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. 

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Postcard of the Day No. 58, Burmese Holiday

Today’s card has a colonial flavour. More than twenty girls aboard an open sided tramcar have lined up to be photographed. Schoolchildren, almost certainly – orphans, quite possibly. Their chaperone stands tall in his tropical suit and hat, an imperial authority figure from a minor public school, responsible for the rule of law and promoting the Christian gospel. The driver, his eyes fixed on the far distance and his hands welded to the controls, exhibits the sort of fierce concentration that inspires confidence. It’s a special occasion and the girls are going on holiday, in practice this may be no more than a day trip to the Cantonment Gardens or other local attraction, and spirits are not conspicuously high. Resignation is the default expression - expectations appear to be low. The life that lies ahead of them will be very hard - in their mature years they will have to endure the devastation of their lands as the Japanese and British forces battle for supremacy between 1942 and 1945. In the bonus cards below we see some early motorised visitors to British Columbia and California enjoying their new mobility and easy access to the great outdoors.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Deauville Dossier

Some genre scenes from the fastidiously manicured Normandy resort of Deauville recorded by early postcard photographers on their rounds. In search of a fresh angle on the newly opened Casino the camera has attracted a disparate cast of onlookers – from the left, a gentleman of leisure and his female companion, a stocky artisan with a ferocious dog under restraint, two small boys posed on a see-saw and some offspring of privilege in the care of a nanny. There is an air of first position here – an unseen hand has directed our characters in a tableau of his own devising. One of the boys looks back over his shoulder as if to seek reassurance that he’s doing the right thing. Jean-Pierre Melville’s cinematic exercise in moral ambivalence reached its climax outside the building in the background when the eponymous Bob le flambeur’s criminal career came to a sudden end when a botched attempt to steal the casino takings unravelled. 

These elevated views of the central Place Morny display the Normandy rustic revival heritage style that was widely employed to deceive the casual eye that this was a place with deep roots in the warrior kingdom of the Normans. Deauville has long fancied itself as the 21st. arrondissement and the Parisian sophisticate could shop in a micro version of the great Printemps department store. What makes this view compelling is the sense that we are once again, back at first positions, observing the opening moments of a dramatic presentation. An alternative view is that we are admiring a beautifully detailed model village and at any moment, gigantic feet may advance towards us, scattering the diminutive cars and figures. 

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Au Bon Marché with Picasso 1912

One day towards the end of 1912 Picasso, in his new studio on boulevard Raspail, got hold of a display card or label from the Lingerie department at Bon Marché that would form the centrepiece of a papier collée together with an assortment of striped wallpaper and some advertising for la Samaritaine store clipped from Le Journal dated January 25th. 1913. Drawn and painted elements were also added with a wine glass on the right and a carafe on the left. For several months Braque and Picasso had become increasingly preoccupied with extending the vocabulary of Cubism with the addition of more and more collaged material from the world of interior design, print and publicity. When completed in the spring of 1913 the finished work (now in the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, Aachen) would measure a compact 24 by 36 cm. and later generations of hawk-eyed art historians, undeceived by the deceptively casual composition and apparently randomly sourced material, would look beyond the formal qualities and begin uncovering layers of concealed meaning. Some saw a critique of bourgeois consumer culture in the references to the city’s most prominent department stores. Others were more impressed by the sexual innuendo, finding sly allusions to prostitution and female genitalia – the artist with a dirty mind, an accolade frequently bestowed on the Catalan collagist. 

All these interpretations carry some weight but the formal picture-making qualities and the games played with spatial illusion and perception would seem to come first. Visual ambiguity was second nature to Picasso and manipulating collaged elements was a speedy way to explore alternate modes of description and if the materials themselves, by association, spiced things up with humour or satire then so much the better. Below we have a selection of items from the 1912 Bon Marché leather goods catalogue, conventionally and unimaginatively represented in meticulous line drawings. Mass-produced goods, neither luxuries nor essentials, they reflect a middle-class taste that would have little appeal for the bande à Picasso. It’s not easy to imagine Picasso dragging one of these compendious travel cases aboard the train for Avignon and Céret. Like most of his contemporaries Picasso sent a lot of postcards to his acquaintances – of the ones he received, many have survived in the archive of the Musée Picasso but lovingly collecting them into albums would have seemed ridiculous. As an infamous voyeur the only objects on offer in these pages to tempt Picasso would have been the binoculars. 

Monday, 5 November 2012

Jackfield Tile Museum

Opulent decorative architectural ceramics define the Victorian architectural legacy – the voracious appetite for complex ornamentation sustained a large industry manufacturing fired clay terracotta and faience products. Companies involved include Doulton, Maw, Burmantofts and Craven Dunnill. In the form of cladding these products both protect and enhance and remain in use to the present. Some of the better known examples have been described here in the past (Michelin Building, Edward Everard in Bristol, Usine Menier and the County Arcade in Leeds) and this is a record of a visit to the Jackfield Tile Museum near Ironbridge that offers a spectacular display of tiling schemes in the Craven Dunnill factory. In the former Drawing Office and Trade Showroom an extraordinary range of mostly Victorian tiles reflects the global span of inspiration derived from Owen Jones’s Grammar of Ornament and the influence of Victorian illustrated books. Elsewhere there are recreations of a 1920s butcher’s shop and an Edwardian pub interior plus examples from London Underground. I have an aversion to museums that insist on guiding the visitor along a didactic track but happily at Jackfield the sheer volume of exhibits allows the visitor to wander at will.