Thursday, April 19, 2007

Pop Art # 1: Space:1999 Lunchbox

On the eve of my blog's two-year anniversary, it's time to commence a series of close-up articles that I've been wanting to write for a very long time. I've featured here retro-toy flashbacks, collectibles of the week, trading card close-ups and so forth, but I want to move to an even deeper level of examination in terms of the genre items I've collected. I want to discuss them in terms of artistic value.

A word of prologue. I come from a family of collectors. My parents collect Maxfield Parrish prints, Roseville pottery, and more. Kathryn, my wife, collects cobalt blue glass. Of course, you've seen my collection of toys, models, action figures and other collectibles. People often ask me why I collect these things - these hunks of plastic and such - and the answer that I come back to is that there is a value in these items beyond nostalgia. Some will see what I'm about to argue here as the ultimate degradation of artistic standards, but I don't agree...

In and of themselves toys, comic-book covers, posters, action-figure cards and the like are often very, very beautiful. I believe wholeheartedly that they qualify as art. If Roman graffiti, scrawled a wall thousands of years ago is art, then why not a trading card? Why not an action figure diorama? There is no good answer, except that stewards of the term "art" are stringent gatekeepers.

Now, I realize that purists will recoil at this description - memorabilia from TV shows and films as art. What I'm talking about here is not "true" art, they will claim, but rather kitsch. Their argument would be that the renderings I admire are inferior, derivative, commercially produced, theatrical and deficient in some manner. I understand their argument, but it's flat-out misconceived...and wrong.

The items I intend to focus on in this series of essays do indeed possess aesthetic value. In simpler terms, they stimulate the spirit and the brain...the essential qualifications of art, and more than that, these items often have "something to say" (another criterion of art). As for these products being derivative (as in derivative of earlier art styles...), I can only respond by answering in this fashion: what isn't derivative? Please, tell me. Search long enough and deep enough and you'll see that every work of art has an antecedent. That's how art is created. The artist takes inspiration from other work, then builds on it, synthesizes different styles...and arrives at something new. It's still derivative, in some sense, however. Even if it's a rejection of a previous school of art, it's still derivative because dislike is what fostered the new art. See?

The next hurdle we cross here is one of this toy/memorabilia art being "commercially produced." This is perhaps the most ludicrous argument for disqualifying something as art. For centuries, painters and sculptors have accepted commissions - been paid - by patrons to produce art for audiences. Sometimes the patron is the Church. Sometimes it is a head of state. Sometimes it is just a very rich aristocrat. What is the difference, then, when a painter or artist takes a job for the licensor of merchandise for a television show or movie? The difference here is all substance.

As far as being deficient...well, the elitists can make any claims they want, but in my heart of hearts I know that in four hundred years, scholars and art historians will be gazing at Star Trek and Star Wars the way we gaze today at Shakespeare. Or Greek myth. I won't live (dammit!) long enough to see my prophecy fulfilled...but I believe I'm right. Similarly, the genre art that's been created in the last thirty years around projects like Star Trek, Star Wars, Space:1999, Battlestar Galactica, The Black Hole, etc., will one day be held up as being of a "school" of art that at times can be profound...even though it was mass marketed and aimed at children. (Also aimed at children: The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, The Hobbit, Harry Potter...anyone want to say they ain't art?)

But enough of the generalities. I want to open this series with a close-up analysis of the Space:1999 King Seeley Thermos Company (copyright 1975 ATV Licensing Limited) lunchbox. This work of art consists of a series of beautifully done artistic renderings from the Gerry/Sylvia Anderson production, Space:1999 (1975-1977).

What does this lunch box have to say to us, today? That's an interesting question, and the answers are legion. On one large rectangular side, of the box we are faced with Dr. Helena Russell (played by Barbara Bain). To the right of her portrait, we see her being clutched by a cyclopean green octopus, while Commander Koenig fires his stun gun at the beast. In terms of imagery, what we're registering here is the repetition of the very story that the episode "Dragon's Domain" references: St. George and the Dragon. The defeat of a monster by a knight or hero.

We're also seeing an intentional repeat of the 1950s sci-fi trope of the hero rescuing the damsel in distress from a green, tentacled space monster or other far-fetched threat. The man (Koenig) - our hero - is in an all-out action pose (much as would Luke Skywalker be in a Star Wars poster), coming to the rescue of his lady.

