Monday, 29 January 2018

Borsig Locomotive Works, Berlin-Tegel

Franz Hessel, author of Walking in Berlin (1929), indulged his fascination with the way that urban sprawl leeches out into the surrounding countryside by walking from Spandau to Tegel around the northwest perimeter of the city. Arriving in the suburb of Tegel he noted the presence of the Borsig locomotive works without pausing for closer examination. It may not have been for want of trying as Hessel was adept at talking his way into industrial facilities such as AEG in Moabit and wrote with relish and enthusiasm about what he observed. The Borsig Works in Tegel opened in 1898 (follow this link to view an 1898 catalogue of Borsig products) but the era of supremacy established in 1872 when it was the second largest loco builder in the world, was already behind it. By 1929 the mock-medieval ensemble of buildings at Tegel had been turning out steam locomotives for over 30 years but the company was struggling and close to insolvency. In 1935 the locomotive business was absorbed by AEG who began to move production to their own factory.

Borsig continued to produce industrial compressors and boilers until final closure in 1958. Much of the abandoned factory complex has survived into the present – albeit as part of a large commercial development that includes office space, a hotel and a major shopping centre. A quasi-fortified gateway marks the entrance to the factory – carved figures of armed guards look down on intruders from niches in the round towers. Many brand-new locomotives in black gloss finish were posed in front of the gateway for publicity photos. By adopting historical architectural styles the Borsigs seemed to be saying that despite the contemporary nature of their business they remained attached to time-honoured craft traditions and technologies.

The workshops, stores and assembly halls were designed with ornamental façades in a brick-built Gothic style, much favoured for contemporary civic buildings such as the Rathaus Schmargendorf. In 1922 the company built a 12 storey office block, often described as Berlin's first skyscraper. It was a steel frame construction designed by architect Eugen Schmohl (1880-1926) in an Expressionist style that retained the fortified aspect found elsewhere on the site. Elsewhere, the large machine hall was rebuilt as an indoor shopping centre in 1999. It’s an uninspired conversion that seems to have dissipated the sense of scale that would have distinguished the original interior. The external fabric has mostly been retained but the industrial character has largely been lost by replacing the original iron and steelwork with modern high performance metal trusses, slender and bland in appearance. It would require an enormous effort on the part of the imagination to summon up the epic drama of the industrial process with its percussive symphony of the riveter, the cacophonous hammer blows, the hissing hydraulic presses and the roaring forges. Mountains of castings, springs and roller-bearings littered the shop floor while overhead roof-mounted cranes transported immense locomotives from one assembly line to another. All this in a space now inhabited by listless shoppers browsing chain-store mediocrities.

The image above of locomotive construction is a detail from a painting by Paul Meyerheim (1842–1915) on display at the Deutsches Technikmuseum. It is one of a series of 7 paintings commissioned to celebrate the achievements of the Borsig engineering business. The locomotive is an example of Borsig construction from 1925 now a museum exhibit at Bochum-Dahlhausen.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Postcard of the Day No. 90 – Houlgate, La Plage

Our photographer here in the respectable Normandy seaside resort of Houlgate, west of Honfleur, has done an excellent job of choreographing his human subjects, almost all of whom are fully focused on their tasks. Groups of junior excavators dig energetically in the sand while the foreground boat crew prepare for launching forth into la Manche. Children outnumber adults by about 3 to 1 but irrespective of age, every single person wears a hat and dutifully poses for the camera. The solitary dissenter is the mysterious Man in White who appears to be making his escape between two beach huts. Overlooking the beach is the Grand Hôtel, once the haunt of literary celebrities such as Zola and Proust. To this day Houlgate is mostly unspoilt and its 19th. century grand villas still dominate the foreshore and the town behind. It also lacks the upmarket exclusivity that makes some other resorts so uncomfortable to anyone without a private income. A previous visit to Houlgate can be seen by following this link.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Warhol’s Brillo Boxes

