Museums

Cups with Memories: Ainu Lacquer and Skeuomorphs

By guest contributor Christopher B. Lowman

If you have a smart phone handy, take a look at your phone application icon: when was the last time you saw a receiver shaped like that? Even the language associated with phones reflects physical actions no longer required: there is no dial to “dial,” and no hook on which to “hang up.” Think about this too: when taking a photograph on a phone, the sound effect is still that of a “kachunking” camera shutter, despite its absence. These are all symbols that have outlasted their original functional counterparts.

Visual or auditory symbols that retain aspects of older, defunct design are called skeuomorphs. In the last decade, the heavy use of visual metaphors in Apple’s iOS led to discussions of skeuomorphism’s definition, and its pros and cons. Listicles of skeuomorphs and other visual metaphors have been popular reading on Mental Floss and other design blogs. Skeuomorphism is not just digital: it also describes physical objects retaining material characteristics no longer functionally necessary. Horsepower describes the capabilities of vehicles long since stripped of accompanying horses. Patterns of circular holes in concrete structures, formerly imprints from the pouring process, continue to be made even when not all processes require them. Skeuomorphs can be “found in nature as well”: the orchid Ophrys apifera produces flowers shaped to attract Eucera bees, even though the bees have disappeared from much of the plant’s modern range, as illustrated by xkcd. This illustrates how skeuomorphs can occur without intention, yet still indicate an object’s origins through no longer functional physical phenomena.

Despite the popularity of the term to describe digital design, its origins have more to do with artifacts than phone applications. Dr. Dan O’Hara at London’s New College of the Humanities described skeuomorphism as “unintentional side-effects of technological evolution.” It is in this evolutionary sense that skeuomorphs become useful to anyone interested in the history of material culture: as O’Hara put it, “skeuomorphs, as a kind of ‘memory’ capacity of artifacts, can show us the processes that guide the evolution of the forms of technology.” A look at the Google Ngram Viewer, which gauges the popularity of a word over time based on publications in Google Books, reveals that “skeuomorph” was in use at the turn of the twentieth century. Henry Balfour in The Evolution of Decorative Art (1893) and Alfred Cort Haddon in Evolution in Art: As Illustrated by the Life-histories of Designs (1907), among others, used skeuomorphs as crucial evidence for studying object designs over time. For example, Balfour, the first curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, described how indigenous people in the Andaman Islands had traditionally used large shells as plates, and continued to make wooden plates with decoration recalling shells (1893, 114).

Academic interest in skeuomorphs was rooted in some of the hierarchical assumptions that defined much of nineteenth century anthropology. Skeuomorphs offered evidence of change in the types and materials of objects over time; this played into what many anthropologists believed to be a universal and linear evolution of human culture. Haddon specifically uses skeuomorphs to describe supposedly universal material transitions, such as tapa giving rise to matting, and basketry giving rise to pottery (1907, 116). Both archaeology and ethnography developed as disciplines guided by the assumption of cultural evolution, that studying “primitive” people would reveal linear developments toward “civilization,” defined as Western European cultures. Balfour describes his work as the “study of the Art of the more primitive of the living races of mankind, with a view to explaining, by a process of reasoning from the known to the unknown, the first efforts of Primaeval Man to produce objects which should be pleasing to the eye” (1893, v). This conflation of past and contemporary cultures drove ethnographic interest in the collection of objects for museums, particularly from cultures believed to be on the verge of disappearing.

Are skeuomorphs still useful for the study of material culture? Doing away with the assumption that material changes imply progression toward any particular cultural zenith, the study of skeuomorphs continues to reveal chronologies of connections between objects and people. Archaeologists use them to discuss invention, innovation, and replication (Knappet 2002, Blitz 2015), especially across cultures (Howey 2011). An example of this is a type of lacquer cup called a tuki, used in religious ceremonies by the Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido, Sakhalin, and the Kurile Islands north of Japan. Comparisons of different tuki over time indicate origins and meanings invisible when any one example is considered by itself.

In traditional Ainu religion, any physical being or thing that can perform in ways that humans cannot is considered a god, or kamuy. Kamuy could only be contacted through the use of specific instruments, including carved wooden prayer sticks called ikupasuy, and cups, called tuki, which held offerings of sake. Ikupasuy would be dipped into tuki and drops of sake scattered to please kamuy.

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Two Ainu men using prayer sticks (ikupasuy) and lacquer cups (tuki) in prayer. Photography by Burton Holmes from Ewing Galloway, 1917.

Nineteenth century visitors to the Ainu mistakenly called ikupasuy “moustache sticks” because the Ainu prayer ceremony involved lifting both cup and stick together toward the mouth, leading observers to assume the purpose of the stick was to lift the moustache when drinking. The uniqueness of ikupasuy led to them becoming prized by collectors. When Romyn Hitchcock conducted his collecting trip for the Smithsonian Institution in 1888, his pursuit of ikupasuy earned him the name “Mr. Moustache Stick” while in Hokkadio (Houchins 1999, 149-150). Anthropologist Frederick Starr, who helped to organize the Ainu exhibit at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, also stated that ikupasuy “had a great attraction for us and we secured scores of them” (Starr 1904, 65). While museum collections contain dozens of ikupasuy, tuki were rarely collected: fewer than a dozen were collected for United States museums prior to 1920.

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Romyn Hitchcock’s illustration of ikupasuy and tuki, from “The Ainos of Yezo” in Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, 1890, 459.

The reason for the cups’ absence from collections is connected to the same theories that drew nineteenth century anthropologists to study skeuomorphs. Anthropologists lacked interest in tuki because they were trade goods rather than Ainu-made. Ainu lacquerware, including tuki, was acquired through trade with the Japanese, particularly the Matsumae clan. Exchange ceremonies appear in Japanese paintings, such as this one by Hirasawa Byōzan from 1876. However, anthropologists seeking only “pure” Ainu culture systematically ignored trade items. Anthropologist Stewart Culin dismissed lacquer and swords among the Ainu, believing that “not one of them have any artistic or pecuniary value” (75). Why was this? Recall that according to cultural evolution theory, so-called “primitive” cultures were understood as keys to the collective human past. Trade items like the tuki were corruptions: they clouded the anthropologists’ ability to observe supposedly preserved past practices. Ikupasuy were fascinating because they seemed to stem from Ainu material culture alone. Since trade items did not fit within a pure progression, but seemed wholly introduced from another culture, items like tuki were believed to lack research value.

 

AMNH Anthropology catalog # 70/4223

Tuki made of brass and ornamented with the mon of the Matsumae clan. Catalog No. 70/4223, Courtesy of the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History.

However, tuki do possess skeuomorphic properties that are clues to their changing significance as they passed from a Japanese to an Ainu context. Japanese crests, called mon, adorned possessions belonging to noble houses (for example, the diamond motifs on the banner in this 1867 image of an Ainu ritual welcoming Matsumae merchants). While some tuki have none, or only single mon, others are decorated with multiple mon from different noble houses. Why would this be? One explanation is that Ainu interest in acquiring highly decorated lacquer may have outweighed the Japanese social meaning of the mon. Linguistic evidence of the importance of shining things and metallic surfaces is preserved in Ainu words such as “treasure,” ikor, literally “shining things,” or “metal,” kane, a word used as a synonym for “magnificent,” and used to describe tuki specifically in Ainu epic poetry (Phillipi [1979] 2015). The shining decorations, that in a Japanese context represented noble ownership, were appreciated for aesthetic reasons once in Ainu hands, which in turn changed the way Japanese artisans applied the mon during production.

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Wooden tuki and ikupasuy on display in the Ainu Cultural Center, Sapporo. Photograph by the author, August 2016.

In addition to decoration, the shape of tuki influenced Ainu woodcarvers, who produced their own skeuomorphic versions out of new materials. In one example, a carver created a tuki and stand from wood, which were subsequently lacquered by a Japanese artist. Others, like the one pictured above from the Ainu Cultural Center in Sapporo, are decorated wood without any lacquer but still retain the same vessel form. While the Ainu possessed other styles of cups, tuki specifically were made in the shape of Japanese lacquer cups and stands.

Tuki are an example of an object transformed through cultural context—a decorative cup that became integral to religious practice once in Ainu possession. Viewed over time, the transformation is a physical one as well, as they accumulated decorations that transformed in meaning because of an Ainu, rather than a Japanese, aesthetic. The shape of the lacquer vessels was preserved even as the Ainu produced tuki out of new materials. Tuki as skeuomorphs show how objects simultaneously influence and are influenced by their cultural context, and how their form and material act, as Dan O’Hara said, with a capacity for memory.

Christopher B. Lowman is a graduate student in the Anthropology Department at the University of California, Berkeley. His research focuses on intersections between historical archaeology and museum anthropology, with a focus on immigration, colonialism, and the history of museums.

The state, and revolution: A site-specific view of centenaries. Part I: The revolution reshuffled: Statelessness and civil war in the museum

By guest contributor Dr. Dina Gusejnova

The introduction to “The state, and revolution” can be found here.

Museums and libraries are the kinds of places that promise to transport you to any other time or place. But some people experience their structure as a constraint on their imagination. One reaction to their static and state-centered character might be to give up on the structure of museums altogether and resort to watching films instead. It is not surprising that this medium was most successful in marking the first decade after the October Revolution—celebrating it as a leaderless movement, without an obvious protagonist and certainly no national teleology. In fact, most of today’s museums have embedded films in their displays. Yet if you want to resist path-dependent constraints in interpreting revolutions, films are hardly a solution: they are the products of fixed scripts, of a specially built set, narrative music, and so on. (October was first performed to the sound of the Marseillaise, before new tunes could be composed).

Is a museum of the revolution necessarily an oxymoron? As a type of space, most museums have the advantage of being physical sites. In such places, visitors can recognize what they thought of as ownership of the present as a mere tenancy, which places them not only in a subordinate relationship to the landlord, but also in an imaginary relationship to the previous tenants, who may even have left things behind. From then on, it is up to them how many degrees of separation they establish between themselves and this past.

