Thursday, 29 November 2018

Helgoland-Heligoland – a day trip

The German North Sea island of Helgoland, on the surface at least, shows no sign of being burdened by its glamorous and turbulent past. Almost all the physical evidence of its glory days as a fashionable summer resort for Northern Europe’s aristocratic families was erased, first by the Kaiser and later by the Third Reich. The spa, the luxury hotels with their casinos (Spielbanks), the aquarium and the grand villas were supplanted by military installations through two world wars. Anything still standing at the end of the conflict in 1945 was destroyed two years later by the British forces who detonated a mountain of captured explosives and ammunition in what was claimed to be the greatest ever non-nuclear explosion. A noisy and brutal exercise in finger wagging directed at German militarism.

The entire settlement had to be rebuilt after Germany regained control of the island in 1952. An architectural competition produced these vaguely modernist designs with pitched roofs, the islanders having campaigned without success, for a historically accurate reconstruction. The best aspect of the reconstruction was the specially devised colour scheme that draws on the tradition of Bruno Taut in Berlin. What would otherwise appear bland and repetitive is enhanced by the application of a bright and attractive colour palette. Elsewhere, retail activity is pressed into dreary shopping pedestrian precincts that wouldn’t look out of place in Stevenage. Nevertheless, there’s a thriving trade in duty-free goods, making use of the islanders’ longstanding privileged exemption and a regular flow of day-trippers from the mainland. And it seems to be an attractive destination for holidaymakers, a small army of whom were to be seen disembarking from the catamaran and piloting their wheelie suitcases toward their overnight accommodation. Guesthouses and small hotels all seemed to be doing good business.

The island is notoriously windswept with frequent, fierce gales battering the coastline in winter and summer alike. This served to intensify the Romantic sensibility that the island aroused in the hearts of 19th. century Germanic nationalists. It stood in defiance of the elements, immovable in the face of stupendous forces – a perfect analogy for the sentimental nationalist. In June of 2018 when I visited, high pressure seemed to have settled over the entire North Sea – immobile air sweltered under an overcast sky while nothing disturbed the flat, calm sea. At most, it’s a thirty minute walk from one end to the other along a coastal path that follows the craggy cliff top. The cliffs are high and host vast colonies of seabirds but there is no prospect that doesn’t include the concrete remnants of enormous coastal defences. On a hot and humid day with hundreds of visitors tramping the length and breadth of the island it was difficult to recapture any sense of the island’s turbulent past – the louche glamour of the vanished casinos, the luxurious indulgence of life in the grand hotels, the disruptive presence of massive military construction, the thunderous impact of serial detonations – all evaporated into the North Sea air.

There’s much to learn about this fascinating island. Jan Rüger’s 2017 book, Heligoland, tells the story lucidly and objectively with a keen eye for the multiple ironies and absurdities that run through the island’s history.

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Postcard of the Day No. 94 – Tunbridge Wells Pantiles

Royal Tunbridge Wells to be absolutely correct. It’s one of those place names that’s synonymous with bourgeois respectability. A bastion of propriety in a world of depravity. Spiritual home of the Daily Telegraph reader and, when these postcards were on sale, a popular spa resort with an Opera House. At the centre of town is this Georgian colonnade and pedestrianised shopping street, named the Pantiles. Much photographed, often from the very same spot, it offered fashionable shops, galleries and restaurants, and an elegant space for gentle perambulation. It survives more or less intact, without much evidence of its former gentility, and can be visited on Streetview thus avoiding the need to travel to Kent. The five cards that share a single viewpoint also share a cast of characters – woman with small child/pram, a young man hungry for attention and various canine companions. The night scene is deeply unconvincing – a clumsy exercise in over-painting in which every window glows with an identical lurid shade. Only a local could confirm whether the residents of Tunbridge Wells continue to conduct themselves with such ostentatious dignity as they do in these scenes.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Cotton Cultivation on Postcards

In the history of the linen postcard (Postcard America), Jeffrey L Meikle notes that postcard images of cotton fields were reused from year to year and decade to decade – the format might change but the content stayed the same. As he says, this gave the impression that the conditions of slavery remained unchanged and the servitude of African Americans was no more than the natural order. In the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, conditions for former slaves gradually improved but violent resistance from white supremacists gradually restored the pre-war status quo. Emancipated slaves were disenfranchised, subjugated and stripped of their civil rights across the former Confederacy. Organised labour and black landowners under the banner of the Colored Farmers’ National Alliance continued to resist the reassertion of white supremacy but the cause was lost by the early 1890s. By the time these postcards went on sale in the early 20th. century it would be more than half a century before the campaign for Civil Rights was revived.

