Orientalist Threads


There have been no new posts on 'Vintage Voyager' because I have so little time to write them. But because I want to continue some curating and collating of prints, design threads and objects on a more sustainable basis, I've set up the tumblr Orientalist Threads : minimal commentary, with a gradually accumulated pattern of endless repetitions and variations.

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Tassenmuseum III: brandishing the exotic

One of the strengths of the Tassenmuseum's pithy but business-like presentation is that the visitor can pursue their own threads of interest through the chronological and themed displays. Characteristically, my radar was sweeping the area for adopted exoticisms, purses that functioned as brandishable badges of the prestige of distance, by import or travel.

These little nineteenth century purses (below) were a wholly new thing to me.  You see that there's a partially-veiled woman on the left, an ornamental design centered around a crescent in the middle, and a scene of domes and minarets on the right, with borders that recall Turkish carpet patterns.


The brief caption in the case described these as 'reticules with Turkish patterns which were popular after the Crimean War. 3rd quarter nineteenth century'.  These must have been a European phenomenon, but whether they were produced in France, Britain or Russia (or elsewhere) and intended to invoke alliance with or triumph over the Ottomans, I do not know.  It is hardly possible to tell, but I suspect the overtones are positive.

Earlier in the nineteenth century, Zarafa, a diplomatic gift to Charles X caused a sensation in France after arriving at Marseilles in 1927.  This beaded souvenir purse depicts both the giraffe and one of her attendants, showing that both were viewed as fascinatingly exotic.  The episode is connected to early French imperial expansion into Egypt, so in some ways this miniature souvenir is connected to the later popularity of purse frames carved into Egyptological and Orientalist themes (below).

Far Eastern scene (top) and Egyptological ornament (bottom) in carved celluloid purse frames
Down in the twentieth century room, I was happy to see a whole case full of small embossed and painted/tinted leather souvenir bags of the '20s and '30s decorated with what the captions called 'Eastern decorations'.  The label went on to explain 'these bags were made in the Far East for the European market.  Similar bags were for sale at Liberty in London and in the bazaar of Port Said in Egypt.  Port Said was the seaport where all passengerships [sic] on the way to or from the Far East made a stop' [text (c) Tassenmuseum].  The purses carry a mixture of Egyptian and Far Eastern scenes;  essentially, the shipping routes had created both a market and, though separated by vast distances, an interconnected, souvenir-able zone of the imagination, the East-by-steamship.


My particular favourite in this display of Japanese-manufactured leather clutches is this antiquity-themed example (below).  We have a kind-of Egyptian-style sphinx on the right there. And a plastic camel.  But the rest has been put together from Assyrian iconography.  Perhaps these designers worked from some 'ancient art' guidebooks, or perhaps here they were consciously trying to appeal to the Mesopotamia-bound market too (Iraq was a British protectorate at the time).


Downstairs in the temporary exhibition space there was a supplementary series of displays built around different craft techniques, juxtaposing current designers with the traditions on which they drew.  At the bottom of a cabinet showing beaded and ornamented clutches were a series of the ubiquitous black velvet purses that illustrate the same shipping-line-fed, colonial-driven market.  These mass-produced, embroidered Indian-made purses could be bought either in Delhi or Cairo (and, let's face it, probably in Liberty's too).  They are extremely easy to find online and are generally dated to the 1960s and '70s, although I wouldn't be surprised to find that they were produced for slightly longer than that.


Embedded in the same display were a few earlier clutches that I found tantalizing.  This densely-embroidered example is like concentrated essence of the later Indian purses:


It was labelled simply, 'clutch, Turkey, 1920s', which brings us full circle to the Ottomans, if only to their jumbled, post-imperial fragments being remade into a state during that decade. Here's another imperfect, blurry shot of a really pretty purse with a pseudo-Persian miniature pattern.


