After years of sustaining a series of vintage design displays, we’re returning to the first instance (posted back on November 4,2014). But here we’re not about the witty and dazzling deco cover and the fascinating, quirky business concerns (such as an ad promoting tenancy in the just-completed Empire State Building); but instead a “filler” insert of pastel renderings of Alabama steel mills, by a long-forgotten artist/ designer, Roderick Mackenzie (1865-1941). Over and above the five remarkable, large-scale litho renditions acting as a speed bump to busy wheeler-dealers, we find the artist himself, and his highs and lows, to be a rich disclosure of vicissitudes of the career of an artist in early modern secular society.
Our first instance, “Three Bessemer Converters,” reminds us of the play of light and texture to be seen in the marine paintings of William Turner (1775-1851). Here the dynamics of light derive from fiery industrial processes rather than the earlier strategy involving sunlight, ocean and water crafts.
We’re particularly drawn to this long-forgotten optical worthy by reason of his touching us from out of a background which would seem to kill outright any first rate initiatives. Arriving as a child from England with his family to Mobile, Alabama, he lost his mother to an early death and his father had the 15-year-old Roderick placed in an orphanage while he pursued interests that did not include children. By great coincidence, one of the staff at that institution was struck by the boy’s graphic skills and arranged for him to study art in Boston. Roderick then began a career producing Mardi Gras vignettes and panoramas. Somehow, in the years 1889-91, he settled in Paris. From there he made his way to India, still apparently determined to detonate imagery of overriding interest to him.
The work here, “Running Slag,” dates from his return to the steel belt of Alabama. I’m struck by its space-ship mystery and sense of a kinetic priority underlying seemingly solid mundane life. At a second glance you find a man shovelling molten slag. This extreme action speaks to a figure who had his own kind of baptism of fire. You want to hear that his insights went somewhere; but the truth is not nearly that rosy.
“Blast Furnace Stoves” brings a gritty Taj Mahal to the plucky South. For several years, Mackenzie was a practitioner of the exotica of the Indian Sub-Continent. But with the long-time British colony’s heading for independence, his occidental-infused services were no longer in demand. Perhaps for the better. His affinity for more problematic wildness has left a remarkable legacy pertaining to a non-rural South which speaks to us with unusual weight. Here was a Machine-Age poet, the poetry of which far transcends art deco stylization.
A saga of elemental features roaring through the night; a saga not speaking to Gandhi. “Holidays in steel mills,” the caption reads, “are busy days for the pig [iron] machine, for a blast furnace can never be allowed to go out except when production ceases entirely and the whole plant shuts down.”
A gas main, in fact. But a passage to the necessary spaces driving the whole modern world!
Mackenzie died destitute. But his was a life centered upon the mysteries and elusive fortune of creative power.
Another largely unsung graphic genius was Frank McIntosh (so unheralded his birth and death dates are not available. Much more a designer’s designer, his breathtaking covers for Asia Magazine (an American publication) are never forgotten by those with a taste for the special.