But the imagery actually cuts deeper, even than such references indicate. Space:1999 has often been referred to as an "odyssey," like Homer's Odyssey. That epic poem is about a man and his crew trying to get home, and thematically, Space:1999 is not far afield from that narrative. The men and women of Moonbase Alpha search for a home in space; not Ithaca but a new Earth. Importantly, The Odyssey features Odysseus's encounter with a cyclops...a monster we see portrayed here.

So, while on one hand we can look at this image and say it is cliched (woman attacked by green space monster!) or claim it is simply derivative, on the other we see it for what it is: the space age re-telling of a basic human myth. In visuals that, while attractive, are also not so horrific that they frighten the intended audience (children).

The images on this lunch box tell us much about the time-period from which this art sprang. Notice the image across the bottom, a "beige," soft, homey interior (on Moonbase Alpha), where various crewmen are at work. In keeping with the disco decade, the 1970s, the haircuts and costumes are unisex, speaking of sexual equality (The era of the ERA).

Furthermore, pay attention to the prominence of the microscope in the composition. Victor Bergman is essentially Moonbase Alpha's "oracle," known for such dialogue as "the line between science and mysticism is just a line." He's a priest, in other words, but his dogma is science, and even his pose (reminiscent, after a fashion, of Auguste Rodin's "Thinker"), highlights his role as "oracle" in the adventure. The promise of science is expressed by that tool, the ' Bergman is reading the runes. Otherwise, we see Sandra Benes looking somewhat more ethnic than on the show, Kano - a black man - and two female technicians in the background. The message of this composition is plain: men and women of all stripe and creed working together on Moonbase Alpha. A promise for the future. Cooperation, not conflict.

When critics and scholars write of Star Trek, they often note the series' sense of optimism about humanity...and the future. And yet, it's the far future we're talking about there. Three hundred years from now and beyond. Space:1999, being a product of the mid-1970s (the time of the Energy Crisis, Watergate, Vietnam, etc.) is not so blatantly optimistic. However, it is what I call "Apollo Age" optimistic. Which is that the design of the ships, even the computer block (with colon) style of the series logo reflects 1970s bread-and-butter optimism about a fast dawning space age. The Space:1999 eagles are not aesthetically-pleasing in the sense of the U.S.S. Enterprise, one might argue, but quite beautiful in the same way that Apollo capsules are: as realistic space craft that "feel" within our reach now. They are utilitarian, and more importantly, evocations of believable space travel. The Eagles boast landing gear like modern space craft (The Enterprise does not), and the design is modular, meaning that different portions can be "subbed" out for different missions, an acknowledgment of the cost of space travel.

Look at the moon buggy on the lunch box: it has wheels, an antenna, bucket seats, headlights. It's something we instantly recognize, only tweaked to be slightly futuristic. As fans, we complained (and rightly!) in Star Trek: Nemesis over that all-terrain vehicle Picard stuck out like a sore-thumb in the advanced world of Star Trek. The design was not artistically true to that particular universe, whereas the moon buggy design is just right for Space:1999.

The image of the Eagle high above the alien (Caldorian) spaceship on the lunchbox is also one that tells us some important things. It reminds us that Space:1999 - again - has one foot in the present, and one i
n the future. In contrast to the modular, lattice-work Eagle, the Caldorian ship (the product of a more technologically advanced circle) is all curves and ellipses. But surrounding it, you'll see, are Alphan light posts. This is a nod to reality, and one of the things that makes Space:1999 so attractive to fans. A "captured" alien ship, or one in for repairs, WOULD have equipment like that around it, no? Space:1999 never scrimped on realism, despite what some critics would have you believe, and this image -- which is not from the series itself, but a compilation of images synthesized for this art work - reflects the contrast between Earth science and Alien science. In one composition, we see the alien ship bracketed by Earth technology, the light posts and the Eagle soaring above. Again, a foot in "future" reality, and a foot in space fantasy. In one specially constructed image.

Aside from featuring the photographic portraits of two very attractive leads (Landau and Bain), this lunchbox captures the imagination of the TV series, sparks images of alien encounters, and speaks in volumes about the possibilities (unfulfilled...) of the Apollo age.

