Tag Archives: Art

The Shape of War

I am still a bit preoccupied with the ongoing World War I commemoration, even though it’s obviously going to go on for some time and I’m up in Maine on vacation: pretty pictures to follow, but for today images that (while colorful!) could certainly not be called pretty. I was clicking around the vast British Library site devoted to the Great War, which is incredibly resourceful in myriad ways, when I came upon some of the wartime images of the Russian abstract artist Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935). I sort of knew about him–but not really: his name conjured up distant images of the iconic “black square” painting which is quite simply a black square but little else. He was actually an artist who worked in several mediums and experimented with different depictive approaches, most prominently a Cubist-inspired geometric abstraction which was labeled “Suprematism”. He clearly loved shapes. I naively thought of him as simply a Russian Revolutionary artist, but in fact he was born in Ukraine to Polish parents and his work was suppressed in the Soviet Union during the 1930s. I have not idea what his identity was, but his World War I posters are very decidedly anti-German and immediately accessible: by merging the folkloric and the geometric–and using a bright, simplistic palette–he was able to make some pretty powerful statements, which were published as posters and postcards. World War I is known for its strident and sophisticated (but not subtle!) propaganda, another form of warfare itself, and Malevich’s images are great examples: they represent the shape of war but also of things to come.

Malevich Just Look

Look, Just Look, the Vistula is Near (1914); ©  Kazimir Malevich.

Malevich Butcher

The Butcher came along to Lodz, We said “My good Sir” (1914) © Kazimir Malevich. A depiction of the Russian victory–and defense of Warsaw– at the Battle of Lodz in the Fall of 1914.

Malevich Wilhelm

(Kaiser) Wilhelm’s Merry-Go-Round (1914); © Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Mayakovsky (text).

Malevich Allies

Our French allies have a cart full of dead Germans, and our English brothers – a whole basket too (1914); © Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Mayakovsky (text).

Malevich Boom

What a Boom, What a Blast (1915); National Library of Australia.

All images, except the last, at the British Library World War One site. Malevich is having a moment, and an exhibition: “Malevich: Revolutionary of Russian Art”.

 

 

 


The Great War Remembered

With the centennial anniversary of the commencement of the Great War, World War I, occurring yesterday perhaps Americans will become more conscious of the commemoration that has been underway in Europe for some time. Or perhaps not–we might wait until 1917. This was a war that was so momentous, so global, so total, that there are many ways to recall and remember it–literary, visual, material: the detritus of the Great War will be with us forever. I’ve read many World War I poems, by soldiers who died and survived, seen many World War I films, made close to its time and farther away, seen many examples of “trench art”, and touched medals, bullets and helmets. Whenever I have to teach this War (which for me happens only in broad world and western civilization surveys, so I don’t have much time), I rely on examples of the stunning (in a horrifying way) photographs of life on the front (my key source for these is the Imperial War Museum in London) and recruiting posters, which can represent themes and issues relevant to both fronts: “over there” and home. As it happens, Swann Auction Galleries in New York City is auctioning off a large collection of vintage 20th century posters next week, including some amazing (in terms of both art and message) World War I recruiting posters, and the online catalog is comprehensive, annotated, and extremely educational. Here’s a small sample–in chronological order:

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M29027-9012 001

M29589-15 001

M29589-3 001

1. SAVILE LUMLEY (1876-1960) DADDY, WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE GREAT WAR? 1915. The classic “shame” poster–pretty powerful! 2. A.G.R. (DATES UNKNOWN) CANADIENS FRANCAIS / VENEZ AVEC NOUS DANS LE 150IÈME BATAILLON C.M.R. 1915. A bird fight! 3.A.O. MAKSIMOV (DATES UNKNOWN). [WAR LOAN / FORWARD FOR THE MOTHERLAND!] 1916. One of the last Tsarist appeals before the Russian Revolution. 4. JAMES MONTGOMERY FLAGG (1870-1960) WAKE UP, AMERICA! 1917. 5. DAVID HENRY SOUTER (1862-1935) IT’S NICE IN THE SURF BUT WHAT ABOUT THE MEN IN THE TRENCHES / GO AND HELP. 1917. An Australian version of the shame poster. 5. RICHARD FAYERWEATHER BABCOCK (1887-1954) JOIN THE NAVY. 1917. This might have been the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove! 7. EDWARD PENFIELD (1866-1925) YES SIR – I AM HERE! / MOTOR CORPS OF AMERICA. 1918. So many World War I posters reflect women’s service during the war; this is a rare Edward Penfield image.

