history closet: 2013

Pilfering from the Design History Closet. CHEERS!

Alexander Rodchenko, 1924, poster for a publishing house


the end — 12/21/12

All end titles from the Movie Title Stills Collection by Christian Annyas

Oh no! Its been an entire month since I last posted!
If we make it through today I promise to be more diligent.



"You've Come A Long Way, Baby"


"You've come a long way, Baby,
To get to where you got to today.
You've got your own cigarette now, Baby, 
You've come a long, long way!"
Virginia Slims (Phillip Morris Companies) 1968
BACKGROUND: In October, during a Senate debate, a weepy Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock said: “I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen. He was merely the most recent successor, at the time of this post, to Todd Akin’s summertime verbal ataxia, “If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

 Sam Markham
artist, archivist, friend and fellow ephemera collector— recently contacted Doug and me with an idea that needed some Photoshop intervention to help bring it to fruition. I'll let Sam explain:
I first came across these surreal name-themed real photo postcards about five years ago at the annual Ephemera Fair. From a distance of over 100 years, I found them simultaneously humorous and creepy and I decided to start a mini collection. The women pictured on the cards also reveal a fascinating mix of Victorian maidens and vamps who foreshadow silent film stars like Theda Bara. [I'll interject here that the faces are an intriguing mix of creamy innocents, stylized Gibson Girls, "fast" girls and lumpen dullards. Also interesting is the ample evidence of the artist’s hand in the literal cut-and-paste collaging of the girls.]

This summer when I heard about Missouri House Representative Todd Akin's “legitimate rape” comments I was disturbed by his ignorance and callousness, as well as with how these comments fit in with a wave of attacks on women's rights (defunding Planned Parenthood, Sandra Fluke, &c.). A few days later in my studio I came across the name cards and had the idea of deploying individual letters from the postcards into the phrase “legitimate rape.” It seemed appropriate to use images of women from an era before the Nineteenth Amendment as a vehicle to critique Akin's misogyny.

I'm interested in resurrecting ephemera and showing how the past resonates with the present. With the “legitimate rape” project I wanted to make something that both respected the eccentricity of the original material and simultaneously brought the women in the postcards (and all of their various associations) into the present. I was thrilled that on Election Day women and men in Missouri and throughout the United States stood up for women's rights. Congratulations also to Maine and Maryland on voting for marriage equality!  [Noteworthy, too, that the Senate has now reached 20% women.] “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” -William Faulkner.


documenting the light

light through old glass 2
light patterns filtered through distorted old glass panes in my apartment.
This looks slightly diseased in a still image. See video below
I find the light effects kind of mesmerizing.
Music: Brooklyn
musician Jonas Asher aka Grasslung– Too Tired to Remember
watery view through old glass
the slightly watery view through 125+ year old glass.

particularly hectic light effect on a mirror frame
Music: Yo La Tengo —Dont Have to be So Sad

I've always thought the light in my apartment pretty special. It's not wildly bright but rather has a progressive luminosity that makes its way around the (small) space from NE to SW over the course of the day. Its varied intensities from indirect sunrise glow to full late afternoon radiance are something I've never tired of. The apartment is the front of a corner brownstone so I have 2-1/2 exposures: front, side, and the projecting bay window giving me a partial additional angle East. The windows are all original, c.1885, and the glass is noticeably distorted. Ripples, slumps and tiny pinhead bubbles in the panes subtly alter the view so that everything appears slightly underwater. These imperfections also goad the light coming in into sporadic dancing fits on the walls and ceiling. I decided, after 17 years in the space, to finally document the light. So indulge me.

Addendum: I noticed someone linked to me from an Old House forum. Homeowners and renovators: I *love* my old windows. The side panes on the bay window are curved glass; the center panel is extra wide. The frames are unpainted, original finished wood– in bad shape. But even though they're literally crumbling in places, they work incredibly smoothly on weighted chains. Bottom and top panes can literally be lifted and lowered with 2 fingers.


