Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Lancaster Station Christmas

As Lancaster's train station decks itself out for Christmas with a large tree, balls and even a little radio that blares holiday music, a set of 12 panels have been hung on the walls. They tell the good old Night Before Christmas story. Like many things in Lancaster, they have a timeless eerie quality that Ben Leech used to record in Old Weird Lancaster. If I knew more about the history of popular prints, this might not be such a mystery, but I'm intrigued by the inability to fix the panels to any art-historical meaning. They have a vernacular feeling to them. They most likely date to the 1970s (or is it the 1930s?) but act out a primitive style appropriate to the 1822 setting. Lancaster Station is terribly unkempt with threatening water damage and deterioration. The panels testify to the building's instability. They, too, are stained and distorted.

I wish I knew more about the particulars of this ephemeral collection of material culture. They represent the activities of the local community to particularize the building and resist the neglect of its owner: Amtrak. Other installations throughout the station testify to this local care (the photographic history of the station, installed by the local historical society, for instance). Whatever their ultimate origin, habit and meaning might be, I felt compelled to document the whole series and through them celebrate the weirdness that is Christmas in America. The panels are presented clockwise, starting from the NE. Six of them hang on the E wall and six hand on the W wall. I transcribe the text below each panel.

T'was the night before Christmas and all through the house, Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds. While visions of sugarplums danced in their heads.

And Mamma in her kerchief and I in my cap. Had just settled down for a long winter's nap.

More rapid than eagles his courses they came. And he whistled and shouted, and called them by name: "Now Dasher! Now Dancer! Now Prancer! Now Vixen! On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donner and Blitzen! To the top of the porch, to the top of the wall. Now, dash away, dash away, dash away all!

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow, gave a luster of midday to objects below, when, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a miniature sleigh and a tiny reindeer; with a little old driver, so lively and quick I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky, So up to the house-top the courses they flew With a sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf. And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself. A wink of his eye, and a twist of his head, soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work. And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk
And laying his finger aside of his nose. And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle, and away they all flew like the down of a thistle. But I heard him exclaim 'ere he drove out of sight,

"Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night!"

A Visit from Saint Nicholas, by Clement Clark Moore (1823)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Grecian Main Street 1930

Time Magazine (Feb. 3, 1930)

"Grecian Main Street. In 160 A.D., Corinth, classic city, throve lustily. Pausanias was its Baedeker. He described a street running from the market place to the theatre. In 396 A.D., Alaric the Goth devastated the city. Ancient Corinth disappeared under tons of debris and earth. Little by little the old town is being unearthed. Theodore Leslie Shear, one of Princeton's archaeologists, has returned to the U. S. after four years of digging there. He announced the discovery of the Pausanias-chronicled street, the theatre with seats for 20,000."

Monday, December 13, 2010

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Kephallenos ABCs

Yannis Kephallenos illustrated a children's alphabet book in 1932 that was on display at the MIETS exhibition in Athens and Thessaloniki. The exhibit also featured a mock-up below.
I'm not sure whether graphic design has been critically studied for Greece beyond a few monographs. The culture of letters is fairly intense in Greece, with people caring deeply about letterforms and the history or printing the Greek word. After all, it's countries where linguistics is deeply entangled with politics that you find a sophisticated literary culture among the general population. But graphic design is a little bit different; it requires visual literacy. And I've always felt that Greece has been in the literary avant-garde (Cavafy, Seferis, Elytis) but in the visual backwaters. The situation is exactly the opposite in Spain and Italy, where the visual avant-garde overshadowed the literary avant-garde. Whatever the case may be, Greece's visual modernism is for the most part derivative. That does not mean that Greece's modernism is any less interesting. Since the 1990s, art historians have convincingly elevated the provincial avant-gardes (not French, German, Soviet or Dutch) into the canon. Czech and (to a lesser extent Balkan) avant-gardes make a good case.

Yannis Kephallenos is definitely a landmark in the history of Greek graphic design both as a producer and as a teacher. I'm not certain that he can stand up to the masters of letterforms from Europe and the U.S., from whom he learned. Kephallenos' letterforms for the textbook by Delipetros, Doukas and Imvrioti illustrates an streamlined elegance married with the concerns of "Ellinikotita" evident in the archaizing fonts of the 1930s. At a superficial level, Greek archaizing fonts carry connotations of dictatorships. Cultural trends and artistic strategies developed by the Metaxas regime (1936-40) were picked up again by the junta (1968-74). Italian modernism bears a similar burden to the extent that the 1930s are inseparable from Mussolini. Whereas private enterprise and the marketing of desire were motivating factors in the development of graphic sophistication in the U.S., the venues of graphic expression available in Greece had a limited marketing potential. Directly or indirectly, the state was central as was the concern over the state's fate.