The Russian Revolution exhibition at the British Library—its interior designed in the style of a grand opera set — is one example of this kind of possibility. The Communist Manifesto is placed at the entrance as a relic of one of the Library’s most famous users, yet it is as feeble a guide to the Russian Revolution as Rousseau had been to the French. If anything, the curators emphasise, the Manifesto discouraged the Communists of its time from transporting ideas of revolution to unsuitable locations like Russia. Like the gimmicky poster of a Bolshevik, it functions merely as a hook, because what you find instead of a party line is an aspect of the revolution as the product of a social process of intellectual contagion. Connoisseurs of magical realism will appreciate this opportunity to trace how the revolution as an idea “became” an event in and through the library itself. What sorts of studies in the library collections led Lenin, who, between 1902 and 1911 identified himself to the library as Jacob Richter, supposedly a German subject of the Russian empire, to call for a revolution in Russia six years later under the more ubiquitous pseudonym of Lenin? For Marx, contemplation itself had been a kind of action, since he preferred a Victorian library to the barricades of Paris. But where did Marx’s theories of how to “change the world” connect to the Bolshevik practices of terror and violence? The exhibition hints at the unlikely friendship between the Victorian library curator Richard Garnett, Dostoyevsky’s first English translator, Constance Garnett (his daughter-in-law), and the exiled Popular Will activist Sergei Stepnyak. Without connections like this, would Lenin have found sufficient reading material on “the land question”?

Finally, how did readers decide where to change the world? Ideas did not just migrate from book to book in a Republic of Letters, nor were they confined to their author’s “home” states. In a postwar world governed by new frontiers, visas, and immigration detention centres, it was the librarians who mattered. In the twentieth century, you are more likely to find a folio edition of counter-revolutionary thoughts than a revolutionary manifesto, but the exiled socialists made sure that ephemeral pamphlets also got collected. Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, had been a librarian in St Petersburg before the 1905 revolution, working together with Nikolai Roubakine, who is introduced in this exhibition only as a social statistician of the late Russian empire. As an exiled revolutionary of 1905, Roubakine had started a new library in Switzerland, which also supplied Lenin with reading material during this time of his exile.

Instead of a state withering away, the visitor is confronted with the notion of a civil war that is only “Russian”  in inverted commas. The protracted statelessness of the “white émigré” exiles in the West coexisted alongside a Bolshevik-run Soviet apparatus in the East, which was eventually signed out of existence in a Byelorussian forest with the Belavezha agreement of 1991, as Katie McElvaney reminds us in her timeline. At the end of the magic, there is also the reality of censorship. Apparently, in 1922, a British library consultant concluded that some materials calling for revolution beyond Russia were not “desirable to be released to readers.” We may not know if the Library caused this or any other revolution, but we can certainly see that it had tried not to cause it.

To get away from issues of representation to the memory of revolutionary action, however, I had to travel further, to Finland, where, in March 2017, Tampere University had organized a conference called “Reform and Revolution in Europe, 1917-1919.” Like many attendees, I was struck by the range of new insights into the Revolution that Russia’s former periphery offers, through the transnational perspective of the First World War in the work of Richard Bessel, and the concept of civil war as contextualized by Bill Kissane. Formerly an underdeveloped outpost of the Russian Empire, Finland had risen to the status of an autonomous Grand Duchy by the time of the Revolution. As such, it was the first post-imperial polity to gain sovereignty from the Russian empire, by Lenin’s decree—and to keep it, for the most part.

In the summer of 1917, Lenin was in Tampere as he worked on The State and Revolution. Eleven years before that, he had his first fateful encounter with Stalin here. The site of their encounter, a former Workers Hall, is the space for a newly redesigned Lenin Museum, which first opened here in 1946, under the close watch of Soviet authorities—one of the more visible effects of what is now called “Finlandization.” Its new curators have resorted to a combination between history and humor to tell the story:

Reproduced with kind permission from the Lenin Museum, https://museot.fi/en.php

The rest of the Lenin Museum has little to do with Lenin, and more to do with the history of Finnish democracy and the vicissitudes of European integration, after decades of civil war, partial Soviet occupation, and collaboration with National Socialism, before the gradual emergence of a Finnish brand of Social Democracy.

Seeing the city itself, surrounded by its stunning landscape, also offers other opportunities to reflect on how ideas might relate to the places in which they are formulated. How could this ethereally calming landscape inspire someone to work on a book called The State and Revolution? Could Lenin have instead become a twentieth-century Lake Poet?

9 Tampere Lake 1

Photo by Dina Gusejnova

10 Tampere Lake 2

Photo by Dina Gusejnova

11 Tampere Lake 3

Photo by Dina Gusejnova

As I walked through a working-class neighborhood of today’s Tampere, I noticed that its outer lake was still frozen, so I borrowed some skates to have a final look at the skyline: two days, two seasons. Lenin, of course, had missed the Finnish ice-skating season, with the revolution gaining speed in Petrograd just as the ice had begun to thicken. I thought about the remarkable contrast between the long-term outcomes of the revolution for Finland and for Ukraine—another imperial province, but with a much shorter history of post-imperial sovereignty, and an incomparably higher death toll in the twentieth century. This is a complex issue for historians, and one which, perhaps, will always call for the assistance of a writer like Vassily Grossman.

In the Labor Museum, a three-year long exhibition (2014–17) marks the cultural memory of the revolution of 1917 from the perspective of the Finnish Civil War of 1918, which the exhibition laconically identifies to its visitors as “a short, but traumatic and sorrowful period.” This exhibition is a unique, if slightly quixotic, place. The visitor will look in vain for any kind of partisanship here, with the Reds or the Whites, the Russians or the Finns, workers, peasants, or bystanders. What they see is a memorial to civil violence, a focus on human experience. It is challenging to try to capture a war inside the walls of a museum, but Tampere has clearly learned from commemorative practice in France and other countries, with their focus on reconciliation. The site of the museum belongs to one of the largest cotton weaving halls in the Nordic countries, Finlayson & Compagnie, a focus of socialist mobilization in 1917. The last Finnish factories were closed in 1995, but the company continues selling its products in Europe. Founded by the Scottish industrialist James Finlayson, it is also a reminder that a civil war always has not just local and imperial, but also trans-imperial dimensions. At the museum, I met social historian Richard Bessel, a first-time visitor to the city, and social theorist Rebecca Boden, who has recently moved there.

Rebecca Boden is a professor of critical management. She is interested in the effects of regimes of accounting and management on sites of knowledge creation, and the relationship between individuals and the state. She recently joined the University of Tampere as the Director of Research of the New Social Research Centre. Professor Boden also attended the conference “Reform and Revolution in Europe, 1917-1919,” held at the University of Tampere in March 2017.

I’ve never lived in this part of the world, and as a British person, I know very little about it. So what strikes me is how little people brought up and educated in Britain know about Central and Eastern Europe. I’ve felt ashamed about some of the questions I’ve had to ask about the Finnish Civil War, in terms of understanding this part of the world. And I suspect, during my upbringing, it was during the Cold War and the Iron Curtain, so Central and Eastern Europe as very much an unknown quantity to people in the West.

What’s interesting to me is, in Britain, you’ve got a reversal of trends in history. There is greater and greater interest in British history, especially British imperial history, and that becomes dangerously xenophobic, and insular, and parochial. And I think the thing for Finland is—and I can say this as an outsider, they never would, because they are quite humble, quiet, understated sort of people generally—Finland has so many interesting things about it, it is such an interesting geopolitical space, it achieved so much so well, that I am urging people to get to know the Finnish story quite urgently.

A lot of the quiet places—very far from anywhere, on the periphery, small population, very thinly spread—they have to move themselves to make themselves heard.  All the isomorphic tendencies, policies and practices and cultures tend to move in the other direction. And it would be quite good to have the quiet places listened to. But part of it is, the quiet places have to find their voice. And that’s partly what I am doing, helping Finland to find their voice and engage with the outside world in a really proactive kind of way.

Richard Bessel is professor of twentieth-century history at the University of York. He works on the social and political history of modern Germany, the aftermath of the two World Wars, and the history of policing, and is currently co-editing, with Dorothee Wierling, Inside World War One? The First World War and its Witnesses (Oxford University Press, 2018). In March 2017, he travelled to Finland to attend the conference on “Reform and Revolution in Europe, 1917-1919,” at which he delivered a keynote lecture.

I’ve never been to Finland, and it’s just a really interesting place to come to. And I thought it would be an interesting intellectual challenge to try to think about revolution and its relationship to the First World War, if not globally, certainly focusing more on Eastern Europe rather than on Western Europe.

I am finding Tampere very interesting, and … this is my first time in Finland! To be in a city which, as we see here, had such a fundamentally different history, with violence right in the middle of it. The differences, I just hadn’t thought about the differences to that extent. What in many ways looks and feels similar to Sweden, but then you scratch the surface, and you realize it’s not. And that surprised me, I hadn’t really quite expected that.

As I get older, it becomes more important both to me and also to colleagues: we talk about our families a lot. When I was younger, I wouldn’t do that professionally. When I was younger, we wrote history in the third person, and now we use the first person.

I’ve just been working through a book, an edited collection on ego-documents of the First World War, with a colleague of mine, which is also very much about the East and the South.

There is one question that I always wanted to get it on an exam, but nobody would allow me to do it. And the question is: when did the twentieth century begin?

Dina Gusejnova is Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. She is the author of European Elites and Ideas of Empire, 1917-57 (Cambridge University Press, 2016) and the editor of Cosmopolitanism in Conflict: Imperial Encounters from the Seven Years’ War to the Cold War (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming later in 2017).

