Contre-jour

by Christine Lai

Christine’s debut novel, Landscapes, was shortlisted for the inaugural Novel Prize, managed by New Directions Publishing, Fitzcarraldo Editions, and Giramondo. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Joyland, PRISM International, and Cosmonauts Avenue. Christine holds a PhD in English Literature from University College London.

The painting, when seen by candlelight, appears faded yet moving. The flickering flame seems to enliven the picture, giving it shadow and light in ways I never could.

Every night, I sit on the small stool placed in one corner of the walk-in closet and I study the unfinished painting by candlelight. At times, the ideas that I once attempted to embed in the image seem to surface, but only fleetingly. I sit for no more than ten minutes, for after that point, I risk ruining everything.


At the start of the annual ephemera fair in Bloomsbury, I was the first to arrive and set up my stall, removing the cloth covering the tables and taking the items out of storage. Every day during our weeklong fair, the collectors stream in as soon as the doors open, the same collectors who visit year after year. Mostly middle-aged or elderly men, mostly white, neither wealthy nor poor enough to consider antiquarian and vintage objects an extravagance. Some sit at my stall for hours, diligently going through the oblong boxes of picture postcards, occasionally placing a few in their baskets. This process takes on the air of a ritual, conducted in silence, with slow motions that indicate a kind of reverence for the fragile pieces of paper. I sometimes break the silence and ask the collectors what they are looking for or how they select the cards. The connoisseurs answer with confidence the exact type of card they want, the theme or series, sometimes down to the exact year. They collect with great intent and purpose. But what intrigues me are the people who select random postcards, without any obvious links or themes, simply because they found the images arresting. I imagine them bringing the cards home, laying them down on a table, and one day, finally stumbling upon the connection by which everything coheres: Postcards awaken memory, not of the people depicted in the images—who remain unknowable—but of the person who is looking.


It is difficult to trace the exact origin of the picture postcard; there are hundreds of claimants to the title of “inventor,” but the truth is the postcard simply evolved. Before the picture postcards, there were illustrated trade cards, engraved visiting cards, Mulready pictorial envelopes, and decorated writing paper headed with beautifully engraved views.

Legend has it that in 1869, a young Portuguese painter named Antonio Olivarez drew a portrait of his beloved. When he later wanted to send the picture to the girl, the Portuguese post office did not know how to handle a pictorial piece of mail, so Olivarez was forced to put it away. But the idea of a picture that travels through the post was thus born.


During the quiet hours at the fair, I organized and catalogued a new batch of postcards. As usual, I selected a few to keep for my own collection.

The first is postmarked 1901, from Eckenhagen, with a green ReichPost stamp, an undivided back, and a message written on the recto, next to a black-and-white photo of a building on fire. The caption reads, “Incendie de L’Entrepôt Royal d’Anvers, 5 Juin 1901.” In the foreground of the photo, a group of men stand with their backs to the camera, facing the burning building. Two of the men lean close to one another. The building remains largely intact in the corner closest to the spectators. In the background of the photo, there are charred ruins and crumbling walls, to which the spectators’ gazes are turned. The plumes of black smoke spread across the picture like a menacing vortex. A quick search online led me to an old newspaper that reported how three million sterling worth of damages resulted from the warehouse fire, with wool, tobacco, and sundries burnt.

I should find someone to translate the message, written in German, so I can determine whether there is any correspondence between the words intended for a loved one and this image of destruction.


“Derived from the Greek ephemeros, meaning ‘lasting but a day,’ a piece of ephemera such as a postcard is assumed to be fragile and fleeting, lingering in the margins of culture only to be swept away by the tides of time. But these insubstantial pieces of pulp and ink—faded by sunlight, damaged by moisture—endure in unexpected ways.”


Second day of the fair. My first customers today were two young Korean women who bought rare postcards, c. 1900, featuring street views of Seoul as it once looked. They were ecstatic with their find, and in that joy I saw my younger self on the day when Dad brought home the first boxes of postcards.

Dad entered the ephemera trade by chance. Uncle Alex came across an estate sale in the countryside that included a large batch of over 20,000 postcards and albums of vintage stamps and tickets. That was how Benjamin & Co. was born. According to Mum, Dad named the company after his favourite philosopher without hesitation.    

Postcards were the start of my education in art. As a child, I copied the pictures on the cheaper cards that Dad sold in bulk. Drawings of cats, birds, children at seaside resorts. Later, I cut up postcards and constructed collages made of different coloured fragments. The pictures appeared pointillist, incomprehensible except from afar. Dad complained about the waste of perfectly good cards.

During college, I moved away from postcards and focused on oil painting, mainly large-scale abstract works, but the colours remained those I saw on postcards—the shades of brown and grey, punctuated by the occasional blue, green, or pink. For my final-year project, I returned to the postcard form, painting on small 4×6 canvases. This led to experimentation with different techniques of overlapping colours and abstract forms—like the inscribing of one layer of time (the moment of receiving a postcard) on top of another layer (the moment of sending the card). The unfinished painting that sits in the walk-in closet is from that series. When I pull aside the old curtain used to cover the painting, I see wide brushstrokes of slate grey painted over a layer of green earth, beneath which lies a tier of yellow.


In 1865, Heinrich von Stephan, a Post Office official of the North German Confederation, searched for an alternative to the letter that would allow for brevity and render communication more efficient. His proposal for “the open post-sheet” was rejected due to concerns that it might result in a loss in revenue. A year after von Stephan’s proposal, Emanuel Herrmann, an Austrian professor of economics, published an article on the cumbersome nature of writing and sending letters, and proposed a similar “open card” system. The Austrian Post Office adopted his idea. Thus the first postcard was born on 1 October 1869. Germany, Switzerland, the UK, and France followed Austria’s example in the subsequent years.

Germany soon became the epicentre of the postcard industry, dominating the market in printing exquisitely coloured pictures of monuments, ruins of antiquity, landscapes, works of art, flora and fauna, portraits of public figures, and small comic scenes. From 1872 onward, anyone could print private postcards; by 1910, 90% of cards were produced privately. People thus participated in the production and collection of images that circulated throughout the world.


My “fair buddy,” Miriam, is an antiquarian bookseller with the stall next to mine. For as long as I have known her, she has worn a locket that contains a picture of Virginia Woolf and a lock of hair that she pretends belonged to Woolf but is most likely from Miriam herself, curled up neatly and tied with a red string. Today a Woolf enthusiast dropped by, probably a scholar from one of the nearby universities, and Miriam took out the locket, which was met with awkward silence at first, then a polite smile. The customer put down the books she was holding and walked away. For me, however, Miriam’s relationship with the locket, with Woolf, is captivating. This intense love of something, someone.


We are a family of quitters and leavers. Dad abandoned graduate studies—and his beloved Frankfurt School of thinkers—for the postcards and ephemera to which he grew so attached. Uncle Alex left his restaurant and became a tour guide; he welcomed the movement from place to place and the limited blocks of time spent with strangers.  Mum sold her small crafts shop to become my mother, though when I was in my teens, she started selling cross-stitch kits again, and regained something of the pleasure she once enjoyed. I left painting in order to raise David.

Dad spoke to me once about his reasons for leaving graduate school. “I could never go in-depth enough,” he said. “I would stop at the door of a particular research topic and peer in. I did not know how to step over the threshold, how to go into the subject completely, the way one is expected to do as a scholar. Everything had to be puzzled out, saturated with meaning, every dot connected. I couldn’t do that.  Sometimes it’s best to leave things in the dark.”


The real city turned out to be much colder, a wash of grey and beige, save for the russet rooftops.


