Like many, many others, I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for the entire deco/streamline/moderne chic — also like many others, in its nonrepresentational form. That is, even when the style was utterly predominant, it didn’t quite fill every corner and cranny of every room, building or street.
Our ideas of “retro” architecture and décor are skewed; the world of 1935 simply did not look like the Emerald City, any more than the Old West was made up entirely of clapboard buildings, dry-rotted fences, tumbleweeds*, and saloons with swingy little doors. But that’s what we expect to see, so it’s what we envision when we think of “Old West”. So too with our ideas about the Deco movement.
However, one thing I really liked about the era was its visuals. Some truly good examples of typography and graphic design exist, as well as some genuinely atrocious ones (my loathing for Peignot is well-documented). In general I can’t say I’ve come across a really bad visual from the oeuvre — until today via Retro Press.
Everything is there, exactly as it should be. This ad is an almost archetypal example of Moderne, with its simplified shapes, interplay of light and dark, and its lovely charcoal-on-rag texture. The forms of the characters are well-executed if a bit condescending, and even though there are no external characteristics to justify it, I think we can clearly discern who is the man and who is the woman and OH MY GOD THERE’S A WALRUS LYING DECAPITATED ON THE GROUND.
Of course the ad can also be seen as insulting to the Inuit, which might be one reason Sunbrite is no longer in business. (This company is not related to it.)
But I really think ethnic insensitivity is the least significant problem here.
What’s tragic about it is that I know someone put in a hell of a lot of time and work, craftsmanship and maybe even some love, to produce this image. It’s technically very competent; the composition is tight, the graphical style is almost rich enough to be tactile, and quite a lot of subtlety has been conveyed in a greyscale image. It’s not busy or cluttered. Looked at from that angle, I can almost … no, the knife is still bloody, and that walrus isn’t any less beheaded.
What really caps it, what pushes this ad completely over the edge, is the level of detail. Did they really need to depict the spinal column, musculature and trachea?
I wonder how the illustrator felt. Did she or he know the wheels were coming off? I’d like to hope so. I’d like to think that, somewhere along the line, the artist got that ghastly sinking feeling and was relieved to know that he or she would not be credited for this atrocity.
* Which actually are not native to the American southwest; they’re an invasive species from China that came over in the mid– to late-1800s.
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