DECONSTRUCTING EXQUISITELY BAD POPULAR ART

by Karl M. Petruso


       On the following pages you will find a number of examples of picture postcards that share a particular theme. I have never known what to call the genre they represent; those of us who collected them usually referred to them merely as "tacky." This word is insufficiently precise, however, inasmuch as it traditionally includes a number of cheeseball types popular since the early 20th century in the U.S. (e.g., monster potatoes from Idaho, monster salmon from Washington, monster lobsters from Maine, jackalopes from Texas, Elvis Presley's Graceland--well, you get the idea).

       I began collecting these postcards in Europe and the Middle East in 1969. They were all, so far as I can tell, posed and shot by European commercial photographers. At first I found them silly, kitsch with a capital K. I have never seen anything like them for sale in the U.S.

        The ubiquity of these tiny works of art was remarkable. In Greece, where I have spent most of my time abroad, they were available in all stationery shops and street-corner kiosks from the 1960s to the early 1980s, but they have been almost impossible to find for the past fifteen or twenty years.

        The stiltedly formal compositions share the following characteristics:
    •  A nuclear family (typically the Euro equivalent of Mom, Dad, Buddy and Sis) depicted in cozy domestic scenes;
    •  A bourgeois setting, usually indoors in a den, salon or family room. Some scenes are shot outdoors, most often at a picnic;
    •  Very attractive family members (presumably all professional models), nicely coiffed and dressed in modish attire, sometimes in delightfully bilious colors and clashing patterns;
    •  Overly furnished rooms fitted out with worksaving appliances, modern conveniences and all manner of tchotchkes, evoking upwardly mobile, middle-class economic and social status; and
    •  Kids surrounded by toys and games, suggesting stimulating, pampered, even hyperindulged childhoods.
        One of the fun challenges in collecting these postcards was to find matching sets--that is, scenes posed and shot at the same time, by the same photographer, with the same models in the same rooms. Often, to offer the consumer some visual variety, the models would wear several different changes of clothes within a series. I have arranged the cards in the following pages by sets, to facilitate their formal analysis and appreciation by visitors to this website. You will notice models who appear in different series, with different spouse/child permutations. The possibilities are infinite. Okay, maybe not infinite, but many.

        How can their obvious appeal be explained? What purpose might they have served? In Europe, at least, there has long been a tradition of sending postcards as greeting cards (and they require less postage than letters to send). It should also be noted, on the other hand, that Europeans commonly send their postcards in envelopes to give them and their addressees a measure of privacy (which is not usually a matter of concern to Americans who send postcards). The easiest and most obvious explanation for their popularity is that by sending such glorious domestic scenes, one is wishing the recipient a tranquil, loving and--perhaps above all, prosperous--life: sympathetic magic in 150 square centimeters. A Marxist would have a field day with these little tableaux.

        The dramatic increase in the prosperity of most European countries since the establishment of the European Union (again, Greece is the country with which I am most familiar, and is perhaps the best example) suggests the main reason for the eclipse of this postcard genre in recent years. They have, quite simply, become passé. Nowadays the kiosks are festooned with postcards depicting the usual array of ancient temples and other antiquities; but the warm and fuzzy family scenes have disappeared entirely, having been replaced by minimalist artsy-fartsy landscapes featuring shopworn taverna chairs and tables, flowerpots full of bright red geraniums in full bloom, kitty cats, and curvy whitewashed houses gleaming in the brutal Mediterranean sun with the wine-dark Aegean Sea in the background. These photos, which are very popular on wall calendars, are most frequently shot on Santorini, Mykonos, and one or two other photogenic Cycladic Islands. The deeply saturated (and, in recent years, digitally enhanced) primary colors of these set pieces assault the viewer; but the scenes are--how to put it?--austere and insipid, lacking in human interest and, more to the point for our purposes, thoroughly devoid of irony and satirical potential.

       There is another, related genre, the smarmy love card, a few examples of which I have in my collection. The gestalt is the same, although the models are generally younger; and there are of course no children to be seen. Some examples border on the erotic. Others are simply bizarre. These cards might well have served variously as break-the-ice notes, declarations of desire, or hommages to existing romantic relationships. But here again, as with the family scenes, the projection of the identities of real persons onto stagey photos of professional models is noteworthy and, in the end, not easy to understand.


Enough of this pompous art criticism already.
Let's see what's in the Cabinet