In two of the postcards in my personal collection—the “Gruss Aus” cards from the 1890s—the cities of Munich and Leipzig are depicted as a kaleidoscope of different monuments, with small ornate frames around them, as if they were pictures hanging in a gallery. Geographic distance has been overcome and differences in time elided, so that the monuments appear to exist in a vacuum, safe from change. When I visited Munich years ago, I expected to find the buildings as depicted on the postcard, but some of them were either no longer standing or much altered. I had also hoped to find the warm tones of brown, caramel, and sepia shown on the postcard. The real city turned out to be much colder, a wash of grey and beige, save for the russet rooftops.


David was an accident, though a happy one. His father was someone I barely remember, a bright light that flickered in and out of the many parties I attended during college. He made himself scarce after he found out about the pregnancy, but I kept the child for myself.

In the first year of David’s life, I was as dependent on him as he was on me. The boundary between days, which was once defined by the work undertaken in the studio, became porous. Time was marked by the hours spent with David in my arms, by the growth of his body and the weakening of mine.

During that period, I often looked at a portrait by Paula Modersohn-Becker, the German Expressionist painter, of a mother and infant lying side-by-side, naked on a blanket. The impasto, applied with laborious brushstrokes, conveys a sense of physical mass. The baby is not a tiny doll, but a creature with weight, needs, cries at night. Its body is folded into the rounded, fruit-like body of the mother. Using the same earthy colouration, Modersohn-Becker blends the two bodies together as if they had not yet fully separated.

After David learned to sleep more regularly, I attempted to return to painting. Louise Bourgeois raised three sons, I reminded myself. But as I stood there, paintbrush in hand, the images in my mind blurred and my hands trembled. My eyes were often teary from exhaustion or frustration. And always, in my innermost part, the fear of leaving him aside.

When David was a little older, he joined me in the studio. He loved to draw. Misshapen figures, cartoonish versions of our cat, surprisingly realistic flowers. One time, he made tiny marks, like dashes, using a purple gel pen, over a recently finished canvas. I was enraged.

As I rushed to bathe David that evening, after spending too much time trying to rescue the painting, I thought of Paula Modersohn-Becker, who wanted winters and summers free from the constraints of domesticity, who ran away to Paris in order to learn and paint, Paula who died doing what she had long resisted—bringing a child into the world.           

I realized that my time will never again be my own. The time to walk and to observe, to be in the moment, and, later, the time to transfer that moment onto the canvas. The time to look out the window, at nothing in particular, until something stirs within and work beckons me. After David finally fell asleep that night, I returned to the studio and destroyed the picture with the purple dashes.


Third day of the fair. Every year, Miriam and I collaborate on a “mini exhibition” on a given theme. This year we’re doing “Paris”—Miriam showcased a collection of books on Paris and I contributed postcards depicting nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century views of the metropolis. A student of urban history at the Bartlett purchased most of the cards for £145.


A few months after its launch in 1867, three million postcards were sent in Germany; by 1900, more than 786 million were sent annually. In 1903, 600 million cards were sent in the UK; by 1906, the one billion mark was reached. Somewhere between 200-300 billion postcards were produced in the first decade of the twentieth century, the so-called Golden Age of the postcard.

Enthusiasts formed private clubs and societies, where they showcased their prized collections. There was even an International Exhibition of Postcards, first formed in 1899. At railway stations, in cafes and restaurants, there might be a postman with a mailbox on his back, ready to collect written postcards; there were special pens and portable cabinets for writing on the go; peddlers sold cards at tourist destinations; vending machines could be found at every station. In 1900, a contributor to the Picture Postcard Magazine lamented the absurd craze of the “Postcard Pencillers,” who line the platform of railway stations and scale the heights of the Rigi not to admire the view, but to write postcards and post them from the summit.

Newspapers named the new enthusiasm for collecting “an influenza” or “a new form of lunacy.” Critics also characterized it as an exclusively female activity, due to the association between the feminine and the trivial or the ephemeral. In 1907, the journalist James Douglas wrote derisively, “When a woman has time to waste, she writes a letter; when she has no time to waste, she writes a Postcard.”