Songs of Himself: Levi's and Whitman, Sampled

Whitman was very conscious of his image-- literally and figuratively. He was among the most photographed men
of the 19th century with something like 125 known extant images. Here he is as audacious "loafer", 1855, on the frontispiece to Leaves of Grass— Even his portrait was an affront

Levi's "Go Forth" ad campaign of a few years ago. This spot features an actual recording of Whitman reading.
A mind-blowing conflation of American transcendent idealism and cynical commercialism.
I'm very gratified to have introduced Professor Alan Trachtenberg (see below) to these on Youtube!

Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch'd from,
the scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer...
If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the spread of my own body, or any part of it.
— “Song of Myself” 1855

"No one in this age of [expensive] flour and high rents can afford to be a nobody. Be somebody— biographically, poetically, or historically."– satirical editorial in The Brooklyn Eagle, October 11, 1855

Revisiting an old post, with updates and edits:
As I noted a few years ago, I'm disturbed when I come across glaring gaps in my education—something that stops me short as I think, Wait, how do I not know this?
Whitman: Titan of American literature, Leaves of Grass, "body electric," repressed homosexuality, beard—that was nearly the sum of what I knew. At that time, I got the Penguin Classics Collected Whitman and started on a mini research mission. In this current Whitman endeavor I've signed myself up for a course taught by the venerable Alan Trachtenberg, essayist and Professor Emeritus of English and American Studies at Yale. I now know I'm far more interested in Whitman as cultural-social catalyst and influence than I am in his works per se.

I do not like reading Whitman's poetry (prose, like Specimen Days, is more agreeable). Considering the sweeping vistas and universalism he invokes I find the reading experience leaves me clammy and oddly claustrophobic. (I'm guessing that Whitman was a close talker....) He does however, conjure a mystical rawness, an uninhibited immediacy, blatancy even, that is astounding. Especially when one thinks of his being published at a time when "Victorian" morality was in ascendance. (Emily Dickinson evidently wrote in a letter, "I have never read his book– but was told that he was disgraceful," which I find enormously funny.) Despite not actually enjoying his work, I'm finding the idea and persona of Whitman pretty compelling.

In Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity, David Haven Blake places the self-styled "good grey poet" against the backdrop of America's developing intellectual identity and popular culture. A very good read. The 1850s was a time of an expanding awareness of a specifically American intellectual identity. The search for a "native American" literary style, independent of European models, was a cultural imperative. Whitman felt he was the answer to that call. It was also the time of Barnum and the rise of consumer culture. Whitman offered himself, seemingly, as an entity (or commodity) that could effect happiness and harmony with the world.

Whitman's sheer audacity is amazing; he craved attention. He self-published Leaves of Grass then published reviews of his own work anonymously ("An American bard at last!"). Later he compiled various laudatory comments and reviews as well as pans and included these as an addendum to later editions of the book. Throughout his life, it seems, Whitman was compelled to ceaselessly promote himself. "The public is a thick skinned beast," he confided to a friend,"and you have to keep whacking away it its hide to let it know you're there."

David Haven Blake's point, which was a new angle to me at least, was that celebrity in the mid-19th century could be seen as a true democratic phenomenon. Fame (and possible subsequent wealth) created and bestowed by the people– rather than by birth, class or inheritance–was, in a sense, sanctioned by popular vote. The celebrity was the embodiment of a culture sanctioned by the people, and an affirmation of the great American experiment.

In my current readings, Trachtenberg in “Walt Whitman Precipitant of the Modern” makes what I believe is the key to my interest in Whitman: the case of the poet's influence on the American avant garde-- ie the rise of Modernism in art and literature. Ezra Pound said of Whitman: “He is America. His crudity is an exceeding great stench, but it is America.” I paraphrase Trachtenberg: Whitman breaks through constraint to say exactly what's on his mind, he sanctions desire, rebellion, individualism with an unprecedented openness of form and emotion.

IMAGES: the infamous frontispiece to Leaves of Grass, 1855. Virtually all reviews at the time commented on the "defiant", vulgar quality of the portrait. Whitman knew exactly what he was doing; Levi's Jeans "Go Forth" tv ad campaign by Weidan + Kennedy featuring Whitman's poems. Some of the comments on the Youtube page are interesting: “Is this some genius speaking through satire or has consumerism become this crass? The American dream of independence and self-actualization has become a pair of over-priced jeans....”;2/3 length with hat outdoor rustic”--This 1877 photograph was Whitman's favorite and caused much to-do with acolytes and early scholars who argued about this butterfly. Whitman tried to foster the idea that the creature was real and had somehow alighted upon his finger... in the midst of a photo studio. In 1995, someone found the butterfly in a cache of Whitmaniana that had gone missing from the Library of Congress in 1942.


