Friday, October 29, 2010

Do Political Paintings Age Well?

Painting overtly political subjects can be a risky task. There's the obvious risk of supporting a side that eventually loses -- will the winners seek retribution? But another risk is that, once an issue is no longer current, the paintings will be forgotten and the artist as well. Which might be why political paintings represent a rare genre.

Another consideration related to transitory political issues is painting technology. While a painting might take weeks or even months to complete, posters can be on the streets in a matter of days from when an inspiration strikes. This is why most political art is in poster form.

Before the 19th century most art was commissioned by the church, state, and rich or powerful individuals. Political content, such as it was, therefore was mostly in support of those who hired the artist. That is, anti-establishment painting subjects were rare because they were seldom funded. As painters became less reliant on traditional commission sources, they became increasingly able to create critical art.

Liberty Leading the People - Eugène Delacroix - 1830
As is noted here, Delacroix's famous work commemorates a successful regime change even though it appears to be a call to arms. The new regime (that of Louis-Philippe) eventually entered history's dustbin, but the huge painting lives on in the Louvre.

The Arsenal - Diego Rivera - 1928
The Russian revolution is glorified and a Mexican version encouraged in this mural that even includes Rivera's occasional wife Frida Kahlo as the central subject. Mexican governments at the time regarded themselves as "revolutionary" and tolerated such themes for murals on public buildings.

Eternal City - Peter Blume (1906-92) - completed 1937
I wonder how many people today would be able the grasp the context of this painting if they encountered it at New York's Museum of Modern Art and saw a plaque containing only the information above. The subject is anti-Fascism and the green jack-in-the-box figure represents Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. No one under age 70 can remember the living Mussolini who is increasing an historical footnote.

By Zina Saunders
This looks like a computer-generated "painting" (note the treatment of the plane's engine cowling) though in principle it could have been rendered in oil, acrylic or gouache. Like Blume's painting, it is likely to age poorly because it isn't very interesting artistically and deals with an ephemeral subject requiring specialized knowledge (i.e., Sarah Palin likes to hunt).

"Truther" poster by William Groshelle
Here is the sort of political-themed "art poster" common since the mid-1960s and reaching a climax during the presidency of George W. Bush (shown). Many current political-themed posters make use of computer-manipulated collages such as seen here; it's a quick way to create something with visual interest and realistic looking detail. Were this a painting, I doubt it or its artist would be long-remembered. It's too topical and historically questionable.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

French Battleships: Steampunk to Sleek

The French are known for elegant design as well as a self-proclaimed devotion to la logique. For some reason, French battleships (cuirassés) designed before the Great War had looks that ranged from awkward to ugly. Perhaps logique triumphed over elegance. When battleship programs renewed in the 1930s all this changed and the new French battleships were among the most attractive in the world.

In fairness, nearly all the world's battleships designed before 1905 were awkward-looking. In part this was because they tended to sport several sets of different-sized guns. Starting with Dreadnought (launched 1906), battleships had a set of main guns and another of smaller guns for fighting off torpedo boats. In World War 2, secondary armament was devoted to anti-aircraft guns what cluttered much of the ships' superstructures. Nevertheless, appearance usually remained much less awkward than for pre-Dreadnought ships.

Below are two examples of French battleship architecture, one from each design era.

Voltaire - (Danton class) - 1911-1937
Voltaire was part of the 1906 battleship program whose initiation happened to coincide with the launching of Britain's Dreadnought, the first modern battleship. (The French Wikipedia entry on the Danton class is here.) French naval shipbuilding was a slow process, perhaps because the army was considered more vital. In any case Voltaire, which entered service in 1911, was what now is termed a "pre-Dreadnought" design that was instantly made obsolete at Dreadnought's 1906 launching.

Richelieu - 1940-1967
Richelieu (Wikipedia entry here) was still fitting out at Brest when France was about to surrender. However, it escaped and served with the Allies during World War 2. Its main armament is of interest because the eight guns are mounted in two forward turrets. Typical main armament at the time was nine guns, three to the turret, with two turrets mounted forward and one to the rear.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Airport Gate as Holding Tank

A byproduct of a recent round-trip between London and Paris was the experience of using British Airways' new Terminal 5 at London's Heathrow airport.

