Saturday, April 28, 2012

When America's Top Artists Rolled Out the Barrels

With the end of World War Two, the Hiram Walker Distillery of Windsor, Canada, and Peoria, Illinois commissioned some of America’s leading artists to illustrate a magazine ad for its Imperial Whiskey brand. As a result, some of America’s top painters and illustrators from 1945 to 1947 provided a series of art works that probably are unique in the history of liquor advertising.

Commissioning art was not totally unusual for American business. Corporations for some years had been hiring noted artists and photographers to provide interesting images of their plants and operations. Among the most noted of these was the Ford Motor Company in 1927 hiring Charles Sheeler to photograph and paint scenes of its River Rouge Plant in Michigan. The unique aspect of the Hiram Walker commissions was that every artist was limited to only one detail of the distilling operation: barrels.

Thomas Hart Benton, born in Missouri in 1889, was known as a Regionalist painter of the 1920s. His reputation has grown in recent years even as it was declining in the late 1940’s as Abstract Expressionism was taking hold as the new force in American art. Few are the U.S. museums who do not have at least one Benton on display. Even he was required to paint barrels. As shown here, his ad is perhaps the most dynamic of the group.

Born in Philadelphia in 1910, Joseph Hirsch was a distinguished member of the school of Social Realism, a group of artists who chose to depict ordinary and every day scenes. Particularly during the Great Depression, social consciousness and commentary were important components of the movement, dictating subject matter. Social commentary was the backbone for the majority of Joseph Hirsch's paintings. This comes through in his Imperial ad. Unlike Benton’s painting, the individuality of the four workers is evident.

The third picture is from Zoltan Sepeshy, a Hungarian born in 1898, who became one of the least émigré artists in the United States during the middle years of the 20th Century. His work was eagerly collected by museums, particularly in the Middle West, because he was seen to have a freshness of vision and willingness to experiment. "Art arises from the common needs and aspirations of all men and that compartmentalization is a hindrance to its growth." Sepeshy once said. In his work for Hiram Walker, however, he did no experimenting. Unlike Hirsch, the barrels take center stage, we see mostly the backside of the worker.

Like Sepeshy, Lawrence Beall Smith shows us lots of barrels. Born in 1909, Smith had been hailed as a premier American painter, sculptor, lithographer and illustrator of the twentieth century. His reputation peaked during the 1940’s and today examples of his original lithographs, paintings and sculpture are included in the permanent collections of such major galleries as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, and the Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Despite Smith’s accomplishments, Hiram Walker wanted -- and got -- barrels.

Just about the time Franklin Boggs was painting his barrels, Life Magazine was naming him one of the best young American painters. Boggs, born in Indiana in 1914 gained a national and even international reputation early in his career. He went on to be a distinguished teacher of art at a Wisconsin college and died at the age of 95, leaving behind a prolific amount of works, including the fifth illustration.

Aaron Bohrod was a another artist born in the Middle West, Chicago in 1907, who spent much of his active career teaching at the University of Wisconsin at Madison where he spent 25 years in residence. Like Hirsch, he chose social realism as his topic, picturing Midwest city scenes and the working class. His Imperial whiskey illustration reflects that consciousness, personalizing the workers who are drilling bung holes into the barrels. Bohrod’s art, as many others here, can be found in major American museums.

Like many of the artists shown here, Paul Sample was a Midwesterner, born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1896. Also classified as a “social realist,” Time magazine in 1934 ranked Sample as one of America’s most important living painters. His conservative style and aversion to abstraction excluded him from mainstream American art after World War II. As shown in #7, his work for Hiram Walker exemplified his realistic style,

Earnest Fiene, born in Germany in 1912 and a naturalized citizen in 1927, was able to put more artistic design in his painting. While far from abstract, it includes design elements in the round barrels and dark iron rings that, with the exception of Benton, are largely absent from the other pictures. He is known for injecting his interest in human life and his optimism into art, qualities also exhibited here.

Another foreign born artist was Georges Schreiber who was born in Brussels, Belgium in 1904 but moved to the U.S. in 1928. His works have been exhibited in a number of major American museums, and collections of his works can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum. Although, unlike Fiene and others, his style changed over the years to more abstract imaging, at the time he did his Imperial Whiskey ad, he was firmly within the American Regionalist movement. His ad shows definite influence of Thomas Hart Benton and others of that school.

Our last artists was not a Midwesterner nor foreign-born. Fred Ludekens was born California in 1900 and spent most of his life there. Remembered primarily as an illustrator, Ludekens was no stranger to advertising work and later produced a series of paintings to be used in advertisement for the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company. Perhaps more at home in commercial work than other artists shown here, he managed to get some drama in his picture by showing workers, somewhat inexplicably, rolling barrels in different directions.