Poor Richard's bones

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.*
― William Shakespeare, Richard III

Richard III —Duke of Gloucester, Shakespeare's hunchbacked villain—was the last king of the House of York. His notoriety originates in his succession to the British throne: When his brother Edward IV died in April 1483, Richard was named Lord Protector for Edward's son and successor, the 12-year-old King Edward V. Edward and his younger brother were housed in the Tower of London. Arrangements were to be made for the boy's coronation on June 22. Somehow, by June 25, with arrests of the princes' maternal uncles and other family supporters, an assembly of officials had endorsed claims that the brothers were illegitimate. The following day Richard III officially began his reign. He was crowned on July 6. The two young princes were not seen in public after August and their ultimate fate is unknown. (There are alternative interpretations of the events— see The Richard III Society.)

Richard's defeat at the Battle of Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485 was the decisive battle of the Wars of the Roses, the struggle between 2 branches of royal families. His defeat opened the way to the establishment of the Tudor dynasty (cf. Henry VIII, Elizabeth I). He was summarily buried at the Franciscan friary of Greyfriars which was then demolished in the 1530s. Thereafter his remains were thought to have been thrown in the river, scattered or otherwise lost.

As of September 2012, archaeologists believe *he's turned up buried beneath a car park in Leicester.
The skeleton— cleaved through the skull and shot with an arrowhas fairly dramatic scoliosis, meaning that while not hunchback, one shoulder would be significantly higher than the other.

images from top: Earliest surviving portrait of Richard III c. 1520, Society of Antiquaries of London; Kevin Spacey, Ian McKellan, Laurence Olivier, Steve Weingartner, Antony Sher as Richard III; Richard III wax figure portrait by Hiroshi Sugimoto; the Princes in the Tower by John Everett Millais 1878; descendant of Richard III's eldest sister swabbed for DNA to positively identify the bones just discovered.


Guess who's coming to dinner

skull and Level
Skull and Level, a spectacular memento mori from Pompeii, 1st century, Naples Museum.
This and the skeletons below are thought to be emblema, the central panels of decorative mosaic flooring
found in Roman dining rooms.

An interpretation of the Skull and Level is animated at the very beginning of the opening credits
to HBO's Rome from a few years ago

know thyself mosaic
skeleton with scythe, the inscription "gnothi seauton"— know thyself—is in Greek.
Roman, circa 1st century.
Interestingly, the skeleton reclines very much like a Roman dinner guest.
carpe diem mosaic, naples museum
skeleton with wine jugs, Naples Museum — a two-for-one carpe diem and memento mori.
Love this guy.
restored fragment of unswept floor from Aquileia. image: mosaico ravenna
More mosaics, more unswept floor:
The previous post introduced the asaroton or unswept floor decoration that cropped up periodically in ancient Roman dining rooms. The debris-strewn look— trompe l'oeil
mosaic food scraps, fish heads and the occasional animal gnawing on banquet remnants— remained a popular conceit for centuries. Explaining this motif as a sort of display of wealth (as it commonly seems to be in my cursory investigations) seems rather facile to me. If bourgeois ostentation is the goal why not simply create a mosaic larder heaped with edible riches that guests can trample on their way in to eating even more bounty?

A reader, Mosaicos La Pasera, commented:
I recall reading about the unswept floors in an article that explained the remnants of food on the floor represented and offering to the ancestors within the household.
There may be the germ of something there. I read somewhere about the GREEKS who didnt sweep crumbs because they were "offerings" for the fallen (heroes/warriors). Also there was a type of Roman slave whose specific task was to sweep the food detritus on the floor, but I cant now find reference to it. Perhaps the asaroton was a way of venerating ancestors, fallen heroes and the like without, you know, making the place reek. Although I have yet to find a backstory that rings true on this, one thing is certain—the Ancients definitely had a way with wit and whimsy. 

