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Sunday, 27 April 2014


Portraits of forgotten stars who died young

“One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”
John Donne

The history of the silent cinema is littered with young corpses, especially suicides. A very few achieved a kind of immortality through dying: Rudolph Valentino springs immediately to mind, but for most who died young, death brought more than a figurative long silence. They were soon forgotten. It is unfair to expect people born decades after they died to remember who they were, but fame, we are told, is somehow eternal. And we are so often being asked to imagine perpetually sunlit fields where the dead stars wander in a kind of bliss, pausing only to look down upon us indulgently. Among these portraits Pearl White’s is the only name I was familiar with before I bought the photo. Saying that, the image I had of her was of a woman tied to rail tracks as the steam engine bore down, and I cannot remember I saw that in one of her films or got it from Rocky and Bullwinkle. One’s memory doesn’t have gaps so much as rough patches, don’t you find? In any case, Ms White’s story is sad and we should not make light of it. In the early years of silent film she did her own stunts. Having been a bareback rider in the circus she didn’t think much of jumping from heights and rolling out of moving vehicles but she broke bones in the process, with the result that she took to painkillers and alcohol, with the extended result that she died from liver failure aged 49. 

Who today knows anything of Lillian Hall Davis? Not me – at least, not until I found this photo, yet we read that for a time she was one of budding director Alfred Hitchcock’s preferred actresses and starred in his third and fifth films, The Ring and The Farmer’s Wife; films that British cinephiles hold as keys to understanding everything he did that followed.
Some of us can imagine a suicide’s final minutes; the preparation and the execution. What remains utterly mysterious are the days leading up to that; the bleakness, the compact someone makes with themselves. Lillian Hall Davis’s death was particularly horrible. She slashed her wrist and her throat then put her head in a gas oven. Such determination is terrifying.

In the early 1920s Bruno Kastner was a huge star in Germany, with women. Men found it hard to reconcile his attractiveness with his self-evident anti-masculinity. I mean to say; what are the frauleins thinking when a fellow doesn’t have biceps and can’t down three beers without needing a bathroom break? Like Lillian Hall Davis, he was a victim of a sudden shift that saw him regarded as Germany’s most popular cinema hero one year and then a couple later being reduced to selling photo opportunities for a few pfennigs. In Kastner’s case the cause was self-evident. He stuttered, which obviously was an issue when cinema turned to sound, and a source of great humour to the beery chaps when they gathered at the bar after a day blasting at quail with shotguns. One of his last films was Angst, based on a Stefan Zweig novel, and in a scene that could have belonged in the Zweig inspired Grand Budapest Hotel, in 1932 he travelled up to the resort of Bad Kreuznach with its gingerbread houses surrounded by forest, booked into a hotel and hanged himself. 

If you tell Americans that in the early 1920s Gösta Ekman was the biggest star in Swedish cinema, they’ll probably laugh and say, ‘yeah, right. Swedish cinema.” The phrase “1920s Swedish cinema” may not mean much to most Americans but there are some – usually thin, pallid young men with skin conditions – who know that in the 1920s Swedish cinema was everything Hollywood was supposed to be. While Chaplin was pumping out one-reel soufflés, the Swedes were filming two hour long epics. When the Americans imagined the emotion expressed in a starlet’s batting eyelashes said it all, the Swedes were dredging the human soul for every bit of squalor they could find. What would you expect? This was the land of the sunless winter. Henrik Ibsen and Hedda Gabler were neighbours just across the border. Ekman was an artist. He made that clear to the point he was willing to neglect his family for his art. In 1926 he went to Germany to star in one of the expressionist classis, Faust. While working long hours, he started taking cocaine to deal with fatigue. Twelve years later he died of a heart attack after years struggling with chronic addiction. He was 48 years old. Tears of a clown.