Nevertheless, Kephallenos' design is vital. His diagonal letters CHILDREN overlap in the same way that his BESIEGED SLAVES did back five years earlier. I thank John Stathatos for also seeing an unresolved crampedness in the latter. CHILDREN is better resolved, although difficult to read. The tension between the geometrical and the figurative show the influence of Bauhaus sensibilities on the one hand and social realism on the other. Like the case with American graphic design of the 1930s, Greek tastes are caught in a battle between rarefied elitist modernism and popular social realism. The "grotesque" result (as it has been referred to by American cultural historians) is more interesting than its pure manifestations.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Kephallenos: 1930s Letterforms

Every once in a while, I read the subject heading of this blog, and I remind myself of my commitment to Mediterranean archaeology. Reading my posts during the last few months, Greece has completed receded behind concerns over swing, letterforms, and American history. So, last weekend, I asked myself, "how about 1930s Greek fonts"? And I had a few minutes at Van Pelt Library for a first search, where I discovered the work of Yannis Kephallenos (1894-1957).

Kephallenos was born in Alexandria (and knew Cavafy). He studied art history in Paris, where he met other Greek luminaries like Kostas Varnalis. In 1931 Kephallenos became professor of printmaking at the School of Fine Arts in Athens, where he taught a number of influential artists. One can read more about Kephallenos' life here. My introduction to the artist's letterforms is Emmanuel Ch. Kasdaglis, "The Theocritus of Yannis Kephallenos: A New Type-Cutting," in Greek Letters from Tablets to Pixels (New Castle, 1996), 163-73, from which I sketched the two letterforms shown here (figs. 17, 6)

The letterform above comes from the Citation of the Union of Greek Banks (1938). It exhibits similar dramatic strategies (fattening-thining of elements) as the English 1930s fonts that I've been writing about. Here Kephallenos has gone back to Byzantine letterforms for inspiration, specifically to the 6th-century Purple Codex. Thirty-three sheets ended up at the Monastery of St John is Patmos, where Kephallenos may have seen them. A couple of sheets are currently displayed at the Byzantine Museums of Athens and Thessaloniki. Kephallenos' appropriation of the Byzantine tradition for a modernist calling fits well arguments about Byzantium and modernity that I've made in different contexts.

Earlier in his career, Kephallenos also illustrated Kostas Varnalis' Besieged Slaves (1927). In this book-cover, Kephallenos takes an interesting strategy of angularizing the letters by tightness and overlap.

I have not yet seen the authoritative monograph on Kephallenos' engraving, see Emmanuel Kasdaglis, Giannes Kephallenos, I: O charaktes, II: Allelographia-Keimena. (Athens, 1991). For a shorter introduction, see Kadsaglis

Finally, an interesting exhibit on Kephallenos' art was up in Thessaloniki last summer, showing his contribution to the design of Greek schoolbooks, see here: "Ο Γιάννης Κεφαλληνός και οι μαθητές του στα αναγνωστικά," at MIET, the Cultural Institute of the National Bank (Μορφοτικό Ίδρυμα Εθνικής Τραπέζης).

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

1930s v 1920s

So, what is the difference between the 1930s and the 1920s? I asked my Orange Notebook.

1936 datestone, Keiper Liberal Arts Building, Franklin & Marshall College, William Lee
1922 datestone, Franklin Field, University of Pennsylvania, Charles Klauder

But Amelia Rauser gave a better answer in just two words "Letty Lynton"
and Jennifer Redmann gave the answer (via Facebook) in the form of two films:

"For me (German lit/culture person), the difference between the 20s and 30s is embodied in 2 films: "Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari" (1920) and "M - Die Stadt sucht einen Mörder" (1931). In Caligari we find a topsy-turvy world in which reality and fantasy are indistinguishable, but by M, that has given way to sober hyperrealism - our world is being poisoned destroyed by sick, insane forces, and the "state" needs to take action to put a stop to it."

Monday, December 06, 2010

1930s Jazz Fonts

Thinking about 1930s fonts, I made some references to the effects of neon lights in the exaggeration of letter elements (the thick-and-thin). I hope that the image below will clarify this added three-dimensional factor that neon lights introduced. Although the particular font comes from a recent restoration, the building is a movie theater at Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. I was out there last Friday to organize a traveling venue for the Peschke show (the meeting went well beyond my greatest expectation). I will have more to say about this building -- since it was designed by the architect who shaped Franklin & Marshall's 1930s identity (William Lee is to F&M's 1930s what Charles Klauder is to F&M's 1920s).
So, neon lights came to the U.S. in the 1920s and took over the night-time urban landscape in the 1930s. Since it is "Franklin" that got me started on period fonts, let me turn to another Franklin case study, not Franklin Field, or Franklin & Marshall College, but Franklin the jazz nightclub in New York. I saw the Franklin's marquee while previewing Ken Burns' Jazz (2001) documentary, Episode 4: The True Welcome (1:12:29 min). What I tried to show with the sketch below is the placement of the letters against the neon tubes (shown in red).
Period photos of nightclubs like the Savoy, show the use of jazzy fonts to advertise performances. Look at the font below used at the Brooklyn Paramount to advertise "DUKE ELLINGTON and His Cotton Club Orchestra IN PERSON," also from Ken Burn's Jazz (Episode 4, 1:17:23 min).
I wouldn't want to argue that swing directly influenced typography. The swing nightlife, however, had a profound graphic effect in advertising shows and grabbing the passer's-by attention.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Astaire Shoes

In addition to the projected triple shadows, Fred Astaire's Bojangles dance in Swing Time (1935) has psychoanalytical potential from the point of view of shoes. I feel that this must be mentioned, in order to clarify Kevin Brady's recommended readings from Zizek, quoted below. The dance routine begins with a gigantic personification of Bojangles through the bottom of Astaire's shows. Above, we see the stage sets for the soles, the bow-tie, the collar, the hat, and the racially exaggerated lips. In the background, a model of Harlem can also be seen. As the dance progresses, Astaire spreads his gigantic legs to reveal his striped pants that lead to his crotch. The dancers spread his legs open, and the viewer realizes that they are superhuman props.

I've followed up some of the racial tensions of Astaire's Bojangles to encounter a critical impasse. Some critics find Astaire's blackface intolerable, while others see in this performance an honest commemoration. Astaire's "Bojangles of Harlem" is here paying direct tribute to a historical figure, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (1878-1949), one of the most popular African-American dance performers. At one level, therefore, we must acknowledge that Astaire is paying direct tribute rather than stereotyping. He acknowledges Bill Robinson's contributions to dance innovations. Hence, in the racially offensive scale, Astaire is somewhere in the grayer zone.

Going back to shoes, I quote the Zizek passages that Kevin Brady sent me, along with a most recent conversation:

Hi Kostis,
I re-read your new blog post about Astaire and Bojangles. Something that strikes me about the illustrations you provide (- besides the odd (bizarre? anamorphic?) - in any event, a floor-up perspective in which all lines converge on crotch (genitals and anus): from that viewpoint, we're as far as possible from the humanizing (& subjectivizing) features of the face, and the heads-up, feet-down "architecture" of the human figure is subverted (recalling here surrealist photography of toes and upside-down faces - Man Ray 1920s?). The identification of the movie screen itself with the dance floor - the mediating surface between the audience and film worlds - is interesting - horizontal is vertical, as if to say, this is one kooky, topsy-turvy world!
Kevin Brady, December 6, 2010 10:06 AM


"Andersen's fairy tale The Red Shoes, an impoverished young woman puts on a pair of magical shoes and almost dies when her feet won't stop dancing. She is only saved when an executioner cuts off her feet with his axe. Her still-shod feet dance on, whereas she is given wooden feet and finds peace in religion. These shoes stand for drive at its purest: an 'undead' partial object that functions as a kind of impersonal willing: 'it wants', it persists in its repetitive movement (of dancing), it follows its path and exacts its satisfaction at any price, irrespective of the subject's well-being. This drive is that which is 'in the subject more than herself': although the subject cannot ever 'subjectivize' it, assume it as 'her own' by way of saying 'It is I who want to do this!' it nonetheless operates in her very kernel." From “Love Beyond Law” by Slavoj Zizek, a paper was first published in the Journal for the Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society 1 (1996), 160-61, as a review of Bruce Fink's The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

"The fascinating thing about partial objects, in the sense of organs without bodies, is that they embody what Freud called “death drive”. Here, we have to be very careful. Death drive is not kind of a Buddhist striving for annihilation. I want to find eternal peace. I want… No. Death drive is almost the opposite. Death drive is the dimension of what in the Stephen King-like horror fiction is called the dimension of the undead, of living dead, of something which remains alive even after it is dead. And it’s, in a way, immortal in its deadness itself. It goes on, insists. You can not destroy it. The more you cut it, the more it insists, it goes on. This dimension, of a kind of diabolical undeadness, is what partial objects are about. The nicest example here for me, I think, is Michael Powell’s Red Shoes, about a ballerina. Her passion for dancing is materialised in her shoes taking over. The shoes are literally the undead object." From Slavoj Zizek, The Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Astaire and Zizek

Friend and F&M colleague Kevin Brady sent a great response to my earlier posting on Astaire's Swing Time, suggesting psychoanalytical trajectories and Zizek readings:

Dear Kostis
You might find this interesting - on a note tangentially related to your blog post about Fred Astaire, projected shadows, fonts and Robert Longo (all fascinating, by the way) - Your description of Fred Astaire standing aside to watch his own triple projection dance dovetails nicely with Slavoj Zizek's various film illustrations of Freudian-Lacanian desire vs. drive, and "death drive" in action (see two texts from Zizek, attached) - and in that regard, your use of the word "subject" in the blog is spot-on (desire is subjectivized, drive isn't).
The "projected" self, in Lacanian lingo, is the subject "barred" upon entering the socio-symbolic order (i.e. culture and language). The fact that Fred Astaire stands aside to watch three magnified selves dance autonomously can be related (I would think, speaking as a psychoanalytic amateur) to several other film motifs - e.g., Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer's Apprentice (1940), where the broom is a nightmare evocation of the Lacanian "partial object" (autonomous body part); the young woman in The Red Shoes (1948), who in the original story has to cut her feet off, because they won't stop dancing; Peter Sellers' "Heil Hitler" arm/hand in Dr. Strangelove (1964); even Forrest Gump's crazy running legs (1994, he can't stop himself, and his running always follows upon some loss or tragedy - in a word, drive takes over from desire). Zizek would add Fight Club (1999), where the main character can't stop his own autonomous fist from beating him up.
I haven't read much about Robert Longo, only seen images; but the psychoanalytic patterns suggested here (drive vs. desire, partial objects, symbolic castration or dismemberment in the socio-symbolic order) would probably readily apply - people flattened almost violently in their 1980s corporate costumes. It's significant that the three Longo figures are facelesss, de-subjectivized - possibly more traumatized than "dancing"? Has anyone related these images to crime scene photography?
Thanks for the thought-provoking blog piece!
Kevin Brady, December 4, 2010 9:42 AM

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Bojangles in Harlem 1936

I thank Johanna for commenting on the Top Hat font and sending me to Fred Astaire's Bojangles in Harlem in Swing Time (RKO Pictures, 1936). The scene is aesthetically rich, if the viewer manages to pass over the highly offensive blackface. At the end of the scene, Astaire dances behind a triple projection of his own silhouette (sketched left). I send readers to my earlier thoughts on 1930s silhouettes here, elicited by the portraits that Georg von Peschke drew while excavating in Corinth. Incidentally, I got a chance to see all 20 of the Peshcke silhouettes in Athens this summer, but I must leave them for a future posting. Astaire's silhouettes elucidate the popular 1930s font, which pitch a thick line against a thin line in each letter. High contrast, thick-and-thin, large-and-small are in some ways the product of illuminated projection and the electricity of film and signage. I will show in a future posting that neon lights contributed to the development of fonts in the 1930s. Neon lighting has a three dimensional quality. The solid letter in the background is illuminated by a neon tube in the foreground that replicates the letter in form a few inches in front of the letter. The neon light does not occupy the same plane as the letter which it illuminates because physical contact would burn the letter from the tube's heat. A physical gap between neon and letter backdrop introduces perspectival variation as the viewer moves around the sign. Perspectival variation is what distinguishes Astaire's three shadows, since they are generated by three lights positioned around a circular platform to the right, center, and left of the real Astaire.

Like the black shadow of Fred Astaire, typography and neon tubes engaged the viewer in a game of projection. The high-contrast of shadows cultivated a minimalist aesthetic on a fertile black-and-white screen. But the dialectic of dancer vs. shadows supersedes simple mechanical replication the moment that Astaire's shadows disengage from Astaire and take on a life of their own. Astaire stops and observes his triple body move without his volition behind him. He stops being the generator of motion, or the object of projection, and he turns into a subject. He watches himself, as we watch him. His triples become his dance partners.

Astaire's black silhouettes are also interesting in light of Robert Longo's 1979 "Men in the Cities" series. Longo's involvement with the post-punk New York scene makes "Men in the Cities" the most iconic artistic expression of 1980s New Wave. It was one of the first images in Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll since 1967, a groundbreaking exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 2008. Fortunately for me, the Archaeological Institute of America's annual meetings in 2008 were in Chicago and I got a chance to see the show; see catalog, here. As with the staging of Astaire's dance, Longo's dancers were displayed as a triptych (see photo of Dominic Molon, curator, in front of Longo's series here).

Whether intentional or not, I love the visual affinity solicited by Astaire's iconic dance. After all, punk archaeology begins in the 1930s, as Lewis Erenberg has convinced me in "The Crowd Goes Wild: The Youth Culture of Swing," Swinging the Dream: Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American Culture (Chicago, 1998), 35-64.

Ultimately, both Astaire and Longo are the descendants of that famous Nude that Descended the Staircase in 1913 at the Armory Show. Unlike the male-gazing Duchamp, the American artist of the 1930s and 1980s is interested in a dressed male body, a suited figure that does not descend but ascends.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States