One of the most treasured postcards in my personal collection depicts the Route du Simplon and the Galerie d’Hiver in the Alps. On the left-hand side of the card is the tunnel, with the concentric arches and rows of columns extending endlessly into the vanishing point. Anyone traveling through the tunnel would have seen snatches of the Alpine scenery revealed in the opening between the columns, like the frames of a moving picture.

On the right-hand side of the image, a lone figure in a hat and large jacket stands with his back to the camera, facing the mountains. The grey of the man’s clothes matches the grey of the parapet and the mountains beyond, so that he seems to dissolve into the landscape and the light.

When I first saw this postcard, I understood it to be an image of the future. On the one hand, structure and linearity, a straight line receding infinitely into the future. The structure of school days, lunches, homework, bedtime reads, play dates, weekend trips, laundry, cleaning, working, planning. On the obverse—the open landscape, the lone figure.


“While looking at a postcard, the viewer is reminded: ‘This is a place where I am not.’ The site depicted—a place remembered or a place desired—is always elsewhere. The image, therefore, records an absence, epitomized by the most iconic of postcard phrases: ‘Wish you were here.’”


Yesterday evening I went home after a walk through Bloomsbury and decided to re-read “The Aesthetic of the Picture Postcard,” Louise Leclerc’s seminal essay. Dad found a facsimile copy of the first edition, but the original is extremely difficult to come by. I have memorized lines from her essay as if they were verse.

Scant biographical information remains about Leclerc. A few postcard historians have mentioned her in a footnote, and the facsimile edition of the essay is prefaced with a short introduction. Born in 1881 to an English mother and French father, who ran a print shop in Lille, Leclerc developed an interest in images at a young age. When she was 18, she studied briefly at the Académie Colarossi in Paris, where other female artists such as Camille Claudel and Paula Modersohn-Becker also studied. Leclerc hoped to become a painter, but trained as a photographer instead.

After the Académie, Leclerc worked for Maison Lévy et Ses Fils, one of the foremost purveyors of picture postcards who produced the iconic views that defined the urban image of fin-de-siècle Paris. None of this was by any means easy for a woman in her position. I wonder how Leclerc moved around the city at a time when flâneurie was a privilege of class and gender. Perhaps she worked as part of a team; perhaps she dressed as a man.

After the First World War, postcard production declined, and Leclerc lost her primary source of income. She hid in her Paris studio and began experimenting with the boxes of unsold postcards. She cut them up and recombined them into new pictures, or dappled dots of oil paint on them to transform the images. She also began to work on her essay, in which she recounted these artistic experiments and spoke of the significance of postcards in her life. She eventually printed a hundred copies of the essay in her father’s print shop to distribute to friends and former postcard enthusiasts. But the essay went unnoticed. Rumour has it that it was later read and admired by the Surrealist artists, though none of them ever mentioned Leclerc in their writings.

Some of the Paris postcards in my collection must have been made from Leclerc’s photographs, but it is impossible to know which ones, as the cards do not come with attributions. I often imagine Leclerc wandering down the streets of Paris with a camera. She photographed the touristic sites of the metropolis, the avenues, the markets and their characters, the gardens, the department stores, the pedestrians and the vehicles. She dedicated herself to the work day after day, year after year, with the knowledge that her name will never be known, that she will never be respected as the creator of the little pictures that sent collectors dreaming of faraway places. But she did the work anyways.


The onset of WWI stemmed the flow of postcards imported from Germany. In 1918, after the price of postage was raised, the number of postcards sent was reduced by half. During the Second World War, weakening economies and wartime restrictions further reduced the production and circulation of cards. The collecting of colourful images also seemed trite at a time when lives were lost and cities destroyed. The picture postcard thus became an object of the past.


This is David’s third year in Switzerland, working at the lab. Since he started his studies, Mum would repeat at Christmas every year, “He is the only sensible one in this family. He is going to solve the world’s problem with plastic.”