This lunchbox isn't just playtime at recess, or an attempt to "sell" something, it's Space:1999 - the ethos, the aesthetic, the drama, the history - re-packaged in another form. And that my friends, is art.

I hope you'll stick with me as I gaze at other examples of pop art in the genre franchises of years past. There's a lot of real beauty and talent in this venue, and it's about time that it was discussed and debated for what it is. Join me. Let me know what you think. And if there's any comic-book cover or poster that you think resonates powerfully with you in terms of art, bring it up (and send an image!)


  1. Howard Margolin1:16 PM

    John, as attractive as the art may be, the one problem with the picture of John firing at the monster holding Helena is that, even though they are ostensibly on the lunar surface, neither one is wearing a spacesuit.

  2. Hi Howard!

    You curmudgeon!!! :)

    You're taking the art much too literally!!! Art doesn't have to be "realistic" to be good!

    Look at the iconic Star Wars poster -- Darth Vader's head isn't really larger than everyone else's head, nor is it hovering in outer space, and transparent!

    This is a symbolic representation of the fight with the dragon!

    But thanks for commenting, buddy!

  3. Astrid2:38 PM

    See, I never would have thought of that. I took it for granted that wherever that green monster lived, had to have an Earth-like atmosphere, hence, the folks are walking around exploring and got attacked. Were we meant to believe that all the scenes 'joined' in some way around the lunchbox, or that each panel was a seperate scene?

    All that said, John, you're a doll. Of COURSE there is artistic merit in much of pop culture. (That does not include the Barbie & Ken set, btw. Yipe.) We create our own mythologies now! They translated the Koran, the Torah and the Bible, you can read Homer in any language, who needs a high priest anymore? Long live Joseph Campbell.

    I accept your challenge and will send you a pic of something I hold dear very soon...

  4. The visual matter you talk about (cover art, trading cards, packaging, etc) comes from a time - 1960s and 1970s - when gallery artists such as Andy Warhol, Peter Blake, Pauline Boty, and others were self-consciously creating works that mirrored popular culture. So, "high" art came to be increasingly conflated with, and confused for, so-called "pop" art.

    The truth of the matter is that far more people of recent generations have had their lives and visual imaginations stimulated by so-called mass culture than have been personally moved by Benevento Cellini's Salt Shakers or Gainsborough's portraits.

    What interests me are the weird moments of disjuntion in fantastic art - and most of the art that you will be talking about is in some way fantastic - where such solidified stylistic ideas as expressionistic technique, surrealism, and "op art" patterns bleed into the popular culture. Thus, I'm really fascinated when art for a Dungeons & Dragons module is so amateurish as to become abstract and intentional, or when packaging for an action figure presents great pathos and depth of field.

  5. Hey there!

    Great comments all around. Astrid - make sure you send in that image, and a description I can post about what the object means to you as art!!!

    And Kevin, I agree, there may not be any differentiation anymore between high art and pop art. Those terms are virtually meaningless today...

  6. Anonymous4:36 PM

    What a wonderful review of my all-time favorite television show's lunchbox. I remember having one in primary school, and recently indulged myself by purchasing another off ebay. I agree, the artist(s) packed a great deal of series one into 6 panels, although I must confess I didn't take the red sleeved tech on the bottom as Sandra, as she, of course, wore yellow. But, you make a strong argument that is who it is. Although it is given in the series that the 'dragon' monster was fought in a derelect space ship with a dynamic, active environment thus space suits not needed, for artistic and space reasons, the backdrop of endless space also works quite well in this situation.

    A wonderful series woefully ignored except by a diehard few. Can a plug for Network's glorious new series one DVD set be offered? It is well worth the money bringing the first 24 episodes to brilliant life. And an HDTV version is in the works from what I hear. Then again, perhaps there are more fans out there than is commonly counted if someone is willing to go to all this lengths.


  7. Michael A. De Luca12:37 AM

    I love how wise Barry Morse looks on the box. I say a pox on literalism! I mean, in the classic "Star Wars" poster, for example, I often choose to ignore the literal implications of Princess Leia clutching her brother's leg.