To most Americans, the mechanics of flight departure at Terminal 5 would be basically normal, given the usual expected minor variations between airports. But this actually is just one of two major passenger processing alternatives found around the world. Consider Heathrow's Terminal 3, where non-British Airways flights to North America originate.

At Terminal 3 onc encounters the usual drill. First is passenger check-in coupled with a few security-related questions and details. Then one moves on through the usual security inspection process. Once "sanitized," the next destination is a mini-mall full of duty-free and other shops where you can trade your excess pounds for anything from a Cadbury candy bar to a Gucci purse. So far, pretty standard stuff.

The big difference comes when one leaves the shopping zone for the departure gate. In America, a departure gate usually amounts to a section along one side of a long, glassed-in hall where can be found a door to the aircraft ramp, a check-in desk and lots of seats for waiting passengers. But in Heathrow 3, that long hallway is flanked by what amount to holding tanks -- rooms containing the usual ramp door, desk and seating.

At least you are free to leave the tank, something you can't do elsewhere. In some cases, passengers go through a final passport inspection before entering the tank: after, they're stuck. Seems to me this was how it worked in Copenhagen.

Perhaps some people find all this lots of jolly fun. I think it's the usual processed-meat airport experience raised to the next higher power. Moreover, I don't find it necessary; the normal U.S. style procedures work just fine and eliminate some of the totalitarian overtones.

For what it's worth, here are some airports where I had that warm, fuzzy holding tank experience: Vancouver and Toronto (in the 1980s -- things might have changed since), Copenhagen and Heathrow 3. Mercifully, I can't recall how things worked at places such as DeGaulle 1, Orly-Sud, Helsinki and Frankfurt.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Tri-Motor Aircraft, 1930-1950

Most aircraft either have a single motor or a number of motors evenly divisible by 2 (2, 4, 6 etc.). Odd-number engine counts such as five and seven are possible, but only tri-motor aircraft saw significant production in the odd-count, multi-engine category.

There are two main reasons for going the three-motor design route. One has to do with safety. In the days when reciprocating engines were the norm, reliability of such motors was often questionable. In the early days of aviation, motors were comparatively crude and their design imperfectly understood. By the 1940s, engine design was pretty well understood, but reliability was compromised by the quest for ever more power. In the case of radial, air-cooled motors, the route to more power was through adding cylinders and accessories such as turbocharging. The result was complexity that led to unreliability that plagued aircraft such as the B-29 bomber and Super Constellation airliner.

So, if four engines couldn't be justified, then why not have three if the loss of one motor on a two-motor plane was too risky.

Actually, this implies that only one working motor might not have the power to maintain flight. And this is the second reason for tri-motor craft: in many cases (especially in the years around 1930) two motors weren't really sufficient to power large (at the time) transports and bombers.

Tri-motor aircraft have some disadvantages. The odd engine count precludes having engines driving propellers turning in opposite directions in order to cancel out torque effects imparted by propeller rotation. A motor mounted at the nose of an aircraft usually impaired visibility for the pilot. Post-World War 2, the center engine would also occupy space that would ordinarily be used by a radar set.

The initial heyday of tri-motors was the early 1930s. Three-engined jet airliners were common for a number of decades starting in the early 1960s. But that's a subject for another time.

Below is a gallery of tri-motor aircraft in the years before 1950.

Ford Trimotor and three-engined Boeing 727
This photo was taken in 1964 or 1965 showing both planes in American Airlines livery. I saw this restored Ford at the 1965 New York World's Fair.

Fokker F.VIIb
This was a rival to the Ford. Pictured here is the one flown by Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith on some of his long-distance flights. It also was the type of plane that crashed, killing famed Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne. A factor in the crash was Fokker's use of wooden construction for the wings, spelling commercial doom for the F.VII: Fords were all-metal.

Stinson SM6000
Yet another high-wing monoplane tri-motor.

