Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 9, 2010
David Prochaska and Jordana Mendelson, eds. Postcards: Ephemeral Histories of Modernity University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010. 256 pp.; 89 color ills.; 107 b/w ills. Paper $65.00 (9780271035284)

I have become increasingly uneasy about writing book reviews. We need them, and I read them, but when I sit down to write one, I begin to squirm. To write a book review is to climb into the cheapest of judgment seats. Although a book may receive several reviews, each reviewer operates singularly—with a voice from on high—in rendering judgment on the book and its qualities. In addition, the qualifications for writing a book review in the humanities are minimal. Many reviewers are graduate students or young scholars who have not yet written a book and have no direct experience of the challenges or contingencies entailed, and even experienced scholars are often invited to write reviews on subjects they know little about. Finally, in almost all academic forums in which reviews appear, the author has no opportunity to respond to the reviewer’s arguments. Occasionally, journals print a letter from the author in response to a review, but such cases are so exceptional that the author almost inevitably comes across as peevish and defensive. I am not sure why this freewheeling monological model for reviews has been adopted, and even less sure that it makes any sense. But we need reviews, and I read them, so here goes.

I am happy to opine that Postcards: Ephemeral Histories of Modernity is an excellent and topical anthology. Indeed, it is fair to say that we have needed this book for some time. Postcards bring together in one cultural form so much that currently interests us: text and image, industry and intimacy, senders and receivers, portability and correspondence, geography and domesticity, memory and archive. To extend our understanding of postcards, this anthology offers an intelligent, varied, and rambunctious mix of essays that will be a valuable resource for teaching and new scholarship. To top it off, many of the essays are a pleasure to read.

Editors David Prochaska and Jordana Mendelson wisely decided to mix old work with the new. Following the introduction, the anthology begins with a now canonical essay by Naomi Schor, “Cartes Postales: Representing Paris 1900,” which first appeared in Critical Inquiry in 1990. Although the essay is readily available through the electronic subscriptions that most colleges and universities maintain, its inclusion in the book is welcome. After twenty years, Schor’s argument remains fresh and vigorous, and the high-quality illustrations distinguish this version. Her trenchant discussion of the gendering of modernist accounts of the everyday blazes the trail for the many helpful differentiations in deltiological meaning that the subsequent essays provide. Later in the volume, the reader encounters reproductions of Paul Éluard’s 1933 article, “Les Plus Belles Cartes Postales” (which comes accompanied by a translation) and Walker Evans’ 1948 Fortune magazine essay, “Main Street Looking North from Courthouse Square.” These essays, expertly introduced by contemporary scholars, give the volume historical heft and offer salient evidence of the long importance of postcards to modernism.

Reading the new essays in the anthology led me to reflect on the often-obscured distinction between the dichotomy of high and low culture, on the one hand, and the methodological choice between limit cases and typical instances, on the other. Whereas art history has traditionally embraced limit cases in high art (when the canonical masters test the boundaries of the possible), in recent decades some scholars have rebelled against the preference for high art, some have rebelled against the preference for limit cases, and some have rebelled against both. Although the subject of postcards belongs more or less firmly to low culture, several of the writers in this anthology proceed via the typical while others opt for cases that push the envelope of the postcard (talk about your inapt metaphors) as a social form.

For example, the essays by Nancy Stieber (“Postcards and the Invention of Old Amsterdam around 1900”) and Rebecca DeRoo (“Colonial Collecting: French Women and Algerian Cartes Postales”) sift through large swaths of material to ascertain the social functions that particular types of postcards have served. Stieber takes us through the ways that Amsterdam postcards from around 1900 sought to negotiate the relationship between old Amsterdam and the new metropolis as the city underwent rapid modernization. DeRoo, taking careful aim at the masculinist assumptions of much anti-orientalism, provocatively considers the ways that women may have used postcards of Algerian subjects to introduce into social exchange an eroticism that they could not talk about. Both authors ask the postcards they examine to perform as representatives of a broader pattern of postcard production and use.

Other authors in the volume proceed with equal intelligence and care to analyze exceptional cases. For example, Andrés Zervigón contributes a remarkable essay on the subversive postcards featuring montage that John Heartfield and George Grosz made and sent to the front during WWI. Zervigón, to accommodate the inconvenient fact that these postcards have not survived, relies on correspondence, later work by these artists, and contemporaneous advertising and propaganda postcards to refine our understanding of this key moment in the development of montage in Germany as an avant-garde tactic. His essay, by locating the emergence of photomontage in a newly specific history of postcard production and use, promises to open up other lines of scholarly inquiry. In a similar vein, Kim Smith takes on Franz Marc’s hand-painted postcards of animals from 1913–14, cogently suggesting how his imagery of the primeval animal spirit, proffered as an antidote to the stultifying materialism of modernity, was predicated on the artificial constructs of the modern zoo.

As these examples suggest, one of the most engaging aspects of the volume is the frequent interplay between postcards and the fine arts. In a very smart essay, John O’Brian launches from a postcard in a familiar photograph by Robert Frank (“Hoover Dam, Nevada, 1955”) to a discussion of atomic explosion imagery on American postcards from the Cold War era. Like the essays by DeRoo, Zervigón, and Smith (not to mention Schor), O’Brian’s offering has implications for our understanding of topics far beyond postcards. Indeed, I can think of no writing we have on the subject of atomic explosion imagery that more succinctly and captivatingly argues for the disturbing ways that American culture has assimilated and suppressed the unthinkable. Working in a different mode, Ellen Handy productively reminds us in her essay that we have barely begun to contend with the complex relationship between the postcards in museum gift shops and the art they represent. Her discussion of Dove Bradshaw’s Fire Hose offers a fascinating study of work that dissected and reassembled this relationship over several years.

Needless to say, my enthusiasm for the volume does not leave me without quibbles. Like so many books these days, this one evidently suffers from excessive reliance on electronic checking for typographical errors. Unwanted words—not senseless letter combinations—are annoyingly prevalent (a suggestion for restroom graffiti: “Spill Chuck Roles!”). I also would have liked more reflection by the editors on the relationship between visual studies and new markets in collectibles. In the introduction, they note that “on the one hand” the market for postcards has boomed and “on the other hand” the study of visual culture has broadened to include popular ephemera such as postcards. By opting for a simple juxtaposition, the editors finessed the difficult and pressing question of the relationship between these two historical developments. One does not need to be a diehard Frankfurt School critic to worry that the impulse to push the frontier of visual studies and overcome the historical resistance of the academy and the fine art museum to the postcard as an object of serious study follows the lead and serves the interests of the culture industry.

But these quibbles are just that and hardly detract from the fine quality of this volume. For those interested in the histories of popular visual culture or of modern art, this book is a rare find. I expect to be using its essays in my teaching and research for years to come.

Robin Kelsey
Shirley Carter Burden Professor of Photography, History of Art and Architecture Department, Harvard University