Saturday, 30 May 2009

Vintage Trams and Street Cars

Urban and suburban visions from a century past. Vintage trams condemned forever by the constraints of the tramline embedded in the roadway, unable to swerve or change direction. Heavy coach-built superstructures that pitched and rolled through crowded city streets; the first mass transit systems of the Machine Age. Postcard details from Europe and North America remind us of the sometimes sinister air of poetry that attaches to these chariots especially when they escape the city and take to the outer suburban routes. Modernism was born in the Age of the Tram. For the Surrealists, the tram was a conveyor of dreams while George Grosz pictured trams as agents of destruction, screaming through the streets packed with the souls of the damned. It’s difficult to see these creatures as the ancestors of the sleek and streamlined vehicles that glide through the outer boulevards of Paris.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Dusty Old Fairground

In the 1930s UK advertisers would routinely associate tobacco products with great moments in our island’s imperial history. Deadly dull and boring images of the likes of Raleigh, Nelson and Shakespeare proliferated, so a little contemporary subject matter makes a welcome change. That said, this is at first sight a diluted and genteel vision of fairground life. The raffish air of menace that attracted the interest of many artists is hard to find. Instead we have a cheery throng of outwardly respectable paragons of the lower middle class exchanging breezily polite phrases on the merits of Player’s cigarettes. Closer examination reveals a few more interesting details such as the abundance of discarded refuse and a toddler in confrontation with a black cat. There appears to be a pickpocket at work in the crowd, a gentleman with a briefcase has been tripped by a kite flyer and on the far right there’s a boot to the backside for a hapless victim. The artist is A A White, a regular cartoonist in Punch magazine, a place where the sort of gentle subversion seen here was very much the order of the day.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Le Pont Roulant

A French engineer named Alexandre Leroyer, displaying a magnificent indifference to appearing ridiculous, designed this precarious structure for the purpose of crossing the entrance to the port of Saint-Malo and conveying passengers to the neighbouring community of Saint-Servain. It went into service in 1873 and might still be in existence today were it not for an unfortunate navigational error on the part of a passing cargo ship that casually destroyed it in 1923. It’s a widely held view that Magnus Volk, Brighton’s first citizen of all things electrical, was inspired by this to construct his infamous and wildly over optimistic coastal railway that fitfully struggled through the waves from Brighton to Rottingdean and back during its mercifully brief life between 1896 and 1901. These wonderful products of the Nineteenth Century imagination, notable for their impudent attempt to conquer time and space with the most slender resources, still possess a haunting power and are most frequently encountered today in the Japanese animations of Hayao Miyazaki.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Le Petit Journal

If you visit the Marché du Livres at Brancion or the flea market at St-Ouen you will find no shortage of dealers offering stacks of ancient yellowing and mildewed copies of Le Petit Journal, mostly priced between €1 and €3 each. This Parisian newspaper printed a Supplément Illustrée on Sundays featuring full page colour illustrations, often based on the week’s most sensational news story. The graphic style employed by the illustrators was similar to the Illustrated London News but the paper stock was vastly inferior. It was the practice of the day for the picture editor to commission the services of an illustrator to produce a colour transcription of a blotchy and indistinct photograph. These two examples give a flavour of the thing. Heartless criminals and dangerous wild animals captured at gunpoint were a staple ingredient along with disasters, natural or man-made. In terms of figure drawing skill they leave a lot to be desired but therein resides much of their charm by presenting moments of great drama in the form of deep-frozen tableau.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Cathedral of Shopping

This triumphal arch forms the entrance to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan. It stands on the Piazza del Duomo thus uniting the God of Christendom with the God of Commerce. The interior is cruciform in plan with a central octagon. The internal facades are three storeys in height, above them soars an enormous glazed barrel vault complete with central dome. The floor area is entirely covered by a richly decorative scheme of mosaic work and provides an almost absurdly lavish and opulent space in which to shop. The modest shopping arcade as developed in Britain and France is here inflated to the proportions of a grand cathedral and symbolises the need for the newly united Italian nation state to see its sense of self-importance immortalised in architectural form.

