Highlights from the Collection

Although I haven't featured it in a while, I feel its time to highlight "Highlights from the Collection," a sporadic series of posts focusing upon some object, or series thereof, chosen from amongst the piles (the Collection) in my apartment. A spotlight thrown on things curious, resonant, or engaging in their unremarkableness.

In truth, a friend sent me a link to this irresistible blog of a collection-a-day–maddening in its simple curated appeal– and I became very envious. So why not start hauling out my stuff again as well? Past "Highlights" have included old library cardspostcards of questionable merit, a creepy family and sacred snakes of India, among other items...

Herewith, three new highlights at one time: 
At top, a group of what I believe are implements for "tatting", a type of loose decorative crochet work (image of tatting specimens, 1870). I bought these in Covent Garden antique market (London) but have no idea if they're truly old or right off the boat from India. I do think they're bone, not plastic, as I can see some graining. They're small and delicate and feel good in the hand.
Next, a random group of some of my wooden and leather buttons. I no longer remember anything about where I purchased them.
Lastly, two (human?) teeth, small, child-sized, wrapped in wire, fashioned into vaguely shamanistic pendants, found as-is, on my street.

[tatting specimen image from schmetterlingtag/ebay.


Specialties of the Haus

Untitled (Bauhaus building, Dessau), 1931, Iwao Yamawaki

Untitled (Ellen Frank), c. 1929, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

Color sphere in 7 light values and 12 tones, 1921, Johannes itten

Chair without Arms (LR 120), c. 1931, Lily Reich

 Design for a fabric print made from typewriter type, 1932, Hans-Joachim Rose

 Zirchow VII, 1918, Lyonel Feininger

  Banknotes for the State Bank of Thuringia, 1923, Herbert Beyer

 African or "Romantic" chair, 1921, Marcel Breuer with textile by Gunta Stolzl

Hurry, Bauhaus: Workshops for Modernity 1919-1933 at MoMA is up for only a few more days. It was far more extensive than I expected and the breadth of work was fairly amazing. Surprisingly, it is the first exhibit of Bauhaus work at the museum since 1938. 
The first image, at top, of the iconic school building in Dessau is what most immediately comes to mind on hearing the word Bauhaus: rectilinear black and white buildings furnished with tubular steel— "machines for living." I was excited and fascinated to see (to be reminded?) that the Bauhaus encompassed much more. On display are 450 specimens of painting, sculpture, color studies, theatrical design, ceramics, textiles, and photography, in addition to the more familiar architecture, graphic and industrial design. (They created the practical and the fantastical: costumes and table lamps, currency, reconceived a baby's cradle, proposed "multimedia" outdoor kiosks and created fabric patterns with typewriters.) As I made my way through the first gallery I wondered why was this such a surprise to me? Maybe I had simply forgotten what I'd learned in art history at college?

One of the show's curators has said of the show, "We're focusing on the idea that Bauhaus is not a style." I think this is a key summation. Combining trades and crafts instruction with fine arts and an avant garde experimental ethos the Bauhaus started as a petri dish of ideological and creative mixing. In its early phase (there were three phases, in three different cities, under different administrations) the school embraced expressionist, crafts-oriented experimentation-- perhaps a result of the influential faculty member and quasi-medieval shamanic figure Johannes Itten. The idea of bringing together different media in order to conceive what modern life should be in a new age of technology remains very relevant today, even if their optimism/utopianism seems dated. (What must it have been like to believe you had the key to the future and it was design. Was it like the Apple campus in the 1990s?)

Getting back to my question as to why Bauhaus, over the years, seemed to be reduced to a (single) style: the idea of the Bauhaus that became known in this country was that of the faculty who emigrated here—significantly, Gropius, Breuer, Albers, Mies van der Rohe. It was Gropius who organized the first exhibit of Bauhaus at the Modern in 1938, and it emphasized his administration. These faculty went on to teach in– or start– prominent design schools. The esoteric, craftsmen-like experimentalism of the early years was diminished in stature and memory. It seems that while the coolly mechanistic, utopian Bauhaus has become a style– a gorgeous, if naive and nostalgia-tinged yesterday's tomorrow—that interdisciplinary, expressionistic, inclusive and slightly kooky Bauhaus could live on.


I'd like to thank the Academy...

