Just posted this amazing print for sale. It’s a warm buttercup-golden color. Lately I’ve been posting a lot of botanical photos and prints. And I’m a person who has never managed to keep a plant alive.
In my last post I lauded the way that vintage objects are full of shadows, hidden meanings, and relationships to other objects. A recent conversation further reinforced my point.
After posting the vintage photo, which I know nothing about, in Etsy (https://www.etsy.com/listing/106281106/vintage-black-and-white-photograph-of), I sent an attachment to an old friend who has a particular interest in the life and ethnography of Mexico. He did a bit of internet rummaging and sent me a link to a Project Gutenberg ebook by an explorer and ethnographer named Frederick Starr, who wrote of his travels and investigations of indigenous culture that he undertook previous to 1908 (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/16183/16183-h/16183-h.htm#CHAPTER_XIII). From the narrative, I’m not sure how, said friend used the book to identify my woman as a Tehuantepec woman.
The photo is most probably post-war, most probably from the 60’s. Nonetheless, it’s unlikely that the garb or culture changed much from the time when Starr wrote about them in 1899. Our lady is a hammock seller, and from the confidence she projects, she’s likely a good one. The author is charged with measuring women and men in the region and confines himself mostly to describing troubles he had with the local authorities. However, he does devote a paragraph to the mythology of the tribe:
“The name Tehuantepec means the mountain of man-eaters. These man-eaters were not men, but tigers, or ocelots. The story runs that long ago this mountain was infested with wild beasts who destroyed the people of the neighboring villages. Fearing extermination, the people of the town decided to consult the Juaves, who were famous for their naguales, or witches. The oldest and most skilled naguál of the tribe was employed. Having performed his incantations, he told them they might expect immediate deliverance; that he had conjured a deliverer from the sea. Soon there came forth from the water a gigantic turtle, who made his way slowly inland, until he reached the bottom of the hill, which was the home of the tigers. The dangerous animals were just descending from the mountain in a double line, but the moment they caught sight of the mammoth sea-monster, their bodies froze with terror and they were turned to stone. Terrified at the power of the creature he had conjured, the old naguál quickly made use of his most powerful incantation, with the result that the turtle also was transformed into stone. The proof of the truth of the story we saw in the lines of stone tigers on the mountain side and the stone turtle at the foot of the hill, as we rode by.”
Needless to say that, after reading this story, the woman has morphed into much more than a two-dimensional curiousity. The story is fantastic and even slightly preposterous, but it’s a part of the seller’s history in much the same way that textbook wars and treaties are to us. She’s probably long dead, but the market woman is no longer just an exotic exhibit A. Reading about her myth gives us an inkling of what’s going on in the eyes of the person looking out of the paper.
High on the list of forgotten professions is the ragpicking trade. But looking back to the 19th-century we see that he or she was a figure of import, a kind of urban seer whose daily toil paid off in inestimable wisdom. In The Ragpicker’s Wine, Baudelaire describes the nobility of this silent ghostlike presence:
Wearing vintage is hardly a modern hipster eccentricity. Hand-me-downs have always dominated in the pre-Walmart era. But in certain eras the custom had a greater effect on the social fabric of the poor. In ancien regime France, the Parisian poor distinguised themselves from the desperate looks of ragged peasants outside the city. In his blog, Jefferson in Paris, Harlan Lewin, cites a contemporary commentator, the Marquis de Paulmy, in his “Précis de la Vie privée des Français” (1779). http://jeffersoninparis.com/fashioninjeffsparis.html. The Marquis notes that peasants in the far reaches of the countryside consider a leather shoe a nearly unfathomable luxury. They make do with clogs or even ropes wrapped around their feet. However, the fashion divide was absent in Paris and the larger cities, where inhabitants could purchase the used clothing of the rich for a fraction of the original cost. And most used the custom well to their advantage:
“Everybody is well clad there, and seems as if he could afford to change his linen and coat twice a day.” Most Of the artizans (sic) dressed in imitation of their betters when they were not at work, and it was no uncommon thing to meet in the streets a lot of dandies, fashionably dressed and girt with a sword, who turned out to be barbers, printers, tailors, or shopmen. The females of the lower classes were always neatly dressed, sometimes with remarkably good taste, and the Paris grisette was renowned throughout the whole of the 18th century for her neatness of attire.”
