Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: The Cultures of Collecting

The artist as philatelist

“Great adventures have shaken those childhood companions of ours, stamps which a thousand bonds of mystery unite with the history of the world … Here are the stamps of defeats, the stamps of revolutions. Used, mint – what do I care? I shall never begin to understand all this history and geography. Surcharges, overprints – your black enigmas terrify me: behind them are concealed an unknown ruler, a massacre, palaces in flames, and the song of a mob, waving placards and shouting slogans, that marches towards a throne …”

Aragon, Paris Peasant

Plenty of artists and artworks feature on postage stamps, but it’s hard to find a decent piece of art about philately or philatelists. (I exempt mail art and artistamps from the discussion at this point, the relation there being a conceptual game rather than an observation or reflection. Not “about”.) Such Kurt Schwitters collages as happen to contain fragments of stamps and envelopes perhaps begin to say something about the collecting process as retention, accumulation and autobiography, but only in the same way as for bus tickets or small fragments of lino – it was all one to Kurt, bless him.

Google Image suggests that paintings of philatelists (a somewhat specialised genre, admittedly) are mostly chocolate box-academic renditions of eccentric old geezers squinting through magnifying glasses. (Not that there isn’t an undeniable element of truth there, as anyone will know who has ever visited a stamp fair and studied the demography.) But here’s one that I think, for a change, makes the grade: Le Philatéliste, painted by François Barraud in 1929, just three years after the appearance of Louis Aragon’s Le Paysan de Paris, whose stamp shop reverie is quoted above. (Not that Barraud was any kind of surrealist, though I notice that one of the editors of my very favouritest anthology of essays on the psychopathologies of collecting, The Cultures of Collecting, 1994, is Roger Cardinal, the Outsider Art man. To be fair, I doubt there are any other such anthologies, but I recommend the book anyway.)

Francois Barraud, 'Le Philateliste'

Francois Barraud, ‘Le Philateliste’

François was just one of the four Swiss Barraud brothers, all painters and all employing a broadly similar style, though generally reckoned the best of the quartet. He died in 1934 at the age of 34. There is a cool neo-classicism in his style that fits the period well, with hints of Maillol or Modigliani.  But there is also a tender and modest humanism, and a hint of Vermeer too. Le Philatéliste is a self-portrait with his wife Marie. The activity of collecting is shown as male, with the wife as supporter, offering her approval. Or does she intrude? Philately has always been an overwhelmingly male form of obsession. The sideways glance with slight frown, animated by the whole diagonal of the composition, introduces a very definite anxiety. The push-and-pull tension is between the woman and the collection. This is a study of desires and sublimations, of the limits of privacy and of the nature of the self. It is a gently uncomfortable image.

(Though an accurate one. As well as the magnifier, note the round-ended tweezers, the black watermark tray, the catalogue and what may be a packet of hinges.)

Hand up. I’d better sign off here with an admission of personal involvement. Some remains of my “other” website still seem to be online here (thanks to the neglect of my previous ISP to remove them), consisting of two terrifyingly forensic studies of hopelessly recondite aspects of the philatelic history of Burma. Yes, we are talking perversion.

The practices of art and philately (considered as an exemplar of “scientific” collecting) seem to be somehow opposed – and thus connected – obsessions. But which is a perversion of which? Each of the other, perhaps. And therefore both, I guess, of some elusive ur-obsession that might even claim a higher ground in terms of authenticity or worth. Or maybe not.