Vive les Satiristes! Caricature during the Reign of Louis Philippe, 1830-1848

By guest contributor Erin Duncan-O’Neill

Beginning in a small hallway on the second floor of New York’s Grolier Club, the exhibition Vive les Satiristes! Caricature during the Reign of Louis Philippe, 1830-1848 displayed prints and bound illustrations of French caricature from the collection of Josephine Lea Iselin. The exhibition, which ran from March 22 to May 27 of this year, focused on a period where King Louis-Philippe fought fiercely with the press over the limits of political speech. Iselin’s collection draws primarily from two journals run by Charles Philipon during the Golden Age of French caricature, La Caricature and Le Charivari. On one remarkable masthead of Le Charivari, displayed in the Grolier Club show and created by J.J. Grandville in 1837, a laughing central figure resembling Philipon holds a drum on his lap, grasping the instruments of both jester and puppeteer (fig. 1). Behind him, three drawings adorn the wall, a thin figure appealing to Louis Philippe, a fashion panel, and a portrait in profile, together forming a succinct summary of the driving interests of the journal: political satire, social caricature, and celebrity.

Fig 1 Le Charivari 74 p1 Sixième Année March 16 1837 J.J. Grandville(1)

Figure 1: Le Charivari 74, p.1, Sixième Année, March 16, 1837. Wood-engraved masthead by J.J. Grandville.

The journal’s title–Le Charivari–refers to a rural folk tradition in which a crowd would call attention to inappropriate behavior of members of the community (dalliances, second marriages, large age gaps between partners) by congregating at their residence and creating an embarrassing disturbance, shouting and banging pots and pans. Philipon’s journal Le Charivari announced its ambitions to act as a popular regulatory mechanism with this name, using the drum and noisy clamor of the crowd as an analogy for the journal’s mission to hold the jurists, politicians, and soldiers dangling as puppets beneath the editor’s lap in Grandville’s cartoon accountable to their public.

In a more combative lithograph from the Grolier Club show, Charles-Joseph Traviès draws a clown with a drum and a feather-capped archer, personifications for Le Charivari and La Caricature, sawing the body of the king in half (fig. 2). Because Louis-Philippe, the so-called “Roi populaire,” had emerged from the barricades of the July Revolution and was selected because of his liberal leanings and perceived willingness to respect a constitutional charter, the extent to which his continued legitimacy relied on public opinion was an open question. For this reason, he met unprecedented criticism not only from staunch republicans like Philipon but also from those to right of center.

Fig 2 Charles-Joseph Traviès La Caricature et Le Charivari sawing the back of Mr What_s-his-name (the king) Le Charivari 1834 or 1835(1)

Figure 2: Charles-Joseph Traviès, “La Caricature et Le Charivari sawing the back of Mr. What’s-his-name (the king),” Le Charivari [1834 or 1835].

Tolerating most of the critical political caricature in the early 1830s, Louis-Philippe’s anxiety about the importance of his popular appeal eventually led to intense scrutiny over public activity and periodic repression. Part of this stemmed from the intensity of the criticism. Honoré Daumier’s lithograph “Gargantua” earned the artist a six-month prison sentence for its deeply unflattering depiction of the king’s body and Daumier’s unmistakable accusation that the king was corrupt (fig. 3). Courtiers trudge up a ramp leading to Louis-Philippe’s open mouth, delivering bribes that are expelled below his throne in the form of royal medals and honors. As we can see in “Gargantua,” the corpulence of the king was a popular trope, as it was understood to stand in for broader institutional ailments and bureaucratic gluttony, and one can imagine why the king would be particularly sensitive to this sort of attack. As a result of cartoons like this one, Louis-Philippe instituted the first major reversals to the liberalizations of 1830 with the September laws of 1834, specifically targeting cartoons and illustrations for censorship rather than the written word.

Honoré_Daumier_-_Gargantua

Figure 3: Honoré Daumier, “Gargantua,” 1831.

While the September Laws allowed that “Frenchmen have the right to circulate their opinions in published form…,” they hedged that “when opinions are converted into actions by the circulation of drawings, it is a question of speaking to the eyes. That is something more than the expression of an opinion; it is an incitement to action not covered by Article 3.”  This law demanded that drawings, lithographs, engravings, and prints require prior approval by the Minister of the Interior of the Prefect of the Provinces before their exhibition or sale. The fear was that drawn illustrations were exceptional because they communicated directly with the folks that brought the king to power and were therefore potentially destructive to his popular appeal. Caricature relied on people’s ability to read gesture and expression and were therefore more threatening to the repressive authority of the government than articles or books, which were seen as less immediate in their impact, not to mention inaccessible to the significant illiterate portions of the population.

Traviès’s lithograph, published in 1834 or 1835, around the time of the September Laws, is a fantasy of violent retribution against the censor’s shears and provides some insight into the creative strategies that artists used to evade them. The saw bites into the fleshy back of a figure lying face-down on the ground. We cannot see the victim’s face, but it would have been obvious to contemporary readers that it was the body and pointed tuft of hair of the Roi populaire.

Issues of censorship and the embattled limits of political critique emerge in the exhibition without explicit analogies drawn to current events. It is unavoidable, however, to connect the scathing caricature in the Vive les Satiristes! show with present-day criticism toward the current American president, not least because the Grolier Club, on East 60th street in New York, sits just across the park from Trump International Hotel. In the 1830s and 40s, French illustrators sharpened strategies for ridicule, exaggerating the physical flaws of powerful figures, mocking groveling bureaucrats (fig. 4), and fretting over the future of hard-fought liberties. And tropes persist, bruising the skins of the politician with lessons learned from the Golden Age of caricature in France nearly 200 years ago. A recent cover of the New Yorker, “Broken Windows” by Barry Blitt, published on April 10, 2017, draws upon the same pear-shaped body cartoonists used again and again to mock Louis-Philippe in cartoons like “Hercule vainqueur” from 1834 (fig. 5).

La Cour du roi Pétaud honoré La Caricature 193 23 aout 1832

Figure 4: “La Cour du roi Pétaud,” La Caricature 193, August 23, 1832.

La Caricature 383 Hercule vainqueur 1 mai 1834

Figure 5 : “Hercule vainqueur” La Caricature 383 , May 1, 1834.

French caricature was perhaps at its most biting and politically-engaged during the reign of Louis-Philippe, In the years targeted in this exhibition, however, as we can see in the beautiful, small pen drawings of Gulliver’s Travels by J.J. Grandville (fig. 6) that 19th-century caricaturists were themselves looking to past examples of satire.

Fig 6 JJ Grandville Original pen and sepia ink drawing for engraving in Voyages de Gulliver Volume 1 Paris H Fournier Ainé Éditeur 1838 p 114(1)

Figure 6 : J.J. Grandville, Original pen and sepia ink drawing for engraving in Voyages de Gulliver, Volume 1, Paris, H. Fournier Ainé, Éditeur, 1838, p. 114.

Grandville’s illustrations of Jonathan Swift and Daumier’s invocation of François Rabelais’s Gargantua suggest that satirical tropes are in perpetual cycles of imitation and adaptation, be they overfed giants or archers sharpening their arrows. This small show of lithographs and hand-colored book illustrations has therefore arrived at a moment when artists and satirists are once again grasping to understand their historical moment and power is once again being tested by jesters outside the gates.

Erin Duncan-O’Neill is an Assistant Professor at the University of Oklahoma. Her research focuses on nineteenth and twentieth century European art, and her dissertation, “Media and the Politics of Satire in the Art of Honoré Daumier” (Princeton University, 2016) investigates Daumier’s multimedia art practice and his engagement with literary and theatrical satire.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exploratory Works: Drawings from the Department of Tropical Research Field Expeditions at the Drawing Center, NYC

by guest contributor Megan Baumhammer

The fieldwork expeditions of William Beebe (1872- 1962) and the Department of Tropical Research aimed to “bring the laboratory to the jungle.” Beebe, an ornithologist affiliated with the New York Zoological Society (now known as the Wildlife Conservation Society), founded the Department of Tropical Research in the early twentieth century.  From the beginning the DTR was part of a lineage of expeditionary, exploratory science after the model of Theodore Roosevelt and the safari-style collectors of the American Museum of Natural History and the Explorer’s Club. The New York Zoological Society poured resources into DTR expeditions to the Sargasso Sea, the Humboldt Current, the Galapagos, Haiti, Bermuda, and elsewhere around the world.

As Mark Dion, Katherine McLeod, and Madeleine Thompson–the curators of the Drawing Center’s exhibition Exploratory Works: Drawings from the Department of Tropical Research Field Expeditions(at the Drawing Center in Soho until July 16, 2017)–made clear in their introductory notes to the exhibition’s catalogue, the expeditions were the investigative aspect of the DTR’s project. The DTR’s ultimate goal was to communicate the ecology of both tropical jungle and oceanic environments to broad audiences. In a remarkable presentation, the curators site the drawings generated by the expeditions within their own ecology, giving a sense of the the network of diverse actors (scientists, technicians, assistants, local guides, sailors, etc.)  that produced the beautiful drawings on display. The exhibition space is divided into realms, such that half of the room covers the jungle expeditions and the other half covers the ocean expeditions, with a map in the middle tracing the geographic context.

_MG_2446 (1024x706)Installation of Exploratory Works: Drawings from the Department of Tropical Research Field Expeditions, Courtesy of The Drawing Center, Photo by Martin Parsekian, 2017

The rooms of the exhibition are concentric framing devices for the scientific images. In these rooms, viewers are immersed in the DTR’s world. The exhibition design drops the viewer into the biography, geography, material and visual culture that composed their world. To heighten the experience, the galleries provide their own aural dimension, through the evocative music composed for the exhibition.

