Tag Archives: Culture

American Gothic

The British Library’s blockbuster Gothic exhibition, Terror and Wonder:  the Gothic Imagination opened yesterday across the pond, complete with a (rather suspect-looking) vampire-slaying kit. I like the title: that’s just what makes Gothic literature so compelling, the combination of fear and curiosity. Horror is something else entirely: it’s just repulsive. Gothic is humanistic; horror is not. I hope to see the exhibition myself but it has already inspired me to think about my favorite examples of American Gothic literature: I can’t go back to the eighteenth century, where Terror and Wonder begins with Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, because I haven’t read anything by the man whom everyone identifies as the first Gothic author, Charles Brockden Brown, so my list begins with Edgar Allen Poe and then proceeds rather conventionally: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables, The Yellow Wallpaper, the amazing short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman which I read for the first time just last week, several stories by Ambrose Bierce, Henry James’ Turn of the Screw (I know–it’s very British but he was born American), anything by Flannery O’Connor (I know–southern Gothic deserves its own special categorization, but I’m only really familiar with Flannery, the namesake of my first cat), and also pretty much anything by Shirley Jackson:  I particularly like We have always Lived in the Castle (1962). Just a short list as my fiction-reading has been limited, for the most part, to an earlier phase of my life, but I would love more suggestions for the years to come.

Gothic

Gothic Gables Folio Society

Gothic Gillman

Gothic Bierce (1893)

American Gothic James

Gothic O'Connor

American Gothic Jackson

Harry Perkins illustration of Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart (1923), from the “Terror and Wonder” Exhibition at the British Library; Francis Mosley illustration from the Folio Society’s edition of the  House of the Seven Gables; Title Page of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Stetson (Gilman), New England Magazine, 1892; Ambrose Bierce’s collection of short stories (1893); Penguin English Library edition of Henry James’ Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw; Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories; and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962).


In Newport, Briefly

We are recently returned from a quick visit to Newport, Rhode Island, somehow refreshed and fatigued at the same time. My husband and I are both so busy at this time of the year that we don’t have much time to get away, so we could only steal a day and a night for this particular trip, which was not enough to do Newport justice. But it’s not far from Salem and we’ve both been there many times, so we just wandered about in the glorious weather. I always think there are at least three Newports– sailing Newport, Gilded Age Newport, and Colonial Newport—but I’m sure locals will tell you there are even more. With our limited time and my inclinations–we really focused on the latter, with a lot of eating and drinking thrown in—though we did start and end our day at the expansive, busy harbor.

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There are streets and streets of colonial clapboarded houses surrounding Trinity Church in Newport’s equally expansive historic district: I’m always struck by just how many structures have survived and their amazing condition. To me, the nouveau riche mansions on Bellevue Avenue pale in comparison: Newport’s wealth was well-established before the New York millionaires came to town.

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Despite its impressive historic infrastructure, Newport is not a museum fixed in time but rather a place where the physical past and the present are intermingled rather creatively. We were inspired by our inn, The Francis Malbone House (very highly recommended), which consists of a well-preserved 1760 house with a 1996 annex out back joined together by a mutable, lovely courtyard, to look for other examples of adaptive reuse and historically-sensitive additions. And we found many: I particularly liked the parking courtyard of the 1748 Billings Coggeshall House with its adjacent annex of offices. And even when the historic structure was not adapted, its foundation was preserved–as in the case of this hearth and chimneys nestled in the rear of a twentieth-century school.

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The Francis Malbone House: exteriors, interior public room and courtyard; the Billings Coggeshall House and courtyard; just one Newport foundation.

I think I should include one “cottage” in here, but it is a subtle one, which reads (at least to me) more New England than New York even though it was designed by the ultimate New York firm of McKim, Mead and White: the shingle-style Isaac Bell House, built in 1883 and pictured here at twilight. Love these chimneys!

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The Welsh Salem

There are actually several Welsh Salems, but the most iconic is both a place and a painting: of the interior of a small Baptist chapel in the village of Pentre Gwynfrun, near Llanbedr in North Wales, by Sydney Curnow Vosper (1866-1942).  The focus of the watercolor is an elderly (even ancient) woman in traditional Welsh dress, surrounded by several other members of the congregation, most deep in prayer. Salem was painted by Vosper in 1908, a time when local Welsh traditions appeared vulnerable, and the painting reads tradition, faith, calm in an increasingly industrialized world. It also became the most accessible of images when it was incorporated into an advertising campaign for Lever Brothers’ Sunlight Soap, the first packaged bars of soap in Britain: for £7 of soap, consumers were entitled to send in a voucher and receive a color print of Salem. Many did so, especially in Wales, and consequently it adorns many Welsh walls. The painting has been the focus of a book and a recent exhibition, and Salem Chapel has become the object of many a pilgrimage.