These are the fields that gave rise to the Great Migration in the interwar years when millions of Southern blacks moved north to rebuild their lives in the industrial centres of the Midwest and Northeast states. Out in these fields, some stand up to be photographed, some even gather for a group portrait, and others stoically carry on with their backbreaking labour. Just part of the scenery you can expect to enjoy on your excursion to Dixieland – the ideal postcard for the folk back home. A mounted enforcer is the only reminder of the apparatus of coercion. Stamina and fortitude are the order of the day. Tattered and scruffy clothing is worn with a subtle swagger. The images are generic – locations are rarely disclosed. Somewhere in the Deep South or the Sunny South or the Heart of Dixie is all we are told. Behind the images is the unseen Southern White Gentleman, slave and plantation owner, renowned for his old world courtesy and softly spoken words of kindness for all. A great Southern stereotype to be placed alongside the equally specious stereotype of the cheerfully submissive black labourer, respectful but workshy, always ready with a watermelon smile.

We follow the industrial process as the compressed product is transported for onward shipment. The only white presence is when the crop is weighed, priced, valued and tallied. Acres of bales at the ports require additional intensive labour in terms of portering and loading on to ships. To the casual eye, this was all reassuring and gave no reason to suspect that this was anything other than a free and fair exchange of labour and remuneration. Indeed, there was a sub-genre of postcard that portrayed a life of carefree indolence, suggesting that African Americans, far from being exploited, were really a privileged group supported by the generosity of spirit of their white superiors.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Cotton Cultivation in pictures

Another set of 6 Liebig collectors’ cards – this time from 1909. Six panels describe the process beginning with the planting of seeds. In India, a plough is employed while in Africa, the ground is broken by a work gang of teenagers. Harvesting takes place in America’s Deep South and the crop is delivered to a Cotton Gin where the seeds and detritus are removed. Baling and weighing is next in the process before the finished bales are delivered to the waterfront on a horse drawn wagon to be loaded on to a steamship on the next stage of the journey. It’s a familiar subject for cards of this type – a simplified description of a staple product in a complex process that takes us behind the scenes to see what’s otherwise concealed. The distribution of tasks follows ethnic lines – Europeans get involved when machinery is required but all the hard labour is left to people of colour. It’s a sanitised version of a brutal reality. The working atmosphere is genially relaxed. An air of contentment prevails. No coercion, no armed overseers calling for more effort, no flogging of the indolent or disobedient. The illustrations possess a period charm but their studied avoidance of harsh economic realities was repeated in children’s books and annuals, in films and educational materials until relatively recently. Which is one reason why it’s so easy to find people today who believe that colonialism was basically a benevolent enterprise with a few isolated instances of cruelty and injustice.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Les Rois du Pavé

This book offers a dazzling excursion through the streets of Paris in the years leading up to the Great War when the streets and pavements were the workplace for thousands of traders, performers, labourers and confidence tricksters. For some the challenge was to buy low and sell high with the greatest profits going to those with the greatest flair for theatrics. Almost any daily necessity - bread, fruit and veg could be bought on the street, along with carpets, ice cream, barometers and chestnuts. Others had only their bodies to sell, from sex workers to sandwich-board men. Some were prepared to be transformed into mobile advertisements – see the man promoting the merits of Bière Celtique with an outsize bottle attached to his hat and the brand name printed on his trousers. Selling services was another popular strategy and offered employment to knife-grinders, street photographers, basket menders, tooth pullers and public letter-writers without the expense of an office, studio, workshop or surgery. There were many for whom the pavement was a performance space for demonstrations of physical skills and endurance or a place of entertainment with musicians, conjurors, bird-charmers, mime artists and puppet theatres.

This activity was only possible because of the efforts of road menders and pavers whose back-breaking toil kept the streets in good order. No less essential was the contribution of the street sweepers, the sewer workers and the forces of law and order. Bus, tram and taxi drivers kept a constant flow of potential customers along the boulevards. Another group had nothing to sell but their labour and they formed a small army of refuse collectors, porters, water carriers and lamplighters. Lowest of all in status were les mégottiers who gathered up the discarded cigar and cigarette ends as part of an exercise in extended use. These were citizens of the lower orders who supported themselves by wit and ingenuity, driven outdoors by necessity to persuade the passing public to pay for their products or services. This book finally honours a marginalised community of the economically disadvantaged that brought colour and vitality to the streets of the city.

It’s no surprise to see more than a few of these photos were taken by Eugène Atget but the net had to be cast wider and the Agence Roger-Viollet was a productive source. The great majority of images are from the author’s (Jean-Louis Celati) personal collection and may well be scanned from vintage postcards. None the worse for that, all the images are remarkable for their definition and clarity. The human subjects confront us in all their complexity, sometimes diffident, sometimes defiant but most often simply absorbed in their tasks. There are smiles of triumph, smiles of contentment and there are stony faces that give nothing away. And it’s not entirely a lost world – many of these activities persist into the present despite the best efforts of capital to privatise public space and designate them as a public nuisance. To see further examples, see the 2010 blogpost, Emperors of the Highways.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Willem Van Genk: Master of Bus, Tram and Trolley

One of many unusual exhibits in the Museum Dr. Guislain in Gent is a clothes rail full of vinyl raincoats, mostly in black or brown with a few in yellow, red, green and white. Underneath is a display of random clutter that gradually becomes discernible as an unfinished project of vehicle models assembled from waste materials. The coats are part of a lifetime’s collection, assembled by Willem Van Genk (1927-2005), a curious and reclusive artist who lived and worked in a small apartment in Den Haag for over 30 years. A visit to the Museum Dr. Guislain was described in this 2012 blogpost. The story goes that when Willem was a schoolboy during the last war, the Gestapo forced their way into the family home in search of his father who was active in the Resistance movement. This experience during which the Gestapo conducted themselves with all the sensitivity for which they were famous would haunt him for the rest of his life. Totalitarianism would often break the surface in his work. His exceptional talent for drawing was recognised in his youth and as an adult he would obsessively pursue his passion for making incredibly complex drawings, paintings and installations whilst leading a solitary existence, avoiding human contact as far as possible.

Many of Willem’s subjects were transport-themed cityscapes from across the globe. The travelling largely took place in his imagination assisted by a compendious library of reference books and magazines. He had a touching faith in the power of Soviet Communism to transform life for the better which explains why Eastern Bloc locations turn up so often in his work. A blizzard of ultra-fine, precisely drawn pen lines define his subjects, always alert to technical details, while plunging perspectives attract the eye. There’s a preference for expansive cityscapes observed from an elevated position. Architectural complexity, military parades, urban signage and popular culture all drew his attention. Many finished works are assemblages of smaller panels or vignettes, frequently cut and pasted from other projects – decorative borders enclose the panels, sometimes with medallion shapes inserted at points of intersection. Colour is usually applied in the form of washes and enhances the ominous atmosphere of impending doom. Somehow the darkest events of 20th. century Europe often filter their way into his paintings, intentionally or otherwise.

Willem’s passion for transport included airships and planes, trains above and below ground, military vehicles and traffic of all types but especially trams and trolleybuses. It was the tram and trolleybus that he chose to translate into three dimensions in the form of wondrous improvised models that resembled apocalypse survivors in their scorched and battered state. Bashed together from fragments of food and drink packaging, aerosols, bottles and cans, cartons and containers before being savagely beaten. There’s a repeated fascination with networks of rails, tracks and overhead power distribution that surge through his imagery, crackling with visual static. In a painting of Amsterdam Centraal station, trains seem to explode out of the station with such force that they threaten to achieve escape velocity. On city streets, trams and trolleybuses burst out of the picture plane, their forms distorted by electromotive force, with passengers in the grip of ecstatic frenzy.

There’s an interesting debate around Van Genk’s status as an Outsider Artist. Some say that because he had a dealer for many years and regularly exhibited and sold his work that this description no longer applies. Willem would have agreed – in his own estimation he was an important artist. He compared himself with Rauschenberg and complained about the relatively modest sums that his work commanded. To me, the more important question may be whether Roger Cardinal’s term has outlived its usefulness if it needs to be so narrowly circumscribed. The comparison with Rauschenberg is not without merit – they certainly shared a fascination with conveying the pace and exhilaration of modern life via multiple imagery.

To return to the collection of coats, Van Genk claimed that the act of wearing them in public gave him protection against the hostile forces he perceived around him and perhaps, in a similar way, his artworks were part of a defensive strategy to cope with the the mass of visual information that threatened to overwhelm him. It’s easy to imagine him, wearing a sinister vinyl coat, staring at an array of flickering monitors displaying montages of live-streaming from the world’s major cities, from Arnhem to Zagreb, from Wuppertal to Minsk and from Moscow to Madrid. With a flick of a switch, as one is deleted another is imported and a new mosaic of urban imagery is formed. In his mind’s eye, he sees circuit diagrams, metro maps and signalling diagrams as he inches forward to a place of total control. These photographs of his work were taken in Gent (Museum Dr. Guislain) and in Lille (Lille Métropole Musée d’Art Moderne).