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Mark Dion Installation_2Installation views of Exploratory Works: Drawings from the Department of Tropical Research Field Expeditions, Courtesy of The Drawing Center, Photo by Martin Parsekian, 2017

The Beebe expeditions were supposed to bring the objectivity of the laboratory into the space of their investigations. The environments themselves would become the source of objective knowledge through scientific collecting, testing, and research. Beebe and his collaborators produced narratives of exploration that drew heavily on the sense of adventure and excitement that surrounded earlier, “romantic” naturalist traditions. The beautiful drawings that are the center of the exhibition were made in this context. The Drawing Center exhibition restages the groundbreaking, work done by this romantic and enterprising scientific research group within a highly aestheticized space.

Mark Dion Installation_3Recreation of an artist’s workbench, Installation of Exploratory Works: Drawings from the Department of Tropical Research Field Expeditions, Courtesy of The Drawing Center, Photo by Martin Parsekian, 2017

Visitors enter an exploratory space that evokes a mix of different figures and aesthetics, from Jacques Cousteau, Maria Sybilla Merian, and Alfred Russel Wallace to Wes Anderson’s fictional Cousteau doppelgänger, Steve Zissou. Curatorial attention to the environment surrounding the expeditions highlights several issues currently in conversation in the History of Science: women in science; science and colonialism; representation in images and science communication.

All of these elements have been a part of the drawings’ world since they were put into circulation, however this exhibition adds a critical dimension to their presentation of the material. The curators show that women artists, scientists, and technicians played a central role, and that women were hired because of their aptitude and experience. They also argue that the gendering of expedition participants’ roles reinforced the explorative masculinity of the enterprise and of William Beebe, since he wanted “adaptable scientific students who fall in with my plans” on his expeditions. The curators also highlight the colonial nature of the DTR’s scientific enterprise through comments and other materials by DTR scientists and artists. A map detailing the DTR’s sites of scientific practice reinforces the colonial context that both framed and enabled the group’s work.

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George Swanson, “Euchromid on Moss,” Rancho Grande, Venezuala, 1954. Watercolor on paper, 11 1/2 x 14 1/2 in. (29 x 37 cm). Courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society. Photograph by Martin Parsekian.

The artwork produced by the DTR was clearly both a tool for research and a means for communicating and disseminating findings about the ecology of the ocean or jungle.

 

Shrimp_webHelen Damrosh Tee-Van, “Snapping Shrimp and Family,” Bermuda, 1931. Watercolor on paper, 14 1/2 x 11 1/2 in. (37 x 29 cm). Courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society. Photograph by Martin Parsekian.

At the beginning of the twentieth century these drawings provided a clarity of form and color that photography was unable to convey. But not all of the drawings were produced to satisfy the standards of scientific illustration. DTR artists occasionally took creative liberties, and some of the drawings, such as George Swanson’s Leaf-like Mantis, include jokes. In Swanson’s drawing, a mantis dances around the lower half of the page following the movements of ballet. However, Swanson retained the representational conventions of scientific illustration, and the repeated drawing of poses on this page is exactly like those elsewhere sketched by the DTR artists to record the movements of other animals, such as fish. The joke of a mantis performing ballet looks just like the record of fish as a specimen for future study. Parsing the differences between a joke and scientific illustration thus requires both a certain expertise and knowledge, and familiarity with both the drawing’s context and its community.

One of the most intriguing elements of the exhibition, to me, is the question of representation and imagination. The exhibition explores the theme of the imaginative space generated by and for the images. Margaret Cohen has noted the difficulty that Beebe had in communicating the unseen space found beneath the sea, either because the unfamiliar environments were difficult to describe or because it behooved Beebe to use the descriptive difficulty itself as a rhetorical tool. The curators argue that the drawings themselves are mediated and directed artifacts of research rather than direct representations. The drawings served as a link between the scientists and a reading, viewing, funding public, who accessed these spaces of research through popular magazine articles and Beebe’s bestselling books. Equally important, the images were often produced through second-hand descriptions of the phenomena, although this would have been less apparent to the public. For example, William Beebe descended to the deep sea, but the artists who drew the deep sea did not. Instead Beebe described the underwater world to the artist, who then drew it. These drawings relied entirely on Beebe’s textual cues. They are, in many ways, pure products of the artist’s imagination. This is most obviously demonstrated in Else Bostelmann’s Bathysphere intacta (Circling the Bathysphere), which depicts an impossible situation: the artist is situated outside of the protective Bathysphere diving bell, fixed by the eye of a deep-sea creature.

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Else Bostelmann, “Bathysphere Intacta (Circling the Bathysphere),” Bermuda, 1934. Watercolor on paper, 18 1/2 x 24 1/2 in. Courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society. Photograph by Martin Parsekian.

The imaginative space of the deep ocean is here reflected in the imaginative space necessary to create it. The image compounds–and highlights–the artificiality of the artist’s experience.

The work of William Beebe and the Department of Tropical Research was a remarkable enterprise of the first half of the twentieth century. The images alone would be worth an exhibition, their beauty and color and character are so absorbing. They conveyed the first sense of a completely unknown life in the deep ocean and a further exploratory sense of the jungle or coastline. The curatorial framing of the drawings enables the visitor to see the work of the Department of Tropical Research clearly within its own context. The images are presented as a glorious production of the colorful, complicated DTR community. The group’s participation in the ongoing colonial relationship between the US and South America, underscored by the locations of its field stations, was an inextricable part of the drawings made from fieldwork, as was the group’s the “exploratory spirit” and its desire to know more about nature. The beautiful, striking images, combined with the self-presentation of William Beebe and his work, provide a world for the viewer’s imagination. Their audience found them thrilling because along with scientific knowledge of new and unfamiliar places, they provided a measure of romance as well. The images provided viewers with a means to recreate the experiences of the DTR crew. In their Drawing Center exhibition, the curators expose the distance between the various levels of an expedition’s documentation and self presentation. The exhibition pulls apart the interlocking framework of the DTR’s work to better show the workings of each part.  The finely rendered portraits of jungle creatures and underwater life are situated within the material culture produced by the DTR; the sociocultural makeup of the participants of DTR studies is shown alongside the films and visual images designed to communicate their work. This presentation lays bare the assumptions and work that contribute to the scientific representations we have come to take for granted, and if you would like to explore these same questions the exhibition is certainly worth seeing before it closes in July.

“Exploratory Works: Drawings from the Department of Tropical Research Field Expeditions” is on view at the Drawing Center (New York, NY) through July 16, 2017.

Megan Baumhammer is a PhD candidate at Princeton University studying the history of science. She works on representative depiction in early modern science, and science and the imagination.

The Great Art

By guest contributor Adrian Young

One can hardly imagine a more audacious ambit for a museum exhibit than that of the Staatlische Museen zu Berlin’s new show, Alchemy: the Great Art, now at the Kulturforum. In the curators’ words:

“Alchemy is a creation myth and therefore intimately related to artistic practice – this idea permeates all eras and cultures, shaping Alchemy’s theoretical underpinnings as well as artistic creativity. An exhibition dedicated to the art of Alchemy is consequently predestined for the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, whose diverse collections stretch over time from pre- and early history to the present. Alchemy is a universal theme for a universal museum”

As if to underpin its universal sweep, that thesis is inscribed on a wall above Matthäus Merian the Elder’s beautiful image of the cosmos, published in 1617.  Here, the position of the heavens above, the earth below, and humanity in between are assured within a hierarchy ordained by the divine unity of creation. The planets correspond to metals and vice versa, mercury for Mercury, at once products and signifiers of the same heavenly power.

L0029108 R. Fludd, Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet...

Robert Fludd, Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica, physica atque technica historia (1617-1618). (Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library)

From this document, and from the assemblage of some 200 remarkable objects like it, spanning continents and millennia, we are meant to learn something of the universal creative ambition that drove alchemy as a global, timeless, and human craft. As a creative practice, the ars magna (or “great art,” to use alchemy’s medieval European appellation) wedded the pursuit of beauty and the pursuit of knowledge within the same practical tradition. It was only after the advent of Enlightenment rationality obscured their longstanding relationship that art and science seemed to diverge into bifurcating paths. However, though we rational moderns may have lost sight of a creative unity the pre-moderns knew well, by assembling the material culture of a deep alchemical past alongside the artistic products of a scientifically minded present, the exhibit suggests that “art” and “science” need be understood as separate enterprises. Rather, it claims, we have always been modern. We have always sought truth and beauty alike in the manipulation and transformation of material things. Creators have always been alchemists.

It is a seductive and tantalizing notion. Historians might chafe instinctively at claims of universality, as I did when I read the exhibit’s opening scrawl—“this idea permeates all eras and cultures”? But why not? One is inclined to indulge the thought, at least for a moment, while examining the treasures assembled here. And there are treasures. A ding, or ritual cauldron, from thirteenth-century BCE China still draws viewers in with a ring of intricately rendered cicadas; the metamorphosis of these insects suggest that a similar same property of transformation operated inside this metal crucible, and in remains at work in crucibles like it in laboratories and workshops the world over. Wall scrolls by sixteenth-century Daoist artist Lu Zhi depict the search for truth as the work of gathering herbs in the mountains. These hang near sixteenth-century European allegorical representations of the mountainous earth as a temple in which to mine divine knowledge.  Alchemical correspondences abound.

Whether these artifacts were products of “art” or “science” is of course a nonsensical question. Indeed, the exhibition reminds its visitors that artists and alchemists were practitioners of allied creative crafts, which they often plied in the same princely courts. A small work by Hans Jakob Sprüngli from the early seventeenth century drives that point home well. In his “Venus and Armor against the backdrop of renaissance architecture,” painted figures are ensconced in a field of gold leaf and stained glass. Master artists, like master alchemists, relied on an intimate, practical, and embodied knowledge of the materials from which they produced their works of truth or beauty. Artists today are much the same in their attention to material things, an alchemical affinity they even share with contemporary scientists. Think of Joseph Beuys, for instance, whose works are represented in the exhibition by a 1986 offprint displaying his “goldkuchen.” In Beuys’s use of fur, fat, and gold, physical objects became agents of affect, begetting emotional reactions and transformations. Pieces by a younger generation of artists do much the same. Sara Shönfeldt’s 2013 series “All You Can Feel (Maps)” is an object lesson in the commonalities of practice between science and art. Shönfeldt placed dissolved chemical compounds like the recreational drug MDMA onto pretreated negatives which, once developed produced full-color portraits of chemicals. Their crystalline browns and greens are reminiscent of minerals or landscapes, feeling simultaneously geological and geographical.  It is a use of darkroom technology that recalls earlier work by Walter Ziegler and Heinz Hajek-Halke, also represented in the gallery. Photography and its attendant chemical techniques long provided a practical if little-celebrated bridge between the hands-on work of art and science. Can we meaningfully call those shared practices alchemy? The genealogy, here at least, is manifest.