Stinson Model A
This was a low-wing tri-motor representing a trend away from high-mounted wings for monoplane transports. Several airlines used it during the mid-1930s, as indicated here.

Pander S-4
Pander S-4 at Mildenhall, England
Pander was small Dutch aircraft company (Wikipedia entry here) that built the S-4 as a prototype fast mail plane. It was perhaps the sleekest piston-engined tri-motor ever built, but unreliable. It was destroyed in a crash in the 1933 London-Melbourne competition.

Junkers Ju 52
The Ju 52 (alias Tante Ju) was by far the most successful piston-engined tri-motor, nearly 5,000 being between 1931 and 1952.

Savoia-Marchetti SM79 Sparviero
Both bomber and transport versions were built of this general design. Three motors were used for the bomber because Italy lagged behind Germany, Britain and, to a lesser degree, France in engine horsepower.

Northrop YC-125C
Three-engined planes were considered passé after World War 2, yet for some reason Northrop produced the archaic-seeming YC-125 in test-batch numbers.

Martin Martin XB-51
This flashy prototype jet attack bomber classifies as pre-1950 because its first flight took place 28 October, 1949. The "T-tail" and positioning of the forward engines are tell-tales of the influence of World War 2 German design as well as active participation by Hans Multhopp who helped design the Focke-Wulf Ta 183 fighter that was never built, but influenced the later Saab J-29 (Sweden) and MiG-15 (USSR).

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Racing Hydroplane Design Evolution

This probably isn't a big spectator sport in your neighborhood, but it was huge when I was growing up in Seattle. I'm talking about unlimited-class hydroplane racing.

This expensive sport was centered in Detroit for much of the first half of the 20th century and then caught fire in Seattle, as I'll explain below. Races are held elsewhere and there are pockets of interest in Madison, Indiana and a few other places, but Seattle and Detroit remain the heart of unlimited racing.

Being interested in design evolution, I've kept a casual eye out for changes to the physical form of unlimited hydros for years. The photos below summarize what's been happening these past 80 years.

Miss America X
Gar Wood's Miss America racers dominated the sport into the early 1930s. The Miss America shown above had a shallow V-bottom and "steps" such as are found on the bottoms of flying boats and float-plane floats. The concept was to lift the boat as high above water as possible so that it would tend to skip across the surface rather than plow through it. This goal is constant in power boat racing; what varies is the means used to maximize the effect.

Miss America X's four (!) engines
Miss America X was unusual in that it had four motors. Most unlimiteds make do with one and occasionally have two.

Tempo VI, owned by bandleader Guy Lombardo
Tempo VI, a pre-World War 2 design incorporates sponsons mounted on each side of the front part of the hull. These further raised the boat above the water; the "wetted area" comprised the rear underside of each sponson and the underside of the hull near the stern.

Miss Pepsi
Somewhat retrograde circa-1950 was Miss Pepsi which had a step-type hull similar to that of Miss America. Regardless, the Pepsi was very competitive against even the advanced designs exemplified by Slo-Mo-Shun IV (below).

Slo-Mo-Shun IV
Slo-Mo was designed by Ted Jones and owned by Seattle Chrysler dealer Stanley Sayres. It set a world straightaway speed record for boats in 1950, hitting 160 miles per hour on Lake Washington. Later that summer it traveled to Detroit and easily won the Gold Cup race which then was held in Seattle for the next few years.

Slo-Mo-Shun IV at speed
This shows Slo-Mo as she might have looked when setting the speed record. Note the characteristic high "rooster tail" of spray. This was a side-effect of Jones' design innovation. The wetted areas were small patches of the rear undersides of the sponsons. The rear part of the hull did not scrape the water as did Tempo VI. Instead, the final touch point of the so-called "three-pointer" was the propeller itself. It's the half-submerged prop that kicks up the rooster tail. For the last 60 years nearly all unlimited hydros followed this design approach.

Miss Budweiser, circa 1980
Front view of circa-1980 Miss Budweiser
As with Formula 1 racing cars, hydro designers decided that it was advantageous to improve driver visibility and improve comfort (sitting behind the engine exposed him to heat and fumes). Hence the "cab forward" design illustrated here.