Finding of Moses, 1904, Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Betty Blythe as the Queen of Sheba, 1921

Theda Bara

Phedre, 1880, Alexandre Cabanel

Intolerance, 1916, D.W. Griffith

Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners, 1887, Alexandre Cabanel

King of Kings, 1927, Cecil B. DeMille

The Ten Commandments, 1923, Cecil B. DeMille

Pola Negri

Pollice Verso (Thumbs down) 1872, Jean-Léon Gerome

Have you ever noticed the languorous, sloe-eyed ladies in certain late 19th century paintings seemed oddly like... silent film extras? And those fever-pitch historical tableaux, the overwrought gestures.... there's something familiar about them? Recently, some stylistic details and gestures in "academic art" caught my eye.

Academic art as you may know, is the rigorous, technically brilliant, representational art officially sanctioned by the French Académie des beaux-arts and celebrated during its heyday—the 19th century. (So codified and laden with narrative detail is the typical academic work that to look at it is to understand by default the revolutionary vision of van Gogh or Degas.) By the 20th century, academic art was lampooned by the intelligentsia and arbiters of high culture. Many critics today would still consider it the epitome of Victorian kitsch, a pantomime, preposterously sentimental— the equivalent of mass market book jacket art or Thomas Kincaid, Painter of Light.

Academic art's characteristic "licked finish"— the virtuosic handling of paint that removes all trace of the brushstroke– helped fuel 19th century painters' battle with the camera (the dispute was something like this: The camera recorded reality with unquestionable accuracy--but was it art? science? where did this leave painting?). Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres instructed his students that in the academic technique,
"The brushstroke, as accomplished as it may be, should not be visible: otherwise, it prevents the illusion, immobilizes everything. Instead of the object represented, it calls attention to the process: instead of the thought, it betrays the hand."
A couple months ago, I had a conversation with a former curator from the Dahesh Museum, the quirky little museum of 19th century academic art formerly on Madison Avenue (but now, sadly, without exhibit space). I mentioned my observation that some characters in these paintings reminded me of silent film. "Oh yes," he said, "DeMille was a collector. And in lighting and staging, Gerome* was especially influential." Of course! Then it all made sense! Although in some cases decades separate artwork and film, the commonality is obvious. 

As academic painting lost status in high art, its stagey historicism remained popular with the masses. The Victorian melodrama, Orientalist fantasies, and sentimentality of the 19th century seeped into the 20th, and carried on in popular culture — in certain ways all the way to the 1930s. The conventions of Victorian art became a starting point for film drama. So in a sense Ingres' dictum that the  brushstroke
not "prevent the illusion" had been taken to its furthest degree: the brush and canvas have been eliminated, all that is left is illusion.

Jerusalem/Golgotha, Consummatum Est, 1867, Jean-Leon Gerome

*Gerome's searing vision of the crucifixion, above, is astonishing for leaving out the actual subject. Like some bizarre anticipation of film noir, the angle, and the "off-camera" lighting, create a scene of portent with light and shadow.


Israel in Egypt, 1867, Edward John Poynter
A reader, Marc, sent a link to this incredible image. The wikipedia description of it reads, in part, "Poynter conflated features of the temples of Thebes, Edfu and Philae, backed by the Great Pyramid at Giza and the limestone cliffs of Thebes, to serve as the cinemascope-like background" (my emphasis)


Swiss watching

Yes, I am just now posting on this book, Corporate Diversity*: Swiss Graphic Design and Advertising by Geigy 1940–1970. Yes, I realize everyone else wrote of it back in the Spring but I only recently purchased it and it has taken me a while to finish reading (The book was published to accompany an exhibit of the chemical company Geigy's work at the Museum of Design, Zurich. See some nice images of the exhibit, including the one above, on Flickr by Arne Sanger.)

The story of Swiss design is intertwined with that of one of its prime movers– the chemical company Geigy. There are several reasons why Geigy became the face of what some called "International Style" of design: First, it was a very successful multinational company and had the resources to create graphics standards and, presciently, a corporate image that would carry its reputation to the rest of Europe and America. Second, Geigy’s products–dyes, pesticides, pharmaceuticals– were abstractions, and needed design to give form to essentially "invisible" entities. Lastly, much of Geigy's output was aimed at and marketed to a select– yes, elite (something that was to haunt Swiss design in later years)– educated market: scientists, doctors, engineers.