At Christmas last year, in response to Mum’s questions about the thrilling possibility of a great-grandchild, David informed us that he and Anna will not be having any. “It took us a long time to make this decision,” he said. “We might regret it either way, but for now we’ve agreed that there are so many other ways to live life, yes, and other kinds of meaning. Anna also has her gallery. I can’t ask her to give up any of her time when I don’t want to give up mine.”

Mum was stunned and made an excuse to go into the kitchen. David was staring at the table when he said all this. When he finally looked up at me, there appeared to be tears in his eyes. He blushed and wiped them away before clearing the table.


For my birthday, David sent me an exquisite print of Modersohn-Becker’s self-portrait with a hat and veil, framed in an antique gold frame, and a collection of her letters and journals.

David has been the one who encouraged me to return to painting. “Do it because you love it,” he said, “Don’t think about recognition or commercial success.” As if such love were uncomplicated, easy to awaken after a decades-long hiatus. Sometimes, the encounter with a stirring work of art wounds me with a dull ache. Other times, even reading the word “artist” reminds me of this truth: That I love David, but a child is not a created thing, inseparable from the self.     

This evening, I examined both the Modersohn-Becker print and my own painting. Paula’s gaze is arresting. Her features remain in the shadow, with the light behind her. She is smiling gently. The red of the curtains that frames her face echoes the red of her hat and lipstick. She is holding a pink rose. This to me is a joyful picture. She is looking straight ahead, at the mirror on which the light shines, the mirror image in which she is painting. This is a self-portrait of the woman as artist.

I remember reading somewhere that Paula’s goal in life was to paint three good pictures. She once wrote to her mother: “I am going to become somebody.”

Perhaps it was never a question of time, but the problem of fear. The fear of being rejected, humiliated, forgotten, the fear of labouring for years over something that will eventually fail to materialize, the fear of not becoming somebody. If I spend too long looking at the painting in the walk-in closet, that fear is what I remember.


Amidst the decline in postcard production, there was renewed interest in the illustrated card amongst artists and writers. André Breton and Paul Éluard, for example, regarded postcards as forms of urban representation and small fragments of modernity. According to Éluard, “Postcards do not constitute a popular art. At most, they are the small change left over from art and poetry. But this small change sometimes suggests the idea of gold.”

Later still, found postcards supplied visual artists with material for projects. Postcards have also become a research subject for cultural historians, and are now collected in official archives and institutions.


Today, one of my regular customers came in and bought a rare postcard autographed by Pablo Picasso. The sale of £3500 amounted to more than all the other sales combined. The card depicts the renowned 1901 painting La Chambre Bleue. Using infrared imagery, experts discovered another painting hidden beneath the surface brushstrokes; Picasso had painted over it because he could not afford new canvases.

Rarity determines value. A unique view, a limited edition, a card belonging to a renowned collector, or one created by an established artist. True collectors are also intensely aware of seriality, and the card has value only once it has been lodged in a series. Yet I remain fascinated by the accidental and the commonplace: The cards left behind at the back of a box because they did not fit into a preconceived category or set; the pictures printed thousands upon thousands of times; the ones printed cheaply using ink that fades within a few months. I am drawn to the stains and creases, the curled edges, the spill of ink, the fingerprints left by repeated touching and viewing.


When David was about six, I managed to get my work into a group show at a small gallery. I told myself that if I did not sell any works, that that would be the end. That without acclaim, without the success so narrowly defined yet so highly prized by society, I did not have permission to continue pursuing art. It would be an indulgence, I imagined society telling me.

Nothing sold. So I packed up all the paintings, filed away the drawings. Most of the tools and materials I either sold or gave away to friends. After the remaining works were sent to storage, the studio was converted into a child’s bedroom.

A month later, Dad passed away after the car accident. The timing was uncanny. It made sense for me to take over Benjamin & Co. as a way of sustaining the life with David. In my early days with the postcards, I was therefore dealing with two kinds of grief—that of losing a parent, and that of losing the framework through which I saw the world.


Final day at the fair. A quiet morning; Miriam dozed and I watched both of our stalls.

