Diving into an ocean of wonders in pursuit of the marvellous

The Artificial Kingdom
June 23, 2000

Celeste Olalquiaga, a splendid name for an innocently louche heroine in a Ronald Firbank novel, is in fact of Chilean origin, raised in Venezuela, and with a PhD from Columbia University. She has written a very odd, wonderfully illustrated book; a hymn to the meretricious and the marvellous. She has a Shakespearean enthusiasm for the metamorphic aspect of the bottom of the sea, and prints enough footnotes and quotations to indicate wide and meticulous research.

She also has a thesis, but it takes some time and concentration to run it down. It resembles indeed the engraving she reproduces of "an underwater telegraph cable raised to the surface in 1860 from a depth of 1,000 fathoms" and found to be, unexpectedly, "laden with marine life". Her thesis too is laden, not only with marine life, although she spends quite a lot of time poking about on the seabed, but also by dreams, fantasies, myths and fairy tales. I was at times reminded of a less earthy, more Latin version of Angela Carter.

Olalquiaga writes well, at times very well indeed, but she has alas a happily rare streak of whimsy. Throughout the book her touchstone is a hermit crab suspended in a glass sphere. There is nothing wrong with this in itself, the crab's growth and the need to reject one mollusc shell for a larger gives it a valid place as kitschian metaphor, only the author sees fit to call it "Rodney", to talk to it, to anthropomorphise it. It is her baby's dummy. "Rodney" apart, though, and the occasional purple outburst, there is little to criticise.

She could, however, and without sacrificing her lyrical and visionary aspect, have given her views on kitsch, her definition of what it is, less obliquely. For a start, she confines it largely to the 19th century, admittedly its golden age, but there is plenty of it around still (those "limited edition" plates advertised on the back of the colour supplements, for example). She maintains that "kitsch exudes the peculiar sadness of broken or even half-forgotten dreams" and concludes this passage by claiming "the intrinsic impossibility of kitsch leads it to be continually forgotten, making up a fundamental part of that familiar circuit of abandoned objects found in the flea-markets, thrift shops..."

No one can argue with that, but what Olalquiaga ignores (or chooses to ignore) is how those same thrift shops and flea-markets were and are patrolled by beady-eyed intellectuals in search of those very kitsch objects recently "abandoned". Sometimes the intention may be purely frivolous, between inverted commas as it were, like the recent revival of wall-plaque ducks, but often it is because the original manufacturers of kitsch aimed to feed a real hunger for the marvellous, again evident to the trained sophisticated eye, Olalquiaga's, I suspect, among them. Only Colette's paperweight collection and its phenomenal rise in value is mentioned in this connection.

Another kitsch development she ignores is how recently it has all speeded up, not so much in quantity as in an instant recycling back into favour - those "lava lights" of the 1960s are a typical example.

Still, I believe her to be absolutely right in maintaining that kitsch was born of the industrial revolution. Before that, taste, art, fashion, the acquisition of cherishable objects were confined to the aristocracy, "society", the land-owning classes and successful professional men. Mass production altered all this. It sought, and however briefly provided, an illusory stake in the past.

Nor is regret at the pathetic built-in obsolescence of kitsch a new concept. Louis Aragon, author of Paris Peasant, mentioned only once in a footnote in this book, was entirely on our author's wave-length. On the destruction of twin arcades, knocked down in the 1920s during the construction of the Boulevard Haussman, Aragon wrote of the threatened "passages" as "the true sanctuaries of a cult of the ephemeral" and as "places that were incomprehensible yesterday, and that tomorrow will never know". Olalquiaga writes also of arcades in a similar vein.

In fact, although appearing only once in the index as such, and despite a chapter heading quote from its leader Andre Breton, the surrealist spirit, while unacknowledged, haunts these pages.

In the end kitsch is only the diving-board from which the author, the "blind swimmer", plunges into an ocean of wonders in pursuit of the marvellous.

George Melly is a professional jazz singer and author of books on art and popular culture.

The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience

Author - Celeste Olalquiaga
ISBN - 0 7475 4535 9
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Price - £20.00
Pages - 321

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