July 16 2011: Thermair Trinity’s Beautiful Revolutionary (Ideal Home Supplement, October 1967)
Published on the back cover of an Ideal Home Exhibition supplement in October 1967, this image – a fairly straightforward advertisement for storage heating – typifies a strain of ‘radical chic’ in circulation at the time. The girl in her paisley dress crouches, guerilla fighter style, in an English suburban living room, her mainstream look countered by a belt of ammunition and a rifle. It’s as though street fighting has broken out, except the ornate wallpaper has no bullet-holes, and the foregrounded object (in whose shadow the fighter crouches) is a storage heater: New Thermair Trinity, runs the tagline: Beautiful Revolutionary.
“The new Thermair Trinity night storage heaters are revolutionary…”, the copy continues. “Return the coupon for a copy of our free colour brochure, then look in at your local electricity showroom and join the revolution yourself”. As an example of revolutionary iconography transformed into a question of mere style, this advert isn’t unusual: the famously ubiquitous Che Guevara posters and t-shirts of the same historical moment are probably the paradigmatic examples of revolution as fashion accessory (even today, the Co-op has a campaign running with a ‘Join The Revolution’ tag-line). What’s unusual here is the implication that the housewife has turned radical, or that some fighter from outside has entered the home, in a context selling “warmth, beauty and economy”.
Shorn of its copy (as above) it might be a still from a late sixties Godard movie (maybe La Chinoise, the 1967 portrait of a Maoist cell in Paris, or Weekend, in which a bourgeois couple drive through a France on the brink of complete breakdown) or a feminist statement, in which the contrast of home and revolutionary intent are combined in an image of female empowerment and potential activism. That it’s an image made with neither of these ends in mind, reducing its source material to a question of style, seems to make this a rehearsal for a key change in the selling of conformity: it is no longer about fitting in and belonging, but about individualism, ‘standing out from the crowd’.
Yesterday evening, looking at the Lettrist collages of Gil J.Wolman, the murals of the Black Panthers’ Minister of Culture Emory Douglas and other revolutionary ephemera in a new exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary, Jean Genet: Act 1 & Act 2, something of the tension in this Thermair Trinity ad seems to be under exploration. Directly political works reflecting Genet’s involvement in radical politics contrast (or at least, complicate) Marc Camille Chaimowicz’s elegant and obliquely politicised interior, where sculptures and furnishings by Alberto Giacometti coincide with sexually patterned carpets, exquisite wallpapers, half-concealed rooms and hints at internalised revolts: a kind of luxurious fever dream within the galleries where the revolutionary and domestic, the political and the sexual collide.
The two halves of that Jean Genet exhibition seem to be echoed right here, in a single blunt advert, trying to do nothing more than sell storage heaters: the patterned wallpaper and dress, the sleek wood-effect heater and the crouching, armed fighter in someone’s suburban home – perhaps her own. Whatever the ad’s precise intentions, the image seems to gamble on its subversive edge being wholly neutralised by the light-hearted punning of the copy beneath. Yet there was, and perhaps remains, a potential risk here: what if dressing up in revolutionary costumes and appropriating revolutionary slogans, ideas and visual iconography did accidentally lead to an acting out of the meanings of those images in the real world? What then?