One young American man who could not wait until 1917 was Allan Seeger (uncle of Pete), who volunteered for the French Foreign Legion almost immediately after the hostilities began in Europe and died at the Battle of Somme (July-November, 1916) alongside a million other men. He left behind this prescient, poignant poem, which was first published in 1917, just as his fellow Americans were heading “over there”:

I Have a Rendezvous with Death, Alan Seeger:

I have a rendezvous with death/At some disputed barricade,/When Spring comes back with rustling shade/And apple-blossoms fill the air–/I have a rendezvous with Death/ When Spring brings back blue days and fair/ It may be he shall take my hand/And lead me into his dark land/And close my eyes and quench my breath–/It may be I shall pass him still/I have a rendezvous with Death/On some scarred slope of battered hill,/When Spring comes round again this year/And the first meadow-flowers appear./God knows ’twere better to be deep/Pillowed in silk and scented down./Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep/Pulse nigh to pulse and breath to breath/When hushed awakenings are dear…../But I’ve a rendezvous with Death/at midnight in some flaming town./When Spring trips north, again this year,/And I to my pledged word am true,/I shall not fail that rendezvous.

 

 


Secret Weapons

Today I have another Victorian fad: sword canes or “sword sticks”: harmless-looking walking sticks with blades concealed inside, one of several variations of “novelty canes” produced in the nineteenth century. Yesterday I drove up to York to celebrate my father’s birthday accompanied by my stepson, who has long had a singular obsession on the sword cane (or cane sword) that has leaned in the mud room alongside more mundane umbrellas and tennis rackets since I was a little girl. It’s the first thing he went for when we got there–what? why? and most importantly, who will inherit it? I don’t know much–all I could think of was the recent Sherlock Holmes film, in which Jude Law’s Dr. Watson wields a sword stick, and John Steed in The Avengers, who utilizes the umbrella variation. I checked out some auction archives, and they don’t seem to be particularly valuable. I can imagine that it ceased to be respectable in genteel society to walk around with a sidearm in the nineteenth century and so sword sticks emerged, but they seem to have been more fashionable than utilitarian. Ours looks like a simple cane made with a curved handle, but the steel blade inside has interesting markings: I think I might take it to an appraisal event at some point in the not-too-distant future.

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Sword Cane 037

Sword Canes ATHM

Sword Cane Skinner Auctions

Our family’s sword stick (alternatively called swordstick, sword cane & cane sword) and 19th century examples from the American Textile History Museum and Skinner Auctioneers.

There are a few cultural references to sword canes and I’d be grateful for more! Besides Watson and Steed, there is Bob Dylan (Your grandpas cane, it turns into a sword, “On the Road Again”, 1965, thanks to Cheryl Beatty at the American Textile History Museum, which is also the source of the image above) and Lord Byron, who apparently used his sword stick for more than prop. The recent Byron exhibition at King’s College, London features several references to and images of swordsticks: no doubt they amplified his dashing demeanor.

Sword Cane

Byron

Sword Stick Byron

Jude Law as Dr. Watson with cane; drawing of Lord Byron, by Alfred Guillaume Gabriel dOrsay, 1823, Victoria & Albert Museum; Lord Byron’s sword stick, from the online exhibition Byron & Politics: ‘Born for Opposition’, King’s College, London

 

 


One Powerful Painting

I’m still processing the subject of my graduate institute–the enduring fascination and evolving image(s) of the Tudors, collective and individual–even though it ended on this past Friday afternoon. The week was pretty intense: a lot of history, prints, portraits and plays, films and discussions of all of the above. The students were great: many of them were high-school and middle-school teachers who are always fun to teach. I don’t think we had any problem figuring out the towering and projecting figures of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, but the perpetual pull of the three beheaded ladies (Anne Boleyn, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Jane Grey, the “Nine Days’ Queen”) seems a bit more complex, especially the latter. While Anne’s and Mary’s lives were longer and their impact greater, young Jane still captivates, and I think this is largely due to one powerful painting– Paul Delaroche’s Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833)–and its impact on the Victorian era and our own.

