The Bottle & the Blue Max
One of the more playful aspects of my art project "Rupp's Skizzenbuch" are the title pages. The focus of the work is a recreation of German Unteroffizier's journal from the Great War. The images are shot in a copy stand looking straight down at the pages, shot like an archivist. The format is great but can be a little sterile. Early on I stumbled into the idea of having a title page that is much more three dimensional and nuanced. It is intended to look like what you might find on Rupp's desk while he was working on his sketchbook. It helps set the stage for the chapter and add a greater element of immersion for a reader.
The end result is it has me attempting to build historical artifacts from scratch, searching Ebay, thrift stores and the attic to create everything from a soldier's kit to vintage newspapers. When I get ready for a photo shoot, it has my wife scratching her head wondering "What the hell is this project all about anyway?"
Here is a sample image from Chapter Eleven, when Rupp makes a deal with Bruno Stachel to smuggle in alcohol ( for a price) to feed his growing addiction.
A good friend of mine took a look and said, "Looks great, but how did Bruno get Italian Chianti in France?" In truth, I bought them at BevMo. I liked the straw covers and they were easy to age with black wax. It was the best I could do to get something that looked like it came from the right era. Rupp was a smuggler and there were big shortages in Germany at the time, so maybe he ran into a villager with a cousin who lived in Italy, right? A bit of a stretch, but I was on a schedule so I moved on.
I am currently working on Chapter 14 and it is titled "The Bottle & the Blue Max". This aligns with Chapter 18 in Jack Hunter's book "The Blue Max". Bruno Stachel's was an ambitious and sometimes cruel pilot. He was focused on his own success and part of that focus was the desire to be awarded "The Blue Max" or Pour le Mérite. This was Germany's highest honor for extraordinary personal achievement. Most of the great Aces had one and Bruno thought the Blue Max would be his road to power and glory, so he was obsessed with it. In this Chapter he finally achieves his goal, but the honor is bittersweet. His drinking has gotten so bad that he regularly smuggles a flask into his cockpit with a rubber hose so he can celebrate his victories while still in flight. The end result is when he is nominated to receive the medal he can't even remember the dogfights that resulted in the honor.
The Chianti comment was still in the back of my mind, so I knew I needed to better than BevMo with Chapter 14. I started wondering what would the "drink of choice" be in 1917 in Germany? Google Images did not disappoint when I ran into these images.
Those smiling soldiers in their gray feldgrau, convinced me that Asbach Uralt was a great place to start. The company was established in 1892 by Hugo Asbach and was located in the town of Rüdesheim am Rhein. They made brandy as well as other spirits and chocolate. Their popular brand was called "Rüdesheim Cognac" and the bottles had a distinct vertical label and red seal at the bottom. After World War I, the Treaty of Versailles decreed that the word Cognac could only be used for French products, so Hugo coined the term Weinbrand for German brandy. You can still buy it today and the label looks pretty similar to the images on the postcards.
So how do I make a bottle that looks like it came from the right era?
First I needed a bottle. You can buy vintage bottles online, but they can be expensive, especially for the shipping. I live in Northern California, not far from Highway 49 which runs through the old gold country. On the way home from a trip we stopped at a small grocery store in Markleeville. Markleeville is a classic gold mining town, one gas pump, a general store, a bar, a hotel and your done. Not much gold mining any more, but plenty of tourists and biker bars. My wife and I stopped at the General Store to use the restroom and get a snack for the road. It was a classic gold mining town shop. The old wooden floor creaked and groaned and was uneven. The store was jammed with all the grab and go items you expect when your on the road, from ice cream sandwiches to propane for your camp stove. In the way back was one 8' x 8' room that had been turned into a mini antique store. It was jammed full of knick-knacks and tacky tourist goods. A cabinet full of antique glassware caught my eye. I carefully lifted out an amber whisky bottle. As a story teller, I can be affected by authentic antique objects when they have the right spirit. As I examined the bottle I noticed its neck had a distinct asymmetrical bend. The top of the bottle indented deeply and the glass was full of imperfections, far removed from the mass produced "perfection" we expect these days. The label was long gone, with no discernable text.
Whatever story this bottle had to tell would remain a mystery, but for $3.00 it could certainly help move mine along!
Next, I needed the label. I found an actual graphic file online for the Asbach Uralt brand. Might not be the right vintage but it gave me something to start with.
I decorated my vintage bottle with the label. Used my wax seal to place an actual red seal over the seal graphic on the label. Pulled the red foil off another bottle of wine at home. Stole a wood cork from an olive oil bottle. Not exactly a perfect simulation, but I was pretty happy with the result.
One of the entertaining aspect of assembling the objects for the title slides is improvising with the objects for the photo shoot. Sometimes I put a lot of time into creating objects that I never use. Sometimes the objects take on a life of their own. I wanted the bottle to be important, but was having trouble integrating it into the scene. I bought a relatively cheap faux "Blue Max" medal and I had purchased a black felt necklace case to lay the medal in. I was struggling with the case, propping it up, trying to get the light right. I started thinking about the bottle and Bruno's drinking. This should have been his finest hour, but instead he was racked with self-doubt and self-loathing because of his own weakness. It hit me right then to tie the honor and the shame together, by casually placing the medal around the neck of the bottle. It's something Bruno would have done.
Here is the final image, not perfect, but under dim lamp light will look fine. Chapter 14 will publish in June 2018, so you will have to be patient to see the bottle in its final setting!