Monday, August 7, 2017

Museum Toys

Build the Town Block Set (prototype)
painted wood, painted metal
made by Ladislav Sutnar
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Sunny Suzy Child's Iron
ca. 1955
painted metal
Wolverine Supply & Mfg. Co.
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

painted wood
Paul Bonhop Toys, Inc.
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum


"Hebbel, in a surprising entry in his diary, asks what takes away 'life's magic in the later years'.  'It is because in all the brightly coloured contorted marionettes, we see the revolving cylinder that sets them in motion, and because for this very reason the captivating variety of life is reduced to wooden monotony. A child seeing the tightrope-walkers singing, the pipers playing, the girls fetching water, the coachmen driving, thinks all this is happening for the joy of doing so; he can't imagine that these people also have to eat and drink, go to bed and get up again. We, however, know what is at stake.'  Namely, earning a living, which commandeers all those activities as mere means, reduces them to interchangeable, abstract labour-time.  The quality of things ceases to be their essence and becomes the accidental appearance of their value.  . . .  "

"In his purposeless activity the child, by a subterfuge, sides with use-value against exchange value.  Just because he deprives the things with which he plays of their mediated usefulness, he seeks to rescue in them what is benign towards men and not what subserves the exchange relation that equally deforms men and things.  The little trucks travel nowhere and the tiny barrels on them are empty; yet they remain true to their destiny by not performing, not participating in the process of abstraction that levels down that destiny, but instead abide as allegories of what they are specifically for. Scattered, it is true, but not ensnared, they wait to see whether society will finally remove the social stigma on them; whether the vital process between men and things, praxis, will cease to be practical.  The unreality of games gives notice that reality is not yet real.  Unconsciously, they rehearse the right life.  The relation of children to animals depends entirely on the fact that Utopia goes disguised in the creatures whom Marx even begrudged the surplus value they contribute as workers.  In existing without any purpose recognizable to men, animals hold out, as if for expression, their own names, utterly impossible to exchange.  This makes them so beloved of children, their contemplation so blissful. I am a rhinoceros signifies the shape of the rhinoceros.  . . . "

  from Minima Moralia (1951) by Theodor Adorno, translated by E.F.N. Jephcott (1974)

Graf Zeppelin
painted metal
JC Penney Co.
Minneapolis Institute of Art

Miniature Teapot
made by Henry Flavelle of Dublin
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Rattle, Whistle, Bells, and Teether
ca. 1735-45
silver, coral
made by Richard and Peter van Dyck of New York
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

During many past ages pieces of coral could be found in common use as baby-teethers, often in expensive and ingenious settings (for the babies of the privileged, needless to say). In addition to attractiveness and practicality, coral offered protection from childhood illnesses, and, more particularly, protection from enchantment.  

Toy Figures
painted tin
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

painted earthenware by John Bell
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Elephant on wheels
ca. 1905
painted metal
Minneapolis Institute of Art

Paddle Doll
2030-1802 BC
painted wood, string, beads
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Jointed Teddy Bear
printed cardboard
 designed by Bess Bruce Cleaveland
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

László Moholy-Nagy
Dolls on the Balcony
gelatin silver print
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Curators at the Met are keen to point out that Moholy-Nagy was a Constructivist and not a Surrealist  even though his image above is built around the near-universal surrealist cliché of the dismembered, dehumanized doll.

5th century BC
Getty Museum, Los Angeles

ca. 1700-1750
painted wood, textiles
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam