Saturday, 29 August 2009

Fast Forward with Arthur Radebaugh

The atomic car is not yet a reality but Arthur Radebaugh (1906 – 1974) was ready, willing and able to envisage this unlikely radioactive beast and pilot it full tilt into the future. He was a Detroit based illustrator who specialised in automotive advertising and wildly imaginative scenes of futuristic technological utopias. His finest achievement was a long series of full-page colour illustrations for the Bohn Aluminum and Brass Corporation of Detroit that ran for years in Fortune magazine in the 1940s. Our old friends at Visual Telling of Stories (VTS) have a generous selection of these wonderful visions on display. It was a world where monorails, flying cars and torpedo-shaped ocean liners fought the elements to conquer time and space. The charm resides in the ingenuity with which the Art Deco/Science Fiction flamboyance of the period is projected forward into an unrealised future. There is evidence to suggest that Radebaugh himself already inhabited the future he was busy imagining for the rest of us. Cartype has images of a 1959 Ford Econoline van that he had customised into a mobile studio complete with futuristic styling. There’s a photo where he peers gnomishly through the door of his van, composing himself for another heroic voyage into a spectacular future.

In the early Forties he painted four covers for the Saturday Evening Post employing distinctly restrained imagery but later in the decade he gave his imagination full rein when working for Bohn. In the Fifties he did another extended series, this time for National Motor Bearing Co. in which squadrons of insect-like robotic vehicles and atomic cars with cockroach styling dominated the vision. Monochrome and dark in tone, a flavour of film noir floats in the air with just a hint that the future may not be one of undiluted bliss. VTS has a fine selection.

In 1948 he joined the distinguished company of artists invited to advertise Coca Cola. The intimidating image of a gargantuan dispenser of Coke dominates the scene and foreshadows the grip that mega-brands will come to exert on the global consumer. This is one vision of the future in which we have all become trapped. The proletarian associations (Inviting workers everywhere) seem anachronistic but the glamour of the world of entertainment remains part of the vocabulary of contemporary advertising. The drama of rain swept city streets and infinite industrial sprawl is very much the product of the unique vision of Arthur Radebaugh.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Le marché du livre Georges-Brassens

Paris’s weekly book market is to be found on Saturdays and Sundays at the southern fringe of the 15th. in the former horse market in rue Brancion. The old horse market was part of the Vaugirard abattoir that occupied the site until the late 1970s and was later replaced by the Parc Georges-Brassens. Access is by Métro to Porte de Vanves (line 13) or Convention (line 11) but the best approach is via the 89 bus or the T3 tram.

Having echoed to the sound of a million hoof beats, the space resonates with the sound of the international language of bookdealers, complaining about the lack of business. The stock on display is remarkably similar to what you see this side of the Channel. Books for collectors take pride of place with books for readers a long way behind. Even the customers look similar, mostly male, mostly solitary with the same propensity to mumble to themselves as they browse. In time-honoured fashion, about half the stalls are unattended.

Parc Georges-Brassens was created in the 1980s on the blood soaked site of the slaughterhouse. It contains a lake, a small vineyard, a theatre and play areas. The original clock tower and main entrance flanked by bronze bulls were preserved as reminders of the past. The 15th. is the most densely populated arrondissement with very little open space so the park is well used by locals. In the south west corner the rusting tracks of la Petite Ceinture emerge from a tunnel and pass underneath rue Brancion. Undisturbed by passing trains for decades, it rests and gently decays in melancholic silence.

Monday, 24 August 2009

School is Out

(Gary) “U.S.” Bonds was in the charts in 1961 with this title. USB (as we shall call him) cultivated a raw and primitive sound as if recorded inside a dumpster. Ry Cooder, who always had an ear for a good tune, performed it on stage and included it on his Showtime album. A decade later in 1972, Frank Zappa protégé, Alice Cooper had a hit with “School’s Out” thus kicking off a long career march that has climaxed with his recent TV ads for Sony Bravia. This euphoric moment in the school day is recorded in these advertising illustrations that include images of the great American school bus painted in the regulation shade of National School Bus Glossy Yellow.

The school bus occupies a key place in the iconography of the American vernacular. This is not easily understood on this side of the Atlantic where the mundane business of school transport is utterly devoid of mystery or glamour. The great barometer of the American vernacular, the Saturday Evening Post cover, regularly featured illustrations on this theme, in particular from the great John Falter whose work can be seen below on the right. The example on the left is by Ben Prins.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Underworld New York

All great cities are dependent upon a concealed underworld network of subterranean conduits, tunnels, tubes and pipes for the supply of public utilities, communication links, water and sewage and public transport. It’s a world that despite its ubiquity is largely unseen and unexplored. Haruki Murakami is one contemporary writer whose imagination persistently draws him into confrontation with the mortal dread that resides in the permanent darkness of the half spaces and unrecorded shafts and chasms that proliferate in the hidden depths below our familiar city streets. The claustrophobic horror of underground confinement and premature burial is a constant thread in the Wind-up Bird Chronicle. There’s an echo of that stone cold terror in the postcard image above of an empty subway tunnel in which the viewer is siphoned off into a phosphorescent uterine oblivion.

