Richard Ziegler was a little known German-born artist who had the unusual distinction of having had his first solo exhibition at the age of 94. As a young artist in the Weimar Republic, Ziegler had been a member of the Novembergruppe, a group of painters and architects who had joined joined forces to advocate for a socialist revolution in Germany and who numbered among their members such artists as Max Pechstein, Otto Dix and Georg Grosz. The last is said to have exerted a significant influence on Ziegler’s artistic development, and the juxtaposition of images of an untainted young idealism and corrupt bourgeois society depicted in Ziegler’s work, do recall Grosz’s work. For me, however, it is the hauntingly beautiful and finely drawn portraits of Christian Schad that come to mind.
I first encountered Ziegler through a painting he did in 1929 called Die Polizei . I ran across it on a Pinterest board created by Eddie Cummings. The board was called “Objets d’art-hommes”. I wasn’t familiar with the artist but I found the painting particularly striking for its subject matter. Two young men, naked from the waist up, are framed by conventionally dressed staid citizens on what seems to be on a city street. Someone has his hand on the shoulder of one of the men, perhaps the uniformed policeman of the work’s title. The two men look directly at the viewer in what one might interpret as a defiant declamation of their relationship. They seem so at ease with each other, so indifferent to the disapproving looks of the women passers-by. There was something celebratory and affirming about the painting.
I was excited by my find. I can’t reproduce the steps I had taken to get to Cummings board, but I recall being entertained on my way. I’m an inveterate browser and Pinterest, with its mass of visual cues, begs to be explored.
Pinterest, for those who haven’t used it, is a next-generation social bookmarking and media sharing application that lets users upload, tag and catalogue images and videos they find on the web or have saved to their computer. It’s the digital equivalent of a cork bulletin board.
It’s a tool for content collectors, not content producers, but it’s become such a phenomenon that it’s worth taking a look at. In the few years since its launch in 2010 the platform has acquired over 25 million unique users in the United States alone (September 2012), an impressive record for a two-year company, but still a trifle compared to Facebook’s and Twitter’s gigantic global user base. That said, Pinterest, which recorded faster growth in its two years of existence than any of the other social media save Google +, is close to surpassing Twitter in the total number of monthly visits and is already tied with Facebook in the average amount of time per month the user spends on the site.
Pinterest’s states that its mission is to “connect everyone in the world through the ‘things’ they find interesting”. The connections, however, are tenuous, though perhaps no more so than in other social media, and like such media, consist mostly in following and being followed by others and adding the occasional comment to another person’s pin. However, one connection that is gaining popularity rapidly is that between business and customer. Pinterest already sends as much referral traffic to retailers than Twitter or Bing does. Firms like General Electric and the US Army are even using the platform for recruiting purposes. (Incidentally, the Army seems to be casting its recruiting net particularly wide, judging by its boards on combat training, vintage US army fashion and women in the skies).
Pinterest follows in the tracks of other content extractors such as Web Clipper and Plucker but it’s more than a visual bookmarking. It’s been called a kind of digital scrapbooking, but that’s not quite right.
Browser bookmarking applets and mobile Pinterest apps mean that Pinterest boards can be made up on the fly and filled up in a few minutes with a generous number of repins. Scrapbooks, on the other hand, can be a lot of work, which is perhaps one of its very draws as a pastime. More than just a place for filing photographs and magazine clippings, the scrapbook is an intimate domestic Gesamtkunstwerk that combines found material, do-it-yourself craftwork and original texts to record and preserve family or personal history: the child’s passage from toddler to adolescent, the building of a house, a vacation in Umbria. The archivist focuses on both content and presentation; she is a conservationist with an eye to beauty.
The scrapbook need not be wholly faithful to the events it records—after all, she is telling a story as she snips and pastes, and as with all stories, the act of selecting her material has shaped the narrative long before she provides her own interpretative gloss. The scrapbook need not be faithful but it must be pleasant and interesting to look at. And to this end, she judiciously marshals all sorts of baubles and fabrics to embellish the array of photographs and drawings and journal entries of her book; the beads and buttons, the ribbon and lace, the pressed flower and baby’s charm that she affixes to the pages of her book serve to frame and accent the documenta of the life she is recording. Like quilts and knitwear, the scrapbook bears witness not only to the craftswoman’s technical skills but also to her sense of aesthetics.
Recipe box, photo album, bulletin board, clippings folder—Pinterest is all of this, but a scrapbook it is not. It is a container not for memorabilia but for projects to come, and one without the work and ornaments and journaling that a scrapbook would involve. It is an album of a future perfect, a holding place of things one wants to do, parties one plans on giving, trips one dreams of taking. And judging from the popularity of men’s fashion boards perhaps, too, of the men one would like to make love to (or think of when making love). And more innocently, just things one fancies. I’ve used Pinterest to pin cocktail recipes, strange maps, olive oil bottles and images of men in grey.
One thing Pinterest does have in common with scrapbooking is the effort to “craft” something that is visually appealing. The most successful boards are pleasant enough to browse through. Partly this is the platform’s ability to frame and arrange material to generally felicitous results. But pinners quickly seem to develop a sixth sense of what works and doesn’t work on a board. Simpler images work better than composite or visually complex ones. Images with a single strong focal point pin better than those without. Indeed, some boards seem to exist only because their content is visually appealing and pertain to the topic at hand. It is easy enough to detect that these pins are no bookmarks for later reading or research, since the image inevitably links back to flickr or to a Google image search or, more commonly, has been captured from another board. Pinterest is a classic example of a social media site in which a small minority of users provide the great majority of content. 80% of pins are repins.