In late September of 1912 a funeral procession trundles through the streets of Paris. The coffin is covered in wreaths but it is considered “tenth class”, or ‘very simple’ in Parisian terms. Among the mourners at the head are a Rothschild, a Baron Ceccaldi and several others whose surnames are enough to impress the reporters gathered on the sidewalk. Some of the press have already filed stories expressing outrage that the police would dare question France’s most exemplary citizens on this sombre day. As for the raids on the drug dens; why implicate the nation’s best names when, clearly, her demise was her doing?
Inside the coffin is Pierrete Fleury, 22 year old aspiring dancer who, it is true, wasn’t a household name until today. What went on in her house in Le Vésinet, a wealthy suburb on the outskirts of Paris, has scandalized a city that likes to think it has seen it all. For months a procession of limousines drove out to the house and unloaded their human contents on the steps. Once inside, the sons of France’s finest indulged in behaviour that appalled the staff. Opium, cocaine, sex, more opium, more cocaine, more sex: the place must have resembled a Normandy farmyard at feeding time. Let’s not hold back on Pierrete; she and the other dancers living at the house had instigated this scenario but just a couple of days ago, one of the male staff members alerted that she hadn’t answered the maid’s knocks, took a ladder and climbed up to look in her window. Her cold body lay on the bed, her face wrapped in an ether soaked sheet. Technically it was filed as accidental suicide. As usual, the Government vowed that no one would be spared in its efforts to put an end to these notorious drug dens.

It is tiresome to read yet another claim that the behaviour of Someone Cyrus or Someone Kardashian is liberating for women, especially when it’s a woman writing. Said perp should have to spend a week, at least, walking around with a placard that reads: ‘Culturally speaking, I’m really uneducated’.
Diana Karenne, (born Leucadia Konstanti in Danzig, 1888), was a star of Italian, French and German films in the 1910s and 1920s. Her artistic control extended to directing and producing and she organized her own promotions down to designing the posters. Add to that the detail that she often played a woman with a pragmatic attitude towards her lovers and we have the makings of a feminist icon – except we don’t. Where in all the guff about post-modern feminism are the discussions about women like Karenne and Fern Andra? If the Ms Someones have it so difficult today, what was it like back then, when women couldn’t even vote? Well, there is a situation with Ms Karenne that some posing as feminist intellectuals could have a problem with, but only if they wanted to. In the 1930s, when Germany was the centre of Europe’s film industry, Ms Karenne moved to Berlin and continued her success until she married and moved with her husband to Aachen, where she turned her attention to painting and poetry. In July 1940, she was badly injured in an Allied air raid and died a few weeks later. Aachen is a spit away from the Dutch and Belgian borders. Would things have been different had she been in Holland or Belgium when the bombs hit? Maybe, but the overriding sense is that she has simply been forgotten. Besides which, it is easy to blame the Germans, but we on the winning team still have a problem admitting that our bombs and our actions needlessly killed innocent people.  

On March 3 1908, 34 year old Lily Hanbury gave birth to a stillborn child and two days later she died from complications. These are the empirical facts. The actual facts are that her death was horrific. We have no idea what it is like to first realize the child you are carrying has died and then for you to suffer the physical and emotional consequences, attended to by witless doctors in a grubby London hospital.
Ms Hanbury was born into an acting family. Indeed, those of us who remember Edward Fox shooting watermelons in The Day of the Jackal might also recall his brother James in the fabulously unwatchable Performance and pause to realize there is a direct family connection going back to Ms Hanbury, and beyond.  The point was made at the beginning that people who believe that fame brings immortality are buying an illusion, yet one of the great things about the internet is the way that small groups whose interests are too peripheral to even be considered niche can find support. Maybe the notion that a handful of people can not only perpetuate the memories of Edwardian actresses but provide the rest of us with solid information is something anyone born in the age the internet can’t appreciate. We who are toppling towards our dotage can only express our gratitude, but there is a curious aspect to all of this. Investigating the not so obscure 19th century French photographer Etienne-Jules Marey recently, I was struck by how many websites simply cut and pasted the same (unverified) information. With the great forgottens like Ms Hanbury however we find people who are passionate and want to share their discoveries. They put up photos, old reviews and newspaper articles. In the process they bestow upon her a kind of eternity.


Saturday, 19 April 2014


An amateur photographer goes to Panama in 1915
“My impression about the Panama Canal is that the great revolution it is going to introduce in the trade of the world is in the trade between the east and the west coast of the United States.”
William H. Taft

In 1915 someone, or more likely a group of people, set out to experience the best America had to offer, which that year meant the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco and the opening of the Panama Canal. The result is this bundle of photographs. Crudely printed on printing out paper and heavy, fibre based paper, they have the quality of work carried out in a home darkroom, by someone who was yet to master the trickiest part of amateur photography. Some of them may have turned out to be excellent images had they been finished by someone who knew what he or she was doing, but high standards aren’t a synonym for interesting.