Jane execution

Paul Delaroche, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, 1833; National Gallery, London

Lady Jane Grey, the grand-niece of Henry VIII, was proclaimed Queen following the death of Edward VI in 1553, as part of a short-lived coup initiated by her father-in-law John Dudley, The Duke of Northumberland, to avoid the succession of the Catholic Mary Tudor, who had a more legitimate claim. She ruled for only nine days (until July 19) and was executed for high treason in February of 1554. Over the centuries, Jane has transcended historical-footnote-status for several reasons: she can be seen as a Protestant martyr or an innocent (feminine) pawn, depending on the time and place. But Delaroche transformed her into more a romantic heroine, grasping for her “headrest” in the dark, clothed in some semblance of a satin wedding dress! With all the anachronistic details, Delaroche took Jane out of her own time and placed her in his, enabling future portrayals to follow suit. The painting was apparently a sensation when it was first exhibited, and inspired many sentimental depictions of Jane and her end over the nineteenth century–and after. It was donated to the National Gallery in 1902 but forgotten for much of the twentieth century after it was feared lost in the Tate Gallery Flood of 1928. After its rediscovery in the 1970s, it was restored and re-installed at the National Gallery, where it was the subject of a 2010 exhibition, Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey, which seems specially timed to coincide with the “Tudor-mania” of the past decade. That same year, Victoria Hall produced her own portrayal of Lady Jane, or (more accurately) Delaroche’s Lady Jane.

Jane 18th c

Jane Last Moments

Jane Tower Grant

Jane 2010 Victoria Hall

Lady Jane Grey before Delaroche (anonymous etching and engraving, late 18th century, British Museum) and after: Hendrik Jackobus Scholten, The Last Moments of Lady Jane Grey, The Tower of London; William James Grant, The Tower (The Relics of Lady Jane Grey), 1861, Photo © Peter Nahum at The Leicester Galleries, London; Victoria Hall, After Delaroche, 2010.

 


Bloomsbury Tudors

My upcoming summer institute is as much about Tudorism as it is the Tudors, and as I have studied the reception and appropriation of the Tudors in the ages that followed their rule it has become increasingly clear to me how influential children’s literature has been in this ongoing process, particularly from the Victorian era onwards. This is perfectly understandable as there is lots of “merry” history to emphasize over off with their heads, a boy king, and Elizabeth is always adaptable. It’s certainly understandable to me, as a royal picture/poetry book first peaked my interest in the Tudors: Herbert and Eleanor Farjeon’s Kings and Queens, which was first published in 1932 and re-released in a facsimile edition by the British Library a few years ago to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee. This is the most enchanting book, with clever little verses about each and every English king and queen paired with striking illustrations by Rosalind Thornycroft–the monarchs appear poised to leap off their pages! Even Oliver Cromwell is included, which I don’t think would happen now. Along with the Farjeons, Rosalind was part of the Blooomsbury set: she also had a romantic relationship with D.H. Lawrence and apparently inspired Lady Chatterley’s Lover! Of course I didn’t know that when I first set eyes on this book many years ago, but somehow this little fact (rumor?) makes it even more interesting. Here are Thornycroft’s Tudors, with a little context–I’m surprised Mary isn’t “Bloody”.

Bloomsbury Tudors Henry 7

Bloomsbury Tudors Henry 8

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Bloomsbury Tudors Mary

Bloomsbury Elizabeth

KingsQueens Farjeon

 

 

 

 


