Sunday, December 15, 2013

Holiday Flasks and Spirits of the Season

From ancient times, the holiday season has been identified with the imbibing of alcoholic beverages.  It has nothing to do with the religious aspects of Christmas and everything to do with celebrating those two other occasions that come along about  the same time.  I refer to the Winter Solstice, when daylight slowly begins to return to the Northern Hemisphere and to the inauguration of the New Year.  Both events traditionally have involved considerable liquid celebration.

In the English-speaking world, the secular and religious aspects of the season have been conflated, it seems, almost since colonial times.  One historical expression was the Christmas flask, very popular in the Victorian era until about 1920 when National Prohibition shut down bibulous celebrations.   Nevertheless, these flasks are, in their own right,  interesting artifacts and worthy of attention, particularly at this time of the year.

These glass bottles typically held a substantial drink of rye whiskey (in the U.S.) or similar distilled spirits (U.S. and elsewhere).  They were given away to favored customers by distillers, wholesale liquor dealers, saloon keepers,  and even druggists, many of whom stocked whiskey for “medicinal” purposes.  Today the flasks are avidly collected and often displayed year ‘round and not just at the holidays.

My favorite holiday flasks are those illustrated by birds.  A particularly delightful one, shown here, depicted an avian singing on a branch of a blooming fruit tree.   I had identified it as a robin red breast when my wife, a master birder, walked in and said “nonsense.”  It appears to her to be a bluebird,  so I correct my identification.  Two other bird flasks shown here neither of us was able to identify the species or even the family. Probably an artist’s fancy.

All three were  label-under-glass (L-U-G) bottles, that is, the container was hand blown, probably in a mold, with a recessed area in the front.  Then the painted or lithographed image was placed into the recess, sometimes held by bee’s wax.  Then another very thin piece of separately prepared glass as very carefully put over the top of the image and glued. 

The process of creating these bottles obviously was tedious and time-consuming. Wages  for glassblowers and other workers at that time were very low.  As a result, glass houses could produce the bottles in great numbers at low cost and sell them cheaply to a wide range of organizations in the whiskey trade.  They in turn would fill them with no-name liquor and put their own identifying label on the back, not wanting to spoil the image on the front.  Usually these labels began with the words, “Compliments of....”  Almost without exception, Christmas flasks were never sold -- until today when they command healthy prices.

None of the following L-U-G flasks have labels identifying the benefactor.   These  have long ago been washed off, either by accident or on purpose.  Washing does not damage a label that is under glass.   With time, however, some spotting can occur on the glass-protected label, often by discoloration of the substances used to adhere the labels and glass cover.   Two shown below are often referred to as “union-shaped,” that is, a bottle that is a semi-oval, sloping symmetrically toward both the neck and the base.  The third is a straight-sided flask, the most common shape for this size whiskey flask.  Note that  all the examples feature a screw-type metal top.  Such a closure also could be conveniently used for having a quick “snort.”

John Hrobsky & Son obviated the problem of having their label washed off their Christmas  flask by including it under the glass label.   Their saloon was on Vliet Street on Milwaukee’s near North Side and not far from my Milwaukee residence of several years.  My favorite tavern on Vliet Street was the “Trails End Lodge.”  As a frequent customer during the 1950s I sometimes was given a bottle of egg nog preparation for the holidays, the special recipe of the owner, Mitzi.  Although the bottle in which it came was not special like Hrobsky’s, the egg nog was excellent.

Even less expensive for a giveaway than a L-U-G flask was buying a standard bottle and slapping on a personalized printed label   Those labels are much less likely to survive in their original mode than a protected one but on did on a flask from 1902-1903, shown here.   Proclaiming “Holiday Chimes” it was a standard label to which the distributor would overprint his name.  In this case it was Otto F. Lieders. My research has discovered that Mr. Lieders was described by a contemporary as “one of Buffalo’s most popular hotel men.”   No doubt giving away whiskey was a contributing factor to his popularity.

