Wednesday 8 July 2020

Talking to a Portrait—An Excerpt

French world champion cyclist Alfred Letourneur pulling an Airstream Liner trailer on a runway at the Los Angeles Metropolitan Airport, 1947

For over thirty years, Rosalind Pepall helped plan and organize dozens of major exhibitions at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. In Talking to a Portrait—released this week—Pepall distills that experience into fifteen essays that explore the unexpected turns and obsessions of her job as curator. 

She writes about artists falling in and out of love, family tragedies, the creation of the Stanley Cup, the secrets of Tiffany, Antiques Roadshow, watercolour sketchbooks of the Canadian north, a beautiful prayer room in Montreal, gondolas flying through windows in Venice. 

In the following essay taken from the book—titled "It Rides along the Highway like a Stream of Air, but Will It Fit into the Museum?"—we see how curating isn't always the intellectual, sedate activity we might imagine it to be. Sometimes it’s closer to madcap, adrenaline-filled troubleshooting.

In 1930s America, radical changes in industrial design produced calculators that looked like diesel engines,Top-O-Stove potato bakers that resembled zeppelins, and Zephyr irons that looked like rocket ships ready for takeoff from the ironing board. With their sweeping lines, rounded corners and gleaming metal, these items evoked fast cars, speeding trains and soaring airplanes. Consumers mired in the Depression embraced this streamlined aesthetic wholeheartedly as a sign of an exciting and hopeful future. Blenders, toasters, weighing scales, hair dryers, electric saws—all manner of household appliances were redesigned to suit the new modernist look. Two hundred such items were presented in the travelling exhibition American Streamlined Design: The World of Tomorrow.When the show came to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2007, I was the Canadian curator in charge of its installation.

There is nothing particularly glamorous about a Thor Silver Line electric saw, a Silvertone Rocket radio, or a Presto Streamlined stapler except their names. In the new millennium, the objects themselves seemed quaint. The exhibition needed a jolt: something big, shiny and eye-catching.

How about an airplane? I thought.

I put in a call to the Canadian Aviation Museum—housed in a huge airfield hangar on the outskirts of Ottawa—and arranged a visit. Among the bombers and a bush plane with a canoe attached to its side, I spied a shiny aluminum Lockheed 10a Electra. Lockheed had manufactured the twin-engine plane from 1934 to 1941, and this particular one had seen many years of use by Trans-Canada Airlines, the precursor to Air Canada. The company’s logo, a red-and-green maple leaf with “TCA” in gold letters in the middle, was painted on the plane’s nose. Also, Amelia Earhart had flown a variation of the Electra Model 10 in 1937 on her legendary fatal flight around the world.

Perfect, I thought. A vintage 1930s airplane with a compelling story and a Canadian connection.

But would the Aviation Museum lend it to the show, and would the Electra fit inside the museum? The wing tips could be removed and the Ottawa museum was planning to relocate the plane anyway, according to its curator. Armed with the Electra’s exact measurements, I returned to Montreal delighted with my discovery.

Back at the museum, the news from head of installations Paul Tellier was discouraging. Yes, we could remove two panels of a glass exterior wall, dismantle the Electra’s wingtips, and fit her length into the museum. But the two huge spherical engines on either side of the airplane’s body could not be removed and together were just three feet too wide for the exterior wall. “Pas possible!” said Tellier, shaking his head.

Disappointed but undaunted, I searched for some other object or vehicle that could make a bold visual impression. Flipping through the exhibit’s catalogue, I came upon a black-and-white photograph of a cyclist, vigorously pedalling—pulling an Airstream trailer behind him. The motorhome glistened in the sun, all smooth sculptural curves and bright aluminum, and typified modern aerodynamic design. Light enough to be pulled by a bicycle as a publicity stunt, its hand-riveted panels were derived from airplane construction. The trailer rode along the highway “like a stream of air” according to the founder of Airstream Trailers, Wallace Byam, when he introduced his first aluminum Clipper model in 1936. The luxury home on wheels was produced in great numbers in the post-war 1940s. Fully equipped for dining and sleeping in a compact functional space, it presented modern travel as fun, adventurous, comfortable and cheap. Designed to be resistant to changes in temperature, the post-war series of Airstream Liners were built with outer and inner aluminum shells (Aero-core fibreglass insulation sandwiched between) over a pipe-frame chassis. No screws or nails were used on the body (they loosened with road wear). The Airstream trailer epitomized supreme craftsmanship in industrial design. It was a work of art fit for a museum.

