Travel Posters, Glamour, And Iconoclasm

Isle of man poster british railways 

This poster, up for auction next week from Swann Galleries, calls to mind a different (and possibly fictional) British tourism poster from the same era, the one in Philip Larkin's poem “Sunny Prestatyn.” The poem perfectly captures both the commercial glamour of travel posters and the urge to puncture the illusion.

Come to Sunny Prestatyn 
Laughed the girl on the poster, 
Kneeling up on the sand 
In tautened white satin. 
Behind her, a hunk of coast, a 
Hotel with palms 
Seemed to expand from her thighs and 
Spread breast-lifting arms.

She was slapped up one day in March. 
A couple of weeks, and her face 
Was snaggle-toothed and boss-eyed; 
Huge tits and a fissured crotch 
Were scored well in, and the space 
Between her legs held scrawls 
That set her fairly astride 
A tuberous cock and balls

Autographed Titch Thomas, while 
Someone had used a knife 
Or something to stab right through 
The moustached lips of her smile. 
She was too good for this life. 
Very soon, a great transverse tear 
Left only a hand and some blue. 
Now Fight Cancer is there.

With its aggressive cynicism, the graffiti destroys not only the model’s beauty but the poster’s promise of escape to a sunny, joyful world where satin stays taut and white. By defacing the poster, making the portrait ugly and ridiculous, the vandals remind viewers that the picture is an illusion, an image “too good for this life.”

To see more vintage travel posters, go to the Swann online catalog. To buy Philip Larkin's complete works, go to Collected Poems on Amazon.

Is California Still Glamorous?

With the state’s never-ending budget crises, jammed freeways, and high cost of living, California dreamin’ is out of style. “We are now the state that can’t,” Stephen Levy, the go-to guy for quotes about the California economy, told the NYT earlier this week. Calling the state “increasingly ungovernable,” the WaPost's Dan Balz writes:

The rest of the country has long looked to California as the future. It was once a leader in developing public infrastructure, and it created the most enviable system of public universities in the nation. Now the nation sees California and worries that its economic and political troubles will infect other states.

So the answer to the question at the top of this post would seem to be NO WAY!

But consider the Ferrari California, released last year. Why would Ferrari name its hot new car the California if California symbolizes traffic jams and screwed-up government? (For a higher-resolution version of the video, directed by Michael Mann, see the Ferrari California site.)

And why would Apple label all its products “Designed by Apple in California”? (This unaffiliated Apple reference site even adopted the slogan as its domain name.) Ferraris and iPods are both glamorous products. Why connect them to an unglamorous place?

In a post from 2007, Joel Spolsky gets the psychology exactly right:

Designed by Apple in California

You think of California, not the actual state, with its endless dismal boulevards full of muffler shops and donut stores, but the California of memory: the Beach Boys, the Summer of Love, and the beatniks, a utopian land of opportunity, an escape, where you go when you leave behind the cold winters and your conservative parents back in Cleveland.

And “Apple” in California is, of course, on the literal level, a computer company, and not a very nice one, but put those words together and you think of apple orchards, and the Beatles, and you think of how Forrest Gump got rich off of Apple stock. And “designed in California...” It's not made. It's designed. In California. Like a surfboard. Or a Lockheed XP-80.

And, of course, it might distract your attention from the fact that we no longer make things like this in America. We design them, but they pretty much have to be made in China.
Either way, the iPod slogan Designed by Apple in California triggers a flood of emotional responses that just make you happy to have selected this MP3 player.

I think there’s something else operating as well. California may seem too familiar and troubled to Americans in other states, but it still has glamour abroad. The UCLA student store attracts Asian tourists stocking up on souvenirs. The Ferrari California is aimed particularly at buyers in China and Russia. Is the Golden State still glamorous when seen from afar? And, if so, does distance explain the glamour, or is there something more?

[Designed by Apple photo from iPod Nano by Flickr user ume-y under Creative Commons license / CC BY-SA 2.0]

Dance Week: Ballet And The Distant Capital

Bolshoi ballet poster Moscow
This is a Soviet-era poster, auctioned by Swann in February. (It sold for $600.)  The caption reads, “You can only see this in Moscow,” and the building in the upper right is the Bolshoi Theater.