Timepieces such as pocket watches and alarm clocks also were frequently copied in glass for Christmas season figurals.  Our last example is molded from milk glass and featured gilded and letters and numerals.  Much of the gold has rubbed off the embossing over the years.  This flask celebrates the turn of the last century as 1899 turned into 1900.  The clock is set to a quarter to twelve midnight.  With such an interesting and unusual item it is disappointing that the issuing party cannot be unidentified.

Christmas flasks disappeared with the coming of National Prohibition in 1920.  When Repeal came only 14 years later,  the Congress passed elaborate new laws on how liquor was to be prepared, labeled, packaged and sold.  Among restrictions were those on giveaway items.  Liquor purveyors could sell their products in special containers for the holidays but they could not give them away.  Thus the tradition of the small Christmas flask was not resurrected.  Most examples,, including those shown here, either have reached the 100 year “antique” standard or soon will do so.

Note:  Thanks go to John R. Pastor, the publisher of the American Bottle & Glass Collector magazine and a collector himself of Christmas flasks.   Several of the images shown here are from his collection.  Moreover, by featuring Christmas flasks in his magazine recently, he gave me the impetus to devote a post to these artifacts and display images “in the spirit of the season” that I have collected in recent years.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

“Four Roses” and Tom Wesselmann

Still Life #2

One might think, looking at the first image here that it was an ad for the Four Roses brand of blended whiskey or possibly for Salem cigarettes, or both.  But no.  Instead it is a work of art called “Still Life #2.”  It is by the American artist, Tom Wesselmann, who like other artists of the 1950s and 1960s was reacting to postwar American consumerism by incorporating well recognized commercial products into his paintings.

In a work entitled “Still Life #2” Wesselmann featured as its major element the Four Roses bottle,  a very well recognized label, and placed it on a slanted table with a pear, ala Cezanne.  To the bottle he has added the cigarette pack, a plate of spaghetti and a bud vase with a flower.  Several of the objects, including the Four Roses bottle and the flowers, have been cut from magazines and pasted in the picture.  In the background is a wall that is blue at right and red flocked wallpaper at left topped by a window through which we view two men on horseback.

The still life has been a staple of artists almost since paint was invented.  Wesselmann sought to bring a new approach to an old genre by mixing various elements in a way to cause the observer to stop,
Still Life #3
study and contemplate what the artist is trying to convey.   An interplay among the various depictions of reality was a key element in Wesselmann’s artistry.   He believed that the juxtaposition of painted objects and paper collage in his artworks was important.  Their dialogue among them, he said:  “Helps establish a momentum throughout the picture... At first glance, my pictures seem well behaved, as if—that is a still life, OK. But these things have such crazy give-and-take that I feel they get really very wild.”

Unlike other artists previously featured in this blog, including Andy Warhol and A.D.M. Cooper, Wesselmann’s own life was not “very wild.”  Although Wesselmann became perhaps better known for his nudes than his still lifes, his own conduct through life was reasonably staid.  Born in 1931 in Cincinnati, Ohio, he served in the U.S. Army in the early 1950s and finished a degree in psychology in 1954, subsequently entering art studies at New York’s Cooper Union.  There he met Claire Seeley who became his model and future wife.

Never a struggling artist living in a Manhattan garret,  Wesselmann’s talent achieved early recognition.  He also was riding the “Pop Art” wave of the 1960s in which artists adopted and adapted elements of popular culture, particularly the culture of consumerism, into their works of art.   Although Wassermann rejected the label of “pop artist,” declaring that his purposes were different than theirs,  his still life series,  done during the 1960s, seemingly puts him firmly in that mode.  Like him, Pop artists were trying to get people to look at the world around them,  paying attention to everyday objects that might not normally be noticed.

