Friday, October 24, 2014

Off to the Opera on the Wings of Commerce

In the late 18th and early 19th Century, as a direct result of the invention of color printing and chromolithography about 1837 in Europe, the use of the medium for advertising purposes became immediately evident.  Arriving in the United States about 1840, it had a similar effect.
The result was a blizzard of “trade cards,” given away by many companies hawking a wide variety of products.  Among them I find cards that depict opera scene to be among the most interesting.  (See my post of April 13, 2013, “Budweiser Goes to the Opera.”)

I am particularly fond of those issued by the Anheuser Busch Company of St. Louis because of the irreverent way in which these trade cards treat even the most tragic operas.  Thee of their cards show here are largely comedic in their intent.  The first is a take-off of one of my favorite Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, “The Mikado.”   In this scene, the scatter-brained and self-absorbed love interest, Yum Yum, is found with her pseudo-Japanese fellow school girls claiming that she is more beautiful than the “flowers that bloom in the Spring, tra-la.”  The beer card, however, has her extolling the blooming hops in Anheuser Beer. 
The following card from the beer-maker is from an operetta called “Boccaccio, or the Prince of Palermo,”  by Franz von Suppe,  a story crafted from the famously ribald Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio.  The card captures a scene from the first act when Leonello, a student is captivated by the smiles and flirtatious ways of a local lass.  Standing laughing in the background is Boccaccio himself who is in danger from jealous husbands of being chased out of town and arrested.  It appears that all three are drinking Budweiser, described as “the magic that none can withstand, for in its sparkle solace is found…”

Other makers of comestibles also used operatic trade cards, but those I have viewed do not spoof the stories.  Chocolat Felix Potin, who gave us the next card, was a French candy maker who included a wide variety of cards in his packaged confections.  This card shows a scene from the first act of Gounod’s “Faust.”  Here Faust is being temped by Mephistopheles (The Devil) to sell his soul to regain youth and the love of the beautiful and chaste.  Marguerita is shown to Faust in an apparition that causes him to agree.  I can find no other Potin opera card which may indicate that it was not a popular topic.
The remaining cards shown here are from the Liebig Company whose “Fleisch Extract” was a concentrated beef extract to provide a cheap and nutritious meat substitute.  It provided two cards that take the Faust story forward into the third act where the rejuvenated Faust is in the process of seducing Marguerita while the wily Mephistopheles leads away her unsuspecting maid.  The passionate duet between the love besotted couple is one of my operatic favorites.

Another favorite is the opera, “Don Giovanni”(Don Juan), with music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and an Italian libretto.  It tells the story of Don Giovanni described as a “young, extremely licentious nobleman.”  Much of the story is about his wooing and attempting to bed every attractive woman who crosses his path and eluding with scorn all who attempt to bring him to justice.  In the first act, however, Don Giovanni has made a fatal error by killing in a duel the father of one of his attempted seductions. The slain man is the Commendatore, who has a statue of himself in the graveyard.  Don Giovanni invites him to supper and the statue nods approval.  The rake is doomed.  In the next scene the statue comes, offers Don Giovanni a chance to repent, and when he refuses a chorus of demons surround him and take him down to Hell.  By the way, Faust also ended up there.  Opera often was not kind to its title characters.
A word about Liebig.  Liebig’s Extract of Meat Company was named after Baron Justus von Liebig, the German 19th Century organic chemist who developed the product and founded the company.  The meat extract is a molasses-like black spread packages in an opaque white glass bottle.  It contains only reduced meat stock and salt. By 1875, 500 tons of the extract were being produced and it became a staple for Allied soldiers up and through World War II since it did not need refrigeration and could be used in the field.  

