Monday, August 30, 2010

My Cabinet of Curiosities: A New Pig, A Pin & A Chinoiserie Highboy

P1010589 A Pig Pin Cushion

Recently, for my birthday which was in July, my very talented friend J____ , a real Renaissance woman, a master gardener, an antique appraiser and a gifted artist and decorative painter gave me a fab new pig for my collection.  The wooden or metal or perhaps composite pin cushion is fashioned into a boar with menacing tusks.  The cushion area is on the back of the animal and is covered with some sort of fur meant to evoke the real hide of our tusked wild friend.

The finish on the pig looks as if it had been painted at one time or that is the treatment it was given.  I am not sure of its age or history, though decorative pin cushions were certainly an essential item in households of the past when sewing and needlework was one of the chief pastimes of women.  Whether an old or a new confection, I love this recent addition to my pig collection

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Along with the boar, my friend J____ felt that such an object needed a pin, but not one for sewing, but a stylish tie stick pin topped by a cube of glowing amber with beveled edges and chamfered corners. P1010591 I have been wearing a lot of ties lately and this stick pin will be a great vintage sartorial accessory.  The history of the tie pin is quite intriguing:

A tie pin (also known as a stick pin), is a neckwear-controlling device, originally worn by wealthy English gentlemen to secure the folds of their cravats, they were first popularized at the beginning of the 19th century. Cravats were made of silk, satin, lace and lightly starched cambric, lawn and muslin, and stickpins were necessary accoutrements to keep these expensive fabrics in place and safe. Stickpins commonly used pearls and other precious gemstones set in gold or other precious metals and were designed specifically for their owners. By the 1860s, wearing cravats had been embraced by the English upper middle classes with a consequently lower quality of materials and designs used in both the neckwear and in the stickpins used to keep it in place. By the 1870s Americans had embraced stickpins and designs were mass produced and included animal heads, horse shoes, knife and fork motifs, crossed pipes, wishbones, bugs, flowers, shields and a host of other figural motifs.

I suspect that my new tie pin is circa late 19th century or early 20th century.  Though not exactly necessary today as in days past, the pin with its honey golden tone will be my “pop” of color for the autumn either with a tie or on a lapel.

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As I mentioned at the beginning of this post my friend J____ is a talented and creative artist.  She transformed an old 1940’s “colonial” maple highboy that belonged to my great aunt into a spectacular rendition of 18th century Chinoiserie inspired design.  The once ugly orange finish of the 1940’s piece of furniture now has a black ground emblazoned with an antique gold landscape design inspired by Chinese scrolls.  The chest also has subtle touches of red and blue to complement the fabrics in the room.

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The composition of the chest front is quite complex.  In the lower register of drawers, the scene is set underwater with fanciful fish and plants.  As your eye moves up the chest of drawers, you emerge from the water and see a magnificent mountain landscape with a river fed by a waterfall tumbling down the mountain.  The landscape is filled with pagoda-like buildings reminiscent of Chinese architecture.

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On the right side of the chest, there is another beautiful landscape in which 2 Chinese Minzhu pigs roam.  I asked my friend to add this touch of whimsy to the chest.  It marks this piece of furniture as my own, as my own expression of desire.

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The transformed highboy is an expression of my continual fascination with Western design and objects that are inspired and influenced by Chinese art and culture.  It is a sentiment that informs my collection of 19th century English transferware pottery that is influenced by Chinese style and subject matter and additionally my collecting of  English pottery inspired by the arts of Japan. 

P1010245Detail of shallow 10” black transferware plate in the Napier pattern by J. Ridgeway 1846-50.

This fascination, my own and that of the Western world, not only lies in the beauty and “exoticism” of Chinese form and content, but it is also a complex way in which the Other is understood and conceptualized by the Western mind.  This conceptualization is of course both an exercise in aesthetics and power.  Indeed, Europe colonized and ruled 85% of the world by 1914, a sobering fact.  Art is always inherently political.  The traces of imperialism  expressed by my collection of pottery and my Chinoiserie highboy exists in a long tradition in which the East is mythologized and exoticized by the West.  These facts do not make these objects wrong, but rather imbue them with a complexity far beyond their form and content.