It was labeled 'Clutch, England, 1934'; I'm very curious about where such a precise date came from, but it really works in the contemporary London (and transatlantic) trends.  The choice of pattern shows the strong influence of a recent vogue for Persian art triggered in 1931 by an international exhibition at Burlington House.  

I guess these last few examples, though made wonderfully accessible through a temporary exhibit, bring me to one of my slight niggles about the presentation of the collection, as someone who always wants to find out more.  There were no inventory numbers by which to distinguish each object, and no credit lines (the basic purchase/acquisition information).  A publicly-funded museum is probably an unfair comparison, but the V& A online collection shows how a very little information can be usefully organized so that one object offers a reliable reference point for the researcher.  I'm curious about the places these objects were purchased and at what point in the evolution of the collection they were bought.  It is clear that the museum is attracting increasing numbers of donations, and those donors' identities are sometimes made clear on the label, but perhaps not always?  The collection's existence as a fully evolved museum is obviously very recent, and this is clearly a great achievement, but perhaps some of the really strong undertones of personal history (both that of the collectors and of the original owners, where they are recoverable) could be more clearly articulated.  I wanted to store away in my memory so many of these objects as reference points for future thought and comparison - and what a great benefit the age of the camera-phone was to me!  The published partial catalogue provides one resource, but to document all the things I was interested in without a camera, I would have needed the sketching skills and the hours of leisure of a late-nineteenth-century antiquarian.

I'll be back in the cafeteria for a bit more mulling for the next post.

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Tassenmuseum II: 'I don't know any of these people'

I think my fixations at the purse museum are pretty predictable to be honest; I homed in on the luggage/travel-related paraphernalia, and the borrowed exoticisms and souvenirs.  Neither of the types of (very much NOT high-end) purse that I tend to collect were presented in the collection, but the themes were there.  First of all, luggage nostalgia:


What a great display. Recently, and I guess not coincidentally, vintage luggage has become more of an interior design standby.  I have a few vintage suitcases, ones that I've accumulated over the years (two small cases of my mother's from late 50s transatlantic travel, a striped 'Rev-Robe' miniature wardrobe case that I once carted awkwardly around one Christmas, to an ex-boyfriend's dismay, and a battered suitcase with decaying leather handle that I picked up for a couple of pounds at a North London charity shop).  For a long time, they've been In-Place-Of-Furniture. That is, they can store things and look vaguely charming, but also be picked up and deposited in the next home quickly.  Even in a permanent stack they will evoke that nomadic history.  

And that is the point of old, wheel-less suitcases.  Like typewriters, that other class of cultural relics that have been streamlined out of use, their once-function still broadcasts powerfully to us, even when they sit idle.  When I try to incorporate my parents' transatlantic luggage (I'm trying to stop them chucking the surviving crude wooden trunks) and their long-disused typewriters in my current decor, it is because these are my family heirlooms.  They are not just from the family, but they continue to be important because they display life-style qualities that I find crucial to my own sense of self: writing-for-work and necessary-travel (both of the tiring but rewarding kind).  Mind, they don't half collect dust. 

But back to the Tassenmuseum, this personal nostalgia suggests to me that what we find so hypnotic about the display above is not just the design impact of a Vuitton case, but of the stories entailed in their existence.  Another interior decoration tale makes this simply clear; a recent tour around a heartily-Vintaged home featured in the NYT included a comment (part of a personal collecting philosophy that pervaded the piece) by the inhabitant/curator, Deborah Lutz:
Vintage leather suitcases, complete with brass keys and other people’s initials, are stacked above her wardrobe. “I don’t know any of these people,” she said, “but I love the idea of their stories, of the lives we might have witnessed but didn’t.”
And that is part of the real and potential further resonance of this collection.  The impact of Schiaparelli's SS Normandie clutch lies not just in the astonishing translation of a monumental ship's prow into a personal accessory, with all the surrealist wit, marketing precision and wider design shifts that entails, but in the simple caption that tells us that one was handed to every first class passenger on the maiden voyage.


A bag is often most magnetic when it is not an empty vessel, but a vehicle for a bundle of personal histories, aspirations and nostalgic obsessions.

To be continued...

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Amsterdam & the Tassenmuseum - vintage purses & leaning gables

There's not been a lot of time for recreational design history or vintage buying lately, but a very brief spell in Amsterdam recently allowed me to check out the Tassenmuseum. A private collection built up by the antiques dealers Henrikje and Heinz Ivo, it has been housed in a seventeenth century mansion on the Herengracht since 2007.  The house has been sympathetically refurbished, so that the whole setting strongly evokes a 'house museum' vibe - a private, elite environment made public and ornamented with a personal collection (a classic example: the Soane museum in London).

the museum cafeteria
My whole, fleeting period in the city seemed to be crammed with visual impressions of sloping, ornamented rectangles propped up precariously.  The formal, tilted slabs of handbags and crazy-narrow, looming, vertical facades chimed together well.  The day was cloudy and a bit dank, like the canals - a sharp snap with only an edge of spring.  The demographic of the museum was interesting.  I was one of only two lone visitors during my time there; the rest were groups of ladies (usually consisting of the same generation, not of different ages) who toured the two floors of crammed galleries in a sociable way, talking animatedly. I have only blurry pictures taken on a phone to show here, but there are excellent reproductions of the collection accessible in the two publications available from the gift shop (referenced below).  For the most part, the purses were presented as individual objets d'art, ordered chronologically and grouped by technique or theme, so that the viewer could admire workmanship or design features:

Hard plastic/vinyl purses in the 20th century floor
At the same time, the selection of pieces is not overly luxe throughout; as well as the precious and exotic, there is a good selection of 'everyday' items and popular trends - the breadth of the collection is a good reminder of what 'museum piece' can really mean: something representative of the whole spectrum of material culture, rather than one rarefied strand of it.  So what I most appreciated amid the displays here were the moments where settings, influences and practical uses illuminated the objects and gave a blast of social context.  One of the most charming displays was one of old writing slate boxes in a row of educational evolution alongside leather satchels in a school-house setting:


There was certainly too much to cover in one post; I'll return with a couple more, drawing on my blurry and impressionistic shots.  But plenty of jewel-like clarity is available in the selection of objects at the official website. In print, there are:

Seeliger, B. (ed) & Ivo, S.  2009  'Museum of Bags and Purses Henrikje, Amsterdam' art VISION magazine ISBN 978-90-78844-04-4
Ivo, S.  2011  Bags: a selection from the Museum of Bags and Purses, Amsterdam  Pepin Press






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At night, in the kasbah: a never-ending chase...

I've got to show this brilliant 40s novelty print. It came in the form of a back-buttoned blouse, complete with little shoulder-pads, by Alice Stuart, courtesy of the super Luna Junction on Etsy.


Here you see a street scene repeated in Escheresque steps across the cloth.  It's a total contrast to the line-sketched illustration frenzy on silk crepe that I pegged as a Ballet-Russe take on the Arabian Nights last year.  This one has cartoonish features, but the setting is a bit more realistic and at the same time cinematic.  In fact, it reminds me more of the dark streets of Vienna in The Third Man than Hollywood's lurid Baghdad of the forties or that graphic stand-by, a thicket of minarets and domes. Perhaps it's got a hint of the enclosed Kasbah about it.  The red background with its crescent moon is perhaps inspired directly by the Ottoman (now Turkish) flag.  


I can't tell you which of the thousand and one nights these characters run through.  I know there are a few which involve mysterious ladies and intrepid heroes who search for them among strange streets.
I guess nowadays, despite the strongly stereotypical Middle Eastern fancy dress, the image of a man chasing a woman could start to look slightly dodgy.  Still, the fairy-tale-esque, ornamental figures take any edge off the scene.


The repeated design here has the effect of giving you an eternal, back-and-forth chase - he seeks her here... he seeks her there... he never catches up!

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