Despite the air of exclusivity, the Galleria is open to all and there seems to be a mismatch between the leisure shirts, shorts and trainers worn by most visitors with the sort of clientele that would be likely to patronise the seriously up-market retailers. Apart from the presence of a McDonald’s, there is very little that would come within the spending power of the average shopper. The shop fronts are intimidatingly polished and perfect, repelling all but the most affluent customer.

A cultural footnote with which to conclude. The final scene in Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen novel, Cabal, climaxes with the villain of the piece crashing through the glass of the central dome and plummeting to the mosaic floor below. The corpse touches down on the Coat of Arms of the House of Savoy.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Two Years of Trivia

Today marks the second anniversary of this blog and a trip behind the scenes has been organized by way of celebration. A chance to meet some of the people and personalities who toil for slender reward in the vast trivia plantations where the raw material is produced. The Quality Control Directorate (above) is a highly trained team recruited from the nation’s finest seats of learning. Equipped with the latest in modern technology, their task is to monitor work-in-progress for any references to politics, current affairs or self indulgent philosophising and consign them to oblivion.

The Finance Department (above) is the most critical element in the entire enterprise. The task is to itemise and value every transaction and ensure that invoices are dispatched to the appropriate department in accordance with the principles of the internal market. Management of the budget, target setting, preparation of financial statements and handling expense claims come within the remit of this department.

The Audit Team (above) is responsible for staff appraisal and monitoring overall performance in relation to set targets, in terms of management efficiency and value for money.

The Office of Corporate Governance (above) takes the lead on issues of environmental sustainability, ethical conduct, community outreach and equal opportunities. Staffed exclusively by individuals of the highest moral probity, no mercy is shown towards the smallest deviation from the path of righteousness.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Out on the Rolling Sea

This elegant and crisp graphic confection, executed with precision by a maestro of the airbrush, was the initial introduction to the delights of an ocean voyage under the flag of the Rotterdamsche-Lloyd shipping line. Below decks, great armies of engineers and stokers, chefs and stewards, porters and waiters toiled in the service of another great army of colonial administrators and diplomats, bank officials and mining engineers, adventurers and confidence tricksters who wiled away the interminable hours at sea in an orgy of food and drink, gambling and fornication. Everyone on board the Dempo, departing Rotterdam for Batavia on August 26th. 1936 is on the Passenger List together with their port of origin. A lively time seems in prospect with several clergymen (of various denominations), senior military officers and professors, not to mention knights of the realm and a Baron (Hoyningen-Huene) competing for attention at the bar. As for the Dempo, it served as a British troop carrier in World War II before being sunk by a U-boat en route from Naples to Oran in the Mediterranean in March 1944.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Postcard of the Day No. 28, La station des omnibus

This is the sort of card that the French describe as a CPA animée. Hardcore postcard collectors are always in pursuit of animation in topographical cards of which this is an exemplar. It’s packed with anecdotal detail of city life a century ago at the moment when the horse gave way to the internal combustion engine on the grands boulevards. On the right we have two horse drawn vehicles, one of which appears to be in the capable hands of Henri Matisse. The atmospheric mix of horse dung and carbon monoxide emissions would have made for a torrid summer afternoon. The percussive effects of horseshoes on paved streets and the throbbing of primitive petrol engines would have assaulted the eardrums. The chaos and disorder of the modern city in all its raucous splendour was busy being born.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Publicité Touristique

This French National Railways (SNCF) electric locomotive represented the very latest in motive power when this illustration appeared in print. SNCF was very active in setting new standards for speed of travel and a new world record record speed of 331 km. per hour was achieved in 1955 by a similar locomotive. The artwork has been produced in a much modified streamline idiom in which the smoothly airbrushed forms of the past have been replaced by dashing brushwork intended to convey an impression of high velocity.

This brochure was published by SNCF in 1956 to attract visitors from Britain. It promotes a highly coloured vision of France as a land of unlimited pleasures via a plain and simple graphic style. The compositional dynamics of the pre-war era have been discarded in favour of illustrations composed of bright colour washes overlaid with scratchy pen and ink work. There’s a lingering air of visual whimsy very characteristic of the period. This was a well timed move on the part of SNCF as British mass tourism was on the very point of abandoning the traditional home-grown (and rain-swept) resorts for more exotic destinations overseas in gentler climes.