Continuities with the past need not be happy ones. Deep in the heart of the exhibit, in its lower level, lurks the specter of the homunculus. The artificial being, made living by the alchemist’s manipulation of inanimate matter is also evoked here to suggest alchemical practice’s persistence into our present.  Underscoring the idea’s lingering presence in the popular imagination, images of Frankenstein’s monster sit next to a copy of Japanese graphic novel Full Metal Alchemist. That the notion of a monstrous artificial life still haunts us powerfully reinforces the exhibition’s argument; in our era of genetically modified and artificial life, one of alchemy’s chief ambitions is enacted daily in scientific practice. At the center of the “Homonculus” section is one of the “Ripley Scrolls,” on loan from the Getty and one of the exhibition’s most arresting objects. Unwound inside a twenty-foot-long case, it becomes the body of arcane alchemical knowledge now splayed open for visitors. However, the exhibit which most monstrously evokes the grotesque possibilities of alchemical transformation might well be on the floor above, where another of Sara Schönfeldt’s pieces melds scientific and artistic practice. “Hero’s Journey (Lamp)” (2014) stores urine inside a large glass tank, lit by lamps on both sides. The light only penetrates so far through the liquid murk, fading from amber to blood red before disappearing in a dark center of clotted black.

By assembling in one gallery historical objects and art pieces from across time and space, the exhibition attempts a kind of curatorial alchemy, building a synthesis from diverse elements. Like most grand experiments, it falls somewhat short. Though the SMB is indeed a universal museum, Europe’s heritage dominates. While the exhibit proffers alchemy as a universal mode of creation, there are no representative objects from the New World, sub-Saharan Africa, or Oceania with which to substantiate such a claim. East Asian objects appear much more frequently–the Museum für Asiatische Kunst is the source of a number of fascinating exhibits– though these sometimes seem to reaffirm Western narratives. A section on the “chemical wedding” is a case in point. In a famous alchemical allegory, male and female, corresponding to mercury and sulfur, are bonded and give rise to a hermaphroditic compound.  It was a notion that originated with Jābir ibn Hayyān and spread in alchemical texts throughout the Mediterranean world, though we see it represented directly only by Western European artifacts. However, we are told that the idea shared an affinity with the wedding of opposites in other traditions—enter a bronze sculpture depicting the marriage of Shiva and Parvati from late eighteenth- or early nineteenth- century Madurai, which gestures at similar alchemical dualities in the Hindu world. The bronze’s precise relation to “alchemy” is sadly unexplained; rather,  we are left to ponder the exact global unities between such dualities on our own.

Those artifacts which do receive closer temporal or spatial framings are all the more compelling for it, even if the resulting narratives are in tension with the exhibition’s universal aspirations. Assertions of timeless continuity might productively trouble our understanding of science and art in the present, but historians of science have long offered more circumscribed historically situated assertions of continuity between alchemy, chymistry, and chemistry. In this show, too, the artifacts that best challenge the too-neat dichotomies that seem to separate modernity and reason from premodernity and magic are those that speak evocatively of their own historical moments. Take, for instance, that eminently enlightenment document, the Encyclopedie, whose entry “Chemie” is represented by Louis-Jacques Goussier’s engraving “Laboratoire et Table des Reports,” (1771).  Here, a table arranges the traditional signs for the elements, rationally ordering notations inherited from alchemy. Or, better, take the image of Sigismund Bacstrom’s “Apparatus to attract the Lunar Humidity” in Johan Freiderich Fleischer’s 1797 Chemical Moonshine, on loan from the Getty. Here, the glassware of the empirical chemical laboratory (an alchemical inheritance, to be sure) is turned toward the goal of capturing the fleeting essence of moonlight itself. It evokes Yoko Ono, but gestures even more strongly toward the tumultuous, contingent, and fleeting worlds that existed on the edges of the chemical revolution.

Adrian 2 Chemical Moonshine 10_1024

Sigismund Bacstrom (German, ca. 1750–1805), “Device for Distilling Lunar Humidity,” ink and watercolor in Johan Friedrich Fleischer, “Chemical Moonshine,” trans. Sigismund Bacstrom, 1797, frontispiece. 950053.4.1 (Image courtesy of the Getty Research Institute.)

 

 Was I ultimately taken in by the allure of the exhibition’s universal aspiration? More than I might have expected. Assertions of similarity between art and science abound in books and museum exhibits, perhaps less because we aim to bridge C.P. Snow’s two cultures and more because we in the fragile arts hope to ally with the slightly sturdier sciences in this era of shrinking funding and diminishing respect for the academy.  Alchemy, by focusing our attention on the practical knowledge required by the work of creation, suggests genuine and overlooked affinities. I am inclined to understand those commonalities as the product of a shared, historically and regionally specific genealogy. But no matter. If the ideal of a common and universal human creative impulse can compel us to study the rich material heritage of the alchemical past, or indeed any past, then all to the good. Like the elusive philosopher’s stone, perhaps the ambition itself is of less consequence than the things learned in yearning for it. What’s more, artists and alchemists alike have long known what some historians have only recently rediscovered: that objects can speak with a vocabulary the written word does not always afford. In this exhibit, aesthetic objects, whether contemporary sculptures or scientific plates, evoke their pasts with a remarkable richness. As windows into the practical histories of alchemy and art, these materials, whatever their ordering, exude a transformative power of their own.

“Alchemy: The Great Art” is on view at the Kulturforum in Berlin until the 23rd of July, 2017.

Adrian Young is a postdoctoral fellow at the Berlin Center for the History of Knowledge, where he is revising his dissertation “Mutiny’s Bounty: Pitcairn Islanders and the Making of a Natural Laboratory on the Edge of Britain’s Pacific Empire” for publication. Though not a historian of alchemy by any stretch, he maintains an abiding interest in material culture and object lessons.

Russian Art 1917-1932 at the Royal Academy, London

by guest contributor Audrey Borowski

The imperial red hits you as soon as you enter the Royal Academy’s latest exhibition, “Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932,” which sets out to explore the frenzy that gripped the Russian artistic scene between 1917 and 1932.

The artistic avant-garde initially enthusiastically extolled the ideals of the new Bolshevik regime. A new age had dawned on Russia, and its artists embraced their roles as apostles of this new vision. This exhibit explores the remarkable vitality and versatility of Russian art during that short but turbulent window, often presenting the viewers with lesser-known artists. From Isaak Brodsky’s studious portraits of its leaders Lenin and Stalin to Boris Kustodiev’s depiction of enthused masses, many artists set out to capture the euphoria that followed the revolution and the hope that it would be extended to the whole world.

At the heart of their endeavor lay the desire to create innovative paintings, sculptures, ceramics, crockery, textiles, and even architectural designs that would reach a mass, and for the most part illiterate, audience. New technologies were enlisted to convey these political messages and aestheticize the experience of the worker and peasant; through the magic of film and photography, the latter were refashioned as muscular heroic figures and Russia transfigured from a still overwhelmingly agricultural nation into a great industrial super-power. And whereas in the pictures, workers and peasants emerged liberated and sublimated, in reality, these machine-men and women were generally little more than slaves, dying of starvation in the name of communal collective agriculture. Reality, as this avant-garde movement would soon find out, fell dramatically short of its ideals.

Pavel Filonov, Formula of the Petrograd Proletariat, 1920-21 (State Russian Museum, St Petersburg)

Pavel Filonov, Formula of the Petrograd Proletariat, 1920-21 (State Russian Museum, St Petersburg)

Radical innovations had already been under way for a few years, but this artistic avant-garde seized the momentum of the revolution to precipitate change and formulate new art for a new world, exploring the full range of abstraction. In this era of radical experimentation, each artist developed his own particular visual language and vocabulary across a wide range of media. The painter Alexander Deineka deployed his characteristic use of geometric lines and collages of drawings, graphic images, and photo montages to convey workers’ dedication to the cause. Pavel Filonov’s method of “universal flowering” produced anguished phantasmagorias merging urban landscapes, heads, and geometric shapes in his “Formula for the Petrograd Proletariat.” Mikhail Matiushin projected pure cosmic teleology in his 1921 “Movement in Space.” Blok’s symbolist poetry greeted the revolution as a quasi-religious second coming. El Lissitzky designed new apartments for the new soviet lifestyle. The theatre director Vsevold Meyerhold designed biomechanics, a system in which emotions were experienced primarily through bodily movements and gestures. Vladimir Tatlin imagined flying gliders, Sergei Eisenstein recreated the revolution in his films, and Vassily Kandinsky conjured up symphonic abstract explosions.

Mikhail Mokh, State Porcelain Factory, Leningrad, tea set "Metal," 1930 (The Petr Aven Collection)

Mikhail Mokh, State Porcelain Factory, Leningrad, tea set “Metal,” 1930 (The Petr Aven Collection)

The artist Kazimir Malevich took geometric abstraction to a whole new level with his invention of “suprematism” in 1915. Art, he thought, should first and foremost express spirituality, away from the “dead weight of the real world.” The Royal Academy’s exhibition recreates his display at the original 1932 exhibit in which he famously exposed “Black square,” the work he claimed marked the “zero point of art.” And yet, as artists were increasingly urged to depict social realities, the soviet man caught up in a dynamic vision of the cosmos soon began to give way to visions of faceless figures far removed from the utopian visions of cheery peasants laboring for the cause in the golden fields of collective farm labor that the Party extolled. As artists grew more ambivalent towards the regime, they started deploying their art to subvert its imagery.

