It was purely coincidental that I visited the latest Queensland Art Gallery exhibition, California Design, on the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, but they fitted together brilliantly.
California Design looks at the sleek, modernist, optimistic designs that came out of California between 1930 and the 1960s, and JFK’s Camelot image was polished – and tarnished – by the same broad-brush strokes. The Kennedys were always attracted by the lure of Hollywood. In lusting after Marilyn Monroe, the brothers were only following in the footsteps of old Joe, who made Gloria Swanson his mistress during the 1930s.
The exhibition begins with a pair of aerial shots of Los Angeles. In 1923, LA is little more than a triangle of country roads and an airstrip. By 1930, the triangle has been filled with houses, and outlying farms are already turning into suburbia. The pace of change must have been shocking or exhilarating to live through, and the boom in housing gave architects and designers an opportunity to concentrate on building – and filling – the private houses of a new wealthy elite.
In the 1930s, the California boom absorbed many creative talents from Europe, some of them refugees from political upheaval, but others just lured by the economic or artistic opportunities of this brave new world. Designers from Scandinavia and central Europe brought with them new ideas, techniques and materials – the Bauhaus influence, for instance, is strong, as is the use of moulded plywood and later plastic and fibreglass.
Some parts of the exhibition work better than others. It’s always hard to portray architecture. The photos and blueprints are interesting, but don’t really give a sense that the Californian experience was unique. On the contrary, here in Brisbane with a similar climate and lifestyle, I wonder if there is anything terribly new about sliding glass doors, linking inside and outside spaces or socialising around a barbeque.
Did we really only learn to live this lifestyle through watching Hollywood movies? Perhaps we did. The problem for me was that so many of the items on display were familiar, a part of my history too. I’ve played LPs in similar covers, stretched out on the same moulded plywood and leather lounge, reading a Hemingway hardback under a similar anodised lamp, coveted similar pieces of chunky silver jewellery, and thrown out – yikes, what was I thinking! – a very similar desk.
According to a Sydney Morning Herald article the curator sourced many of the smaller items from eBay – so the great clear out is still underway.
Some of the most fascinating items in the exhibition are the video clips. One runs a series of clips from Hollywood movies, which identify designer objects such as a chair or a lamp or a dress as each appears on the screen. Sometimes, as in Vermeer paintings, the same object appears in several films.
Another unintentionally hilarious clip shows Walt Disney introducing Our Friend the Atom, complete with a scientist with a funny accent who explains the chain reaction of nuclear fission using a lot of ping pong balls and mousetraps. (Don’t ask, but it’s on YouTube here)
Only a few items in the exhibition hint at the darker side of this Californian dream. World War II introduced new materials, and there is a two-piece bathing suit – a ‘swoon suit’ – made from parachute silk, the pants held up with lacing rather than elastic because of the rubber shortage.
Far sadder and more ambiguous is a silkscreen print from about 1942 made by Fujiye Fujikawa (1919-1991) who was one of the 100,000 Japanese-Americans rounded up and sent into internment camps after Pearl Harbour. While interned, she made propaganda posters like this one.
Otherwise the complacency of the Californian dream is uninterrupted, except by silences. Architects and bespoke furniture makers didn’t work for the people who cleaned the swimming pools and polished all that glass, though the moulded plastic chairs and Barbie dolls no doubt made their way down the social ladder. A video about dress designers shows anonymous female fingers working the machines that churned out cheap imitations for the masses.
Officially the exhibition ends in 1965, but probably the assassination of JFK is as good a place as any to see the Californian dream coming to an end. Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World, was another of those creative types who were drawn to the wealth and creative opportunities of Hollywood. He died there on the same day, 22 November 1963.
The Kennedy administration wasn’t called ‘Camelot’ because of the Arthurian legend, but in reference to the 1960 Broadway musical Camelot. At the end of the story, as the kingdom goes down in flames, destroyed by treachery and adultery, Arthur urges a young boy to remember:
That once there was a spot
For one brief, shining moment
That was known as Camelot.
In August 1965 the Watts neighbourhood of Los Angeles blew up following some heavy-handed policing. In the race riot that follows, 34 people died and about a thousand properties went up in flames – and the complacent white male Californian dream portrayed in this exhibition died too.