Take this shot of the Washington Monument: an object lesson in why someone needed to have read the Kodak photography made easy manual, but there are so many millions of photographs of the monument that get everything right. Do we really need any more dusk or night shots? Finally we have one that catches the eye.

There is a gap in the sequence between Washington and California. That’s a shame because if we follow the logical progression from Washington to Panama, through the Sierra Nevada, it means they probably drove across the country. Bear in mind that in 1915 that meant unreliable cars on unsealed roads, for at least a couple of weeks. Not many were willing to try that. Unless I have made a mistake in identifying a couple of photos, this image comes next. The sign on the garage indicates it is Lassen County, up in the Sierra Nevada and one of the most picturesque areas in California. There’s a small ‘school’ of photographers: Jervie Henry Eastman, Lawrence Engel and Burton Frasher (kind of), who started out in the county’s timber industry and took up photography in their spare time until they learned to make a profit from it.

Eagle Lake in Lassen County. All of these prints are 4x7 inches, which makes a difference when you realize how large this one is. Its one that breaks all the rules in the Kodak photography made easy manual: subject too far away, too much white space, ignorance of the rule of thirds etcetera, but would they have improved it? 

Richardson Springs, just over 100 miles south west of Susanville, Lassen County, and one of several hot springs in the Sierras that were drawing the tourists in the 1910s. There are a couple of postcards going on Ebay taken from a similar point of view. Did our photographer think about buying one then realized he or she could do better themselves?

An unknown town, somewhere. Like some others, this has the typical light, yellowish look of printing out paper. The uneven printing supports the theory. Like the scene from Eagle Lake, it doesn’t break the rules so much as show ignorance of them. Good.

We’ve arrived in San Francisco, in time for the Panama Pacific Expo, but before we go there, let’s head to Ocean Beach and to Seal Rocks, (note the swell) and to …

The view from Cliff House. So much to look at in this view. In the distance we get the windmills at the edge of Golden Gate Park, the crowds on the beach, the cars, the smokestack, and the curious looking structures on the sands are likely to be building materials for the sea wall that was being constructed.

Here, on the cliffs above the beach we have the Sutro Baths before they were a ruin. There’s an argument that in the late 19th century capitalism achieved a kind of social apogee. This was the so-called gilded age, when wealthy industrialists ameliorated their extravagance by returning some of their gains to the people in the form of universities, opera houses and museums. The Sutro Baths are often cited as an example. Having made his fortune exploiting labour, Adolph Sutro showed his benevolence by building venues for public entertainment across the city. Historians who don’t hold back on Leland Stanford, who see his altruism as little more than self-aggrandisement, reserve some affection for Sutro.

This one makes me think our photographer was Canadian. Well, given the photos were bought in Montreal, you might expect that, but without this image we’d have no real reason to think so. It’s hard to imagine an American showing special interest in the Canadian Hall at the Expo. 

What was it about international expositions that dictated the architecture had to look as tacky as it was ostentatious? Right at the moment when neo-classical architecture was being derided as outmoded and bombastic, the one place you could still find it was at a world’s fair, which was supposed to celebrate the modern world. We can probably blame the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, though the Parisians deserve a finger pointed their way as well. Here we have a view of the Tower of Jewels that completely fails to express any of the grandeur the building was supposed to have. It looks like it was built out of papier-maché.
Here’s an extract from a brochure, sourced from the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco. It says it all:
“An expenditure of fifty million dollars in construction.
Fifty millions more in the intrinsic value of exhibitions.
Six hundred and twenty-five acres of Palaces and gardens entrancingly beautiful.
Eleven great Exhibit Palaces crowded with objects of interest from every portion of the globe.
Spacious courts and miles on miles of ornamented avenues.
More than two hundred and fifty groups of statuary by world’s masters.
Huge mural paintings, masterpieces by the greatest artists.”
That means money, size, more money, even bigger sizes, and no accounting for taste. 

The choice of San Francisco as venue for the World Expo in 1915 had a lot to do with the Panama Canal, but just down the road at Balboa Park, San Diego had the more official event; the Panama-California Exposition. For political and military historians, the U.S entry into World War 1 is a watershed in the nation’s inexorable rise to global domination, but economic historians look more to the opening of the Canal a couple of years earlier. Taft was right when he suggested European trade wouldn’t be greatly affected by the Canal, except that it secured American authority over the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards.

The very brief account of the Canal goes as follows: Under the directorship of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French begin construction in 1881. Tens of thousands of workers are killed by malaria and industrial accidents. It is generally considered a fiasco. In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt annexes Panama with a naval blockade. A succession of engineers are appointed to oversee the project. Most who visit the site wisely resign as soon as possible. The project is bigger and more complex than anyone, including Roosevelt, imagined …

This synopsis makes no mention of the ways debate about the Canal fractured U.S Congress, the creative economics, the figures showing that black workers were ten times more likely to die from yellow fever and malaria than white workers, and various other statistics that baffle the imagination. All that is put aside when the Canal is officially opened in August 1914. It is widely acclaimed as one of the great engineering triumphs in world history. It is this point – the fact America could pull off what Europe couldn’t – that really establishes the nation in international consciousness as the power to reckon with. 

The 1915 Expo and the construction of the Canal were well documented by professional photographers. Amateur views are much less common. Even rarer are collections like this that give them a shared context, and suggest a bigger story of a journey across the U.S. If the view of the Washington Monument came at the end of the journey, there’s still a sense of people heading out to document the country and be witness to its history.


Friday, 4 April 2014


Snapshots of modern architecture

“Architecture is the art of how to waste space.”
Philip Johnson

Looking at two books on architecture, I see one locates the beginning of modernism with the Eiffel Tower while the other reminds us that we can’t ask the question without looking back to the Renaissance. Considering that Renaissance architects had classical Rome in mind, and the Romans borrowed from Greece, this sounds like a polite way of telling us the question is irrelevant. However we like beginnings, and some of us need them, so I would put the Palais de la Jetée in Nice near the start. It was opened in 1883, close enough to the 20th century to be modish. Rather than making grand and tiresome claims on behalf of the state, it offered vicarious entertainment. Best of all, it had a brief life. It caught fire three days after it opened, was restored and reopened in 1891 then in World War 2 the German army stripped it for steel. We are becoming conditioned to the idea that grand monuments should never be around for too long, and if they will be, let them be ruins. Just as megalomaniacs build temples to themselves that quickly turn into shopping centres, the modern architect designs buildings expecting them to be torn down or transformed as soon as someone else has another idea. Still, it takes a cold heart not to regret the passing of the Palais de la Jetée. We know that were it around today, American corporations would have plastered their logos across it or some Russian oil baron would have turned it into his exclusive domain. 

The tower once stood in Trafford Park, Manchester. Its correct name is, or was, the Metropolitan Vickers Water Tower. Built in 1902, dismantled in 1940 on account of German bombers, it carried Radio Transmitter 2ZY on its crown and would be the second BBC radio tower in the country. Industry, technology, modern design, Sigmund Freud: it perfectly represents everything the word modernism meant in the first part of last century. The horse adds a post-modern element of contextual opposition. The man is a Turkish tourist; perhaps the photographer was as well. 

Speaking of contextual opposition, a hallmark of modernism was its rejection of neo-classical iconography while embracing its grandeur. Forget Doric columns, porticos and domes, but don’t ignore the monumental scale evoking the expansive breadth of our culture and civilization. When the Grand Masonic Lodge in London called on Henry Ashley and Winton Newman to build a new temple in 1927, they also wanted a memorial to the masons who had died in World War 1. The architects came up with a building now considered one of the outstanding examples of Art Deco design in the world. The columns and the architraves recall neo-classicism but for its time the building was distinctly modern. I have difficulty understanding how far the tentacles of the Masonic conspiracy have reached into our society. Either they are in league with a group of Jewish bankers and pretty much run the world economy, or they are profoundly anti-Semitic. One thing readily identifiable about masons is their architecture. They love the hidden codes found in symmetry and the hints at arcane science and mysticism. Don’t we all.

New Yorkers like to think they own the triumph of modernist architecture, and for once it is hard to be completely unsympathetic towards them. Impressive as it is from the outside, the really exceptional details in the Empire State Building are the plaques in the lobby identifying by name every labourer who worked on it. There is something in that which shows supreme self-confidence; not so much in the idea of the building being the work of a community, but in the attitude that there will one day be taller buildings than this one but they will never surpass the achievement. 