The ‘interest’ contained in Pinterest ranges from the trite and pedestrian to the long tail of esoteric niches. Many of the themes of the Pinterest boards are ones traditionally associated with what used to be called a woman’s world, not surprisingly, since American pinners are overwhelmingly women (70%, though in the UK slightly more men than women pin). Food is a popular board, weddings and hair and beauty, too. Crafts and home decorating figure prominently, as do babies and pets. Gift and storage ideas come up often. Repinly, a site that tracks Pinterest usage, reports that the most popular pins in the last 30 days have been Christmas crafts, women’s tattoos, holiday baking, jewellery, painted nails and quotes. Lots of quotes, mostly inspirational and mostly set in an attractive font on a plain monochrome background.
Some of the boards, as I said, are rather esoteric, and these are the most interesting. They evidence a degree of curatorship absent from the boards of the omnivorous scavengers who indiscriminately repin whatever they can glean. In contrast, the enthusiasts, as I like to call them, are foragers with a purpose. They are also different from the collectors, such as Jack Egan, with his 83 boards and 27,967 pins at last count, including 10,000 images of orchids and 4000 images of doors. The collectors, with their thematic boards of antique tin plates, sheepskin coats and psychedelic album covers, gather exemplars of a particular object. The enthusiasts, on the other hand, search for instantiations of a concept, and are immeasurably more interesting.
One such enthusiast is Alan Moyes (I assume this is his real name, but it may be just his nom de plume on Pinterest). I ran across his boards as I was searching the platform for “Thomas Demand”, out of curiosity, really, just to see if there were any pins for the German photographer. Say it was a kind of litmus test. It turned out there were. One of them was pinned by Moyes. An image of Demand’s Archive, which depicts a wall of shelves filled with identical grey dossier boxes and a ladder (all constructed in cardboard by the artist and then photographed). It appeared on Moyes’s “Ladders” board. Among the 144 other images were a painting by Anselm Kiefer, a photograph of Calder assembling a mobile and one of a Parisian sweep carrying his tools, and a Soviet propaganda poster, all with ladders naturally. I thought this was a fascinating curatorial conceit, a way to explore painting, photography, graphic design and illustration, all through a single organizing idea. Why not? There have been exhibitions and books that look at paintings through the prism of musicians or parrots or art de la table. Why not ladders? Moyes, who sells altered china plates on etsy and is interested in food trunks, tree stumps and mermaids, much in the way he’s interested in ladders, offers a refreshing way of reacquainting yourself with movements in art and moments in history.
The painter Aaron Smith offers boards with portraits of military men and men with beards but also works of artists whom I hadn’t known of but am glad to have discovered, such as Valentin Serov and Glyn Philpot. He’s also amassed—in a board called “I’ll tap that” —what I take to be one of the largest online collection of artist self-portraits, with a particular predilection for the handsomer of male painters, including such long-tail artists as Charles Loring Elliott, Sciopione Visconti, Léon Bonnot and Henri Fantin-Latour. Art never looked sexier.
Smith annotates his pins well, and the source of the image usually leads back to an interesting place of its own. This is not always, or even often, the case with other pinners of painting and photography.
I discovered a pin of a wonderful portrait of Lisa von Cramm, née Baronness von Dobeneck taken by Marianne Breaslauer in 1934. The photograph shows an athletic woman dressed in shirt and pants seated on the top of the back of a chair, the day slipping through the curtains in a beguiling array of small blocks of light. There is no mention of the remarkably talented photographer who took the picture (and whom I discovered at a solo exhibition of her work at the Berlinische Gallerie ). Like the one pinned in Pinterest, Breslauer’s photographs of von Cramm (yes, there are others, but one wouldn’t know that from the pin or its source) are intriguingly ambiguous sexually; one shows her in short hair and dressed in a man’s suit. Von Dobeneck had married the wealthy handsome tennis star Baron von Cramm several years before this picture was taken. In the same year as the portrait, von Cramm went on to win the first of his two French Open championships. Three years after the photo, he was arrested by the Nazis on charges of homosexuality. Von Cramm admirably admitted to having a three-year relationship with Manasse Herbst, a young Jewish actor, and was sentenced to a year in prison.
Looking the image in its Pinterest frame with nothing in the caption save, “Lisa von Cramm, Berlin, 1934” made me sad. Sad that the history had been shorn of the image, sad that there was no mention at all to the marvellous photographer who had made the portrait and who shortly thereafter, still a relatively young woman, gave up photography to look after her family and her husband’s art business.
Pinterest asks its users to be respectful to other users, authentic in their pinning, and consistent in crediting their sources. (Oh, and to refrain from posting inappropriate content, such as nudity. If you search for “gas masks” on Pinterest you are likely to come up with only old photographs of masked Londoners during the Blitz). But many do not bother to even caption their finds appropriately. Some do worse.
As I began to research Ziegler’s career and work, I soon discovered that the image on Cummings’ board had been cropped to remove an equally half-naked woman on the right. The man in the foreground is now paired with the woman, and the man behind recedes to the role of a friend or brother or comrade-in-arms, perhaps at the most the third leg of a triangle. The original also depicts the gross policeman in full. It is a better painting but I confess, I like it less. But what’s more, I feel cheated, even though Cummings had added the word “detail” in the caption.
I know, seeing should not be believing, especially on the internet. Scrapbookers will select the most flattering of photographs for their albums and crop and paste them accordingly, and housewives in the Dakotas will pin the most appealing photos of pumpkin tartlets and mac ‘n cheese though their own recipes are the ones they make, clipping and cropping it as they wish for greater visual effect. Pinning art, unfortunately, is no different.
Image: Richard Ziegler, Die Polizei, 1929 (detail)