Nothing to Love

Seeing what is not there is one of my favorite design techniques. I am so impressed with work that does this, as I can’t. SpotCo’s work for The Book of Mormon uses this technique to perfection. Jumping back a century, which I like to do, I also am a huge admirer of Ludwig Holwein and Hans Rudi Erdt. Holwein was the best-known German poster and advertising artist for the first quarter of the twentieth-century. He had a remarkable ability to use the available printing technology, not so good, and turn it to his advantage. Simple solid forms, and the absence of a specific element are hallmarks of Holwein’s work. If you’re of fan of the “less is more” approach, then you should love Holwein’s “nothing is more.”

Hans Rudi Erdt, 1911
Hans Rudi Erdt, 1911
Ludwig Holwein, 1926
Ludwig Holwein, 1923
Ludwig Holwein, 1910
Ludwig Holwein, 1910
Ludwig Holwein, 1908
Ludwig Holwein, 1908
Ludwig Holwein, 1907
SpotCo, 2010

 

Delusions of Grandeur

My grandmother was born in 1901. While she didn’t live in Virginia before the civil war, she told stories about her grandfather and his bucolic existence. In her world, everyone was kind, gentle, good, and came from good families.  When she talked about emancipation, she remained unmoved, telling us, “Well, after granddad freed his slaves, why they refused to leave. They loved him so dearly, they all cried, ‘oh, please let us stay.’” My brother, sister, and I tended to look at her and not know what to say. So we politely nodded with frozen, terrified smiles. It never occurred to her that they these people had been held in bondage for two hundred years, had little education, no prospects, or anywhere to go.

I’ve been reading a biography of another family member, Thomas Nelson Page. Like my grandmother, he seemed to live in a dream world. Page was a well-known author, who wrote books that promoted the idea of, once again, a romantic antebellum American south, filled with chivalry, fine ladies, and happy slaves. Page was 12 years old when the civil war ended. He was born at Oakland Plantation in Virginia. He was descended from two prominent families, Page and Nelson. Like most Virginia gentry, he was related in multiple ways to most of the other gentry.

I can understand how seeing life before the war as a child, and then facing the destruction and upheaval during and after the war could color his perception. He could not grasp the full ramifications of slavery. In other ways, Page saw the reality. Old Virginia was ruled by a small group of the aristocracy, and after the war replaced with a moneyed, capitalist class where family names had little value. His world and its benefits had collapsed. As it had for many others, including my grandmother. So they retreated into a past that was kind, and slavery was justified as a paternalistic obligation.

This is what I find difficult to understand: Page was enormously successful in the North. His book, Marse Chan (Master Channing), was a best seller, as well as other antebellum nostalgic novels, In Ole Virginia, Two Little Confederates, and The Old Gentleman of the Black Stock. The concept of a great broken civilization, and the lost cause, played out repeatedly in popular culture. This Moonlight and Magnolia style culminated in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind. The lesson here, then, has something to do with self-delusion, or a way of ignoring all facts to embrace a preferred history.

Before my grandfather died, he called me over, “You see, Sean, there is something wrong with your grandmother in the head. She can’t understand that we are on a railroad journey.” In reality, they were at home, but my grandfather was convinced they were traveling by rail around the American west, and somehow the US Post always found them. He was sure his worldview was correct, and my grandmother was wrong. How many of our own perceptions are delusions? Maybe I’m not actually going to work each day, but sitting in a sanitarium somewhere.

And Now for Something Really Disturbing

Do you ever do something and then doubt your sanity? For years I’ve been collecting family images. I find them at the Virginia Historical Society, Library of Congress, old books, a shoebox from my grandmother, and ask for photos of portraits hanging in a relative’s foyer. So far, so good. This might be obsessive, but certainly productive. Everything was working perfectly. I’d find an image of Gen. Ambrose Powell Hill, attach it to a short bio, and voila, another leaf on the tree was articulated. In some instances, I could only find someone in a group photo such as the crew team at Harvard in 1914. But that was fine, as long as I could point out the right person.

Then something changed. Working on this one night after a rather grueling day and a couple of ginescas (Tanqueray and Fresca), I slipped into a disturbing place. I fixed the levels and color of the image, and then replaced my relative with a picture of myself. Okay, scary, I know. Then it seemed to become a bizarre art project. It’s not as easy as it seems. Modern lighting and cameras are very different than an image taken in 1880. Now it hasn’t gotten so bad that I’ve started recreating the lighting and shooting new images to drop in (although I did consider it). I can justify this in a couple of ways: first, I’m learning Photoshop techniques; second, it’s a “Cindy Sherman in history” art project. But I’m pretty sure this points to a tragic desire to retreat into the past.