Finally, a photo of another identical locomotive, BB-9004, seen here in a position of rest in the unusual surroundings of the Grand Palais in Paris, taking part in an exhibition to celebrate 70 years of SNCF in December 2007.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Today’s Recipe

This treat for the tastebuds comes courtesy of the HõVIS™ Book of Sandwich Delights, a compendium of sweet and savoury self-indulgence from the inter-war years. Today’s recommendation is the Bovril and Nasturtium Sandwich, an inspired combination of beef extract and garden plant. Bovril, the subject of a previous posting, is a Marmite-style concoction for carnivores and one of those products whose consumers would be ill-advised to enquire too closely into its contents or manufacturing process. Nasturtium leaves have a peppery flavour, reminiscent of watercress and so long as they’re harvested before the caterpillars devour them, will make an exciting accompaniment to the salty tang of Bovril. To quote from the source – a very piquante experience.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Frozen Footsteps

Interest in the art of perambulation, wandering to see and be seen, developed in the 19th century with the emergence of a leisured middle class. Fresh air was credited with a strong association with good health. Atmospheric pollution in urban areas enhanced the appeal of the bracing seaside airs. The fledgling fashion industry created and fed a demand for clothing that was primarily designed for public display. The era is the end of the Belle Époque. The development of railways has brought the Normandy Coast within easy reach of Paris. The vast boulevards of Haussmann’s Paris came well provided with broad pavements ideal for accommodating large numbers of strollers. Promenades and boardwalks performed the same function at the coast. While Parisians exhibit the self-assurance born of a conviction that their superiority in terms of fashion was unchallengeable, in Dieppe the light pastel tones suggest that an air of cool comfort was the priority.

The enlarged details remind us that these images are not as descriptive as at first they appear. A solitary female is accompanied by a dog, another gathers her dress to avoid tripping over, yet another smiles broadly in the direction of the camera. A wayward child holds what looks like a pea-shooter to his lips. One man carries a newspaper, another smokes a cigar, yet another walks with hands clasped behind his back. Male and female, all are wearing hats; canes and parasols are much in evidence. Their images and their shadows have outlived them. We could be looking at film stills from a Visconti period drama where the past is recreated in colour and light. The details can be observed and noted but documentary pretences are erased as all that seemed solid begins to fray at the edges where contours dissolve. Enlarging the products of mechanical reproduction induces myopia as if the images have decayed with the passage of time.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

It’s wise to go Whizzer

It took some courage to develop a slender lightweight motorcycle in the spiritual home of monster bikes. Even more reckless to name this humble contraption a Whizzer and market it to a public more accustomed to the chrome plated extravaganzas that cruised America’s highways where a motorcycle was a hog. Despite all this, the Whizzer enjoyed some success in the late 1940s but in 1955 production ceased. After a 42 year interlude, a new Whizzer was launched in 1997 and production continues to the present day. Perhaps in the wake of the credit crunch the Whizzer’s day is about to dawn. It’s pleasing to dream of an alternative universe in which the Whizzer triumphed over the Harley, thus giving rise to a completely new breed of Hell’s Angel.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Mondrian’s Grid

 Every so often the name of Mondrian will spring into the mind of a graphic designer in search of inspiration. What happens next is that the carefully considered principles of composition that Mondrian employed in the fine calibration of his grid paintings are systematically discarded and relegated to a supporting role on which to display the product. Mondrian’s hard-won pictorial values are consigned to the trash. For all Mondrian’s insistence on the spiritual content in his paintings they have been adapted with ease to serve the material values of advertising. I have a sneaking admiration for the impudence with which these images are commandeered even though the results seem uninspired. It’s anyone’s guess what Mondrian would have said but there was a streak of unpredictability in his character and it wouldn’t be safe to assume that he would have automatically rejected this back-handed compliment. The last paintings produced in New York just before his death in 1944 suggest that the dynamic visual environment of the city made a profound impression on him and that he was not immune to the attractions of popular culture. There is a graphic design template known as a Mondrian Grid Layout but these examples displayed here are more explicit in borrowing from the artist. Two of them come from the Cold War era and the third is of recent origin. Mondrian’s pictorial vocabulary is so easily co-opted there are sure to be many more.