Turbine-powered Miss Budweisers
For many years after World War 2 unlimited hydroplanes were powered by water cooled fighter plane engines-- Allisons at first, later by Rolls-Royce/Packard motors. But these were temperamental when modified to power racing boats and supplies of them were drying up. By the 1990s most designers switched to gas turbine power; note the air intakes shown in the photo. (The turbine drives a propeller, just as piston engines did.)

Another concern was driver safety. Unlimited hydro racing accidents cost the lives of a number of drivers over the years and resulted in serious, career-ending injuries to others. A solution that has worked well is the adaptation of cockpits from F-16 fighters for hydro use. Rather than being thrown out of the boat, the driver rides out the accident strapped to his seat in a waterproof enclosure with its emergency oxygen supply. These cockpits can be seen in the photo.

Flipped hydroplane -- shows plan view of recent designs
Slo-Mo-Shun IV had a spade-like profile when seen from above. This design proved to be too prone to the bow end lifting the boat into a spectacular back-flip. Some of this might have been due to aerodynamic lift if the boat's angle of attack changed, but the main reason had to do with air pushing on the underside of the hull, a force that becomes ever-stronger as the angle deviated from the horizontal. Over time the spade shape was abandoned for a "pickle fork" treatment that, suitably evolved by wind tunnel testing, resulted in the plan view seen here. Note the holes toward the front that lessen a potential flip-producing force. Obviously, flips still happen. But they now are more likely to result from digging into water stirred up by racing activity than being lifted higher after a bounce.

Many subtle improvements have been made, so today's hydros can lap a 3-mile racetrack-shaped course at speeds of 150 miles per hour -- not much less than Slo-Mo's 1950 straightaway record run. (Records after a 178 mph run in 1952 by Slo-Mo-Shun IV were set by prop-less jet-propelled boats. The current mark is just under 318 mph, set in 1978 -- Wikipedia entry here.)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Fab Fifties Facelifts

Bringing an entirely new automobile to production is expensive. There are few cases in the modern (say, from 1930) history of the industry that a platform was in production for only one year. Circumstances can mitigate, but Honda for many years tended to do a redesign of a model every four years. Some makers would redesign every two or three years and others (think Volkswagen Beetle) produced the same platform for decades.

The term "platform" is auto industry jargon for a set of core components. That platform can serve as the basis for a single model (Toyota RAV4, for example) or it can be shared by several makes or models that are differentiated by relatively superficial appearance changes (for instance, the 1990s GM-10 platform was used for Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick and Oldsmobile models).

Nowadays a platform comes in the form of a unitized body into which are stuffed engines, drive trains and passenger accommodations and onto which are attached body shell panels. Before the 1970s, most American makers used separate bodies that where bolted onto a chassis. Unit bodies are expensive to engineer and modify for styling reasons. Separate bodies were changed less expensively, but the one area that really did cost a lot to redo was the cowl -- the part comprising the engine firewall.

Thanks to iron rules of the economics of scale, car makers with comparatively few sales could not afford to change bodies as often as their larger, richer competitors. So to keep their models as stylistically fresh as possible, they relied on facelifts to entice customers. A "facelift" in automobile terms means restyling visible parts of a car while retaining the same platform. This can be done once or twice, but eventually the car-buying public would wise up to the fact that warmed-over goods were being offered whereas other companies were selling new goods.

Below are examples of facelifts from the 1950s when annual styling changes were probably the major marketing tool.

Hudson - 1937
Hudson - 1946-47
Lets pause before dealing with the 50s and consider Hudson. Hudson brought a new body to the market for the 1936 model year and continued using it with facelift after facelift through the 1947 model year. The 1937 car show above is very similar to the '36 and can be taken as the starting point. It seems a lot different from the 1946-47 Hudson. But look carefully. Note that the windows are essentially the same. And the body tucks inward from the belt line to the running board area on both cars. What we see is the 1936 basic body with new fenders, trunk and hood (not to mention the grille, chrome trim, etc.).