Taking on the “Hot” Tudors

I am deep into the preparations for my summer graduate institute next week: “The Tudors: History, Media and Mythology”. As I’ve got the history and historiography down, my preparations encompass watching lots of videos! This will be the first course that I’ve taught which extensively uses film and focuses on representations as much as historical realities, but I decided to take it on for several reasons. After this last decade or so of Tudor mania it has become increasingly clear to me that many, if not most, of my students’ historical perspectives were shaped first and foremost by popular culture, so I have to address these interpretations and depictions more directly rather than just leaving them on the side. And there are so many! As Cynthia Herrup notes in her 2009 article in Perspectives on History, the American Historical Association’s magazine, “Students have always come to class with firm ideas drawn from fiction, but now they have multiple visualizations that convince them, on the one hand, that they “know” the history, and on the other hand, that the historically accurate Elizabeth (or Mary, or whoever) is infinitely malleable.” Several of my colleagues have been teaching World War (s) history and film courses for a while, and why not me (and the trendy Tudors?) And lastly, our summer institutes are intense, one-week courses that meet every day, all day long, which is a good format for showing films and clips and having discussions.

So these are the themes that I am pursuing now (subject to change until right up until Monday morning): the absence of Henry VII, the first Tudor: why isn’t he hot? I certainly think he is. The interplay of Tudor projection (through histories, portraits, plays) and modern representations. I like to see the past and present connect (sort of) through projection onto representation. The development of a veritable cults devoted to Mary, Queen of Scots (one of Edison’s earliest films pictures her execution!) and more recently, Anne Boleyn. All sorts of Elizabeth sub-topics: I could have devoted the course entirely to her. And I would also like to demonstrate and discuss the transition from “public television history” to “premium cable history” and back again: after all, The Tudors was produced for Showtime but also broadcast on the BBC (despite David Starkey’s fierce objections).

Tudor Themes & Representations, in images:

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Tudors White Queen

The newly-crowned Henry VII! In stills from the 1972 BBC mini-series The Shadow of the Tower and the last episode of the 2013 BBC/Starz mini-series The White Queen (with his mother Margaret Beaufort, who has somehow made her way to the Battle of Bosworth).

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Robert Shaw in A Man for All Seasons

Tudors Eric Bana

Projection: Petworth House copy of Hans Holbein’s incredibly-influential portrait of Henry VIII (© National Trust images/Derrick E. Witty), creating very big SHOULDERS for Robert Shaw (in A Man for all Seasons, 1966) and Eric Bana (The Other Boleyn Girl, 2008) to fill!

THE TUDORS

Tudors Jane

Tudors Mary

The Beheaded Ladies: Anne Boleyn (as played by Natalie Dormer in The Tudors, 2009), Jane Grey (as depicted by Paul Delaroche, 1834, National Gallery, London) and Mary, Queen of Scots (whose execution was captured by a Dutch artist in 1586, National Gallery of Scotland). Why are we so continually fascinated by these romantic “martyrs”?

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Tudors Elizabeth Davis

Eternal Elizabeth: Queen Elizabeth is (relatively) ageless during her own lifetime, but age is definitely an issue in her afterlife! Portrait of the Queen c. 1590 (Jesus College, Oxford University) and Bette Davis in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, 1939.

 


The Fire Framer

The keynote presentation at last night’s Conflagration symposium, commemorating the centennial anniversary of the Great Salem Fire of 1914, was focused on modern urban fires and their impact on firefighting, but I must admit that my mind drifted almost as soon as the speaker introduced one of the earliest fire engineers, the Dutch artist, draughtsman, and all-around urban innovator Jan van der Heyden (1637-1712). Very rarely do my scholarly and local historical worlds intersect, but this was just such a moment, and I also love it when art and science come together–as they do in the work of this Dutch Golden Age Renaissance Man (mixing epochs and metaphors). Apparently Van der Heyden witnessed the burning of Amsterdam’s Old Town Hall when he was a teenager, and this conspicuous conflagration inspired him not only to depict fires and fire-fighting (along with more placid streetscapes) but also to invent the first manual fire engine and (with his brother) an effective leather hose. He professionalized Amsterdam’s volunteer fire companies and wrote and illustrated the first modern fire-fighting manual, Brandspuiten-boek (The Fire Engine Book, 1690). This publication, with its very detailed yet still artistic prints (see below–how great is the dissection image of a house fire!) ensured his influence beyond the Netherlands–along with his fire engine and his street lighting scheme, which served as the western European model until the mid-19th century.