So let’s compare:
The peasant dress is no doubt an accurate rendering, except that it would be ragged and dirty as a general rule. The aristocratic toilette would be carefully scented and maintained by an army of laundresses and lady’s maids.
If clothes make the man, what kinds of attitudes would result from this trading up? Inferiors were supposed to look that way, but by these accounts the urban proletariat failed to convey the deference required in both style and word. Smelly rags might convey anger well but repurposing the clothes of the oppressor would send a much clearer message, “What’s yours should be mine, and it is and will be.”
Advisable or not, I’ve created a new section in my Etsy store where I’ll be posting vintage photographs, prints and other kinds of “what-have-you” that might be charitably called art. Right now, I’m mining my inventory of mostly 19th-century photographs that I have collected over the years. Since I live in a tiny 50’s ranch, there’s not as much wall space as I would need to exhibit them properly. So I think it’s time to share. It’s difficult to part with antique photos, even if you never do get to clap eyes on ’em. Somehow it feels like you’re disposing of the dead. But perhaps it’s even better karma to put these faces into circulation.
My favorite found object caused me a lot of speculation and confusion, but I still love it to this day. While writing a dissertation on the “flaneur” or urban stroller, I was well-immersed in the art and literature of the picturesque landscape-you know, the bucolic painter or writer who gazes in the distance and freeze-frames the scene. There was a long tradition that became even more fervent as industry started to encroach on the countryside. For example, while Rousseau waxes ecstatic about the pleasures of botanization, he interrupts his poetic speech when he hears a recurrent clicking sound. This turns out to be a stocking factory humming busily in a clearing. Oh well.
At any rate, these stories had been on my mind although I embarqued on the more Surrealist quest to find baffling found objects in the flea market, on this day, Vanves. I was near finished, a bit discouraged because most of the vendors that day were flogging overpriced trash and there were few cheap thrills to be found. But then I spotted a large 19th-century print in ragged condition on a ragged blanket. The landscape artist was priced even less than I would hope.
I feigned boredom and quickly paid up. Then, after moving further away to examine the loot, I saw the signature-NADAR-and near swooned. This was a providential piece of luck. I imagined the worth of my prized found object, but could also scarcely imagine parting with it.
I’m also hardly a sucker for this things. I was skeptical, sure. But it didn’t look like a cheap poster, even a vintage one. The backing was old and slighly moldy. It had been made well and preserved competently, at least for a while in its history.
When I set out to verify I got acquainted with the commercial antique world and consulted a number of experts. Most hemmed and hawed. The signature was exact. Nadar’s writing was notable for even a few laymen. He had been such a showman that his flourish in everything he did was legendary.
Finally, however, I found a photography expert in the Marais who delivered the blow with a fair degree of admiration for what it was. It was not real. But the counterfitter had gone through a large amount of trouble and expense to photograph the photograph with the best equipment of his time. The image was blurred in the places that pointed to picture of a picture. And it was backed and blown up with care. The signature forgery was expert, perhaps a bit too dark and the ink too thick. But still a masterpiece.
I was not overly disillusioned at my loss of the great lifetime find. In fact, the reversal made my object all the more worth cherishing.
Nadar was obsessed with all kinds of technical derring do in photography-aerial shots, portraits of difficult divas, you name it. He was an afficionado of urbanism yet made his country painter a significant subject. An anachronism that was appealing enough to counterfeit for a city customer.
The moral of the story has something to do with the counterfeit nature of nostalgia.
Waiting for a dangerous thunderstorm while groovin’ to the work of Chris Held and his concept of the hacked object. It would quicken the heartbeat of any resurrected Dadaist, but his work goes a step further since it not only creates a montage, it creates a strange yet newly functional object. Do check it out. It’s got me to rethinking some of the lesser-loved junk I have in the household.
Perhaps thingbox should start a section of upcycling supplies?
From the blog, Junkculture, which is a blog I will be following loyally from now on: