The surest way to find the heart of a city is to look through its bric-a-brac, says Paul Pensom.
One summer a few years back I found myself in Kazimierz, Krakow’s old Jewish quarter. The Synagogues and bakeries have given way to hotels, galleries and bars; spume from a wave of urban renewal which washed through the ghetto in the early 90s. I visited some of the galleries but still felt disconnected from the place; I hadn’t yet found its soul.
Then I chanced on a flea market, and amongst the cassettes, biscuit tins and bird cages I finally heard the whisperings of the city. It was a voice mediated by commerce, but untrammelled by marketing. Krakow spoke to me through ephemera, the tissue of culture which surrounds us, often unnoticed, but informing, inflecting and inspiring all we create.
Something in that market caught my eye: a pile of photograph albums, probably of 1950’s manufacture, with cord bindings and cushioned cellophane covers. Opening them I discovered they housed a collection of cigarette cards; at least ten years’ worth, if not more.
Younger readers may be nonplussed by the term cigarette card. As the name implies, they were trading or collectors’ cards, supplied singly in cigarette packets, and were immensely popular for much of the 20th century. Before tobacco became a modern folk devil, the packet of twenty often provided information, amusement and entertainment with every day’s hard earned smoke.
Looking through these albums I’m struck by the variety both of themes and of styles. Long forgotten five-year productivity plans are celebrated in isophormic graphs, a cartoon-like series advises on road safety, and the timeless virtues of sausage, bread and beer are championed in clean, economical line drawings. The printing is basic — two or three colour litho mostly — but the ingenuity of the nameless artists is boundless, drawing from woodcut traditions, contemporary animation styles, modernist vernacular and much more.
“Today’s prized ephemera was yesterday’s rubbish: the unwanted, the disposable. Printed cheaply and often thought populist or gauche. As technology improves and the zeitgeist shifts, these items are examined afresh, their obsolete reproduction now cherished as characterful, populism recast as vintage modishness.”
What is the value of ephemera? These artists synthesised the flotsam and jetsam around them; the playbills, the lobby cards, the paperbacks, and in their turn, inspired thoughtful and curious generations to come. Witness Julian House’s masterly channelling of Polish illustration, or David Pearson’s eclectic reinvigoration of Penguin. Think of Kurt Schwitters’ Merz collages, begatting Robert Rauschenberg and Peter Blake, in turn begatting David Hillman, Linder Sterling, David Carson. All very different, but all inspired to one degree or another by ephemera.
Why is this stuff important to us? Today’s prized ephemera was yesterday’s rubbish: the unwanted, the disposable. Printed cheaply and often thought populist or gauche. As technology improves and the zeitgeist shifts, these items are examined afresh, their obsolete reproduction now cherished as characterful, populism recast as vintage modishness. It’s as if we have a privileged peek into the past, at the stuff that never makes it into the history books or the museums; the mouldering attic room lumber which sinks into the cracks of our lives: resting in the lofts, the basements, the spare rooms, awaiting exhumation.
But what of the future? Whither the contents of the 22nd century car boot sale? Books haven’t disappeared, yet, but pulps and yellowbacks — those exotic notch-edged US imports sold in wire baskets outside Woolworths — certainly have. Newspapers are going the same way, and I can’t remember the last time I saw a new tea card, or a cereal-box gift. Our world seems to be a sanitised, touch-sensitive simulacrum in comparison, purged of much which makes life pleasurable: texture, smell, physicality, the sheer joy of discovery, of assemblage, ownership.
I’m not arguing that popular art has died. Of course it hasn’t. The descendants of my cigarette cards can be found in a thousand Tumblr sites, ffffound pages and animated gifs, but I do think there’s a paradox at the heart of our relationship with the web, in that we perceive permanence, where there is only shifting sand. We know that information is immortal, and fall into the trap of equating the medium with the message. In fact digital storage is immensely problematic, with hardware failure and software obsolescence almost insurmountable obstacles for the archivist of the future.
Consider how much visual style is driven by nostalgia on the web today; from the endless tiresome reimaginings of everything as a 1970s Penguin book, complete with artfully applied foxing and smudges, to the current vogue for layers of faux ink spattering and screenprint textures. Where will the illustrators and designers of the future draw their inspiration from, when the time for the Noughties revival is nigh? Maybe in two hundred years' time they will be rescuing old hard drives from landfill, exhuming rare gifs from their innards.
If that fails, they can always consult a book...