Sunday, March 06, 2011

Flying slowly

By now, the status of the airship as an emblem of a kind of alternative, softer version of modern technological development is a well-established cliché, found throughout contemporary steampunk and fantasy from Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials to the TV show Fringe. Why do these lumbering craft provoke such nostalgia?

Over the course of the 20th century, the Futurist aesthetic embodied by the airplane -- sleek, fast, loud, and efficient -- would gradually lose its appeal, done in by the nightmares of Guernica, the Blitz, Dresden, and the Enola Gay. The airship wasn't entirely innocent of such possibilities -- zeppelin raids killed hundreds in Britain in the First World War, and Thomas Harris's novel Black Sunday imagined a blimp as what we would now call a weapon of mass destruction -- but for lethal efficiency it really couldn't compare. Nor, in the end, could it compete commercially. For a brief period the airship seemed to offer a kind of compromise between the genteel leisure of the hot-air balloon and the machine-age imperatives of speed and maneuverability fulfilled by the airplane, but the disaster of the Hindenburg doomed it to be forever confined to limited and special uses like hovering over football stadiums. A sad but probably inevitable end for the emblem of a less hurried kind of technological development that perhaps wasn't really ever going to be possible.

Artists, fortunately, are less constrained by such considerations, and there's something particularly pleasing and restorative about the sight of an airship poised above a landscape -- or an iceberg.

The above four images are all from the Eisbergfreistadt project by the artists Kahn + Selesnick. The first two are in the form of postcards; the latter pair are notgeld (emergency money).

The image above is by Donald Evans, an American artist who sadly died too young in a fire in the Netherlands in 1977. Evans's work consisted almost entirely of postage stamps, drawn actual size and appropriately perforated and often endorsed, of imaginary countries with names like Domino, Amis et Amants, Lichaam and Geests (Body and Soul), and Mangiare. (He also drew a fascinating set of zeppelin stamps for the country of Achterdijk, but unfortunately they are triangular in shape and too difficult for me to reproduce.) Willy Eisenhart's The World of Donald Evans, long out-of-print but not impossible to locate, is the indispensable collection.

Finally, above is one of a series of Little Nemo Sunday cartoon panels by Winsor McCay devoted to an airship tour of North America. This particular image is from January 15, 1911 and I rather like its conceit of Nemo and his companion Flip sweeping newly fallen snow off the deck. The whole series can be enjoyed online and at full size at The Comic Strip Library.

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