A particularly striking and, for western viewers, unusual piece is “Insurrection” (1925) by Kliment Redko. In it, the painter has replaced Christ with Lenin, surrounded by his disciples in a diamond of fire that burns the city. The atmosphere of the painting is dark and infernal; the city has turned into prison. The revolution was slowly morphing into state repression. While the Revolution of 1917 had heralded a new age of hope and equality for most, repression had already started to kick in by 1921, with artistic freedom increasingly constrained in favor of the collective ideology.

Kliment Redko, Insurrection, 1925 (State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

Kliment Redko, Insurrection, 1925 (State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

The exhibit not only showcases the gradual shift in power over the years, but also brings to the fore the inner contradictions of the age. In the face of extreme conditions and growing misery after the collapse of the economy and the urban infrastructure in the wake of the civil war, many artists looked back towards an idealized Russian past with its birch trees, snowed-under villages, troikas and countryside churches. They sought comfort in a world they felt had been lost forever before one that was failing to materialize, like Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, a lesser-known painter who sought to discern the “optical magic” that coursed through reality. His pieces hark back to a more peaceful, curiously atemporal time, away from the tumult and prospect of hardship.

Over the years, the window for creativity and freedom of expression gradually narrowed, until Stalin decreed that socialist realism would be the only acceptable art form in the Soviet Union. 1932 simultaneously signaled the apex and the end of this artistic revolution; it was the year Nikolai Punin curated the exhibit “Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic” at the state Russian museum in then-Leningrad; it showcased more than two thousand works of art and has served as the inspiration for the present exhibition. That same year also sounded the final death knell of that era of dazzling creativity. Overnight, the Soviet state’s fittingly-named “People’s commissariat of Enlightenment” became the sole commissioner of art, and socialist realism the only acceptable art form. The soaring spirit of the avant-garde was brought to an abrupt halt.

While Lenin had envisaged art in mainly pragmatic terms as a tool of propaganda, Stalin had an acute understanding of the power of art and, with social realism, was intent on harnessing it towards the cultivation of his own legacy. His utopian vision celebrated physically perfect sportsmen and parading workers as the new heroes of this politically unified and collectivist vision. Art was to be in the image of regime: insipid, impersonal and soulless.

Disillusionment gradually set in. Mayakovsky shot himself in 1930; Meyerhold was executed in 1940; Punin died in a gulag in 1953. Many others would be purged in the following years.

Ultimately, the exhibit charts one of the human spirit’s greatest experiments in hope, as it first soared and was then violently repressed and crushed by a dream-turned-nightmare. Each piece documents a different facet of this human epic in striving and aspiration and bears testimony, in spite of mankind’s fragile memory and constant attempts to rewrite history, to the indomitable nature of the human spirit. That much is certain – and as I was walking away from the Royal Academy, Vladimir Mayakovsky’s fateful and all too timely words from 1921 continued to resonate in my ears:

“And since the crisis exists the world over—worldwide revolution is at their door—As clearly as two times two is four.”

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 at the Royal Academy, London
Until 17 April

Audrey Borowski is a DPhil student in History of Ideas at the University of Oxford.

“Herman Melville’s New York, 1850” at The New York Society Library

by guest contributor Charles Cuykendall Carter

Circulation ledger featuring Melville's Society Library borrowing history, 1847-50. New York Society Library.

Circulation ledger featuring Melville’s Society Library borrowing history, 1847-50. New York Society Library.

The New York Society Library’s current pop-up exhibit explores the life and experiences of Herman Melville in New York City, during the time leading up to the 1851 publication of Moby-Dick. The more specific, and more intimate, concern of the exhibit is the symbiotic relationship between an author and his library, both as a site of research and as a vehicle for promotion.

For much of 1848, and then again for a time in 1850, the Society Library was Melville’s library. (He did also personally own a good number of books, many of which he annotated; some can be seen in digitized form through the impressive Melville’s Marginalia website.) While in the throes of composing his masterpiece, Melville regularly spent time doing research in the reading room of the Society Library, then on Broadway and Leonard Street. He was again a Society Library member in the years before his death in 1891.

Some treasures from the Society Library’s archives featured in the exhibit vividly demonstrate Melville’s membership and activity. One charming display item is a facsimile of Melville’s 1850 Society Library membership certificate, reproduced on cardboard and able to be handled and examined up close. Other indices of Melville’s personal relationship to the Library include a contemporary city directory listing Melville’s home address at “103 Av. 4,” about a half-hour’s walk away; and his large autograph signature in a circulation ledger, dated 1850.

Most exhibition materials reflect Melville as author. Among them are the first published excerpt of Moby-Dick in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine of fall 1851, and a facsimile of an early manuscript invoice showing Society Library purchases of Melville books.

The largest exhibit piece is a pin-board chart covered with index cards, which are connected with tightly-strung lengths of different colored yarn. The cards represent specific Society Library readers; the yarn, Melville’s first seven novels. The display renders visible for the viewer what is addressed by most modern introductions to Moby-Dick: upon publication, it was a commercial dud.

Melville’s earlier, less complex, more straightforward travel adventures—Typee, Omoo, White-Jacket—were in frequent circulation at the Society Library in the late 1840s–early 1850s. Moby-Dick was borrowed fewer than twenty times during the period represented by the chart. Melville’s next book, Pierre, was even less popular—and, as the exhibit points out, earned him the headline “Herman Melville Crazy” from a contemporary reviewer.

Perhaps the most amusing exhibit item shows a unique exchange between Society Library readers of Melville. In what amounts to a nineteenth-century version of internet comments (including insults and a silly pseudonym), at least three Library members left penciled notes at the end of a chapter of White-Jacket:

[annotator 1:] This is a bad chapter. / E. B. / July 5 1860
[annotator 2:] Why the devil don’t you put the real date in. (Signed) Adolphus Fitz Noodle
[annotator 3:] I should think you were a noodle indeed. G.J.V.

Also on display are several mid-nineteenth-century scenes—prints and photographs of the New York City harbor—artfully paired with quotations from Moby-Dick. A panoramic engraved view of the city from the East River accompanies Ishmael’s opening admission that seafaring adventures are his cure for frustrations with obnoxious city life, when “it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off . . . .”

The absent star of the exhibit, the barely-circulated first edition of Moby-Dick belonging to the Society Library, is unfortunately now lost, perhaps disappeared in its depths.

Herman Melville’s New York, 1850” is on display, free to the public, at the New York Society Library, in the Peluso Family Gallery, until November 7.

Charles Cuykendall Carter is the Assistant Curator of the Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle at the New York Public Library. He is also Associate Editor of the Shelley-Godwin Archive, and is on the board of The American Printing History Association.

Paris’s New Musée de l’Homme: Then, Now, Tomorrow

by guest contributor Anna Toledano

Autobiography is an art form that only few have mastered. The newly reopened permanent exhibition at the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Mankind) in Paris does a remarkable job of writing the book on our entire species. The museum tells the tale of what makes humanity unique through universal themes such as reproduction, death, and language using its rich collections, which featured in both the storied, racist Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro (1882–1936) and the first iteration of the Musée de l’Homme opened in 1938. The curators are sensitive to equity among different cultural groups and the breadth of the human experience, although the interpretation suffers from a tinge of human exceptionalism.

Phrenological busts repurposed to show the failings of such methodology (author photo)

Phrenological busts repurposed to show the failings of such methodology (author photo)

Alice L. Conklin deftly describes in her book In the Museum of Man: Race, Anthropology, and Empire in France, 1850–1950 (Cornell, 2013) the role that the historic museum played in the establishment of traditional French colonial, racist anthropology. See Alice L. Conklin’s and Christine Laurière’s essays in the museum catalog for a more in-depth look at the historical context for the reimagined permanent exhibition. While the social missteps of the former institution are carefully avoided today, the message of the modern museum is strongly tied to its historical legacy. (Consider the repurposing of busts that once spread the edicts of phrenology: today curators use them to show that such methodology is not science.) This legacy is characterized by the words of Paul Rivet, the glorified father of the museum, that “Humanity is one and indivisible, not only in terms of space, but also in terms of time.” The challenge to make culture timeless, but not frozen in time is one that all anthropological museums face. The museum in Paris tackles the additional challenge of showing that it is no longer frozen in time either.
Objects from the historical collections feature in displays (author photo)

Objects from the historical collections feature in displays (author photo)

The curators structure our collective biography in the Galerie de l’Homme into three parts: “Who are we?” “Where do we come from?” “Where are we going?” This chronological narrative leads visitors through displays featuring pieces from the historic collection, such as skeletons and ceremonial clothing, as well as model reconstructions of classic sites such as the footsteps at Laetoli. The strength of the exhibitry comes not from the well-done model of a half-eaten mammoth, but from the objects from the original collection. The historic medical moulages are a highlight, although the objects are placed in darkened kiosks (perhaps due to both preservation concerns and shock value). The real fossil skulls of our evolutionary ancestors excavated in the rich caves of France are breathtaking. The inclusion of animal specimens from the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle gives context to the place of humans within the history of evolution. This 2015 renovation is part of a larger set of relatively recent overhauls of permanent exhibitions at the MNHN; the Musée de l’Homme has been associated with the MNHN since the early twentieth century. A feature on domestication and our bond with dogs is heartwarming, but the principal focus on hunting only elevates our position relative to the other creatures on display.