While flipping through an art book, I came across pictures of an installation by Zoe Leonard, with thousands of vintage postcards depicting the same view of Niagara Falls. On many of the cards, a woman in a blue dress stands in the lower left-hand corner, holding an umbrella and contemplating the view. Her figure seems to melt into the blue and green of the surrounding landscape.

People visited the natural wonder of the Falls, looked at the landscape, perhaps photographed it themselves, then purchased a card to bring home or send to a loved one. The view will be remembered, not as it appeared in reality, but as it appeared on the postcard. The revisits to the postcard in all the subsequent years will not diminish the appeal of the view. In fact, the repeated looking is what leads to true comprehension.


After the disappointment with the essay, Louise Leclerc returned to photography in the late 1920s. This time, the photographs were for herself, not for a postcard purveyor. Sadly, none of them have survived. I wonder if, freed from the demands of business, Leclerc was able to veer away from the idealized bourgeois Paris depicted on postcards. I wonder what she did with the photos she took. Perhaps, like Vivian Maier, she never developed them and simply hoarded the rolls of film. Perhaps she developed the pictures and pasted them on the walls of her Montmartre studio, in a private exhibition that she alone understood.

In 1933, Leclerc died of her injuries after falling down a flight of steps by the Seine while doing what she loved best: photographing the city.


An art student came in the afternoon to sift through the boxes. At various intervals, she’d let out sighs of joy as she placed a card in the basket. While paying, she revealed that these were for her end-of-year project. Tacita Dean, whose work I follow closely, once spoke of how an entire project sprang from a series of vintage postcards she discovered at a flea market in Japan. The postcards depicting Fontainebleau Forest led her to other images of trees, which in turn led her to the woodland near her childhood home that became the subject of the photography project. The postcards sowed the seed.

Dean had another project in which she reworked found postcards—broad strokes of gouache obscure parts of the original picture, and the patches of colour resemble some organic entity that has taken root in the postcard and bloomed on its surface.

The art student and I ended up having an animated discussion on Dean, chance, and the meaning of photography.


The sales from this year’s fair were relatively good, though everyone at the fair has an uneasy relationship with capital. We accrue things with such tiny, barely perceptible steps, that at times it’s unclear whether anything has been gained at all. I can at least afford to take a week off before returning to the online sales.

Today we packed up everything and vacated the large hall. Miriam and I have made plans to get together next week to celebrate over drinks, and perhaps visit the Soane Museum by candlelight, to look at the fragments of stone, the paintings and books that Soane had collected for his own enjoyment.


“One day, perhaps soon, there might no longer be photographs that could be unearthed in an attic or flea market, objects that were cherished, collected, contemplated by someone at some distant point in the past, then lost or forgotten, and eventually found again to be added to an infinite archive of images that define a life.”


I flipped through my copy of Modersohn-Becker’s letters and journals, which I’ve been carrying in my bag, and came across an extraordinary line: “Inside me I can feel the soft threads of a web, a stirring, wings fluttering, trembling at rest, breath held.”

I remember the pain in the wrist and arm, holding the brush aloft in the air, followed by the ache in the shoulders and the numbness in the fingertips. I remember  the battling with the waning light, with the colours in constant flux. And yet, the urge to continue.

A certain colour, an observed shape, emerges in memory and mixes with all the collected sights, ideas, and experiences to compose an incandescent whole that others will perceive as “the work.” You will know it as the only way of understanding your own presence in the world.

When you stand back and look at the white surface transfigured—there is no splendour that approximates that.


In the morning, with a full week ahead of me, I retrieved the materials from storage, removed the painting from the walk-in closet, and applied the next layer of colour.

 


Christine’s debut novel, Landscapes, was shortlisted for the inaugural Novel Prize, managed by New Directions Publishing, Fitzcarraldo Editions, and Giramondo. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Joyland, PRISM International, and Cosmonauts Avenue. Christine holds a PhD in English Literature from University College London.

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