Salem 1908

Salem on Wall

Salem, Sydney Curnow Vosper, 1908, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool Museums; a framed color print, BBC Wales

I saw my first Salem print when I was around 20, in a Welsh bed and breakfast, appropriately. Within a week of my first sighting, I saw several more. I had no knowledge of traditional Welsh clothing at that time, so I thought that this Salem pictured a seventeenth-century Salem, Massachusetts church and that the woman depicted was an ancient accused witch, being cast out by her congregation. I heard “Salem” and thought Salem Witch Trials. Believe me, I was quickly corrected! There is, however, a vague diabolical connection here: many people see the devil in the folded sleeve of the woman’s shawl–on the right, near her bent elbow, and her bible–as well as a mysterious face in the window. I have to admit that these visions elude me, but clearly there is more to Salem than meets the eye.


Thinking about Pink

Just the other day I heard my fellow Salemite Michelle Finamore, the Curator of Fashion Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, talking about her ongoing exhibition Think Pink on NPR, a nice reminder that I haven’t seen it yet! The exhibition opened in October (heralded by pink spotlights on the Museum marking Breast Cancer Awareness Month), but I’m glad that I have inadvertently waited until now, because for me pink is more of a spring color, and definitely a happy one. About a decade ago, I had endured the most miserable winter (even more miserable than this past one), a prolonged period of heartache and anxiety about nearly aspect of my life. And then one day in mid-March I spotted a bubblegum pink spring coat at a vintage store in Boston, bought it, put it on, and everything just got better! It was the perfect sixties pink, not too “hot” and not too light, in the perfect Audrey Hepburn silhouette with a little Doris Day collar, and (of course) three-quarter sleeves, and I wore that coat every day through that Spring, no matter what I had on under it, until the day (or rather, night) that it was stolen from a restaurant coat room while I was eating dinner. No matter, it had worked its magic, and I truly hope that it did the same for whoever took it home. The color pink cannot fail to bring a smile to my face, whether I’m thinking about my long-lost coat, or the Diana Vreeland-esque character played by Kay Thompson in the classic Audrey (and Fred Astaire) film Funny Face, who also encourages us all to “Think Pink!”

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Pink Doll's Dress

Pink

The MFA in October and a silk taffeta 18th century doll’s dress from the Exhibition (Elizabeth Day McCormick Collection), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; still image of Kay Thompson’s “Think Pink” number in Funny Face (1957).

The Think Pink exhibition is not just about showing off pretty dresses, but also an exploration of “the changing meaning of pink in art and fashion”. It seems that pink perceptions are particularly interesting when relative to gender: the headline of Michelle’s NPR interview the other day was her statement that pink as a girl’s color was “a post-World War II phenomenon”–New York magazine proclaimed that Pink was Formerly a Bro Shade in response. A great example of looking back at masculine pre-war pink is the Ralph Lauren suit worn by Robert Redford in the 1974 version of the Great Gatsby, which is pictured in the exhibition along side a man’s formal suit in deep pink silk from several centuries earlier (which you can read more about here). This certainly rings true for me: while I don’t see a lot of men in pink in my period (the sixteenth century), there are not hard to find a bit later. Pink strikes me as a very cavalier color, and men in the eighteenth century were certainly not afraid to wear it–even Prime Ministers.

Pink Suits MFA

Benedict in Pink MET-001

Pink Pitt Victoria & Albert Museum

The Ralph Lauren “Gatsby” Suit and a Man’s formal suit, France, 1770-1780, silk satin with silk embroidery, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Portrait of Benedikt von Hertenstein by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1517, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Miniature Portrait of  William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham by Jean André Rouquet, 1740s, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Appendix:  Because it is her 90th birthday today, and because the coat she is wearing is quite similar to my perfect pink coat (except mine was made of a thin wool weave, not satin), I’ve got to include this picture of the perfect pink girl, Doris Day (from the blog Cinema Style).

Doris Day (1960s)

 



Salem Film Fest 2014

Spring break week for me, but unfortunately I have no warm destination in sight, just a series of day trips and various “staycation” cultural activities (and of course it is snowing again this morning). Oh well, Salem’s annual documentary film festival is on now, and nearly all of the films look interesting, first among them Maidentrip, which documents the amazing solo circumnavigation of Dutch teenager Laura Dekker in 2011-2012, and The Galapagos Affair: When Satan Came to Eden, which examines the still-unsolved disappearance of several members of a not-so-Utopian community of European expatriates on the Galapagos Islands in the 1930s. I love stories–real or otherwise–about displaced Europeans in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, always feuding and over-estimating their abilities!

Salem Film Fest Maidentrip

Galapagos Affair

Somehow I got completely confused over the screening times of the other two films I really wanted to see: they were both up yesterday so I’ll have to see them at other venues. The historian in me mandates that I see Here was Cuba, the latest examination of the Cuban Missile Crisis using recently declassified sources from U.S., Russian, and Cuban archives, and my inner architecture buff really wants to see The Human Scale, a plea for better urban planning–hopefully from the Renaissance perspective that its title implies. Just in time for Salem.

