All Photographs and Copy are Coryright MEL BIRNKRANT
Some of the imagery is Copyright The Walt Disney Company
THE MEL BIRNKRANT COLLECTION
A Guided Tour of
Throughout the 19th Century, Art strove to achieve Reality. Even forays into Fantasy were pictured in realistic terms. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the Adventures of “Reynard the Fox” (Reincke Fuchs) by Goeth, a breathtaking volume of great luxury, published in 1846, in Germany, and illustrated by Wilhelm Von Kaulbach. It introduces the viewer to a menagerie of incredibly engraved animals, doing things that humans do, or wish they could. This was, a predecessor to the anthropomorphic art of Disney. Here, the artist strove to make his characters seem credible and alive by making them look incredibly “real.”
At the end of the 19 Century Comic Characters appeared, and changed the way we saw the World. Mostly through the pages of the “Funny Papers,” they introduced abstraction and stylization into the visual repertoire. And mankind embraced this new visual language, willingly. To trace the development of Comic Characters, one must travel along a road that leads from reality to pure abstraction, from Renard the Fox to Mickey Mouse.
One of the first Steps on the journey to stylization and abstraction was the turn of the Century Halloween Pumpkin Man. This charismatic character was derived from the straightforward simplicity of transforming a pumpkin into a Jack-o-lantern. His spontaneous honesty simplified the essence of looking “alive” into an abstract image that anyone could carve with a paring knife, just as young “Tip” had done In 1904 to create “Jack Pumpkinhead.” Then he sprinkled him with the Magical Powder of Life, in “The Marvelous Land of Oz.” And the Pumpkin Man's “look” of Life, stylized to its bare essence, became a standard fixture that not only represented Halloween, but opened the door for for the vast repertoire of Comic Characters that followed.
Soon, the stylized features of this powerful pumpkin face began appearing everyplace. Easily recognizable in Jack Pumpkinhead, and, less obviously so, in the abstract lovability of characters like Raggedy Ann and Andy. They are essentially dolls that come to life, and the abstract intensity of their appearance makes this premise credible. Their triangular noses and shoe button eyes are shorthand for “alive”. Even their candy hearts, are simple graphic symbols that, to this day, signify “love”. In the world of the inanimate, this is the stuff that “Life” is made of.
This delicious picture puzzle represents the situation nicely, if one reads between the lines, It portrays more than just a lovely world of fantasy. Johnny Gruelle, who’s “look” metamorphosed many times, throughout his lifetime, was at his best, at the time he created this. Here is his daughter, Marcella, radiating innocence, and interacting with a trio of naturalistic fairies. In the middle of this realistically rendered scene, is Raggedy Andy. His powerful abstract pumpkin face tells us immediately, and intuitively, that he is the main character, the target of attention. Our eyes are drawn to him like to a bull’s-eye.
That is exactly what the experience was like, when I first discovered Comic Characters. The power of their abstract imagery most graphically hit home to me in the midst of antique shows, like those early ones at the Madison Square Garden. Among row after row of traditional antiques, I would suddenly see the fresh fierce face of a Comic Character. Some would say this object was out of place in that ocean of fine antiquities. But it was that very contrast that made it stand out so dramatically. And the face that appeared there, with ever increasing frequency, was that of Mickey!
But, in those early days, even when a show was awful, it seemed like I could often reconcile the trip to some distant college gymnasium, early on a Saturday morning, by picking up a few stray pieces of Halloween. Early Jack-O-Lantern figures seemed to lie around, long after the show began, or hide in boxes underneath a dealer’s table, inexpensive, and often catching no one’s eye, but mine. I had no reason to believe that anyone was actively collecting them, until years later, when I ran into a woman, at the Stormville Flea Market, who called herself “The Halloween Queen”. For a long time I had lived in a state of grace, in which that familiar pumpkin face was just there for the picking, like low hanging fruit on a pumpkin tree. That era came to an end abruptly, and I soon found myself having to choose between, expensive Mickey, or expensive Halloween. Expensive Mickey, won the day. Thus, Destiny had decreed that I would never be a Halloween King .