Frazer - 1948
Frazer - 1951
Kaiser-Frazer axed the Frazer brand after the 1951 model year. For 1951, the Kaiser got a svelte new body and Frazer a massive facelift. Given the fate of Frazer, that facelift strikes me as being a huge waste of money. Nevertheless, the facelift was so effective that young punk me failed to realize at the time what it was; I thought it was a new body design.

Nash - 1952
Nash - 1957
These photos illustrate the first and final models using the big-Nash bodies of the 1950s. The big (and most expensive) change was the addition of a wrap-around windshield, a styling must at mid-decade. Otherwise, the facelift was mostly in the form of larger front wheel openings, quad headlights, revised grille and trim: not as drastic as for the other examples here.

Ford - 1954
Ford - 1955
Ford definitely was not a low-volume producer, but the decision was made to give its 1952-vintage bodies a major facelift that would extend their production two more years. Changes included the competitively necessary wraparound windshield, a slightly lowered roof (it was flattened), revised fenders, "Frenched" headlights and a new grille. These changes effectively created the image of a total redesign.

Mercury - 1952
Mercury - 1956
Mercury also had its 1952 body facelifted for 1955. The types of changes made were similar to those for Ford and, again, the result was the appearance of a total redesign.

Packard - 1951
Packard - 1956
Packards received their first post-World War 2 total restyling for the 1951 model year; these bodies continued in production through 1956. These photos show top-of-the-line Packards for those years. As with Ford and Mercury, 1955 was the year for the major facelift. The expected wraparound windshield was added, the fronts of the rear fenders were squared off somewhat, the front end was restyled as was the rear. Chrome strips, aluminum panels and paint two-toning helped give the sides a different look. As with Ford and Mercury, to a casual onlooker the new Packard seemed to be all-new.

Packard - 1951
Packard Clipper - 1956
These photos show how entry-level Packards were facelifted into the the short-lived Clipper brand. Changes were made in line with those for senior Packards, though details varied. Grille bars were vertical rather than a grid, the side strips and paint differed and the tail lights and rear fender tips were made less sedate.

Studebaker - 1953
Studebaker - 1964
Studebaker introduced its last truly new bodies for 1953. And, like Hudson, several major facelifts were undertaken. The 1964 Studebaker looks totally different from the '53 even though the "bones" are nearly the same. The '64 shown is a hardtop coupe; I couldn't fine a suitable photo of a sedan which might have indicated similarities better.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Impasto Makes the Un-Gilded Lily

A while ago I posted about the late illustrator and fine-arts painter Pino Dangelico. In passing, I mentioned that some giclée reproductions of his paintings featured "enhancement" by the artist. I think this matter bears elaboration.

I'm no expert on this, my observations here are largely based on casual visits to art galleries in places such as Carmel and Palm Desert. But, to add a bit of hard data, here is a site with prices for Pino Giclées, both basic and "enhanced" or "embellished" (both terms are used).

The prices seem lower than those I'm familiar with for a Pino giclée, but the important information is that, in this instance, having the artist grab a brush and put a few thick swaths and dabs of white or other light colored paint on it have the market effect of doubling the presumed value.

This can be a nice, almost-instantly realized benefit for an artist, gallery owner or on-line vendor: the artist's hand certifiably touched the reproduction and thereby increased its intrinsic worth.

If I were in the position of having to make paintings to pay my bills, I'd probably happily go along with the enhancement process. But I'd also realize that there are issues. Not easily resolved ones at that.

Obvious issues involve the worth of a reproduction as opposed to that of the painting that is reproduced. Capitalist tool me, I simply shrug my shoulders and assert that whatever The Market is, is.

Then there is the matter of input by the artist. An interesting case is posed in the book The $12 Million Stuffed Shark where it is related that heads were scratched in puzzlement when Damien Hirst's glass-encased, formaldehyde-preserved stuffed shark began to deteriorate badly and had to be replaced. Would a new stuffed shark be the same "work of art" or something different? Was the artist's "intent" more important than the physical "art" itself? Again, no easy answer.