Foreign_armies_in_Beijing_during_Boxer_Rebellion Foreign armies in  Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion 1898-1901

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Silver Desire: 4 Edwardian Coffee Spoons

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Shockingly, I have not added any new silver pieces to my collection since returning from England  in April where I sinfully indulged my sterling obsession with a trip to The London Silver Vaults.  I could not, however, resist these 4 coffee spoons made in Sheffield in 1909 by the respected maker Mappin & Webb which is still in business today.

mappinwebb09coffsp4Hallmark on the spoon, crown for Sheffield, lion passant for sterling, date letter for 1909, maker’s mark for Mappin & Webb

The four spoons are most likely orphans from a set of 6 or 8 which was divided by death or loss or simply vanished into history.  I imagine the spoons originally arrived in a satin lined box with Mappin & Webb, Sheffield printed in gold lettering.  But even as orphans, they are still quite appealing aesthetically and practically.  And I love the mad specificity of utensils in old silver- a 6” spoon solely for stirring tea alone, a slight smaller 4 1/2”-5” spoon for use with coffee, a larger 7” spoon for dessert- unlike today where a teaspoon must be a slave to all those functions and more, never be able to inhabit its true historical self.

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mappinwebb09coffsp The Edwardian coffee spoons measure 4 5/8” in length.  Stylistically, the spoons demonstrate the influence of Art Nouveau in the double infinity swirl of the handle and the undulating twisted character of the stem terminating in a beautifully sculpted and stylized yet naturalistic oval shell bowl with a scalloped edge.  The center of the bowl is worked as well with the furrows of an actual shell.  It is embellished by a pair of swirling volutes which form a heart shape- a typical Art Nouveau motif with origins in the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Image-Wienzeile40_c Detail of facade of Majolikahaus 1898-99 in Vienna by Otto Wagner- notice the motif on the balcony

anthemion_10161_lg The motif in the spoon bowl is also a classical element called an anthemion which are stylized petals or leaves reminiscent of honeysuckle or palm leaves.  This motif is found commonly in classical art and architecture and obviously fit well into the Art Nouveau style as well.  The anthemion detail of the spoons complements the shell bowl too which can also be considered a classical element.

kingsplatepastrySilverplate pastry forks in the Kings pattern, unknown maker, c.1920-30

The spoons are not only influenced by the Art Nouveau style and classical art and architecture, but they are also reminiscent of an older, more traditional pattern such as Kings which was produced since the second half of the 19th century in the use of a shell motif.kingsplatepastry  The deployment of this motif besides classical in nature is also suggestive of the Rococo as is the the delicacy and the swirls of the coffee spoons.  One could argue quite persuasively that the Art Nouveau movement is a modern reinterpretation of the the 18th century French style.  The sinuous, organic, and sensuous nature of the art and design of the early 20th century  is simultaneously, although historically distinct, the essence of the Rococo.  This dynamic of old and new makes these spoons even more aesthetically appealing to me and I look forward to using them at my table.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Notes on Television: Baggage on GSN



Baggage, a new, still solely hetero dating show on the Gameshow Network and hosted by trash ringmaster Jerry Springer is my current TV guilty pleasure. The premise? No matter how attractive you are or how good your job is we all have "baggage" when entering potential relationships.

At the beginning of the show, our host Mr. Springer introduces us to the main contestant who will chose from 3 potential suitors. To help with there decision, each possible mate has 3 pieces of silver baggage- small, medium and large, each baggage with increasingly dire information. "I sleep with rats." "I eat dog food." "I was arrested 8 times." Wow! What a catch!