Wesselmann perhaps went a step further than the usual Pop Art by his side by side representations of disparate objects and elements.  Given the name of this blog, I have concentrated on those paintings that incorporated bottles -- some of them containing whiskey or beer.  “Still Life #3” shown here repeats the Four Roses bottle but the message here seem more clear than Still Life #2. The artist just juxtaposed an American flag motif (including the table cloth) and a picture of George Washington
Still Life #20
against the whiskey bottle and a luscious sirloin steak.  Wassermann seems to be asking if the American revolution and ideals have involved down to just liquor and meat on the table.

The artist sets another table with bottles, this time Ballentine Ale (his home town Cincinnati brew) bottles, for “Still Life #20.”  This work is a real wooden cabinet above an actual sink.  The light can be turned on and off and the cabinet door opened and closed.  He has then painted and collaged other items, including reproducing an abstract painting by the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian (1874-1944) whose paintings were spare in line and color but had caught the public fancy and were being reproduced widely on curtains, dresses and other fashion items.  Wesselmann often
Still Life #28
included reproductions of works by other artists in his still lives, apparently to demonstrate that art, once to be seen almost exclusively on museum walls, had joined the commercial world.

“Still Life #28” offers yet another view of the Ballentine beer bottles along with other familiar motifs including the slanted table and the pears.  This painting is dominated by a portrait of Abraham Lincoln.  As with Washington in Still Life #3, Wesselmann has painted this portrait himself rather than using collage.  Perhaps it is to be seen as his mark of respect for these two great American Presidents.  This still life incorporates a functioning television set, at this moment showing an auctioneer selling a bottle.  Created at the dawn of TV, Wesselmann seems to be asking whether people will be able to concentrate on static images once the moving screen came into their lives.

In the following still life,  Wesselmann has poured the bottles of Ballentine into two beer glasses and grouped them with what appear to be two radios, a bouquet of leave, a soft drink bottle and two tomatoes.   It obviously is a depiction of an American home interior of the 1960s but further meaning escapes me.  I similarly stumped by the next still life that shows a bottle and other objects only in outline, against a wall with a mounted fish and a picture of the Statue of Liberty.   Did Wesselmann just get tired of painting bottles and other containers?  Or, more likely, was he telling us that in the Great American Mercantile observing and appreciating packaging gets short shrift in the search for brands and labels?  That still does not explain the fish.
Still Life #30

Pop artists often used “mixed media” to put across their ideas.  Wesselmann’s 1963 “Still Life #30” took that concept to new heights.  Here is the official description of the materials he used: Oil, enamel and synthetic polymer paint on composition board with collage of printed advertisements, plastic flowers, refrigerator door, plastic replicas of 7-up bottles, glazed and framed color reproduction, and stamped metal.  I am tempted to wonder why the artist did not throw in the kitchen sink. This painting also marks a move away from whiskey and beer bottles to softer beverages.  Wesselmann made a carton of six bottles of pint Royal Crown Cola bottles the centerpiece of one collage and paint still life.  I am intrigued by the fact that the blue lines on the table cloth have purposely been painted irregularly, unlike those on previous works.

In this final painting we have come full circle, the four roses are rendered but this time they are in a vase, not represented on a whiskey label.  The central item is a large bottle of Coca Cola, possibly prefiguring the many representations of that iconic American drink beverage from Andy Warhol who would take the image of a Coke bottle to new heights, displaying 210 of them in one painting and selling (posthumously) the image of a single bottle for $35.4 million. (See my post  on Warhol, January 2011).

Although no Wesselmann painting of a bottle -- or of anything else for that matter -- has ever sold for that extravagant amount,  his work brought him fame and fortune during his lifetime.  Plagued with heart disease during the last decade of his life, Wesselmann died following surgery in December 2004.   He has continued to spark interest in the art world  and his artworks can be found in many museums in the U.S. and abroad. It must be confessed, however, it is Tom Wesselmann’s pictures of nudes, not bottles, that gain the most attention.