The poster seems less like an ad for the Bolshoi, however, than for Moscow—propaganda presenting the ideal of a cosmopolitan capital of grace, beauty, and high culture. For whom was it intended? Not foreign tourists, certainly, since they wouldn’t have understood the Russian. Yet to a provincial Russian, the poster’s glamour would have presented a cruelly tantalizing prospect. Under Soviet rule, movement to Moscow was strictly limited, and even today internal passports restrict free migration to the capital. “You can only see this in Moscow” is the promise of life somewhere over the rainbow, ideal but unattainable.

Wrecking The Magic

2738828455_36b9e13b87 Perhaps the most glamorous couple I have seen during the day was on a vaporetto (motorized bus-boat) in Venice. She was a young Italian beauty whose graceful long neck reminded me of a young Audrey Hepburn. Her dress was exquisite, perfect for a fancy holiday. Her partner was tall, dark, and ridiculously handsome, and he wore a beautiful Italian suit, his jacket draped casually over his shoulders.

It was late Friday afternoon, sunny, and the temperature was exquisite. The vaporetto was leaving from the train station, and from her excited look I assumed they were there for a weekend vacation. The setting was extraordinary, and every once in a while she would stretch up and kiss him on the neck or cheek. The only flaw in this romantic image was that he was talking business on his cell phone the whole ride.

He was not there in the moment. My wife observed, "He's wrecking this for her. He doesn't deserve her." Cell phones are marvelous, but I wonder how many potentially romantic moments they ruin.

In John Fowles novel Daniel Martin one chapter takes place at an amazing mesa in New Mexico named Tsankawi. When you hike to the mesa top there, you walk on the same trails the Anasazi (Ancient Ones) used centuries ago. The trails are worn into soft volcanic tuff, and in places the trails are worn so deep that you have no choice but to place your feet exactly where they did. I’ve hiked those trails, and doing so created an extraordinary feeling. The surrounding views are magnificent.

45143677_dc007c3295 When you reach the mesa top, not much remains of the Anasazi village. But you can find shards of their pottery lying on the ground (it’s a Federal crime to remove them). In the novel Daniel takes his girlfriend Jenny there because he wants to share what to him is a magical place. When they reach the mesa top, she is fascinated by the shards, and begins to collect them to make necklaces as presents for her friends. Not only does she miss the magical aura he feels, but she is desecrating it. She says the shards she’s collecting will never be missed. After that Daniel stops seeing her, and she, knowing the reason, tells him that it wasn’t fair for him to take her there as a test.

Was it a fair test or not? Not everyone will share all our personal enthusiasms. If we take someone we care about to a place we find magical, is it a fair test to take their indifference to that enchantment as a sign--an indication that they are not as much our hoped-for soul mate as we had imagined them to be?

[Vaporetta photo courtesy of Flickr user Nick Bramhall, Tsankawi photo courtesy of Flickr user KinnicChick, both under Creative Commons licenses.]

Musei Della Città Delle Belle Donne

Via Delle Belle Donne

Not surprisingly, a city whose ancient streets include one dedicated to Beautiful Women takes the art of beauty seriously--and not just in the gorgeous faces depicted by Botticelli, Leonardo, and the Lippis.

You can buy perfumes and lotions at the Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella, the oldest apothecary in Europe, or spend nothing and enjoy the perfumed air while gazing at frescoes and centuries-old ceramics jars.

The Salvatore Ferragamo shoe museum confirms Andy Warhol's observation that department stores and museums are much the same. It also demonstrates, in the contrast between its historic archives and the current exhibit of shoes from the movie Australia, that the chunky styles of the 1940s look better in larger sizes. (There's another YouTube feature, with background on the museum, here.)

My favorite discovery, however, is the tiny Museo della Ciprie, or Museum of Powder Boxes, really just a special room in a perfume shop on the tony Via de' Tornabuoni, not far from Ferragamo. The museum houses a collection of the decorative boxes in which face powder was sold through the first half of the 20th century. How do you package the promise of beauty? Here's a slideshow of examples.