Using the information of the 3 silver bags, the main contestant narrows down his/her date to one person out of the original 3. Then at the end of the show, the roles are reversed. The contestant doing the eliminating must now reveal what is in their one large piece of red baggage. The chosen mate then can decide whether to go on the date with the contestant and accept the baggage or leave them alone at the show. A recent female dater faced a man at the end with these 3 potential revelations: "I'm a 33 year old virgin." I secretly maxed out my girlfriend's credit card." "I live in my parents garage." She was between a rock and a hard place. In the end, the guy turned out to be a virgin and she took a wise pass.

As my mother says, you have to decide what negatives you can live with in a relationship because everyone has them. Exactly. And since I am now swimming or to be more exact treading water in the dating pool, this show is doubly appealing to me and my sometimes fragile self-confidence when it comes to other men. Still, I think I would too have to pass on the 33 year old virgin and the guy who eats dog food.

Checkout a great article about the show on The Awl

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Notes on the Internet: Reply To This Post*

*Possibly NSFW

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My new favorite Tumblr blog is Reply To This Post which chronicles the strange, sometimes sweet, sometimes funny, sometimes crazy, but always looking for sex postings on Craigslist’s men for men personals.  The content of the Tumblr is not just a presentation of the Craigslist post, but rather a transformation of it.  The found ad, its photograph and accompanying text, are turned into simple, energetic  and seemingly quickly sketched black ink drawings.  This (re)presentation of the post on Tumblr takes the ephemeral nature of the Craigslist personal, its banal and disposable nature (Craigslist posts only last 7 days) of looking for sex, of looking for immediate gratification and release through an online hookup and turns it into something more permanent, concrete and intimate and at times poignant.

These remade images appearing in the new context of a Tumblr blog are no longer solely about “sex”.  Their original purpose and function are evacuated and replaced by a connection beyond the physical, for a “reality, for a concreteness in a world in which the body is continually effaced by technology despite the infinity of bodies available to digest, to consume, to covet and to dispose of on the internet.  These drawings make us pause a second and reflect since we are not the Craigslist consumer of their first intent or desire.  They make us think about our own desire, our own relationship to the myriad of available bodies that dance before our eyes and they also make us wonder about the desire of the drawer as he expresses in every fluid line the traces of his want, need and desire.

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PS If you are on Tumblr follow me at Polar Bear Desire.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Notes on Television: The Mad Men Season Premiere



The fourth season of Mad Men opens with Don Draper, the successful creative director of a newly formed ad agency from the remains of Sterling Cooper, being interviewed by a journalist for a trade publication. The reporter asks, "Who is Don Draper?" a question which lies at the very conceptual core of the series. Because while Don Draper is a creative talent and a father of 3 about to be divorced, he is also an impersonator, a metafictional character who assumed the identity of "Don Draper" when the real man by that name was killed in the Korean War. What is true for Mr. Draper- a search for identity and "truth" also resonates with the other characters in the series all of whom are trying to make sense of just who they are in the turbulent and changing decade of the 1960's.

Watching the premiere I again noticed how the scenes in the office, in the public world are brightly lit and clear whereas the private spaces of the characters, Draper's apartment, his former house with Betty for instance, are all dark and murky. Narratively of course this contrast is simply a fact of the time of day. The characters inhabit the office during daylight hours and are home at night.

Yet, I think this dark/light dynamic exists beyond just making temporal sense. Rather the darkness of the characters' personal spaces is a testament and a symbol of their own search for meaning in who they are. They are all in the dark looking for the light as indeed we all are. It is easy for Don Draper to define himself at work, to reject a prudish swimwear company as a client which he does in this first episode. His real life is more of a mess. He is about to be divorced (and perhaps from the events of the first episode the divorce will become more contentious)and he hires a hooker on Thanksgiving and has her slap his face during sex in order to achieve orgasm. Is this action an attempt to feel, to expose his true self in the midst of his impersonation? Or is it a form of self-punishment for the divorce, for the growing distance from his children, for the complete charade of his life. Stay tuned.