April’s Savior: The Umbrella

The Cruelest Month’s Ultimate Accessory Gets the Hero Treatment from Stephen Bayley and Tell No One

As May flowers appear closer on the horizon, we cope with April skies by celebrating the wetter month's undisputed rain-warrior: the umbrella. The iconic accessory is the star of this film by Tell No One, AKA Luke White and Remi Weekes, winners of the Young Directors Award (Video Art Europe) at Cannes 2012, with creative direction by Leila Latchin. The brolly also forms the focus of design expert and sophisticate Stephen Bayley’s century spanning essay. 

The Umbrella by Stephen Bayley

There are parts of southern Italy where they have a splendid tradition of flying monks. St. Joseph, who could hover, was one example. But I have seen in obscure churches dingy images of other monks using umbrellas to assist flight.

In fact, there is a school of thought, unscholarly, but persuasive, that the umbrella’s origin was not as a protection against rain, but as an experimental parachute-like device. Indeed, anybody who has used one in heavy rain knows that, so far from keeping you dry, an umbrella can be used to direct torrents of water onto any part of your body.

The umbrella may be part of the English gentleman’s iconography, but its cultural history goes back farther than Pall Mall and Clubland. In Nineveh, Persia, Athens and the India of the Mahabharata, parasols accessorized high-status figures and guarded them from the sun: the word umbrella, in fact, comes from the Italian word for “shade.” Associations with sunshine remain with the cocktail umbrella, popularized by San Francisco’s Trader Vic’s, where a cute little pastel-colored paper and wood parasol decorates your Mai Tai and threatens to put your eye out with every sunny sip.

Protection from the sun gave way to protection from the rain when the umbrella began to appear on the streets of London in the late 18th century, an idea perhaps imported from China. It became so much a symbol of Imperial authority that in Victorian Africa tribal chieftains borrowed umbrellas as status symbols irrespective of weather conditions.

Post-Freud, we know that the Empire’s tightly-furled umbrella suggests a vulnerable mixture of repression and anxiety in its user. Personally, despite the quasi-phallic character which any thrusting device acquires, I have always found umbrellas emasculating. Isn’t it more manly to get wet? Even Bulgaria’s secret police the Darzhavna Sigurnost’s interesting efforts to weaponize umbrellas by fitting them with ricin-poisoned pellets for subtle urban assassinations has not, if you ask me, made them any more butch.

And now the umbrella is changing. In the 19th century, silk replaced oiled canvas and umbrellas became lighter and more portable, but, nonetheless, a classic umbrella (the sort you might buy from James Smith & Co) with its cane handle and heavy metal frame is an expensive encumbrance instead of a lightweight convenience. Umbrellas are now compact, cheap and disposable. And, coming full-circle, they are all made in China : the province of Shangyu alone is said to have more than 1,000 dedicated umbrella factories.

But the umbrella argument remains strong. Despite its functional deficiencies, the potential of any portable device which gives its user a customized protective microclimate will forever be alluring. So, the technological successor to the umbrella may well be the sort of electro-magnetic repellent force field the army is developing for main battle tanks. Imagine: you could be fitted with a supercapacitor, switch it on, charge it up and walk boldly into London weather and remain like a duck’s back.

But the classic umbrella will, in one form or another, be with us forever. So unambiguous are its meanings that, all over the planet, an umbrella graphic is immediately understood to mean… there is a danger of getting wet. No one ever wants that which is why no-one will ever love an umbrella. You cannot wash away associations of rain.

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    Straight Outer Mongolia

    A New Documentary Shines a Light on a Little-Known Hip-Hop Heartland

    From a wintry rooftop in Ulan Bator, one of Mongolia’s preeminent female rappers, Gennie, reveals the unexpected vibrancy of the country’s emerging hip-hop underground in this excerpt of Mongolian Bling. Going deep into the scene for his debut documentary, Australian director Benj Binks spent six years hanging out with its stars, a motley crew of rappers and beat boys who reveal how the music took root after the collapse of Communism—and how MCing is not so different from song fighting, praise singing and Mongolia’s other distinctive oral traditions. The documentary highlights the rappers’ social calling as they advocate for change in the rapidly urbanizing country, with even shamans and traditional singers advocating a place for hip-hop in the history of the nation. “It’s a film looking at contemporary life in Mongolia through its music,” says Binks. “Gennie raps about social problems like alcoholism and domestic abuse. Her hip-hop gives a voice to the marginalized and disenfranchised.”   

    Mongolian Bling plays at the Wesleyan University in Middletown on April 30 and the True Reformer Building in Washington on May 2. Its UK premiere is in London on May 17 at The Horse Hospital. 

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    José Parlá: Broken Language

    The Cuban-American Artist Takes Us Out of the Gallery and on to London’s Concrete Streets

    Concrete sculptures and large-format expressionistic paintings that combine collected ephemera with layered oils and graffiti-style brushstrokes bring the streets into the gallery for José Parlá’s exhibition Broken Language, opening today at Haunch of Venison in London. In this documentary short, the New York-based, Miami-born artist mines inspiration from the pavements of Hackney for this latest solo show, giving us a peak into his signature practice of recording the urban environments he visits in his multimedia works. “London spirals and circles,” observes the artist of the crazy, unplanned structure of the UK capital that is reflected in the dynamic wall-sized pieces currently on display there. “There are veins of alleyways and streets that go in different directions, and you have to know the routes to get around.” Parlá has been visiting the city since the late 90s, and notes how both the natural and built environments have a distinct impact on its inhabitants in comparison to his adopted home. “The infrastructure is different, the colors are different, the vegetation is different, the grey skies are different—and when you have light, it’s very special,” says Parlá, who makes multiple trips to a locale when studying it for his creations. “There is a lot of psychology that goes with how a city is built.”

    Broken Language runs at Haunch of Venison, London through March 28.

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