Mediamatic Magazine vol 4#3 Errki Huhtamo 1 Jan 1990

Gulliver in Figurine Land (en)

In the second half of the ïgth century and the first few decades of this century, a radical change in the anthropomorphic, human-sized based world of perception of Western man took place: the big became even bigger and the small even smaller. The world took on gulliverian proportions.


Gulliver in Figurine Land -

As a symbol of this development one could consider the phenomenon of the world exhibit. New gigantic iron constructions hid a multitude of mass produced, useful and ornamental articles and thronging crowds. A strange logic connected the enormous proportions of the Eiffel Tower with the miniature model which fitted into the hands of the exhibition visiter. A gigantic hot air balloon transformed into a tiny dot as it took off to heaven. In the passengers' eyes the landscape became larger and at the same time, shrunk to a paltry empire of lilliputians.

It is known that many related development processes have exerted their influence on this increasing and diminishing of perspectives: the rise of big cities, the industrial revolution and mass production, the rise of large crowds, technical inventions; new building techniques, transportation means, mechanical reproduction techniques, such as lithography, photography and film. The gulliverisation of the world occured in both capitalistic and socialistic, in both 'democratic' and 'totalitarian' societies.

This break through from big to bigger has received more attention, in general, than that from small to smaller: they are also not comparable. The exhibition FIGURINE! Pubblicita, arte, collezionism e imhistria 1867-1985 in the Palazzo Reale in Milan, held from the end of October 1989 to the beginning of iggo, offered the occasion to examine the dynamics between the big and the small from the point of view of the latter.

Trade Cards

The subject of the exhibition in Milan was the smallest of the smallest: trade cards. From the second half of the last century through the present, they were brought on the market together with the most divergent products; from bouillon to cigarettes and chewing gum. The exhibit showed how close these trade cards, trivial pieces of paper for non collectors, can be related to the cultural context of their time.

The origin of the figurine (trade cards) is undetachably bounded to the change in culture of the second half of the 19th century, with the idea of useing 'pretty pictures' to stimulate and systematize the production of goods. Chromolithography offered the technical possibility of even printing pictures in 12 colours in large quantities. The picture produced in this way appeared on calenders, images of saints, labels, advertisement cards from shops, matchboxes and chocolate wrappers. Approximately in 1880 began the practice of putting the pictures, which were part of a larger series, finally in the packing itself. Pioneers in this field were the German meat-processing company Debig, the Swiss chocolate company Suchard and its German competitor Stollwerck. In the United States the Cigarette Card tradition had begun: the custom of enclosing trade cards in cigarette packages. This tradition spread to England around the turn of the century, where it was used as a tool in the fight for the tabacco monopoly.

The trade cards were the magic trick of rising industrial capitalism. They made a collectors hobby out of consumption and hid its mass production behind picture series. The magic word was Biedermeier, which presented itself as the opposite to the monstrosity of the industrial revolution, in being cozy, intimate, and small-scaled. In such an environment (realistic or ideal) the figurine were collected in albums, saved in boxes, traded as a past time, or used as play units.

+++Pocket Stars
The themes of the figurine expanded. They included a traditional repertoire of popular subjects, such as the plant and animal kingdom, the cosmos, and characteristic and famous figures. This included current themes: technical inventions, futuristic visions of life in the year 2000, caricatures of the famous, flags from different countries, and tips for garden maintenance.

Gradually, along with the chromolithography, ‘real photos’ depicting film stars, sports heros, and various parts of the world appeared.
The figurine carried on in this way, consciously or unconsciously, the great Encyclopedia-project from the time of the Enlightment, taking possession of the world through fragmentation and categorization. In other words, the collective aspiration, which Roland Barthes viewed as beginning with The Flood, in which men had to give names to the sorts of animals and had to separate them from their natural surroundings. The trade cards impressed the collectors with a world picture in which things had a fixed place in relation to other things, a cause and effect.
The gulliverian dynamics between the big and the small shows most fascinating in the pictures of film stars which from approximately L920, became one of the most widely spread and long lasting type of figurine. The supematurally large faces, which peered into the cinema hall from the white screen suddenly shrunk to the size of a fingertip: the object of adoration from afar suddenly was close and very tangible.

These pictures had an assignment in the expectations, promises and lust-evoking machinery with which the star cult was maintained. But they could be, if kept just like family pictures in the wallet, more than just a picture: the representation of someone who wasn't there, almost a part of that someone, a way of touching that thing which avoided being touched. Perhaps the religious qualities often emphasized of the star cult is apparent especially in the figurine from film stars.


The most surprising from the figurine exhibit was perhaps the role of trade cards in the propaganda machinery of Nazi- Germany. The official Cigaretten- Bilderdienst, which was set up by Joseph Goebbels, produced series of pictures with cigarettes, which had to impress the nazi-ideology in the tradition of the Encyclopedists. Subjects were, for example, the life of Hitler, nazi uniforms, the 'liberation' of Austria and the German army forces. Along with Leni Riefenstahl's film Olympia, they also created a series of pictures, included in cigarette packages, which depicted the Olympic games of Berlin. Collector's albums, provided with a great deal of text were made for the various series.

The nazis understood that, with a national/political education in a totalitarian society, along with the state media, one must also give attention to seemingly insignificant channels. Popular rituals and monumental architecture were reduced to Biedermeier proportions on pictures with cigarettes. Undoubtedly they had, aside from a pedantic and a propagandist function, also a sacred one: the figurines of the Führer and his empire replaced the images of saints and film stars.

translation Linda Pollack