Occasionally, printers will run disposable sheets of paper through the press several times in order to fine-tune the press, or to clean the rollers. The resulting “setup sheets” often display random overlays of images and type from various unrelated print jobs.
A great resource for those of us who cannot afford a real Rauschenberg, setup sheets have long been admired and collected by graphic artists for the happy incidents that adorn them. In fact, certain recent designs could be described as software-assisted attempts to recreate that fortuitous look. Here are some examples from my collection, which I hope you will enjoy.
1. View of Saint Mark’s cathedral in Venice + sura + unidentified crest + bits of Italian text. The sura is the powerful and oft-recited Al Fatiha (the opener). The chance meeting of Venice and Koran is an inspired one, given that city’s long-standing relations with the East. Verso, not reproduced: Manhattan skyline + still life with flowers and book (another Koran, surely?)
2. This one is for misteraitch: Herrevadströmmen, Sweden + Sorrento, Italy. Sorrento wins, thanks to green sixties babe in bikini and bangs.
3. Milan of yesteryear + beach. Or, to paraphrase the May 68 slogan, au dessus du pavé, la plage!
4. Isola del Giglio + young woman + ugly seaside development. The woman says Ciao fusto—corny old fashioned Italian that roughly translates as “Hey big stud!”
5. Venice’s Bridge of sighs + Rome’s monument to Vittorio Emanuele II by night. Sarcastically nicknamed “the typewriter”, the latter monument features prominently in Peter Greenaway’s 1987 film The Belly of an Architect: from its terrace, the protagonist jumps to his death. I love how the light streaks and countless Fiats from Rome’s traffic blend with Venetian waters. Like a blurry recollection of a too-short Italian vacation.
6. Tango of death. Caught in a jaguar’s deadly grip, a giant anteater sticks out its tongue for the last time. This is a picture of a ratty old diorama from Milan’s Museum of Natural Science, which the faulty printing in yellow and black only renders more alarming. In recent years, photographers have mined nature dioramas extensively; they are a good source of instant Surrealism.About the postcards
Normally, setup sheets are discarded at the plant. The examples in this collection are unusual in that they were trimmed and shipped with the finished product, i.e. postcards to be sold in news-stands across Italy. Each one was found as the last one in a stack of normal cards, perhaps meant to protect them from the grime that seems to settle on anything that’s left out on Italian streets. Finding them among ordinary postcards added a certain charm to their intriguing imagery: one wonders, what country do they come from? What language do they speak there? Can I visit, if only for a short vacation?
The cards reproduced here were bought in Piazza Duomo, Milan and in smaller cities in Northern Italy and Southern France. The vendors’ responses to my queries were varied: most would smile and, after trying to dissuade me—“why don’t you buy a proper postcard instead”—would give them away. Some would glance as if to say, “look at this chump, he did not even notice that it’s misprinted. Let’s hope he does not come back asking for a refund”. Others refused to sell them and would not budge at better offers.
For unknown reasons, the supply dried up only a few months after my discovery, about twenty years ago. There must be other collectors out there but I have not met any.
The scans above cannot do justice to the originals’ colours. All the cards were printed with the conventional four-colour process; however, with multiple, superimposed hits, the colours acquire an unexpected depth and richness, especially in the blue range. Thus I could not include the finest examples, simply because they would appear too murky on screen.
These postcards are published here for the first time, with the exception of number 4, which appeared on Paper Placemats, a project by J&L Books.