In praise of the picture postcard
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My mother kept her childhood mementoes in an old brown leather school case with worn brass clips. Among the letters, photographs, ticket stubs and playbills, its most intriguing contents were her art postcards. There were images from her travels through Europe’s museums, from the Louvre to Uffizi, as well as more modernist cards from her years studying at Saint Martin’s School of Art. Fed up with her daughters’ interest in trashy stickers, she decided to give the collection to us. It was the pivotal cultural experience of my young life, sparking a lifelong interest in art history and becoming the basis for my own, now 4,000-strong, collection.
My obsession is pre-dated by a huge postcard-collecting craze in the 1880s. Even Queen Victoria had a royal collection. Postcards first emerged in Austria in the 19th century, rising in popularity across Europe with the growth of tourism, and depicting largely illustrated and then photographic images of popular towns, holiday resorts, castles and restaurants. French postcards became known for their glamour and beauty, Germans favoured scenography, while the British cornered the market on the comic seaside card.
“It’s hard not to feel that we have a special relationship with postcards,” says Georgina Tomlinson, who curated The Postal Museum’s recently opened exhibition Wish You Were Here: 151 Years of the British Postcard. “Postcards are part of British holiday tradition, with designs depicting quintessential seaside scenes – and messages lamenting the weather.” These image-objects are also an egalitarian way to own art. If you can’t have the Bronzino, at least you can own a coveted 4cm x 6cm reproduction. But in the 1960s postcards started to become, in turn, a popular medium and source of inspiration for contemporary artists themselves. Since then, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Rachel Whiteread, Susan Hiller, Ben Vautier, Ray Johnson, Stephen Shore, Bruce Nauman, Gilbert & George and Gerhard Richter are just some of the names who have used postcards in their work – manipulating, collaging, mailing and designing cards ranging from the poetic to the political to the promotional. One of my favourite pieces is iconic Japanese artist Tadanori Yokoo’s dramatic wall installation of vintage postcards of waterfalls.
“At Phillips, we’ve sold Gilbert and George postcard sculptures for more than £15,000,” says Olivia Thornton, head of 20th-century & contemporary art, Europe. “Collectors are often drawn to works executed on a miniature scale, and postcards can give a snapshot of an artist’s practice in a format that is both accessible and engaging.”
For British conceptual artist John Stezaker, postcards were the catalyst for becoming an artist, and works combining his two major collections – film stills and landscape postcards – have led to major solo shows at London’s National Portrait Gallery, Centre de la Photographie Genève and inclusion in the Biennial of Sydney. “Postcards seem to situate the rather abstract narrative of the film; to fix it in space in some way,” he says. “I saw both [mediums] as analogous – they’re both mobile images, aren’t they? A film still is the leftover or the after image of a cinematic moment, and postcards are destined to travel. They both have a sort of mobility. Combined together they both seem to hold one another to a sort of stillness.”
“I learn a lot about the places I’m visiting from postcards,” says Berlin and LA-based artist Tacita Dean – yet, she adds, “they can be a false souvenir as well as a false memory.” Dean started to collect postcards around the year 2000, and they have since become an ongoing part of her work. She initially used them as photographic sources, but around 2005 started to overpaint the images. A particular interest is photographic postcards called RPPC (“real photo postcard”), sourced in flea markets: “They had a way to expose photographs onto postcard paper and then put the address on the back. They’re the nicest to work on,” she enthuses. For Dean, postcards can be used as a tool to transport: 2012 saw her create a postcard installation for dOCUMENTA 13 that used cards from the past to take viewers back to a bygone Kassel (the location of the art fair).
Dean’s latest commission, which was revealed at The Hepworth Wakefield, Yorkshire in May, is a postcard piece entitled Significant Form, for which she re-photographed cards that related in some way to sculptural forms. “Found stones, standing stones, a cactus, snow on trees, objects in the landscape, even in human form – anything. I re-photographed them in the style of [German cultural theorist] Aby Warburg in colour, and black and white.” Here, postcards are a way to deconstruct our relationship to the photographic image, and comment on nature, politics and history. By contrast, in London-based artist Damien Roach’s Transit series, vintage landscape postcards are collaged together into fantastical new compositions. Part of the appeal was the simplicity. Sometimes, “when you put two images together, it feels like they were always meant to be that way”, he says. “It’s so obvious, yet always so strange and unexpected when you find that connection: a fully distilled and minimal action.”
The escapist, hyper-real nature of these 1960s and 1970s images drew him in: “Super-saturated blue skies that bleed into turquoise seas, with the slightly-too-vibrant greens of trees and fields punctuating the ups and downs sketched out by the deep blues.” These landscapes, he says, “speak of aspiration and desire. Dreams of another world just a plane ride away. It’s important to remember that easyJet and Ryanair weren’t always a thing.” Added to this is how postcards reflect intimacy – through their hastily written thoughts and experiences. “Postcards are a strange knot of object and image. It’s strange that the messages people write are left exposed for all to see: the uncanny public intimacy of the postcard.” For Roach, postcards remind us that insight and meaning can be found in the discarded and humble things.
It’s a sentiment that resonates with David Horvitz. “I once left postcards on the floor in the Maldives airport to see if they would arrive. Someone picked them up and mailed them,” confides the American conceptual artist. He is particularly drawn to the history of mail art and “love[s] sending things out into the world, letting them go, letting things get lost, maybe”. On another occasion, he inserted his own cards of Venice into the city’s postcard racks.
Horvitz’s latest show at La Librairie Yvon Lambert in Paris is a series of time-stamped postcards with Lambert’s and Horvitz’s addresses as the return label. And an ongoing project sees him text a photo a day to the gallery, which they sell, printed on demand, for that day only (€1). At the time of writing, it was a picture of the clouds in an azure sky. “For me, the tourist postcard is a statement: I am here. It comes from a place, it arrives,” he says. “The images are usually so banal and cliché, but I love them. Do you really remember a sunset on Santa Monica beach? Or do you just remember the picture on the postcard?”
Despite the ever growing presence of digital images, my own postcard obsession remains undiminished. In the 1920s, people would say “I’ll postcard you” – just as we now might use text, email and social media. But an Instagram story and a jpeg lost on my phone will never compare to an intimate, physical, beautifully-printed card. A memory of a time I maybe never even had.
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