Like everything else in this collection, Halloween was all a visual thing for me. I didn’t care for, or collect witches, ghosts, bats and black pussy cats. My Halloween collecting wasn’t about Halloween. It was just about the primitive imagery of the powerful pumpkin face, which noticeably dominates this showcase.
In the center of the case is an image that perhaps needs some explaining. It is out of context, I know. But, somehow, it seemed apropos. It is a paper on wood target game manufactured by Bliss. It dates from the same era as the pumpkin face, the Turn of the Century, and portrays, the World’s most Famous Clown for over half a century, Humpty Dumpty. Directly above him is a once common object, a tin Jack-O-lantern. Children used to carry these with a lit candle inside, in Halloween Night parades. The black handlebar moustache, which is always present on this particular object, is reminiscent of "Tik Tok," another abstraction from the land of OZ
My favorite Halloween item, is the one below, the Pumpkin Man in a Jack-O-lantern Ascension Balloon. It is a mechanical toy with an internal windup motor. The basket is woven exactly as a real basket would be. Like almost all Halloween toys from theTurn of the Century, it was made in Germany. When one holds the basket and pulls the ring to extend the string, this winds the motor.
I obtained this one of a kind rarity at one of the first Brimfields. I remember the very moment, as vividly, as if it were yesterday. It was late in the day; Brimfield was a one day show, back then. My friend John Fawcett and I were walking along together, dragging, I should say, for we had been there since daybreak. We were both exhausted, and at the same time, unwilling to give up. Things were continuing to show up. Suddenly, I spotted this pumpkin man, at a booth on the other side of John. I let out a yelp and made a dive past him that nearly knocked him off his feet, a flying leap! I was fast, but alas, not fast enough. From my position still in midair, I saw John’s hand reach down and pick it up. My heart sank! And, then, before my heart could miss another beat, he handed it to me! Now that's what I call a true friend! I am still grateful to this day... for both his generosity, and the toy.
When the balloon is released, it ascends the string again, while the pumpkin passenger animatedly waves his arms. I have seen similar ascension balloon toys from the same era, but never with a Halloween theme.
Did I realize that the Pumpkin Man played a role in the evolution of Comic Characters when I began collecting him? Certainly Not! I just knew that his abstract imagery spoke to me with a powerful audacity that was like the basic ABCs, of the language that inanimate objects “speak”.
Now, the balloon soars higher, floating above a dazzling City of Light. Beneath it, is a vast Pumpkin Panorama, glowing as far as the eye can see. This is Jack-O-lantern Land, where every night is Halloween!
If I have not, yet, convinced you that the Pumpkin Man was a first step on the road to Mickey, I present, below, exhibit “A”, in which he takes a giant leap, and goes almost all the way, transforming into Mickey Mouse, himself. These images were made in Germany in the early 1930s. They were not likely to have been licensed from Disney, but the “influence” of Mickey is all there. They display the telltale evidence that they are very early, for the artist who created them, as was often the case in the early days, failed to notice that Mickey only has four fingers. Mickey’s ears have been represented, with a certain amount of understatement, by two black leaves. The diverse patterns on his pants, are an element that only an artist who is not bound by conforming to a model sheet would have the freedom and imagination to conceive.
In the bottom left corner of the case is a fabulous Jack-O-lantern in the form of Foxy Grandpa; evidence of the common bond between the Jack-O-lantern image and comic characters, especially in the early days. His hair perks up to suggest a look that is demonic. Having spent a lifetime living with these objects, I tend to take them all for granted. But, every once in a while, I am reminded of how miraculous it really is that any of them have survived. Here is a fragile Foxy Jack-O-lantern with eyes and teeth printed on the thinnest tissue paper, in pristine mint condition, a hundred Halloweens later.