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Van der Heyden 2 houses

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Van der Heyden 3 1690 Sectional View Met

Van der Heyden Rope and Tar Fire 1690

Jan van der Heyden, Dam Square, Amsterdam (with rebuilt town hall on left), c. 1669-70, Kunstmuseum, Basel; Two Wooden Houses in the Goudsbloemstraat Burned 25 November 1682, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University; The title page of Van der Heyden’s Book (with his title of “Generaale Brandmeesters”, or Fire Warden, of Amsterdam, and two illustrations: Sectional View of an Amsterdam House on Fire, and Rope and Tar Fire, 1690, Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Jan van der Heyden (1637-1712) was 15 years old when he witnessed the Town Hall blaze, and like other artists he also depicted the scene in sketches and paintings. But the event also inspired him to invent an engine that revolutionised fire-fighting. – See more at: http://www.dutchnews.nl/features/2014/02/master_dutch_painter_revolutio.php#sthash.SkcuYdys.dpuf

 


Very Common Coltsfoot

A shout out today for a very common, definitely invasive, and relatively ugly plant: Tussilago farfara, better known as Coltsfoot. The Coltsfoot in my garden is a holdover from the days when I would only have ancient medicinal herbs rather than pretty herbaceous hybrids: they were all rather unattractive so they didn’t last long, though I have incorporated some of the more manageable ones into my perennial beds. I have been unsuccessful at ridding the garden of Coltsfoot so I learned to live with it–and now I rather like it! (A good life lesson). It’s a ancient shade herb that flourishes in any setting–as you can see from the pictures below, it’s growing out of the bricks. It flowers very early in the spring–even in late winter in Britain I think–with a yellow dandelion-type flower, and after that it’s just low-lying leaves that will spread everywhere. I rip most of it out every two weeks or so and then it comes back. I will say that it is a very neat plant despite its tendency to spread. It’s a nice shade groundcover, if you watch it carefully. It never turns brown or wilts; it just wants to take over the garden (world). Coltsfoot is included in all of the classical, medieval, and early modern herbals as a “cough dispeller” (it is often referred to as “coughwort”) and a cure for any and all ailments of the lung, which are improved by smoking its leaves. I wonder if it could serve as a tobacco alternative? Many of the artistic depictions of Coltsfoot—medieval and modern–get it wrong, as the straggly flowers and rather more attractive (hoof-shaped?) leaves never appear at the same time: this was very confusing to the ancients, who portrayed it as two different plants.

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Coltsfoot 1788

Coltsfoot Floral Fantasy Crane

Coltsfoot Poster VA

Coltsfoot tablecloth

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Coltsfoot and Marshmallow in British Library MS Egerton 747 (Tractatus de herbis; De Simplici Medicina; Circa instans; Antidotarium Nicolai), c. 1280-1310; Coltsfoot in the Botanica Pharmaceutica, 1788, Walter Crane’s Floral Fantasy in an English Garden, 1899, on a 1930s London Transport poster (Victoria & Albert Museum) and a vintage Swedish tablecloth (from Etsy seller annchristinljungberg), and in my garden.


Wicker Men

Over the past few days I was exposed, for the first time, to the wild photographs of Charles Fréger’s Wilder Mann series, featuring participants in neo-neo-neo-(many neos-) pagan rituals, as well as the classic 1973 horror film The Wicker Man (I’m not sure horror is the right word, it’s actually quite funny), so now I am thinking about Wicker men, in all their various incarnations. The Wicker Man is a pre-Christian, “barbarian” entity and practice, referred to in Greek and Roman sources ( Julius Caesar, Strabo), and then, like everything classical, rediscovered in the Renaissance. According to the legend, the Celtic practice of human sacrifice involved effigies of great size interwoven with twigs, the limbs of which are filled up with living people which are set on fire from below, and the people are deprived of life surrounded by flames. It is judged that the punishment of those who participated in theft or brigandage or other crimes are more pleasing to the immortal gods; but when the supplies of this kind fail, they even go so low as to inflict punishment on the innocent. (Caesar, De Bello Gallico, 6.16). A century later, Strabo writes that having devised a colossus of straw and wood [the Celts] throw into the colossus cattle and wild animals of all sorts and human beings, and then make a burnt-offering of the whole thing (Strabo,Geographia, 4:5). Of course neither “observer” actually saw these great burning behemoths, but that doesn’t matter: their names were influential enough to establish the Wicker Man as fact even before their texts made it into print (for good discussions of some material evidence, go here and here), and after that, it was all over.