Liebig produced many illustrated advertising products: table cards, menu cards, children games, calendars, posters, poster stamps, paper and — most important — trade cards.  These were often in the form of card sets with stories, historical tidbits, geographic tidbits, and other narratives. The sets usually consisted of six cards, one card included per product sale. Many famous artists were contacted to design those series of cards, which were printed using the last in lithographic processes, including chromolithography.  Opera was the subject of several sets.
Among them was a card depicting a pivotal scene in “Mignon,” an opera by Ambroise Thomas that has both French and Italian librettos.   The setting of the illustration is the courtyard of an inn in a small German town.  Gypsies had been dancing for the populace but one, Mignon, refuses and is threatened with a stick by the cruel Gypsy leader, Jarno.  To her rescue comes a young student, Wilhelm, who pulls a gun on Jarno and rescues Mignon.  Meanwhile the girl is comforted by a white-bearded minstrel named Lothario.  As it often turns out in operas, Mignon and Wilhelm fall in love and Lothario in the final scene is discovered to be Mignon’s father.  
The next card depicts the Wagnerian opera, “Parsifal,” a story that revolves around the Holy Grail, believed to be the cup from which Jesus of Nazareth drank at the Last Supper.  It depicts a scene from Act 2, Scene 1, in which the evil magician, Klingsor, standing left, has loosed a bunch of enchanted knights on the virtuous knight of the Grail, Parsifal.  Parsifal has bested them in combat and they have run away.  The lady is Kundry, a sorceress and vamp who has eyes for Parsifal.  The story makes very little sense but Wagner’s music is some of his best and the opera continues to be frequently performed. 
The final trade card shown here depicts a scene from “Falstaff,” a Verdi opera based on the Shakespeare character who appeared in three of the master’s plays,  “Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2” and “Merry Wives of Windsor.”  The plot revolves around the fat rascal, John Falstaff, to seduce two married women in order to get their money.  The picture is of a scene in which a jealous husband has arrived with henchmen to thrash Falstaff who has been hidden by women in a clothes  hamper and almost suffocated.  When the husband hears kissing behind a screen, he thinks it is Falstaff but in reality it is a couple of young lovers.  The madcap antics of this and other scenes, plus Verdi’s music, lifts this to the pinnacle of comic operas. 

The good design and luminous colors of these trade cards are “eye candy” to me and other collectors.   They are made all the more interesting by learning the stories of the operas they    celebrate.  


Saturday, October 11, 2014

Norman Rockwell Had a Head for Whiskey


As a kid in the 1940s, I was addicted to a now defunct weekly magazine called “The Saturday Evening Post,”  rushing home from school to read it on it day it arrived in the mail.  A chief attraction was the frequent covers from the hand of Norman Rockwell, an American artist who lately has achieved iconic status.  Little did I realize at the time that Rockwell also was churning out a series of portraits for a whiskey called “Cream of Kentucky.”

Shown above in his famous “Triple Self-Portrait,” painted in 1960, Rockwell designed 323 covers for the Post and a dozen or more liquor advertisements for Schenley Industries, the manufacturer of “Cream of Kentucky.”   It was one of a number of blended whiskey brands that had sprung up after the repeal of National Prohibition in 1934.   Since this period coincided with the Great Depression in the United States, merchandising of whiskey often emphasized low cost while attempting to give some element of prestige and even snob appeal to the product.  This also was a time when pseudo-scientists were emphasizing facial types and even bumps on the head as keys to behavior.  Ad men were quick to latch on to those ideas. 

Rockwell, who had an uncanny ability to present quintessentially American and appealing faces, was able to oblige.   His images came in several series.  The first three ads shown here have a similar theme.  The portraits are of anonymous, smiling, middle-aged males with a definite affluent look.  The ads each ask a question.   “Have you eyes that spot value?”  The Rockwell portrait makes sure we know that the gent shown has “eyes that spot value” and “lips that relish luxury.”

