’s card sets a new high in adopting an unsentimental approach to subject matter. Hapless hogs are chained by their feet to a rotating wheel for their last journey to the killing floor. It’s an infernal image of blood drenched slaughter, courtesy of Upton Sinclair (The Jungle) with a soundtrack by Howlin’ Wolf. Not suitable for sending to a vegetarian. Or anyone else for that matter. Flip the card over and somehow it gets worse. The writer gives a brief account of the death of his/her mother in a message that comes from a sequence of cards. I’ve seen other examples where a message has been spread across a number of cards but never one with such a poignant narrative. Even in the postcard universe, there’s no escape from the remorseless cycles of death and decay that haunt our imagination.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Park Street Subway

It is always fascinating to learn what goes on beneath the city streets. Walker Evans in one of his lectures on postcards included this arresting image from the city of Boston. He commented, I can’t read it ........ but what an abstraction. It’s a most optically baffling picture replete with spatial contradictions. The eye searches for a way out of this subterranean cul-de-sac but each track seems to be blocked. The right hand track appears to offer the best prospect of escape until you notice that it too is closed off. It could function as a model for the interior of the human mind where everything appears rational and organised until on closer examination it all falls apart as reason and logic take flight. What is astonishing is not just that this is all the product of sound engineering principles but that someone photographed it with the intention of marketing the image to the public in postcard form. Thank goodness they did.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Postcard of the Day No. 27, Métro Bastille

It is grimly reassuring to know that it’s not only in Britain that architectural gems are casually and needlessly destroyed. This creature of the bizarre architectural imagination of Hector Guimard was demolished in 1962. If it had clung to existence for another 5 years, it would certainly have survived and would by now be designated a national monument, as has the édicule at Porte Dauphine. This pavilion, constructed in 1899-1900, was one of only two such Métro entrances designed by Guimard and was a grievous loss to the Parisian streetscape. The rehabilitation of Art Nouveau arrived too late to save it from destruction and the botanically inspired iron-work was reduced to the condition of scrap metal. Guimard’s candélabre Métro entrances, known as Entourages, have fared better and at the last count some 154 were still in existence. The name candélabre derives from the elongated stem like forms that support twin red lamps that shed a baleful glow over the descending steps. The Entourage is greatly valued for the exotic flavour that it imparts to the street scene and the survivors are all lovingly maintained in good order.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Just a Little Bit Better

Dick Sargent (the only illustrator to have his name hi-jacked by a Hollywood star) was a master of the disturbingly euphoric expression. His other great skill was the dynamic gesture. No loafing around in the Sargent universe. This made him the perfect choice to dramatise a breakfast cereal that claimed to transfer quite alarming levels of energy to all who consumed it. Observe the ecstatic features of the mid-century executive as he juggles phone calls. Energy levels are clearly going stratospheric. Flat areas of colour surrounding the figure were another distinctive Sargent touch. It not only lifted his illustrations off the printed page, it saved time. While Dohanos, Crockwell or Falter were piling up the anecdotal detail, Sargent would always be several commissions ahead.

The bonus postcard shows an idealised representation of the great Postum Cereal Factory in Battle Creek. Nine towering chimneys pump smoke into the atmosphere, toy trains and trolley cars bustle in the foreground. In the background, a leafy enclave, a haven from which the captains of industry can observe the mighty engine of production they’ve set in motion.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Times Square Revisited

The Wrigley’s Gum neon sign at Times Square (see posting dated March 15th 2009) was a casualty of wartime economies and in peacetime its place was taken by this installation, promoting Bond clothes for men and apparel for women. The colourful flamboyance of the Wrigley sign gave way to a more austere assemblage in which the most original note was struck by the two seven-storey figures of a naked male and female. The large-scale nudity gave serious offence to the guardians of public decency and after complaints from guests at the Hotel Astor on the opposite side of Broadway, robes of neon gold were installed to protect their modesty. The figures were separated by a spectacular neon waterfall feature and an enormous digital clock that additionally recorded the number of customers patronising the Bond Cathedral of Clothing. It remained in place from 1948 to 1954.

There was a Budweiser sign in Times Square in the era of linen postcards that featured a neon representation of the Grand Canyon with a stainless steel streamliner passing in the foreground. The tagline was built on the hyperbolic premise that Budweiser was so sublime in every respect that words alone could never suffice to do justice to its wondrous attractions. That made it comparable with the natural wonder of the Grand Canyon, whose spirit no artist with pen or brush or camera has ever been able to capture. This card is an especially good example of the way in which linen postcards translate glossy finishes and the flash of reflected light into a rich and warm penumbral glow.

Finally, to see what goes on behind the signs, follow this link as a guest of the always dependable Visual Telling of Stories.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Postcards of the Night

When darkness falls across the postcard universe, a team of photographers and artists combine to produce some weird and wonderful effects. What a joy to discover that an entire book has been written on the subject. Professor John A Jakle’s book, Postcards of the Night is sub-titled Views of American Cities and includes a gallery of about 80 choice examples. There’s an introductory essay in which he explains, in jargon-free language, something of the exhilaration that these views can induce. Each card has a commentary in which the author reveals himself as something of a connoisseur of some of the curious pictorial conventions and as an admirer of some of the more bizarre effects inadvertently achieved by photo-retouching.

 Most of the dramatic night scenes of great American cities are no more than recoloured versions of daytime scenes. The application of chromatic twilight fell to artists with a wide divergence of skill levels. Some were extremely proficient in the art of applying invented moonlight and achieved consistency of shadows in the cloudscape and landscape that put many of their colleagues to shame. Some understood that it would be unlikely that every window in a crowded cityscape would be equally illuminated while their colleagues produced images in which every single window blazed forth in an orgy of illumination. Some were able to describe the atmospheric glow of artificial light sources while others would show light spewing forth like water from a showerhead.

 What is curious is that the degree of skill deployed is not the determining factor in the power of the images. Some of the most mysterious and poetic images have been worked on by artists of no more than modest competence. There are images in the book that powerfully convey the sense of hidden menace that lurks in the shadows in neon lit city streets. Others convey the sense of excitement and anticipation to be found in streets dedicated to entertainment and pleasure. There’s a sense of dislocation to be experienced when confronted by the familiar enveloped in darkness and that can be found here too, as if the great Victorian master of North Country crepuscule, Atkinson Grimshaw had taken a painting holiday in the American Mid-West. These cards are a few examples of the genre drawn from my own collection.