The literary descriptions of the Wicker Man are so graphic that they inspired some great artistic depictions in the early modern era, particularly in the later seventeenth century. Once the religious dissension of the Reformation had cooled, authors (and their illustrators) were once again free to explore the pre-Christian past. A particularly influential image of Julius Caesar’s Wicker Man comes from Aylett Sammes’ Britannia antiqua illustrata (London, 1676): only the hairstyle changes in the succeeding centuries–and the sacrificial lambs get a bit more numerous and detailed.

Wicker Man 1676-001

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Wicker Man 19c-001

Wicker man 1903 Wellcome

Wicker Man Movie Still-001

Wicker Men from Aylett Sammes, Britannia antiqua illustrata (London, 1676); Robert Sanders, The Complete English Traveller (London, 1771); The History of the Nations of Europe (19th century); Charles Wellcome’s Hen Feddegyaeth Kymrie (Ancient Cymric Medicine, 1903), and the 1973 film (©Archive Photos/Getty Images).

I don’t want to be restrained to this particular conception of the Wicker Man; after all it is (nearly) summer, the season of wicker! Certainly the real wicker men (and women) of the past would have been the itinerant street hawkers, carrying their wares in wicker baskets. The ultimate wicker man of this type is certainly the street basket-seller for Carle Vernet’s Cries of Paris series (c. 1820): he is a basket man. A more modern, and much more comfortable, “wicker man” is Robert Louis Stevenson, as depicted by John Singer Sargent in 1887. Commerce and comfort: wicker has been tamed.

Wicker Man Cries of Paris Vernet

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John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson, 1887, The Taft Museum, Cincinnati 

 

 


Salem Harbor, Rediscovered

I strive to feature primarily pretty pictures of Salem (except, perhaps, for Halloween season), so there have been no images of one of Salem’s most prominent landmarks: the Salem Harbor Power Station, a coal-fired electric power plant which has been looming over the city since 1951. But not for much longer: in 2012 the plant’s owner, Dominion, announced plans to shut it down due to growing public and legal pressures that included a citizens’ suit against the plant’s violations of the Clean Air Act. Last year Dominion sold the plant to the New Jersey–based Footprint Power, which announced its intentions to convert part of it into a natural gas facility set to go online in 2016. The plant went off-line at the end of last month, and now its gray towers–sadly my marker for home when I’m out on Route 128, will soon be taken down. Of course a natural gas-powered plant takes up a lot less space than a coal-powered one (the old plant is located on 65 waterfront acres, but apparently the new plant only needs 25) , so there will be a lot of redevelopment on its prominent site–redevelopment that will no doubt take advantage of the harbor views, rather than obliterate them. We already have our ferry to Boston, water taxis are commencing this summer, and apparently cruise ships are coming: after a half-century of neglecting the Harbor that made Salem, we appear to be rediscovering it.

Artistic depictions of Salem Harbor parallel, or reflect, its commercial history: up to about 1920 or so, there are first realistic and then more romanticized images of its wharves and ships–after that, the artists seem to withdraw, or go completely sentimental–but I’m sure that we’ll see some interesting views going forward.

Salem Harbor 1796-001

Salem Harbor Plate

Salem Harbor Fitz Hugh Lane

Salem Harbor Head

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Salem Harbor DL

Salem Harbor Scene

Engraving of a busy Salem Harbor, 1796, for the Salem Marine Society membership certificate; Wedgwood Creamware Plate, c. 1803, Northeast Auctions; Fitz Hugh Lane, Salem Harbor, 1853, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Head of Salem Harbor, from Julian Hawthorne’s article, “Hawthorne and Salem”, The Century 28 (May 1884); Maurice Prendergast, Salem Harbor no.1, c. 1920-23, Colby College Museum of Art; Daniel Low mail-order catalog for 1946-47; a harbor-side installation appears poised to take down the towers, this past weekend.


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