Taken together, these 10 artists could fill a museum with striking images of America during the middle of the last century. Probably none of them would entail men rolling barrels. But such were the demands of Hiram Walker on these noted gentlemen that we are left with this legacy of two years of ads, barrel after barrel after barrel.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Many Uses of the Mermaid

In keeping with one of the evolving themes of this blog, images as iconography, this post is devoted to the mermaid, its origins and significance, and the many uses for the figure that have been devised. Before or after reading this piece, log on to eBay and search “mermaid.” Checking in there regularly I find no fewer than 57,000 entries of mermaid-related items on auction.

That is a rather astounding number but then the mermaid has an impressive history. The first known mermaid stories appeared in Assyria about 1000 B.C. The goddess Atargatis loved a mortal shepherd and killed him by accident. So bereaved, she jumped into a lake to become a fish but was, so the story goes, was so beautiful that the waters would not mask her face or breasts. As a result she was human above the waist, a fish below -- and lo! the mermaid was born. Similar stories appear in the mythology of Greece, Syria, Arabia, China, India, Scotland and England.

One influential image was created by British artist John William Waterhouse in the late 1800s. Entitled “A Mermaid,” is an example of late British Academy style artwork. The painting, shown here, debuted to considerable acclaim (and secured Waterhouse's place as a member of the Royal Academy). It is currently in the collection of the Royal Academy in London. Waterhouse has captured a romantic, enduring image of this mythical creature.

But as occurs so frequently, human nature seems to demand that we find other -- often practical -- uses for our icons. The artifact that launched me on this post was a cast iron brown mermaid with a bulbous nose and both arms raised high. As it turns out, she is a bootjack, a device for that uses her V-shaped arms to help extract someone’s foot from a boot. She is purely utilitarian and a far cry from the beauty in Waterhouse’s painting.

The bootjack mermaid, like Waterhouse’s, has bare breasts. This anatomical reality has caused a problem for those using the mermaid for practical purposes. The frontal nudity has draw criticism from persons made uncomfortable by the unclothed female figure. Thus a number of strategies have been devised to deal a more modest mermaid. The bottle opener shown here is an example of one solution: crossed arms. Another ploy, one used frequently in the movies, is the mermaid’s hair streaming over her bosom. Witness a door knocker where the visitor is greeted with a welcome sign and a chance to grab the knocker.

A third way of covering up the lass is to give her a C-cup in seashells. This is demonstrated by a waving mermaid, flanked by a leaping porpoise and a lighthouse. Is she urging sailors onto the rocks to their doom? No, she really is part of a metal plate meant to disguise a hose reel. Some artifacts have gone so far as to put the fishy lady in swimming togs. Shown here is a metal coin bank mermaid-style. She appears to be wearing a two-piece bathing suit and a matching cap. Even more modestly dressed is the wide-eyed, blonde haired mermaid. Believe it or not, she is a pencil sharpener.

It is not hard to get a handle on the next mermaid. She IS a handle and appears to be wearing a bathing suit as she anchors a cup on a maritime saucer. Note that her tail is double and a variant on the usual fin. Another artistic effort, this one by glass artist, Milan Townsend, transmutes the mermaid into a bottle. Her human half makes up the stopper, while the fishy part is the actual container. Here too the artist has taken liberties with the usual image by including porpoise-like flippers as well as a cleft tail.

The last figure shown here uses the classic shape of the mermaid, bare breasts and all, but colors her hair red, body green, and inserts one nasty looking hook from her naval and another from her tail. My Dad always said there were fishing lures meant to catch fishermen rather than fish. This clearly is one of them. It provides another example of the many uses of the mermaid. If space permitted, I could have included images of mermaids as finger rings, fountains,vases, tattoos, and a dozen other uses. Clearly the notion of the half woman, half fish, conceived first in antiquity, has a continuing fascination in contemporary culture. That helps explain those 57,000 plus items for sale every day on eBay.


Sunday, April 1, 2012

Mormon Invigorators

With the likelihood that Mitt Romney will be the Republican candidate for President, increasing attention is being paid to his Mormon religious affiliation. One topic that will not likely come up is that of “Mormon Invigorators.” These invigorants had nothing to do with the Church of the Latter Day Saints and a lot to do with sleazy nostrum peddlers who saw a market for their quack medicines in the polygamous marriages that many early Mormons practiced.

Shown here is a picture of Brigham Young, famous leader in the Mormon church, surrounded by pictures of 21 of his wives. He also fathered at least 56 children. To many Americans of the late 18th Century, Young and other Mormons seemed the epitome of sexual vigor even into old age. Quick to pick up the scent of fast buck, a few druggists of the times linked the Mormons to remedies that were supposed to restore libido and provide a more active conjugal life.

