And if I ever was myself I wasn’t that night

November 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

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The United States is experiencing an outbreak of amphetamine abuse. The latest national surveys show that about 3 million Americans used amphetamine-type stimulants nonmedically in the past year, 600000 in the past week, and that 250000 to 350000 are addicted. Although survey data indicate that the number of nonmedical users of amphetamine-type stimulants may have stabilized, the number of heavy users with addiction problems doubled between 2002 and 2004. Thus, the public health problem presented by amphetamines may still be increasing in severity; in many ways it surpasses that of heroin. Although all of this is widely appreciated, the history of an even larger amphetamine epidemic 4 decades ago is less well-known.  read more

ART: Pollock of Light

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like the ruins of those ruins

November 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

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On March 7 1939, a few months before the beginning of the Second World War, and just nine days before Germany invaded Czechoslavakia, a German woman called Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, described by Hitler as ‘the perfect Nazi Woman’, arrived at Croydon Airport and was met by the wife of the German Ambassador Frau von Dirksen. A few hours later Scholtz-Klink was introduced to Lady Douglas-Hamilton, formerly Prunella Stack, coincidentally known as ‘Britain’s Perfect Girl’.

They were both at a dinner at Claridges organised by the Anglo-German Fellowship who had invited Scoltz-Klink over to London, ostensibly, “to study the work done by and for English women” but were very keen to publicise the connections and similarities between the two nations despite an almost certain war quickly approaching…

Prunella Stack, despite her young age, was the leader of the two hundred thousand strong Women’s League of Health and Beauty and she was one of the most famous women in the country at the time – the Daily Mail had recently described her as ‘the most physically perfect girl in the world’.

Nine months before Gertrud Schlotz-Klink’s visit to London, during the summer of 1938, five thousand enthusiastic members of the Women’s League of Health and Beauty had performed in front of a huge crowd on the bright green grass of the fifteen year old Empire Stadium in Wembley. The finale of the ‘Empire Pageant’ featured an impressive Greek-influenced athletic dance with women in white tunics carrying swords, shields and javelins.

Suddenly some grecian-style chariots emerged from the tunnel drawn by horses that were meant to gallop around the cinder athletic track that surrounded the famous turf. Instead they charged across the pitch scattering performers in every direction; totally upsetting the careful choreography of the event. At one point, realising that flaming torches were involved, Mr Herbert, Wembley’s overweight manager, stood with arms outstretched shouting “For God’s sake, Ladies! For God sake, take care!”…

On the 15th October 1938 Prunella married a Scottish Laird, Lord David Douglas-Hamilton the youngest son of the 13th Duke of Hamilton. At their first meeting, at the opening of a swimming pool, he impressed her that he was keen to start a fitness summer school in the Highlands. As he said goodbye, he took her hand and examined her fingernails. “I’m glad you don’t paint them,” he said, “I hate artificiality.”

Douglas Hamilton had German and Austrian friends (his best man was Prince Ernst August of Hanover) and before their wedding they went on  holiday just days after the 8th Army of the German Wehmacht had marched into Austria to be greeted by cheering Austrians with cheers, Nazi flags and salutes. Prunella, in her auto-biography, described Bands of Hitler Youth marching through the streets shouting ‘Jeder Deutsche stimmt mit ‘ja’. Nur ein Schwein stimmt mit ‘Nein’. (Every German votes with ‘yes’. Only a swine votes with ‘no’.)

Prunella also visited Germany in the summer of 1938 after the League had been invited to participate that summer in a Physical Education Congress sponsored by Kraft durch Freude. Prunella and the rest of the League women stayed on the luxurious cruise-ship Wilhelm Gustloff from which they watched mass demonstrations of German physical culture and folk-dancing.

The British Women’s League of Health and Beauty performed twice – “their neat black and white uniforms and slim figures contrasted with the generous build of the blonde German girls,” Prunella later wrote. On the ship she was introduced to the Reichsportsfuhrer, Herr von Tschammer und Osten, Dr Ley, the leader of Kraft durch Freude and even Himmler.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Becker & Maaß