In 1964, Andy Warhol got his assistants to make full-scale wooden replicas of the cardboard cartons used to ship Brillo pads to shops and supermarkets. When complete, they were silkscreened to resemble the original boxes in every detail. The same process was repeated for cartons of other consumer products by Kellogg’s, Motts, Heinz, Del Monte and Campbells. The finished boxes were all assembled in April for an exhibition at the Stable Gallery. When the Manhattan sophisticates turned up for the opening they were confronted by a room where nothing hung on the walls and the floor was stacked high with facsimile cartons of the sort that would never merit a second glance unless you were a shelf-stacker. Visitors had to pick their way with care through the scattered exhibits and soon discovered they no longer had the space in which to cluster and share art world gossip and banter. The popular conception of a private view audience studiously ignoring the work on the walls in favour of free drinks and an exchange of insults suddenly became unavailable. Despite being priced between $100 and $200, sales were disappointing – it seems that Warhol had succeeded in discomforting his core audience as well as raising all sorts of issues about appropriation, authenticity and aesthetic value.

While critics argued over whether or not the boxes were artworks, a commercial artist named James Harvey questioned Warhol’s ownership of the Brillo pack by announcing himself as the designer of the original Brillo carton. Harvey and Warhol were near contemporaries, both of whom had subsidised their fine art ambitions by accepting commercial work. They differed only in their personal choices – while Harvey aligned himself with the serious-minded traditions of Abstract Expressionism, Warhol launched himself in the opposite direction. In 1964 it was Harvey who looked like an anachronism, although his work is not entirely lost to the world – his 1963 design for the Marlboro cigarette pack survives, with minor modifications, to the present day.

I’ve enjoyed Robert Hughes’s magisterial diatribes denouncing Warhol as a meretricious fraud but I’ve never been fully convinced he can be dismissed so lightly. During the 1970s Warhol’s Factory aesthetic rapidly metastised into a sinister driver of celebrity culture but the earlier output had many interesting things to say about consumer culture and the hidden power of the image. I’m less squeamish than Hughes (which is to say my critical standards are not so high) and I’m not offended when the artist’s handiwork is outsourced. The artist as venture capitalist, self-publicist and manager of his or her own image rights may be a little unsettling but it’s nothing new. Where Hughes sees a dangerously value-free void I see a complex character replete with unresolved inner conflicts that largely don’t concern me. Warhol, for Hughes, is the person most responsible for flattening the distinction between high art and the endless noise and turbulence of popular culture. He is amusingly dismissive of Andy the Silver Angel of Death and unimpressed by the images of death and violence that distinguish some of the early silkscreen paintings – car crashes, race riots, electric chairs – that wealthy patrons paid large sums to display in their gated apartments. Hughes must have taken a sardonic pleasure in reading about the proliferation of fake Warhols and the interminable disputes over attribution.

Which brings us to the wooden building blocks in the form of miniaturised Warhol Brillo cartons that went on sale last year in packages of eight, seven of which featured the standard pack while the eighth was a replica of the 3¢ Off variant in yellow. A wonderful opportunity to start your own table-top art museum and arrange the boxes in a deeply personal way. In a helpful note to the purchaser we are reminded that Warhol once said, “Art is what you can get away with” – just the sort of thing to have Robert Hughes turning in his grave. A 2016 documentary film, Brillo Box (3¢ Off) tells the story of a single box and its 40+year journey through the art world, accruing value at each change of ownership until it maxes out at $3million.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Mid-century American Illustration – a selection of double pages

To start 2018 we present some double page spreads from US magazines, mostly Saturday Evening Post with a few from Ladies Home Journal. In some we see the illustrator doing no more than take advantage of a broader space to add impact but in the best the illustrator has found fresh and innovative ways to integrate image and text to dynamic effect. The very best are those where the artist has exploited facial close-ups, dramatic lighting and tonal modelling to spring the image off the page and into our eyes – Jon Whitcomb and Alex Ross being masters of this technique. Artists include George Hughes, Melbourne Brindle, Robert Patterson, Halleck Finley, Peter Stevens and Walter Baumhofer. Baumhofer’s contribution (This time it’s Goodbye) artfully frames the text extract while maintaining a powerful spatial tension between the foreground figure and the distant couple she observes from behind the curtain.