Here we have the Aldred Building in Montreal; completed the same year as the Empire State Building and, clearly, something of a little brother in the looks department. Like the Empire State Building, it stands out on the skyline but the real beauty lies in close-up, the friezes on the exterior and the design work indoors. Let New York have its Empire State Building; every self-respecting city needs an Aldred. Australian cities like Perth used to have quite a few. Now they don’t, they’re about as interesting as the crust on a three day old cup of coffee. 

Speaking of death, which I think we were in passing; architects have designed tombs. There are monuments in Père Lachaise in Paris that are considered the best work of particular architects. Most of these are massive; the size of small mansions, but a few are outstanding for achieving a lot with a minimum of expression. There is a history of modernism in the cemetery, which I am only vaguely familiar with, but as I recall, following World War 1 there was widespread rejection of anything ornate or elaborate in monuments. In some cases, the architects behind the remembrance fields in France consciously rejected typically pseudo-classical designs because these were associated with the state. The people, those who had paid for the state’s errors with their lives, deserved something more dignified. That idea percolated down to civilian monuments in cemeteries. Where once the size and detail in a stone angel said something about the deceased’s wealth or status, now their families were inclined to go for something simple that said a lot more. Note the American flag to the left. I assume this means this is a military memorial. Notice too how you don’t need much at all to give the site proper solemnity.

We are moving towards what is normally classified as late-modernism, but along the way, let’s stop by this charming house by a Canadian lake. Difficult to be absolutely certain here but there is a suspicion this is an example of a phenomenon that took off in post World War 2 North America and spread worldwide faster than any healthy notion should. The concept of pre-fab homes goes back much earlier; there are advertisements for them from the 1849 Californian gold rush, but we associate them with the great suburban land grab of the 1950s. Why think this is a pre-fab? Well, it’s too neat, too small and the asymmetry of the entrance emphasizes the symmetry of the rest. The too small and innocuous verandah above the garage adds to the effect of something built with mass production in mind. The giveaways are the too narrow eaves and the fake shutters. The reasons for investing in a pre-fab are obvious; they were cheap. The desire to design them is harder to understand. One began with a basic premise – two bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom, dining room etc – then worked down from there. It became an exercise in trimming the details so that the homeowner scarcely noticed the difference in space. Designing pre-fab homes was a job for the fundamentally cynical and anti-social.

Here we arrive at something easier to identify. Streamline Moderne was one of those hiccups in taste that did not feel so obnoxious after the first convulsion. One thing to love about it was that it drew its basic influence from ships. The authentic streamline moderne building was supposed to remind observers of ships cutting through the high seas. Really, though a few houses were built in the style, it belonged to just three types of buildings; motels, apartments and factories - perhaps because it was the best design for hiding the drab sordidness of what went on inside.

Here we can see the basic outline of the ship a little better, though this is an example of what we might call streamline moderne light. Real S M would have more features and flaunt its style like a peroxide blonde. Note the broken windows on the first floor, and this apartment was still relatively new when the photo was taken. One measure of how badly Australia’s building heritage has been handled by state governments is that in Perth and Brisbane there would be a fight to preserve this building. That’s sad and embarrassing. This was bought in England. The broken windows have an English look to them, though they tend to turn up more often on housing estates.

I’m not sure if this is south-western U.S desert or Canadian prairie, and I’m cannot say what exactly the building’s purpose is, apart from something industrial or wholesale, but I do know that it belongs out here. Once modernism got over its thing about height and thought about breadth instead, the number of regions it fitted in with suddenly expanded as well.

Interestingly, the cars belong to the era of high S M, as do the portholes over the portico, but the building itself doesn’t really qualify. It’s a motel of some description. My limited experience with American motels accords with what I’ve read in Learning from Las Vegas. All the energy in attracting customers was directed to the street front. Once past the neon you were in a place that could suddenly look old and ordinary.

Several of these photos came from the same box in a flea market, and I’m guessing were taken by the same person. Full credit to them for getting the New Topographics look while making it look so patronisingly easy. Here we have a school, presumably in Mexico or south west USA, judging by the sign on the roof. There’s something about the look of this place that encourages truancy. That something is called modern architecture.