A separate viewing experience for historic medical moulages (author photo)

A separate viewing experience for historic medical moulages (author photo)

Real skulls from our ancestors, such as Cro-Magnon man, excavated in France are a highlight (author photo)

Real skulls from our ancestors, such as Cro-Magnon man, excavated in France are a highlight (author photo)

The museum embodies its commitment to include all peoples not only within its narrative but also in the experience of the exhibition. A visually arresting wall of tongues, which visitors can pull to hear snippets of little-spoken languages from across the globe, caters to auditory learners. This section on linguistics is well-conceived in its emphasis on diversity as well as the intersectionality of multiple cultural identities, such as being an American and a Yiddish speaker. Videos for visual learners feature experts discussing how terminology matters, especially with regard to vestiges of colonialism. Through this lens, it is interesting that the majority of interpretation is only available in French. The main signage, as well as some audio testimony, is trilingual—French, English, and Spanish—but that is not the majority.

Visitors experience sounds of little-known languages from around the world by giving each tongue a yank (author photo)

Visitors experience sounds of little-known languages from around the world by giving each tongue a yank (author photo)

Touch screens with which visitors can call up a high-resolution photo as well as provenance information about any object in the richly filled cases are a victory for useful museum technology. The interactive label format is perfectly suited to the exhibitry. The options for English and Spanish are grayed out here, indicating the intention to add them, but for the moment they are noticeably lacking. The curators make a nod to accessibility by offering French Sign Language, but its purpose is unclear since all of the interpretation is communicated textually here.

The theme of intersectionality—critical to our modern understanding of culture—is happily at the forefront of the discussion upstairs of our future. Visitors play a globalization game on a touch table, matching photos of things like sushi to their place of origin (the California roll matches to the American West). Sensory learners can enjoy the scents of dishes of cuisines from the world over that all feature rice (but, in this visitor’s opinion, the synthetic smells weren’t all that appetizing).

A digital label, complete with a fantastic photo and a full description of the featured object (author photo)

A digital label, complete with a fantastic photo and a full description of the featured object (author photo)

Our interconnectedness comes to the fore at the end of the exhibit hall, where curators urge us to save our common planet in light of ever-pressing natural resource conservation and biodiversity crises. The success of our future is not one devoid of technology, though. We evolve alongside medical technologies such as antibiotics and artificial limbs, which the museum frames as a positive outcome. In a final interactive feature, visitors are invited to imagine the future of the human race in a photo booth; their videos are added to an ever-changing smart wall. The new participatory museum model, the future of audience-curated content in museum education, is structurally a perfect way to show our future.

In Chris Marker’s 1962 science fiction dystopian short film, La Jetée (The Jetty), the original Musée de l’Homme serves as the unchanging location to which Marker’s time traveler returns. The museum, filled with ageless specimens, is frozen and timeless. While the new Galerie de l’Homme honors this legacy, it stresses that time marches on and acknowledges that we are a living, breathing, changing species, much like the museum itself.

Anna Toledano is pursuing a PhD in history of science at Stanford University. A museum professional by training, her research focuses on natural history collecting in early modern Spain. Follow her on Twitter at @annatoledano.

Meet the Collected Past: “The Keeper” at the New Museum

by Erin Schreiner

Whose stories are told in museums?  And how are they told? “The Keeper,” an ongoing show at the New Museum that is a tonic to the eye and the soul, addresses these questions and raises even more with brilliance, economy, and creativity not only through the choice of materials on display, but also in their presentation. It is essential viewing for all of us in the business of keeping  – collecting and preserving stuff – and (hi)storytelling.

Devoting an exhibition to keepers provided the museum with a reason to show Ydessa Hendeles’ Partners (The Teddy Bear Project), a 2002 installation of over 3,000 photographs of people and their teddy bears. To those of you who are thinking, “Really? Teddy bears?” I confess that I didn’t have high expectations for this part of the show. I was excited about Hilma af Klint’s paintings, Ye Jinglu’s portraits, and Shinro Ohtake’s scrapbooks, the things that I thought would be the heavy hitters. These images, these objects, would make me think; so I thought. They did, but not as much as Partners.

In Partners, the teddy bear functions as an organizing principle: Helendes collected and preserved twentieth-century photographs of people and teddy bears, and because everybody loves to pose with a teddy bear, Partners presents astonishingly broad and intimate portrait of humanity. The photographs, which Hendeles collected on eBay, came from 25 countries, and show people of every age, race and ethnicity, creed, and class. There are, of course, tons of pictures of kids, but children do not dominate the collection. Elvis posed with teddy bears to promote his hit single “Teddy Bear”, and Ringo Starr talked to reporters clutching a teddy that someone gave him as he emerged from an airplane. There are teddy bears in band photographs (Tony’s Jazz Madcaps and the Stella Orchestre of Riga propped teddies on the bass drum before saying cheese), teddy bears in family greeting cards, teddies in snapshots exchanged between lovers or between parents and their grown children, teddies in class photos, teddy bears of all sizes on the beach and at parties, and there are even teddy bears in pornography. Adults often laugh or look silly with teddy bears, but they can also look painfully sincere.  Many portraits of children show tremendous pride, especially candid photos like one of a young black girl on a porch with all her entire toy collection laid out on a blanket. They also show great disappointment: one memorable shot shows two young south-Asian children in formal dress looking rather depressed and put-upon in front of the Christmas tree. There are real teddy bears on display, too, with stories and photographs of their original owners.  (The labels accompanying the real bears are the only text in the installation.) Sneezy, a tiny bear with a scrunched up face and a perky yellow vest belonged to Ted Able, an English Soldier in World War II. Able’s mother gave him the bear when he shipped off to serve. He survived, and Sneezy remained on his bedside table until the day he died in 1991, at 81 years old.

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“Sneezy”, Ted Able’s teddy bear on display in “The Keeper”.

In her dissertation, Hendeles says that “the teddy bear was chosen for what it reveals about the complex partnership of culture and commerce.” (26) While one might pursue that thread to fascinating ends, I found that the teddy bear enriched these images because it emphasized the humanity of the people in the pictures. As Hendeles points out, the teddy bear is an object that comforts the many children and adults who own (and cuddle) their bears, (25) but the pictures show that human beings lived a tremendous range of emotions and experiences with their teddies. They inspire people to be silly, to play, to express their affection for loved ones, or to stand before a camera with confidence. As a result, the teddy bear shows us the vulnerability of the people that pose with it, and this is what makes this the collection so emotionally and intellectually stirring.

In 2012, the novelist Orhan Pamuk published “A Modest Manifesto for Museums” in The Innocence of Objects, a printed catalog for his Museum of Innocence, which he curated and opened in Istanbul as a museum of his novel of the same name. In his manifesto, he urges museums to prioritize the stories human lives over those of “society, community, team, nation, state, tribe, company, or species.”  Partners, conceived a full decade before Pamuk’s museum and manifesto, is an example of just how this can work.  Its success as a collection – and as a work of art – can be measured exactly as Pamuk suggests in point five:

The measure of a museum’s success should not be its ability to represent a state, a nation, or company, or a particular history. It should be its capacity to reveal the humanity of individuals.

Viewers looking into the faces of more than 3,000 people with their teddy bears are witnesses to the tenderest exposition of the humanity of individuals.  For viewers, witnessing this is an intense experience. One of the first vitrines of photographs in the installation contains images of Nazi men and women with teddy bears.  The stuffed animals in these pictures transform images of uniformed Nazis into gut-wrenching portraits of the human faces of fascism. (I’m still trying to figure out what these images can or should mean.) These are followed by more pictures of soldiers, like Ted Able, whose story is a bit more straight forward: a mother loves her son and sends him off to battle with conduit for that love.  In other ways, however, Able and Sneezy challenge the normative view of the soldier ready for combat. In the back of the second room of the installation, photographs of child survivors of the Holocaust appear together in long vitrines, and the accompanying labels document the story of each individual’s survival. In this case, photographs of these children with their teddy bears gives Hendeles a context in which to share and preserve their personal histories alongside their photographs.

Partners exhibits the photographs and teddy bears in a display system borrowed from national museums  and private galleries that Pamuk deemphasizes in his manifesto.  Pictures cover the walls from floor to ceiling. A mezzanine gallery provides access to a second viewing level, and dark wooden vitrines display the original bears, sometimes with related ephemera like photographs, letters, or (in one case) a teddy bear genealogy. This lends the photographs and objects an air of seriousness and grandeur, and it’s a clever way to engage viewers who might dismiss the images because of their playful, innocent subject matter. This antiquated mode of display also emphasizes the historic nature of the photographs, which appear to cover the twentieth century only up to the mid-sixties.  Most of the images date to the interwar period or the period of the second World War, which provides some critical distance between the viewer and the human subjects of these photographs. These images show us moments in the lives of people we will never know, but whose worlds we study and interpret as historians.

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Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) by Ydessa Hendeles, installed at the New Museum.

The traditional style display seen in Partners – which, walls, vitrines, and all were brought in as a whole from Canada – is in stark contrast to the rest of the show, which features photographs, model buildings, scrapbooks, paintings, sketches, and other works of art shown in the white-box style settings that one would expect in the New Museum. And perhaps as a result, the impact of Partners far exceeds that of the other works on display. Nevertheless, the rest of the show presents an enormous range of materials, from Joseph Cornell-like assemblages to collections of rare stones that play with and challenge ideas about the purpose of collecting and the meanings that collections take on in their afterlives. And while I commend the New Museum for showing admirable restraint in providing succinct, well edited, wall text, I found that some of the labels lacked information about collectors, focusing instead on critical analyses of the images or objects on display.  For example, Tong Bingxue discovered the delightful series of photographs of Ye Jinglu, taken annually throughout his life. Tong Bingxue is a journalist and young collector of antique Chinese photographs, but I discovered this through a Google search rather than in the gallery. Given the show’s focus on collectors and collecting, the series would have been enriched by more information about Bingxue’s collecting and the discovery of this particular set of images.