But the issue that interests me most with respect to "enhancement" is the effect of additional artist input to an image. In most cases, the source painting for any reproduction represents something close to what satisfied the artist. Coloration, composition, any textural elements (thickly and thinly painted areas, effects of visible brush strokes) and other factors combine into what is presumably a "balanced" work of art.

Therefore, if the original is about as good as one can expect, then any additions by the artist are likely to change this "balance" and probably make the result aesthetically inferior to the original.

And this is what I almost always perceive when I encounter giclées "enhanced" by Pino himself; the resulting image is less satisfying than the original. Moreover, I also find it less satisfying than that of an un-enhanced giclée. Assuming I couldn't afford a Pino original (a very good assumption), I'd probably buy an unmodified giclée rather than one bearing the artist's own brushstrokes. Because I'd like it better.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Separated at Birth - 60 Years Apart

Alright, already. I know they aren't identical. They are products from different manufacturers and introduced to the market nearly 60 years apart.

But isn't there just a whiff of something evocative?

Judge for yourself:

Studebaker Champion convertible - 1950

Mercedes SLK - current

Monday, October 11, 2010

London's Off-the-Beaten-Track Masterpieces

Laughing Cavalier - Frans Hals - 1924

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère - Eduard Manet - 1882

Do these painting look familiar? I hope so. Do you know where to see them in person? You have to travel to London. But they won't be found in top-of-the-line art museums such as the Tate or the National Gallery. They're in places a notch below the "must see if you're in town for only three days" list. Take heed: they're surrounded by other notable works of art.

The Hals painting is in the Wallace Collection, somewhat off the usual tourist track. The Wallace is a short ways east of Baker Street in the zone between Oxford Street on the south and Madame Tussaud's and the Sherlock Holmes Museum to the north. And there's no Underground stop nearby, so you'll have to blow some pounds for a cab or else hoof it.

The Manet is in the Courtauld Gallery, a smallish museum occupying part of a wing of Somerset House on the Strand. It's south of the Covent Garden area and the Strand itself is probably the route one might take from Trafalgar Square to the City and St. Paul's Cathedral. The nearest Underground station is several blocks away at Temple, on the Embankment (Circle and District lines).

Friday, October 8, 2010

Philadelphia Suburban Trolley Cars of the 1930s

People joke about Brooklyn. And New Jersey (pronounced "joy-zee" when joking or actually from Hoboken).

Then there is Philadelphia, "city of brotherly love" and the subject of a few knife-twisters. For example (if I remember this right), W.C. Fields on the matter of death mused "on the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia." Then there is the apocryphal contest where first prize is one week in Philadelphia and the second prize is two weeks there.

Me? I lived there the better part of three years as a Penn grad student.

Actually, I'm not telling the complete truth. For about six months of that time I lived in Lansdowne, a suburb just west of the city. Across the street in front of our apartment house and parallel to it ran the Red Arrow trolley line (Some links about the Red Arrow are here and here). The coaches were pretty old-fashioned looking even in 1967, but I found that kinda neat.

Inbound trains rolled past our place down the hill to the station at 69th Street where the line terminated and a Philly-bound passenger would have to transfer to a bus or subway line to continue his journey.

The 69th Street Terminal is also anchor to one end of the Philadelphia-Norristown interurban line (some links are here and here). In those days, the interurban ran fascinating coaches whose ends were shaped in a early Buck Rogers sci-fi fashion. I never had a reason to travel that route, but once upon a time decided that I had to do so, and did before some fool decided to get rid of those fabulously archaic-futuristic coaches.

Here's what I'm raving about:

Red Arrow car

Red Arrow car as seen in the 1960s

Philadelphia and Western (Philadelphia-Norristown) interurban Brill "Bullet" car

Lineup of Bullet cars in the 1970s

The Norristown Bullet cars were built around 1930 by Philadelphia's Brill company (Wikipedia link here). Since they ran as fast as 70 miles per hour (a bit more than 100 kph), end designs were tested in a wind tunnel -- a progressive and unusual practice at the time.

The bottom photo gives the better sense of the Bullets, but to fully appreciate their look, they had to be seen in motion -- particularly at speed.