Cheap and meaningful; design

If you thought kitsch started with the Lava Lamp, think again. Charles Darwent explores one of the more obscure cultural legacies of the Victorians
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Say what you will about Celeste Olalquiaga, the woman certainly knows how to spoil your fun. For all these years you thought your Lava Lamp collection was a witty take on Nineties designer fetishism, that neon-lit aquarium a Post-Modern dig at Wallpaper magazine, but now it turns out you're wrong. According to Olalquiaga's new study of the anthropology of kitsch, Lava Lamps and angel fish are serious stuff: "auratic", "oneistic", even, "paradigmatic". Don't even think about snow spheres.

If you want your illusions left unshattered, turn away now. According to Olalquiaga's book, The Artificial Kingdom, kitsch - from the German kitschen, meaning "street junk" - began life in or around the 1800s. With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, the idea of using authenticity as a way of attaching value to things became irrelevant. Suddenly shops were full of mass-produced goodies - and who cared whether they were authentic or not?

Still, value had to come from somewhere, so the Victorians turned to uniqueness. More particularly, they turned to uniqueness while still revelling in plenty. The most obvious sign of the new industrial order was the vast range of goods visible in shop windows, themselves a recent French invention. (Think of Zola's Nana, window-shopping her way around the passages of Haussmann's Paris.) The idea of bringing this aesthetic into the home soon caught on. Thus the rapid appearance, circa 1830, of glass containers with all manner of things inside them: snowflakes, tropical fish, stuffed birds. They suggested richness by emphasising diversity, so the designers fell into the habit of putting together ever more incongruous things. Soon, whole orchestras of stuffed kittens were playing symphonies in taxidermists' vitrines, entire schools of tropical fish were swimming vacantly through ruined Bavarian castles - et voila: the birth of kitsch.

But what really defined kitsch was (and is) its schizophrenia. On the one hand, Victorians retained a sickly sentimentality for nature. On the other, the same impulse that led them to put snowflakes under glass also led them to stuff animals and put them in museum vitrines - that is to say, the death of nature at the hands of science. Kitsch revelled in industrialisation, the Brave New World of the man-made. Stuffed birds became prettier than living ones, plastic fruit more toothsome than real. Follow Olalquiaga's reasoning (keeping a dictionary to hand) and you will end up, inevitably, at the Lava Lamp and aquarium.

`Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience', by Celeste Olalquiaga, is published by Bloomsbury, pounds 20.

Pierre & Gilles

This French pair, famous for their soft-focus photographs of transsexual Madonnas, and Jeff Stryker in gold lame tights, claim to have rescued kitsch from itself by taking it on its own terms and turning it into art. But wait. Here is Ms Olalquiaga on those little ruined castles found in aquariums: "These are fake fakes ... so far removed from their original referents as to become autonomous". Which seems to mean that intentionally kitsch kitsch somehow cancels itself out to become just plain old kitsch and P&G have - oh, forget it.

Lava Lamps

The very embodiment of modern kitsch, and not just because Hilda and Stan had one. The whole idea of re-enacting the drama of creation, appropriating the volcanic forces responsible for the world itself, in a glass tube on top of your television, constitutes bathos on a grand scale. Add to this the Freudian suggestions of an 18in cylinder which has globules floating around in it and you can only wonder why Lava Lamps are missing from Ms Olalquiaga's index. Given the circumstances, good taste can hardly be the reason.

Doll's houses Commodification: that was where it all began. Miniaturising shop windows into snow spheres and the like and bringing them into the home. So what was the obvious next step? Yes, the doll's house: domesticity made into a commodity and then sold for domestic consumption - closing the commodification loop by getting Victorians to fill their houses with replicas of themselves.

Sea fantasies

For reasons I do not entirely follow, Olalquiaga has it in for all things marine. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is shockingly kitsch, as are stories about Atlantis. (Fortunately, Olalquiaga seems never to have seen Stingray.) Her grouse is with the colonising of one element by inhabitants of another, presumably on the grounds of inappropriateness. This French postcard (c.1908) boosts its kitsch quotient by introducing an element of sex (very kitsch). Amphitrite, wife of Poseidon, was hardly the aquatic vamp seen here.

Stuffed animals

This was one of 1,500 animal "comicalities" made for the Great Exhibition of 1851 by the Stuttgart taxidermist Hermann Plocquet. It says a lot about Victorian attitudes to natural hierarchies, attitudes that extended into thinking on race - the humour is only a step away from that of The Black and White Minstrels, after all. Olalquiaga argues that 19th-century museums reinforced these ideas by showing zoological specimens in glass vitrines - a point that arguably makes the Natural History Museum the world's biggest single piece of kitsch.

Aquariums These are the row of three cherries of the kitsch world, the stuff of which Olalquiaga's dreams are made. Nature under glass? Tick. Multiple commodities jammed together? Tick. A celebration of the triumph of science? The incongruous suborning of one element by inhabitants of another? The distant whiff of species-ism? Tick, tick, tick. Ultra-kitsch. Enjoy, if you dare.


Paperweights score high on the Olalquiaga Kitsch Index. First, there is the gap between form and function. (Why weigh down papers with things pretending to be flowers?) Second, they never come in ones. The impulse to juxtapose large numbers of disparate things lies at the very heart of kitsch, and paperweights pander to it in spades.

Snow spheres

Nature reduced to a teensy shop window display. Add to this the element of incongruity and you have kitsch par excellence. Visiting Honolulu? Snap up a hula dancer, cruelly caught in a blizzard. (Ah, the dark joys of being God.) Olalquiaga's favourite snow sphere contains a figure of Marie Antoinette, doggedly holding on to a sunshade in spite of the snow that whirls around her. n