Some linked their nostrums to a shrub named “tumera diffusa,” more popularly known as damiana. Traditionally reputed as an aphrodisiac, damiana had attracted the attention of the medical fraternity and commercial houses as early as 1870. It often was sold in bottles with semi-nude women and sometimes satyrs scampering around the label. Merchandised as the Mormon Elders Damiana Wafers, however, the advertising took a different tack. As shown here, one ad featured older gentlemen peering at the sign, apparently wondering if the wafers would be of use to them. Another showed an elderly man, clearly with lascivious thoughts in mind, grappling with a nubile lass who seems delighted that old age is catching up to her.

Other ads emphasized the idea that the Mormon Elder wafers would bring the light and joy of small children into one’s life as the invigorator took hold. As shown here, one shows a sprightly gent, obviously high on wafers, cavorting with his wife and new babe. The caption reads: “There is something back of this.” Below is provided the all too obvious answer: the Mormon wafer. A second baby is shown twirling a drum with the remedy’s initials. The text assures that the wafers permanently restores those weakened by early indiscretions, imparts youthful vigor, and is a positive cure for (note all caps) IMPOTENCY.

The Mormon Elders Damiana Wafers were the brainchild of a New York druggist named F.B. Crouch, who did business at 202 Grand Street in the Big Apple. He also boasted a London outlet at 51 Strand. While Crouch could be coy and indirect in his advertising, he resorted from time to time to the traditional methods of selling aphrodisiacs, by featuring a nude. She may have gotten one of his London dealers in hot water with authorities. In 1893, one John James Blissett Hay of Wellington Street, Covent Garden, was summoned to Bow Street Police Court for exhibiting indecent advertising cards promoting damiana wafers in his shop window. The full product name was not mentioned in the police report, but we can speculate it was Crouch’s naked lady who offended the sensibilities of a passing bobby. Because Hay took the advertisements down as soon as he was cited, his fine was only 20 shillings.

Crouch’s Mormon Elder wafers seem have enjoyed considerable success. They came in both pink and white, and sold for a pricey $1.00 and $2.00 a box. Crouch advertised them for almost two decades, into the 1900s. Sometimes he took full page ads that featured a Victorian couple seemingly on the verge of coupling. With this image frequently was included a passage from “The Mission Elders Book,” obviously a play on the Book of Mormon. The quote read: "At a certain time of life certain things cease to interest but about somethings when we cease to care, what will be the use of life, sight, or hearing?" Food -- and wafers -- for thought.

In a trade circular of 1888, the New York druggist explained how the remedy worked:
“Actually creates new Nervous Fluid and Brain Matter by supplying the Blood with VEGETABLE PHOSPHATES, its Electric Life Element, the very core and center of the Brain itself—Restoring the fullest and most Vigorous conditions of Robust Health of Body and Mind, so that all the Duties of Life may be pursued with Confidence and Pleasure, and whilst pleasant to the taste never fails to Purify and Enrich the Blood, and thoroughly invigorate the Brain, Nerves, and Muscles. Its energizing effects are shown from the first day of its administration by a remarkable Increase of Nerve and Intellectual Power, with a Feeling of Courage, Strength and Comfort, to which the Patient has long been unaccustomed.”

If sexual incapacity was not your problem, never mind, you might still be a customer for Mormon Elder Damiana Wafers. The product also was recommended as an infallible remedy for malaria, flatuency, and “nervous dyspepsia,” as well as an antidote for people with a craving for tobacco and alcoholic stimulants. Crouch also sold Mormon Elders’ Attraction, Mormon Elders’ Complexion, and Mormon Elders’ Laxative Fruit Wafers, all with ingredients undisclosed.

If you became disillusioned with the Mormon Elders invigorator but still lusted after Mormon virility, you could purchase for the same purpose from other vendors Mormon Bishop Pills or Brigham Young Tablets. When tested by federal authorities under the Pure Food and Drug Act, Brigham Young Tablets were found to be composed mostly of sugar. Because Mormon labeled nostrums generally were sold by mail, the Feds could crack down on false labeling and eventually ended their sales.

The government did not have had any jurisdiction to investigate the “Mormon Elder Suspensory Bandage.” Advertising material featured the illustration of one well-dressed man handing another a “confidential” package -- one guess, a suspensory bandage! The accompanying text suggests that the device helped guard against injury and disabilities. It came in three sizes: small, medium and large and two qualities, $1 or $2. The description reads like a prototype jock strap. I suppose “large” was the most favored size.

If there is any moral to be drawn here it is that either polygamy was abolished too early or Viagra invented too late. From the looks of the 21 wives of Brigham Young, he may well have yearned for an “invigorator” from time to time.