Oder – irr’ ich wieder? Verändert dünkt mich alles

March 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

I recently attended a lecture in which Linda Nochlin — widely considered to be the mother of contemporary feminist art history — addressed the issue of the nude. She approached the subject through the lens of her life experience, which has informed her tastes in and fascination with its representation. Reading from her essay “Offbeat and Naked,” Nochlin said: “I like any nude that isn’t classical, any naked body that doesn’t look like Michelangelo’s David or the Apollo Belvedere. For me, as for the poet-critic, Baudelaire in the 19th century, the classical nude is dead, and deathly. What is alive? The offbeat, the ugly, the other, the excessive.” Afterward, I asked Nochlin where, if anywhere, she felt the pin-up genre belonged in this aesthetic of the offbeat. Without hesitation, she began an impromptu paean to perhaps the most beloved pin-up in the history of the genre — the Varga Girl. Nochlin recounted how, as a young girl during the Second World War, she would rifle through her uncles’ Esquire magazines to marvel at the grotesque beauties within. Those endless legs! Those bowed feet! Those fetish fashions! Absolute freaks of nature! “Yummy!” she enthused with a troublemaker’s grin…

At Esquire, the shift from the wartime to postwar pin-up reflects such wider trends in American culture. First, the magazine lost the artist whose women personified the transgressive wartime woman on her way out of fashion. Esquire’s legal troubles with Vargas had begun at the cusp of the war’s end; when the artist attempted to renegotiate his contract with the magazine, he proceeded to lose his job as well as his rights to his name at and work for Esquire. As a result of his departure from the magazine in 1947, the transition from the “Varga Girl” to the “Esquire Girl” coincidentally occurred in the shift from wartime to the postwar eras–making the change in the magazine’s pin-ups all the more dramatic in their adherence to postwar ideals of femininity. Fritz Willis, Al Moore, and Joe De Mers were among the new pin-up illustrators who eschewed the career woman and sexual dynamo for the bobby-soxer and cuddly co-ed. The one working woman represented among these postwar pin-ups was chided in the accompanying text to “shake off the phony blessedness of her solitary way in favor of the more savory satisfactions which only come from sharing.” As feminist historian Susan Faludi would later write, in the postwar era the independent woman of WWII, who had flaunted her economic, social, and sexual agency, was viewed as an outdated construction that “provoked and sustained the antifeminist furor [of the ‘50s, and]… heightened cultural fantasies of the compliant homebody and playmate.” In fact, a new “playmate” emerged in the pin-up genre that capitalized on both the dearth of openly transgressive female models in the ‘50s and the era’s willingness to (re)construct womanhood in a simplistic, one-dimensional manner.

With the renewed focus on morality and maternity that accompanied many women’s postwar retreat to the home — similar to the “cult of True Womanhood” among upper- and middle-class women in the Victorian era — came a resurgence of the “ladies club.” These groups aimed female activism at societal disruptions of “moral order,” under which they felt young women’s access to and influence by pin-ups fell. Due to such groups’ postwar protests against the display of pin-ups in media viewed by women and children, many popular publications (such as early pin-up pioneers, Esquire and Life) de-emphasized or altogether eliminated their pin-up features. To fill the void left by the disappearance of images of the sexualized female in broader popular culture, former Esquire employee Hugh Hefner molded a new kind of pin-up — the “Playmate” — in his magazine, Playboy. Here, Hefner sought to both reclaim the genre and postwar women’s sexuality for privileged male viewing.  read more

I’m only waiting for my cue, I’m a stranger here myself

March 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

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After I received the photographs I looked at them for a long time. Here was, after all, visual proof of small parts of the life of a man I had never met, a man who was one of my grandfathers. I had not known my grandfathers (they had both died before I was born), so the concept – a father figure once removed – itself seemed strange to me. All these photographs, I figured, would surely tell me something about my grandfather, wouldn’t they? How can 25 photographs not say anything?

In various of the photographs, Josef Nowak is seen holding and/or playing an instrument, mostly an accordion. There are various group portraits, and there even is a photograph of an actual performance. My grandfather must have loved music. In many of the photographs, he strikes an almost comic figure, with his large round glasses, his slightly bewildered look in his eyes, and those ears that seem stick out just a tad too much. At times, my grandfather looked like the Zelig character in the eponymous movie, the person who somehow was everywhere, without actually belonging there. My grandfather, in other words, was the kind of person you wouldn’t really have to mark in a photograph. You’d notice that one guy sticking out anyway.

There is an exception to that rule. One photograph shows him in a field hospital, another group photograph. His right hand is bandaged, and the goofiness in his face seems gone. He also suddenly looks much younger, possibly because his uniform jacket is open, and his stance is more casual.

Every photographs tells a story, the old adage goes. It’s a wonderful cliché, it’s a horrible cliché, and it’s most certainly not true. What stories do these photographs of my grandfather tell me? Having looked at them for so long now (a few years) I’m still not an inch closer to knowing anything about the man. He loved music, I wrote. How would I know that? All I can really know from the photographs is that he knew how to competently hold an instrument and, possibly, play it. Everything else I added on top.  read more

ART: Liu Xiaodong

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