Saturday, 29 November 2014

Sassi-Superga Tramway – to 1884 and back for lunch

To the east of the city of Turin there’s a range of hills on top of which sits the Baroque Basilica Superga. The Basilica is connected to the Turin suburb of Sassi some 2,200 feet below by a rack-railway that offers substantially the same travelling experience as when it first opened in 1884. Varnished wooden seating and panelling plus leather hand-grips and polished fittings grace the passenger cars – the pleasures are entirely anachronistic. Essentially a visitor attraction rather than a working railway, it is operated by the city of Turin transport authority (GTT) as an integral part of the urban network. It’s a clattery, bumpy ride through dense woodland with vertiginous interludes when the view opens up to take in the sprawling city far below with distant prospects of the Alps. 

The Basilica (1717-31), like so many such buildings was a pious gesture of thanks for divine guidance in a military victory. In 1706 the defeat of the French at the Siege of Turin inspired the Duke of Savoy to commission the Basilica as both a shrine to the Virgin Mary and a highly visible symbol of temporal power. The surrounding landmass is now a Nature Reserve with extensive forest trails for walkers, who in turn supply custom for the tramway. At the top there’s a memorial to the footballers of AC Torino who all lost their lives when their plane returning from a friendly match in Lisbon crashed into the back of the Basilica in May 1949. 

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Postcard of the Day No. 69, Sakah au bord du Nil

It has been claimed that vintage photographs and postcards open a window into the past. I’m not convinced – at best they offer something like the view obtained through the wrong end of a telescope – a mute and minuscule edited fragment divorced from any wider context. Today’s card depicts a procession of water carriers, children and adults, wading into the River Nile – a routine scene of daily labour. The original photographic image has a snapshot quality to it suggested by the tilted horizon and has been overpainted to introduce some colour. Despite that the features remain well defined and differentiated. The figure supported by a stick appears to be an amputee as does another at the second right but it may be no more than clumsy brushwork on the part of the retouch artist. Imagination will have to suffice for the sounds and smells. We can infer some of the wider landscape from which the photographer made a selection from the other postcards below which explore the same subject. For the most part these are unposed genre scenes and taken together offer a portrait of the waterside human ecology. 

Monday, 24 November 2014

Fondation Louis-Vuitton

After 6 years in construction the Fondation Louis-Vuitton opened in Paris at the end of last month. A landmark building on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne designed by “starchitect” Frank Gehry it marks another step in the convergence of the visual arts and commercial branding. The intention is to showcase the vast contemporary art collection assembled by Bernard Arnault, Chairman and CEO of LVMH, owner of the following brands (among others) Christian Dior, Givenchy, Marc Jacobs, Moët & Chandon, Dom Pérignon, Veuve Clicquot, Hennessy, Glemorangie, Guerlain, Kenzo, Bulgari, TAG Heueur, Bon Marché, la Samaritaine, Séphora plus 10% of Carrefour supermarkets. It sounds like a store listing for a Dubai shopping mall - an awe inspiring basket of products most of us will seldom if ever purchase. But if we concede that the Tate Gallery was built and endowed on the proceeds of sugar and slavery then fashion, fragrance, wine, spirits and retailing doesn’t sound quite so bad. There’s not much in it - the rarefied world of haut couture is said to bring glamour and excitement into dull and tedious lives but by the time its innovations have filtered down to the consumer their main value seems to be a device for persuading the insecure and style conscious to replace their perfectly serviceable clothing with a new season’s offer. It’s fair to say that the fashion industry is a colossal engine of waste and a world leader in outsourcing labour to wherever is cheapest and free of tiresome regulation. 

It’s never a pretty sight watching the moguls of capitalism indulging their vanity projects and this promises to be no exception. Gehry has claimed that his inspiration came from the ferro-vitreous splendour of the Grand Palais and the Palmarium glass house in the adjacent Jardin d’Acclimatation (itself a part of the LVMH portfolio) but in a vainglorious exercise in creative arrogance the visual coherence of his sources has been discarded in favour of an assemblage of dismembered fragments. Over 3,500 glass panels, every one different, are locked together by an amazingly complex armature of braces, struts, brackets, clamps, trusses and engineered timbers designed by robots using specially designed software. We are invited to see the resulting segments as vast sails, bringing to mind an image of a stately vessel, gliding above the trees, powered solely by the gentle zephyrs. Photographs suggest that this harmonious vision may just be obtainable from a select few high-altitude viewpoints but for the earthbound majority it will remain a baffling cluster of tumbling forms. When I examined my own photographs (taken in May 2014) of which there were many I realised that I’d been searching for some point of balance or compositional integrity and dismally failed to find any. 

I would much prefer to be applauding the results of all this technological ingenuity and investment in space for the visual arts but the overwhelming egotism on display offers little inducement. There’s no shortage of reactionary critics ready in an instant to condemn anything outside their personal preconceptions but that’s the company you are placed in if you express reservations about Frank Gehry. As for the art, I don’t know whether to be pleased or dismayed that two artists I much admire (Ellsworth Kelly and Christian Boltanski) are among those chosen to make signature artworks for the inauguration. On balance I should be pleased, especially for Kelly, still productive at the age of 91. I suspect it won’t be long before the egregious Koons puts in an appearance but then only the super-rich like M. Arnault can have museums dedicated exclusively to their own personal taste. After 55 years, in 2069 the building becomes the property of the City of Paris, by which time the art will be made by robots for an audience of robots unless it has been repurposed as a Mosque in the North European Caliphate. 

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Falling Sales

The drama of the parachute drop has been much used by advertisers to associate their products with the vital difference between life and death. Small wonder that these examples, bar one, come from the battlefield. Camel cigarettes campaigned for years to convince the public that the fastest route to personal courage was igniting a cigarette, with the promise of steady nerves in the face of danger. The wartime adverts come from the age of text-heavy publicity when the prevailing thinking was that the consumer could not fail to respond to a dozen paragraphs of closely reasoned persuasion. Only the final example dispenses with the verbiage which is ironic, given that British advertisers were the greatest of all offenders when it came to filling the page with insipid prose. I should add that an even larger selection of parachute imagery can be enjoyed by visiting the intimidatingly huge but always entertaining, Visual Primer of Advertising Clichés