Camping out

Kitsch decor: cheap and chintzy tat, just a bit of fun, or irony-laden artistic statement? Pamela Buxton enjoys a new book on the subject

First – a warning to any minimalists out there. Avoid this book – it will upset you. Kitsch Deluxe is a visual assault of a book packed with a wonderful array of dust-gatherers and clutter that will have enthusiasts squealing with delight, but everyone else yearning for respite from all the glitter, fluff and fun that is kitsch.

The range of kitsch may well surprise those on familiar terms with the basic kitsch currency of fairy lights, Tretchikoff and fluffy kitten pictures. South Pacific kitsch, Desert kitsch, Indian kitsch, Liberace-glam kitsch, even Monalisiana kitsch, it’s all here in its gaudy glory.

Author Lesley Gillilan kicks off the book with a useful run through the history of kitsch. Believed to be derived from German slang meaning to collect junk from the street, it came to be associated with tawdry, cheap, often plastic imitation and has a dictionary definition of ‘worthless pretentiousness in art’. At first it was used by the arts intelligentsia to sneer at the tastes of the rising middle classes, and then by the middle classes to sneer at the working classes. The latest development is the current celebration of kitsch in what Gillilan terms an ironic ‘so-bad-its-good sensibility’.

‘In essence, kitsch has almost always been about members of one rank or another assuming superiority by looking down their noses at the excesses and the limitations of popular culture,’ she says.

After the jaunty introductory history, it’s fun all the way. A run through key kitsch icons is illuminating – apparently snowstorms were once popular as mementoes of religious pilgrimages and flying ducks were popularised in the 1930s by surburbanites apparently longing for lost countryside.

Garden gnomes, which made their first appearance in the UK in 1850, started out as shelf ornaments in Germany.

While art critics sneered at the work of Tretchikoff, he was laughing – his prints of subjects such as The Green Lady made him the richest artist after Picasso.

Then it’s on to some of the outrageously kitsch homes that people have created. Whether you like the results or not, you certainly have to admire the dedication that’s gone into them, from the American-Polynesian Tiki-style home created in West Hollywood, to the rather frightening Paris apartment of photographer Pierre et Gilles. Stuffed full of cheap souvenirs, camp images and Chinoiserie all arranged like a theatre set, this is OTT even by kitsch standards.

Zandra Rhodes’ home in London’s Bermondsey is a rainbow-coloured extravaganza bursting with sculpture, art and accessories, as well as Z-shaped tables and chandelier motif. Gamely, she poses in a pink jumpsuit for a picture on her exercise bike customised with hand-painted pink roses to blend in with the rest of the apartment.

The proprietors of Flying Duck, a shop in Greenwich dealing in late 20th century domestic products, don’t disappoint with what must be a world record for the number of flying ducks on one wall (300 sets of three). Elsewhere in the house is a Tiki-accessorised cocktail bar, a Hawaii scene in the lounge, while the shagpile-meets-Barbarella bedroom is accessorised perfectly by their dog Presley, resplendent in his Elvis cape.

Kitsch Deluxe is a delight, best read when your home is in need of a good clearout – it will have you reaching for the dusters and bin bags in absolutely no time at all.

Kitsch Deluxe by Lesley Gillilan, is published by Mitchell Beazley on 18 September, priced £20

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