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There is a lot to see in “The Keeper.” Orhan Pamuk might say that there are a lot of people to meet. I believe that as people and as historians must meet them, and study their stories (and their teddy bears) in all of their silly, tender, tragic glory.  Oliver Sacks explains why better than I ever could:

In 1992, I went with [Gerald Edelman] to a conference on consciousness at Jesus College in Cambridge.  While Gerry’s books were often difficult to read, hearing him speak gave a feeling of revelation to many in the audience.
At the same meeting… Gerry said to me, “You’re no theoretician.”
“I know,” I said, “but I am a field-worker, and you need the sort of fieldwork I do for the sort of theory making you do.”
Gerry agreed.

(from On the Move, page 366)

Visit “The Keeper,” and see for yourself what’s been collected in the field.

 


The Keeper is open through September 25 at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, New York City.

 

 

 

Images of history

by John Raimo

As often as historians and art historians talk past one another, they also come together before common problems, questions, and sources. Both groups recognize the sheer power of images. Such a moment has reappeared in intellectual history. The recent one hundred and fiftieth celebrations of Aby Warburg’s birth underscored how widely Warburg’s terminology could stretch between art and cultural history. Historians such as Carlo Ginzburg and Patrick Boucheron take iconography as a starting point for deeper and deeper reconstructions of political and intellectual milieus. The work of art historians such as Georges Did-Huberman and Giovanni Careri follow similar patterns shuttling between contextual and formal considerations. Anthropologists too have not been far behind, finding in images the source for new methodologies across disciplines dealing with ideas both in and of history. And many museum curators do not shy away from presenting both ethical and historiographical challenges to the public in precisely this tenor, perhaps most spectacularly in the recent Conflict, Time, Photography exhibit at the Tate Modern.

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Guerre 1939-1945. Occupation. Destruction de statues pour récupérer les métaux. La statue du marquis de Condorcet, homme politique français, par Jacques Perrin (1847-1915). Paris, 1941. JAH-REP-34-8

Four ongoing or recent exhibits in Paris also directly engage with the stakes that images—and specifically photography—hold for intellectual history today. Exhibitions dedicated to Seydou Keïta (1921-2001) at the Grand Palais, the photographers of France’s Front populaire (1936-1938) at the Hôtel de Ville, Lore Krüger (1914-2009) at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, and Josef Sudek (1896-1976) at the Jeu de Paume have this much in common: their images possess immediate documentary and historical charges, intervening histories challenge any recovery of the same, and the images themselves pose different meanings—political and otherwise—in our own time. How does one reconcile these knotty realities to one another, let alone relate them to questions of sheer aesthetic value, enduring or otherwise? Perhaps counter-intuitively, the question touches at once upon the artists themselves as much as upon each show’s respective curators. Together, they answer for the most part magnificently just how ideas and patterns of thinking flow into and out from photographs.

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Seydou Keïta, Untitled (1956-1957)

Perhaps no exhibit succeeds so brilliantly as that dedicated to the Malinese photographer Keïta. Self-taught and a portraitist by trade in Bamako, Keïta carefully arranges various customers against complex cloth backdrops in plain-light settings. Several layers of history collide in what only first appear as beautiful, if straightforward portraits. Keïta’s private practice runs from 1948 to 1962, shortly after Mali achieves independence from the French colonial empire. His customers find themselves at a crossroads: both women and men dress in traditional clothing as often as in European or American fashions, often modeling themselves upon the figures of the latest films and popular magazines. A watch ostentatiously displayed, a certain hairstyle, new western clothing, or certain postures together subtly betray consciousness of new cultural models, economic statuses, and social change ranged against Keïta’s brilliantly-patterned backgrounds. Both the circumstances of the photography session and the material object—the photo itself, as the exhibit makes clear—are intended to circulate by word of mouth and hand to hand. Yet an alchemical change also occurs. Keïta’s subjects prove subjects in every sense of the term; their glances say as much, even as they slowly come to look out upon a new country.

At the same time, a personal iconography emerges across the œuvre. Keïta’s workshop feature props (pens, glasses, flowers, and so on) that appear regularly throughout the portraits. An iconographic vocabulary similarly developed in the photographer’s carefully-choreographed poses. An uneasy sort of modernity can be teased out in the tension between these hugely personable figures, their clothing and possessions, and those objects and gestures which both they and Keïta saw fit to add to the compositions.

The art proves doubly-reflexive, looking inwards to the person and to life in Bamako as much as outwards to a rapidly changing Africa and globalization. Keïta’s own touch emerges in the gap. He arranges women into odalisque reclinings, organizes groups of civil servants into full profile portraits, and captures others at their ease wearing traditional clothing. The hindsight of a retrospective allows us to see how closely Keïta simultaneously engages European art history, the stock imagery of popular culture, and a Malinese society in transition throughout his career. The complex of ideas here reveal the subject much as the same ideas flow from the same person, the photographer himself, and finally the image in its own right.

The Front populaire exhibition at the Hôtel de Ville attains a similar achievement, albeit on a different scale. The show follows upon a burst of renewed popular and academic interest in Léon Blum’s government and the period immediately preceding WWII. What emerges in the photos of such luminaries as Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Chim (David Seymour), Robert Doisneau, and Willy Ronis among other photojournalists is little less than a unified, if contested image of a society rapidly refiguring itself. Here technology proves the first hero. The portability of cameras, wide lens and higher resolution photography, and the ability to turn shots into next day’s paper gave birth to a new documentary language. Close-ups from within a crowd, odd angles, photos taken from rooftops hold their own with group portraits of politicians at ease in saloon lounges or mid-speech before thousands.

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Bastille Day demonstrations, Vincennes 1935 (©FredStein.com)

The great range or even discrepancy of Capa and company’s interests and work suggest a whole society falling at once under the same photographic lens, even as history jostles against advertisements and film stars in the daily papers. The photos appear on equal terms. Even publicity in the sense of public relations proves nascent, if not off balance. Airs of improvisation and the same-old business surround political figures like Blum and his contemporaries. Striking workers and public amusements achieve a glamour just as photographers accord the homeless and unemployed a new dignity. And slowly certain dramatic poses and compositions take on a new regularity across the exhibit. The vocabulary hardens and situations reprise themselves. New understandings of personal and sexual relationships, masculinity and femininity, and modernity itself track across the years. (One gentle criticism should be added here: it would have done well to have included far more female photographers.) What happens, as Michel Winock and others argue, is that French society comes to understand itself in images just as photographers came to learn their full historical potential—‘History’ with a capital ‘H.’

The German photographer Lore Krüger’s work confronts many of the same issues, if more obliquely. Her career and biography stagger the mind. Krüger studies photography with Florence Henri and other Bauhaus-trained photographers while attending lectures with László Rádványi in 1930s Paris, all the while absorbing the lessons of interwar avant-garde photographers (and living in the same house as Arthur Koestler and Walter Benjamin). An exile from Nazi Germany, Krüger passes through Majorca—witnessing Franco’s troops massacre Republican forces in 1936—and mainland Spain at the height of its Civil War before making her way to New York, where she and her husband work for the exile community’s German-language press. Giving up photography after the war, Krüger eventually returns to a quiet life as a translator and author in Eastern Germany before dying in 2009.

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Lore Krüger, “Jeune Gitan, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer” (1936; © Estate of Lore Krüger)

The exhibits’ curators posthumously assemble what remained of Krüger’s photography. In their composition, lighting, and psychological reach, her work achieves a uniform excellence across still lives, landscapes, portraits of friends, and above all in her studies of interwar gypsies. The balance between all her influences is remarkable, not least as Krüger too follows in the wake of glossy magazines and photojournalism. Yet a dichotomy of sorts also arises. For every ‘political’ image or photograph taken on the street, Krüger veers to high avant-garde experimentation elsewhere. These activities both overlap and command longer periods in her work, persisting until the end of Krüger’s artistic career. Something new emerges at the same time: what might be called the private lives of an avant-garde and an artist in wartime apart from any political engagement. The exhibit’s repeated argument that Krüger’s œuvre forms a consistent whole here seems to miss a much more interesting set of questions. How do we reconstruct private intellectual life, the persistence of international movements once contacts have been severed, and the experience of artistic experimentation continued under the hardest conditions?

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Josef Sudek, “The Last Rose” (1956, Musée des Beaux-arts du Canada, Ottawa. 2010 © Estate of Josef Sudek)

All the same issues confront any attempt to wrangle the great, protean Czech photographer Josef Sudek into a coherent retrospective. The portraitist, the architecture and the landscape photographer, the artist of still lives, and the commercial man all jostle against one another over a career spanning the complicated histories of interwar and then communist-era Czechoslovakia. To reduce Sudek’s photography to any political (or apolitical) stance or simpler historical context would be a mistake on the same order of privileging one genre above the others. Yet the Jeu de Paume’s curators attempt something like this. Moving backwards from the interior studies, they claim a certain artistic unity which in turn drives the late Sudek into a sort of inner exile. An impression grows of intervening notions organizing a narrative: the late Romantic artist gradually finds himself confined to a window by the history beyond it, something like an uncritical reprise of Günter Gaus’s old notion of East Germany as a ‘niche society.’ This is not to say that the merits of Sudek’s work do not shine through the exhibit, or that the curators entirely mute his own thinking. The problem is rather that later ideas and contexts—historical or otherwise—drown out the images. As confidently as Keïta’s or as loudly as the Front populaire journalists’ pictures speak to audiences today, others such as Krüger’s and Sudek’s talk to historians, art historians, and all of us in much quieter tones.

Exhibitions reviewed: “Seydou Keïta,” Grand Palais (31 March to 11 July, 2016); “Exposition 1936 : le Front populaire en photographie,” Hôtel de Ville de Paris (19 May to 23 July, 2016); “Lore Krüger : une photographe en exil, 1934-1944,” Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme (30 March to 17 July, 2016); Josef Sudek : Le monde à ma fenêtre,” Jeu de Paume (7 June to 25 September, 2016).