But how to lay my hands on a vintage model in pristine condition? Through the North American Vintage Airstream Club, I found myself talking to Fred Coldwell, its Denver-based historian and the proud owner of a 1948Wee Wind, one of the smallest models that Airstream produced. The sixteen-foot trailer had all the typical French world champion cyclist Alfred Letourneur pulling an Airstream Liner trailer on a runway at the Los Angeles Metropolitan Airport, Airstream features: Air-O-Lite windows, curved entrance door, castbronze nameplates. There were no toilet or bathing facilities in this early model but it had a single bed, two chairs, a fold-up Formicatopped table for dining, and a rear double bed/sofa with the original Gruda, California, upholstery. The aluminum and stainless-steel kitchen galley included sink, storage compartments, a three-burner stove and icebox,and even a tiny built-in receptacle for used matches. A wooden closet, a chest of drawers and a butane heater with castiron front grille completed the trailer. Fred had lovingly preserved his Airstream, which he called Ruby after its original owner, and he offered to drive her from Colorado to Montreal for the show.

Perfect, I thought. But as the months passed, Fred had second thoughts about taking Ruby on the road. Less than two weeks before the show was set to begin, he emailed to say that he was not up to making the four-day trip to Montreal and back. I couldn’t blame him—but he had left me in the lurch.

I put in a frantic call to Airstream’s vintage-model shop in Jackson Center, Ohio.

“Would you have a trailer from the 1940s that you could lend to an exhibition in Montreal?” I asked.

“Hm, when is your show?” said the communications director, Rick March.

“In two weeks!” I replied.

“I think we might have one, let me check,” replied Rick.

Several long minutes later, he returned.

“Okay, ah… we’ve got a 1948 Airstream Liner, twenty-four feet


“I’ll take it!” I said quickly.

“—but the interior’s gutted,” he continued, “and I can’t in good conscience let you exhibit an unfurnished shell.”

“We’ll lock the door,” I said.

“Well, okay, but there are windows—I don’t want anyone to see the inside.”

“We’ll make curtains and cover the windows,” I said.

“Curtains? Hmm… I don’t know…”

After much coaxing, Rick agreed. Airstream Inc. saved the show. With no time to shop for vintage 1940s printed textiles, museum conservator Estelle Richard began sewing off-white linen curtains to hang inside every window.

Six days before the vernissage, the 1948 Airstream Liner arrived in Montreal from Ohio. With all hands on deck, the trailer was unloaded from the transport truck to street level. Part of the museum’s side-entrance glass wall had been removed in advance and our carpenters had built a wooden ramp to wheel the trailer inside. But as the museum’s technicians pushed it up the ramp, they stopped and groaned. It was too high for the opening! The culprit was a small chimney sticking out from the top of the roof. The height measurements we received had not included this unassuming appendage. But when I looked back at photographs of the trailer, its top air-vents closing flush with the roofline, there was the chimney, but hardly visible.

The Airstream representative and the museum’s technicians stood around scratching their heads. Measurements down to the last millimetre were checked. The removal of the chimney was debated. The clock was ticking. Finally, some clever fellow suggested deflating the tires. More measurements were taken and the tires were slightly deflated. Inch by inch, the aluminum shell was guided through the open wall and rolled into the museum galleries.

“Ça y est!” exclaimed the technicians. “That’s it!”

On the street, a crowd of passers-by clapped and cheered. When the exhibition opened, the trailer looked spectacular. It filled the space like an outsized modernist sculpture and formed an arresting backdrop to the power tools, electric fans and outboard motors.

Little did visitors know how bumpy the ride had been—anything but a smooth stream of air.


Unknown said...

What a fascinating story. I love it. Thank you.

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