Selling The Tuscan Dream

I saw this ad on Italian television, in a restaurant without the sound, and was struck by its weird glamour. Judging from the YouTube comments, some Italians worry that it's reinforcing stereotypes, but I think it acknowledges traditional imagery in an exuberant and contemporary style. It's like a fashion spread in motion. What do you think?

Glamorous Places: Tuscany Or Paris?

PonteVecchio I often say that I wasted my youth learning French. What I usually mean is that I should have studied Spanish, a language I could use nearly every day in my Southern California life. But, given the opportunity to learn another language, Spanish isn't the one I chose.

I'm in Florence, spending the next month taking Italian four hours a day. It's a post-cancer adventure, and a retreat in hopes of getting a bunch of book writing done.

The contrast between my youthful devotion to French and my current interest in Italian (an interest that actually dates to my college studies of the Renaissance) tracks with a shift in U.S. culture. Sometime during my adult life, Paris stopped being Americans' ideal of glamour and was replaced by Tuscany. Look at all these Tuscan makeovers on HGTV, 476 to be exact, (here's the Parisian competition, only 29), or these 56 features on French style, compared to 100 on Mediterranean style, mostly Tuscan. Paris still has its fans, of course, but when the typical middle-class American envisions the perfect escape, Tuscany, not Paris, comes to mind.

Hence, before I left, everyone asked me the same question, Have you read Eat, Pray, Love?

Glamour supplies something people feel is missing in their regular lives. In the era when Paris was the epitome of glamour, Americans were longing for cosmopolitanism and style. Now America is arguably more cosmopolitan than Paris--certainly Los Angeles is--and la mode is as easily found in Italy (or rising from U.S. streets.) as in Paris. What is glamorous today is a life of enjoyment and simplicity: good, fresh food in a beautiful place. Tuscany.

Of course, as anyone who has read Under the Tuscan Sun knows, the ideal of Tuscany as the good, simple life leaves out a few things--notably the way things have a tendency to break down and the difficulty of getting those things repaired efficiently. Glamour always omits the blemishes.

I'm not, in fact, attracted to the good, simple, rural life. Preferisco la città. (I prefer the city.) My glamorous Firenze is the one that drove the Futurists crazy--the museum Florence of past greatness, not present life, a Tuscany of striving and strife. I haven't read Eat, Pray, Love. I've read Macchiavelli, Castiglione, Galileo, Vasari, and Petrarch. I'm here for the art and the history. But the food is definitely a plus.

Pure Escape

ShowImage.asp This evocative 1945 poster, up for auction by Swann Galleries on February 5, is by Victor Vasarely, who later became famous as the father of Op-Art.

Although the words promote Air France flights to South America, nothing other than the (presumably) westerly direction of the plane suggests that destination. Unlike many vintage travel posters, this one contains no short-hand emblems of a colorful and exotic destination. 

It's a timeless, placeless image capturing the glamour of escape.

Marriott Sells Escape


Marriott built its brand on reliability--the same hotel room, regardless of where you were staying. A few years ago,  the company finally joined the age of aesthetics with an update that injected a bit more style and personalization into room design. Even so, the chain isn't known for its glamour. Nobody dreams of a vacation at the Marriott. The hotels are merely places to sleep in between meetings or, on occasion, sight-seeing.

Its ads, however, sell Marriott as an escape. On the web, ads like this one (appearing in various versions on The Washington Post's site) pitch not the hotels but their rewards program. The good old Marriott is a means to an end: It will transport you to a tropical paradise. Rewards programs are almost as common as in-room televisions, but that's not the point. This common feature provides an excuse for seductive imagery and, Marriott can hope, some glamour-by-association.

This TV ad for Marriott's Courtyard properties again turns a standard business-hotel feature--free wi-fi--into an image of escape. It's a throwback to the wireless glamour of the late '90s, with all those images of people typing on laptops at the beach. These days, however, no one confuses connection with vacation, which may explain why even as the walls of the hotel disappear, our hero keeps his desk chair. If you want a hammock, you'll have to cash in those reward points.