Starting in 1941 the Geigy "propaganda department" set about creating the first in-house corporate image team, producing advertising as well as package, product, and even exhibit design. The company saw design as an international representation of Swiss ideals, thereby injecting a sense of nationalism into the endeavor as well. Importantly, the company had close ties with the art school in Basel, becoming a training ground for graduates as it benefited from an influx of fresh academic thought.

European design had been drawing from avant garde movements such as deStijl, Bauhaus, and Constructivism for years. Geigy style-- and by extension Swiss style-- was categorically described by the company itself as, "grounded in the zeitgiest of modern art... function-dependent... [with] no borrowing from past styles." All of which makes a point brought up in passing so fascinating: the accusation (observation?) that Swiss style (by the 70s and 80s) had sold out its radical roots, that it began in avant garde modernity and ended in a corporate capitalist strait jacket. That of course is over-simplifying the matter, however, like modernist architecture, modernist design done on the cheap and without background knowledge, is soulless visual blight. And it was just about the time that designers were rejecting (or at least questioning) the dogmatic Swiss aesthetic that I started my design training, such as it was.

In the chapter on Swiss design's spread in the US, Yale, one of the earliest and more influential graphic design programs set up in this country, is talked about quite specifically. The program was completely allied with Swiss style, even instituting a summer course of study in Brissago, Switzerland. I was at Yale taking design courses in the 80s—but as an undergraduate, and I realize thats a pretty big qualifier. Still, several of the graduate school faculty taught undergraduate, and the few classes offered were a total immersion in grid systems and reductionism. I didn't have Paul Rand but I did have Alvin Eisenman who was head of the graduate program, and, unfortunately, my senior advisor as well. (I was surprised he was allowed to lead the design school through 1990 because, boy, as of 85/86 it seemed he should have been put out to pasture already.) Here is Jessica Helfand from Design Observer describing her discomfort with the retarditaire sensibility of the Yale program at just that time:

While I begrudgingly acknowledged the value of my formal education, such aesthetic orthodoxy was, frankly, anathema to me. How, after all, could you make design that communicated to human beings and deliberately drain it of all human content?...The general perspective was one that privileged rigor over voice, seeking the most reductivist solutions to life’s most complex problems.
I believe the Yale program was totally stagnating at that point, straddling the last gasp of a rote plaka-and-compass approach and the first computers, grid-based rigidity and the first inklings of expressive type. Swiss design, as it was taught to me there and then, didnt inspire me much but it made sense and did stick with me... 
I must say a lot of this work is looking very appealing to me now. So it was with great interest that I read Massimo Vignelli's ultimate pronouncement on Swiss modernism: it is "extendable"– its values are endless and open to future elaboration. That's an assessment I can get behind with enthusiasm.

*I believe the authors are quite earnest in their title but "diversity" is not a term that comes to my mind in describing either Swiss design or Geigy in particular. Leafing through this book reveals powerful design, supremely confident, inspiring in many ways, but monolithic might be the more apt adjective.

Addenda: Something I thought of-- not addressed at all in the book-- is the unappealing nature of these products and all the stereotypical evil that a chemical company has come to represent: poisons, drugs, pollutants. This was, I suppose, still the progressive/beneficent/paternal period in chemical-industrial history. Another related topic I'll throw out there is the ironic or meta use of modernist design prevalent in 90s british music design and American Apparel ads. Air quote modernism.


some letters for your notes

The Cary Collection at the Rochester Institute of Technology is one of this country's foremost libraries on the history and practice of printing, with holdings comprising bookbinding, papermaking, type design, calligraphy and book illustration. It includes a substantial archive documenting the work of type and book designer Hermann Zapf.

Unfortunately there's not much to see online– and what is there is not of much interest to me: incunabula, a few densely floriated initial caps, a page from an 18th century type specimen by "William Calson, Letter-Founder", a few pages of Eric Gill... Feh.

Surprisingly, what I liked best, and what brought me to the site, were these images from the RIT Cary Graphic Arts Press shop. Notecards and postcards are very inexpensive (Why didnt I know about this before Christmas?) and there's even a nice-looking set of Lester Beall WPA poster cards
Examples shown here are available as cards: lettering from a French sign painters manual 1903, and some exquisite specimens from an American wood type and ornament catalog 1874.


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