“Does your face say, ‘I love life’?,” asks another ad.  Rockwell provides us with a laughing head who, we are told, has “sparkling eyes” and “smiling lips.”  He clearly drinks Cream of Kentucky blended whiskey.   But not too much drinking or his eyes may lose that sparkle.  The third example inquires, “Does your face show good judgement?”   In this case the figure is said to have “questioning eyebrows” and “appreciative nose.”  The artist has supplied them both.

From anonymous faces to famous physiognomies is a short step.  The next series by Rockwell was one that featured celebrity heads.   Again there is a question:  “Have you Eyes like Frank Buck’s — seeking Happy Adventure?”   While his name may no longer be a household word, in the 1940s Buck was renowned nationwide as a big game hunter and “animal collector.”  His book, “Bring ‘Em Back Alive,” was a bestseller and he starred in several jungle adventure movies.   Rockwell gives us an excellent likeness of the swashbuckling Buck.   We are directed to his eyes “alert for adventure,” his lips, “fond of life’s good things,” and his chin, “that portrays geniality.”   If our eyes, lips and chin resemble Buck’s, we are told, then we should drink Cream of Kentucky.
Harold Arlen was an American composer of popular music, having written over 500 songs, a number of which have become known worldwide. He composed the tunes for The Wizard of Oz, including the classic 1938 song, “Over the Rainbow.”   His reputation was at its peak when Rockwell featured him in a Cream of Kentucky ad.   The reader was asked: “Have you the eyes of someone who knows how to make A HIT?”  — like Harold Arlen.  Unlike Buck and Arlen, most Americans will not have known who Watson Barrett was.  The ad told them.  He was a “talented scenic designer and theatrical producer.”  Rockwell’s head of Barrett was marked by four arrows.  They pointed out “Features Indicating Talent”:  “Broad forehead with prominent knotty bulges above the eyes.  Long, pointed nose with a decided “bump” at the bone ridge below the bridge. Long-winged nostrils.  Jaw strong and well developed.  Chin pointed — with deep impression below lower lip.”  Rockwell has given us all of these.
At some point the series morphed into portrayals of American sportsmen and Cream of Kentucky was no longer a blend but “straight bourbon.”  Shown here is a Rockwell fisherman and the claim:  “If you are this type you’ll like this bourbon that’s ‘Double-Rich.”  The readers are asked if we have the angler’s features.  Marked are “large narrow Eyes of a type adept at weighing true merit,” and “the ample Mouth of a type with exceptional relish for good food and drink.”  This ad carried socio-babble to new lengths of absurdity.  Rockwell also provided Cream of Kentucky with a images of a golfer and a horse trainer.  As before, the face helped convey the message.
The final Norman Rockwell illustration broke tradition by showing two heads.  One is the distinguished older man, this one in white tie and tails.  He is being served a Cream of Kentucky bourbon and water by a obsequious black waiter.  It satisfies many of the stereotypes about servers of color that I have highlighted in the past. (See my post “Black Waiters:  Fetch, Toby, Fetch” of February 2011.).  Rockwell was not a racist.  In fact, he painted the single most popular image of the Civil Rights Movement.  Called “The Problem We All Live With,” it presents the affecting picture of a six-year old girl, Ruby Bridges, bravely walking with school books in hand between Federal marshals to her newly desegregated school in New Orleans.  Such was the culture twenty five years earlier, however, that the scene above was not deemed offensive.
Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) had a long and productive life as an illustrator and artist.  The posthumous exhibits of his works draw large and enthusiastic crowds and at auction his original paintings go for millions.   Andy Warhol,  Dr. Seuss, and many other American artists of recognized stature have done liquor and beer ads.  That upon occasion Rockwell did  advertising work for a liquor company does not dim his luster.  Or diminish my fond memories of his Saturday Evening Post covers.

Note:  This post has not attempted to recapitulate Rockwell’s long and productive life as an artist.  For those wishing to know more about this remarkable man there is new, well-received book on his life called “American Mirror:  The Life and Work of Norman Rockwell” by Deborah Solomon.