In recent months we have travelled below the surface of Chicago and Boston via the medium of postcards and today is the turn of New York. These cards are almost exactly a century old and at the time they were produced served as stunning visions of a new world of rapid transit. Driving tunnels through the ancient geology, undisturbed since the separation of the continents, brought a human presence into hitherto unexplored regions. The impudence of this activity might have given rise to some anxiety but it seems the advantages of travelling at speed from Bedford Park to Sheepshead Bay far outweighed it. In this new underworld, far below the landmarks that exist in the surface world, the disorientated traveller had to learn to navigate by reference to route diagrams. Today’s seasoned subway rider, skilled in the art of contending with overcrowding, crime and disorder would find this the least of the discomforts to be encountered en-route.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Today’s Recipe No. 2

It’s easy to take Shredded Wheat for granted without reflecting on what a bizarre substance it is. Very much a product of 19th. century food technology, it seems to be formed from multiple extrusions of wheat paste filaments stacked up and modelled into pillow shaped structures and baked to a brittle finish.

This small book, The Vital Question, was published by The Cereal Machine Co., Worcester, Mass. in 1899 and contains 148 pages of recipes devised by Mrs. Harriett Higbee, every one of which depends on the inclusion of Shredded Wheat. It comes complete with a passionate testimonial from its inventor, Henry D Perky,

“From the most abject physical wreck I have succeeded, by the use of naturally organized food, in reorganizing my body into perfectly healthy conditions.”

The miraculous powers of Shredded Wheat that achieved this transformation are now available to all in combination with an extraordinary variety of foodstuffs including oysters, goose and woodcock. There exists no meal or dish that cannot be enhanced by the judicious addition of Shredded Wheat. Members of the Tatnuck Farmer’s Club were given the opportunity to discover this for themselves on January 20th. 1899 when they sat down to a dinner of:

Celery Soup with Shredded Wheat Croutons
Fricassée of Chicken on Shredded Wheat Toast
Creamed Spinach on Shredded Wheat Toast
Jellied Apple Sandwich. Cheese with Shredded Wheat Toast.
Wheat Shred Drink. Fruit. Nuts.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Texas to North Devon

We set the compass for the Plough, packed our dancing shoes and took to the road. The ancient and compact town of Torrington in North Devon was an unlikely venue for Austin, Texas quartet The Hot Club of Cowtown to display their mastery of Western Swing and Hot Jazz with some cocktail lounge standards on the side. This was the last but one engagement in a four week UK tour and they could be forgiven if a little fatigue set in but the energy levels and enthusiasm showed no sign of dipping. The musicianship was superb and the fiddle and upright bass in particular were slapped, bowed, plucked and picked with terminal velocity. Guitar and drums were unobtrusive but played a vital role in knitting it all together. Bob Wills and Johnny Gimble both got name-checks and were honoured by pulsating versions of Sally Goodin, Bubbles In My Beer and Ida Red. The band showed an impressive ability to switch with speed from playing music for lounge lizards and sophisticates to music for oil riggers and cowhands. Other highlights included Dev’lish Mary and Jack Guthrie’s Oklahoma Hills. If the magic of Western Swing eludes you, the book to read is Lone Star Swing: On the Trail of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys by Duncan McLean.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Leslie Ragan, Visions of Suburbia

Today we visit suburbia through the eyes of illustrator Leslie Ragan. These images created to promote the Budd Company come from the 1940s and 1950s and record the remorseless spread of suburban housing and transport infrastructure that typified the era. New communities were rolled out across the landscape as the rising middle class population fled the inner cities for the fresh air and racial homogeneity of outer suburbia. The world of multi-occupied tenement buildings and artisan dwellings was left far behind in exchange for spacious individual plots of land graced with production line homes of generous proportions and a new universe of social conformity. For the relocated residents it was an opportunity to escape their ethnic European identities and focus on developing an all-American sense of identity. The Ragan vision is of a land of perpetual sunshine in which order and harmony prevails. There are no landfill sites, overhead transmission lines, industrial plants that might contaminate the dream. The air is clean and miraculously free of carbon monoxide emissions. A new and permanently prosperous future in which all material needs can be met indefinitely seemed tantalisingly close at hand. Like all Utopian enterprises it was essential that the entire community, without exception, shared identical views on religion, politics, morality and the structure of society. This fortress of conformity was impossible to sustain and its unravelling provided the raw material for more than a generation of American novelists and screenwriters.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Pont Caulaincourt

In the 1860s Haussmann was pursuing the third phase of his Parisian grands travaux driving new roads through the recently incorporated outer arrondissements. One project that got stopped in its tracks was his plan to build a bridge across the Cimetière de Montmartre to carry the rue Caulaincourt. Parisians were affronted by the casual way in which the remains of the dead were to be relocated and a vociferous campaign in the press forced Haussmann, for once, to abandon his scheme. The Pont Caulaincourt was finally constructed almost 20 years after Haussmann left office, in the form of a steel truss bridge in 1887-88. Marcel Duchamp would have crossed the bridge en route to the apartments he occupied at 65 and 73 rue Caulaincourt between 1906 and 1908. The young Duchamp found the bohemian fervour of Montmartre hard to take and soon departed for the bourgeois anonymity of Neuilly. The bridge is every bit as calamitous as its opponents claimed in its impact on the cemetery below with a steel superstructure that grazes the tops of the tombs and symbolically obstructs any possibility of heavenly ascension on the part of the unfortunate souls trapped underneath.