Salem Film Fest Here was Cuba

Human Scale


In the Bleak Midwinter

Its title does not really conjure up Christmas cheer, but In the Bleak Midwinter is one of my favorite carols. I heard its melody repeatedly over the holidays and made a mental note to look into it a bit. And now that we are in the post-Christmas bleak not-quite-midwinter it seems like an appropriate time to do that. Surprisingly it is a creation of the Victorian era and after: I thought it was much older. Two early nineteenth-century composers set Christina Rossetti’s 1872 poem (first published in Scribner’s magazine) to music, creating an almost-instant classic: In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, In the bleak midwinter, long ago. 

While the rest of Rossetti’s poem is Christocentric, this opening stanza, setting the scene, is universal. Combined with the melodies of Gustav Holst and Harold Darke, the song seems ageless, which is why I thought it was older than it actually is. Darke’s version (a nice version of which is here) won “best Christmas Carol” in a poll of the world’s leading choirmasters in 2008. Besides the beautiful melodies assigned to Rossetti’s words, I’m interested in the use of the word “bleak” here: usually this term connotes a definite pessimism, despair, even hopelessness; but I think the combination of words and music creates a feeling of comfort and hopefulness, to get everyone through the bleak midwinter. My own understanding of bleakness comes more from images than sounds, and I think midwinter can be beautiful, both as a barren landscape and as a setting for all the little details within.

Midwinter Pickering House 1900

Midwinter Boston Common 1904

Midwinter A Wolf Had Not Been Seen at Salem for Thirty Years Pyle

Midwinter Museums Karolik Collection MFA

Midwinter Tile Kate Greenaway

Favorite midwinter images, not so “bleak”:  the Pickering House, Salem, c. 1900 from a private family collection; Boston Common, c. 1904, E. Chickering & Co., Library of Congress, Howard Pyle, “A Wolf Had not Been Seen in Salem for Thirty Years”, illustration for his 1909 Harper’s Monthly story, “The Salem Wolf”, Delaware Art Museum; Anonymous American painting, 19th century, Karolik Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Kate Greenaway wall tile for Burslem, c. 1881-1885, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.


Witches Three

Because I’m not going to make it to Scotland this summer (or Fall, probably) I have been perusing the various sites and reviews devoted to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s current exhibition, Witches and Wicked Bodies, to see if I can find witchcraft images that I haven’t seen before. The depiction of witchcraft from the Renaissance on is a compelling visual and cultural topic: I can’t believe there hasn’t been an exhibition before this. I have a whole portfolio of images that I use in my various courses, and rely heavily on the analysis in Charles Zika’s great book: The Appearance of Witchcraft: Images and Social Meaning in 16th Century Europe (for the best analysis of the really provocative prints of early sixteenth-century artist Hans Baldung Grien) as well as the sources and images available at another ongoing Scottish(digital) exhibitionThe Damned Art: Witchcraft and Demonology. Witchcraft has been serious business in Scotland, from the days of King James VI’s Daemonologie (1597) to the present.

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Looking through the images from these various sources, I am struck by the rule of three:  how very often witches are depicted in a group of three, as in Henry Fuseli’s 1785 iconic image of the Three Weird Sisters from Macbeth on the exhibition poster above. Fuseli’s image is easily explainable: it is based on Shakespeare’s three prophetic sisters which is in turn based on those of Holinshed’s Chronicle, which is in turn based on the traditional threefold warnings of doom. But even before Shakespeare’s time, witches are often found in parties of three, perhaps to depict a closed and empowered circle, the smallest coven or conspiracy, or a demonic inversion of the Holy Trinity. The Scotland show features several witchcraft themes, Macbeth and magic circles (as well as witches in flight and devilish rituals) which highlight the power of three. But then what about good things come in threes or third time’s a charm?

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Three Witches Flowers 1619

John Runciman

NPG 6903; The Three Witches from Macbeth (Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne; Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire; Anne Seymour Damer) by Daniel Gardner

William Blakethe Triple Hectate1795

Three Witches Rackham1911

Three Witches Belfast

Three Witches depicted in: Ulrich Molitor’s lamiis et phitonicis mulieribus (1489) and The Wonderful Discoverie of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower (1619), Ferguson Collection, University of Glasgow; John Runciman, Three Satyrs’ Heads, 18th century, National Galleries of Scotland; Daniel Gardner, The Three Witches from Macbeth (Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne; Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire; Anne Seymour Damer, 1775) National  Portrait Gallery, London;  William Blake, The Triple Hectate, 1795, National Galleries of  Scotland; Arthur Rackham’s Three Witches/Gossips, 1911, from The Ingoldsby Legends of Myth & Marvels; the Weird Sisters in last year’s production of Macbeth at the Lyric Threatre in Belfast, Northern Ireland. No Goya—too scary!


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