Consumer culture, art, and subjectivity in Kazimierzowo, Chicago
Porembski, Olga V. (1924-2011). Rose Rosinski and Bruno Zidek, April 11, 1942. 96 leaves, 11½ x 14 in. (29 x 26 cm.) Homemade scrapbook comprised primarily of images clipped from magazines, with occasional original photographs mounted on the verso of each leaf, with titles typed on silk and affixed with cellotape. Bound in limp boards covered in white silk; decorated with lace, ribbon, and two metal bands, now oxidized. The leaves, of heavy stock, are slightly yellowed, but the contents are complete and in excellent condition.
A beautifully crafted homemade scrapbook prepared as a wedding gift for the union of Bronislaus (Bruno) Stanley Zydek (1921-2002) and Rose Rita Rosinski (1921-2000), presenting a imagined narrative of their lives, from childhood through marriage and the birth of their children, through old age. There are a few original photographs pasted in, but the narrative is told primarily through advertisements and other images clipped from magazines.
The scrapbook may be regarded on the one hand as a wonderful work of vernacular art -- a unique artist's book perhaps -- executed by a talented and witty young woman hailing from the Polish community of Chicago. From another perspective, it is a fascinating social document, offering a mesmerizing window into the power of commercial print culture to shape the subjective experience of young Americans at midcentury.
Using primarily found materials -- images clipped from magazines -- Porembski has constructed a fictive life for two of her friends, from birth to old age. The images include both photographs and illustrations, and appear to be taken primarily from women's magazines and general interest magazines such as Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post. There is usually one image per page, with a neatly typed caption to connect it to the past and future lives of her friends. The images imagine their childhoods, their courtship, and their future lives of domestic bliss.
Some of the images represent ideals of achievement beyond mortal reach – “Bruno playing baseball” is depicted with an image of Yankees infielder Joe “Flash” Gordon, “Rose learning to swim” is represented by Ethel Merman. But for the most part Porembski restricts herself to the realm of the attainable. For example, a series of images of domestic interiors imagining Rose and Bruno's future house depicts not a palace but a suburban middle class home, modestly appointed. For working-class city dwellers on the industrial home front during World War II, a quiet life in the suburbs may have been ambition enough.
Richard Hamilton, "Just What is it that makes today's home so different, so appealing?" (1956)
In 1956, Richard Hamilton would draw on the same tropes and many of the same sources for his pop art collage, "Just What is it that makes today's home so different, so appealing?" Other artists such as Martha Rosler and Barbara Kruger have followed in Hamilton's wake, using found imagery to explore the political dimensions of modern identity. But whereas Hamilton, Rosler, and Kruger operate in an ironic mode, using the products of commercial culture to critique it, Porembski honors and interiorizes the domestic ideal -- with humor but without guile. Take "Always a busy housewife," illustrated with the image of a woman with mop and scrub brush clad in an outfit evoking a nun's habit. In the context of the other images of home life she collects, Porembski not only accepts the domestic drudgery that was the married woman's lot, she glorifies it. The inclusion of actual photographs, names, and dates in the scrapbook inserts her friends joyously into the ideal world imagined by mass culture. In her embrace of the uplifting possibilities of finding personal meaning in magazine images removed from their original contexts, Porembski's work perhaps most closely resembles the celebrations of black beauty by the contemporary artist Lorna Simpson.
Olga Porembski, 1941
The artist and the newlyweds were all residents of Kazimierzowo, the close-knit Polish community centered on St. Casimir Parish in Chicago’s Lower West Side. Olga Porembski’s parents had come from Stryszow, Poland, in 1912. According to census records, her father labored in a steel foundry in 1940, and her mother worked as scrubwoman in an office building. Her two brothers were pressmen at a print shop. The Porembskis lived at 2248 West Cullerton Street. Next door, at 2250 West Cullerton, lived the Rosinskis. Their youngest daughter, Rose, who was three years older than Olga Porembski, worked as a seamstress in a tailor shop. The Zydeks (Porembski misspells their name Zidek) lived over a mile away at 2430 South Whipple Street, but Bruno had graduated from Harrison Technical High School, where Porembski also attended. Rose likely was educated at St. Casimir High School, a parochial school located a few blocks from the Zydeks. At the time of the marriage, Bruno was working as a welder at McCormick Works. He had registered for the draft in February 1942 and would soon enlist in the armed services, rising to the rank of sergeant. Porembski’s scrapbook imagines Rose and Bruno having 25 children. They had only three, the first of whom, Bruno Stanley Zydek, was born on 21 July 1943. Porembski herself would get married in November 1943 to Raymond Machowski, who lived just down the block at 2126 West Cullerton Street.
A fascinating and provocative window into the imaginative world of a young consumer before the great shifts of the postwar era. You can tell students to read Frankfurt School theorists on the impact of mass culture on individual subjectivity, or you can just have them study this remarkable scrapbook.
 The information in this paragraph is derived from census records, service records, high school yearbooks, obituaries, and other genealogical materials available on ancestry.com.
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