Memento mori: Another, mordant, take on Roman home decor: the memento mori. The term of course refers to that broad theme of art which crossed many genres, the purpose of which was to nag people "remember you will die." I associated the motif more with the self-denying, bummer obsession of medieval to early 19th century Christianity, but evidently it turns up rather jauntily in pagan times. These mosaics are thought to be the emblema or central panels from decorative flooring in Roman dining rooms.

The "Skull and Level" at top is absolutely riveting both in its look as well as complexity of symbolism. As described on the web site of the Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence:
....its naturalistic depiction of a skull and the tools of a mason, expresses allegorically the transience of life and the impending nature of death. It is the libella, the level, from which hangs the plumb-line—the instrument that serves to control the levelling of a construction- that symbolises all equality. From its ends hang in perfect equilibrium the symbols of power: the sceptre and royal purple on the left, and on the right, the sack and the stick, symbols of poverty...
Note that the skull sits atop a wheel (of Fortune!) and a butterfly, signifying the soul...
---> WOW. //

Also, take a look at an early post of mine on memento mori in fashion advertising.


unswept and unwelcome

Trompe l'oeil debris was a popular Roman and Hellenistic mosaic theme for dining rooms floors.
Discarded fish and fruit: fragment of
an asaraton, or unswept floor mosaic from Aquileia.
detail of a 5th century floor mosaic of a Roman triclinium (dining room) which itself features
an unswept floor mosaic
the entire banquet scene shows the asaraton floor design — or does it?
Mosaic on display at Chateau de Boudry
asaroton signed by Heraklitos, from Vigna Lupi, Rome, 2nd century, in the Vatican Museum
photo by magistrahf
detail of Heraklitos mosaic above, Vatican Museum
mouse and walnut— look at the shadows!
chicken foot on the floor!

"Have" (a variant of "Ave" meaning “Hail”) is a charming mosaic greeting at the entrance to
the House of the Faun, Pompeii
Much more common, it seems, was the Cave Canem/Beware of the Dog entry hall mosaic
A popular sort of "unwelcome mat".
This well-known example is from the House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii.
(or asarotos oikos, "unswept room") is a great term I discovered regarding ancient Roman and Hellenistic mosaic work. The word is Greek but it was a common Roman genre in which the floor of the triclinium, or dining room, would be decorated with food scraps seemingly cast onto the ground from the very dining tables at which guests would be seated. The realistically modelled debris included fish bones, snails, shrimp heads, fruit rinds, nutshells, and the occasional vermin.

The fascinating room scene
at top is believed to be from a 5th century dining room floor. It shows an actual dinner in progress with an asaroton floor design in the room—OR does it show a dinner with a very messy bunch of people who have actually thrown their food on the floor? Its quite a "meta" take on the style.

The first explanation of the asaroton comes from Pliny (c.77-79 AD) describing a notable work in Pergamon, probably from the 2nd century BC:

The most famous in that genre was Sosos who laid at Pergamon what is called the asarotos oikos or unswept room, because on the pavement were represented the d├ębris of a meal, and those things which are normally swept away, as if they had been left there, made of small tesserae of many colours. - Pliny, Natural History
So from the 2nd century BC they were still doing the unswept thing in the 5th century AD. Obviously interior design trends cycled more slowly then.

Just about everyone is familiar with the cave canem dog mosaic shown above, from Pompeii. I hadnt realized how commonplace these snarling decorative canines were. I also hadnt realized that the dogs one was to cave are thought to be the Molossus, an ancient breed now extinct. The dogs were eponymously named for the Molossians, a tribal people from Northwestern Greece and what is now lower Albania. Molossian shepherds of Epirus in the mountains of northwestern Greece were renowned for vicious hounds which were used to guard their flocks and for hunting. The Molossus is considered to be the ancestor of today's Mastiff-type dogs and ostensibly contributed to the development of powerful modern breeds such as the St. Bernard, Great Pyrenees, Rottweiler, Great Dane, Newfoundland, and Bernese Mountain Dog... I have to say I'm a little dubious because these mosaic doggies seem rather too sleek and jackal-like to be "vicious guard hounds."

The Ancients had quite a sense of humor—who knows maybe these are the equivalent of pink garden flamingos. //

See next mosaic post on memento mori at (or under) the table.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...