Tag Archives: Popular Culture

Masterpiece Memories

I was at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston with my family yesterday, a precious place that I visit about once a year but to which none of them, oddly, have ever been. Wandering around the eclectic rooms of the first floor, my brother remarked to me: it’s as if all of these paintings were in the Masterpiece game that we played as children. Now he is a well-educated, worldly New Yorker, so this was hardly his first exposure to these genres, but he was right: as soon as he said it I was plunged back into the late 1970s as well. There was something about the placement of these paintings that reminded us of that old art auction board game!

Masterpiece V & A 1970

Masterpiece Game 1970 board

The 1970 Parker Brothers’ Masterpiece Game, Museum of Childhood, Victoria & Albert Museum Collection and for sale here (for a while; I might need to snatch it up).

The game contained 24 art cards which became emblazoned in our minds: I remember when I first saw one of the original paintings in real life it seemed…………BIG. My brother’s memories was jostled by a Degas-like painting by Louis Kornberg titled In the Dressing Room (1920) in the Yellow Room, while the facing Whistleresque Lady in Yellow (1888) by Thomas Wilmer Dewing looked vaguely familiar to me. I was absolutely certain that Carlo Crivelli’s St. George Slaying the Dragon (1470) upstairs in the Raphael room was a game card, as well as Rembrandt’s 1629 Self-Portrait, in the Dutch Room. But when I returned home to look up the game on various vintage board game sites, I quickly realized that our memories were false: all the paintings including in the Masterpiece game are apparently from the National Gallery in London. Mrs. Gardner’s ladies, saint, and Rembrandt were not our Masterpiece ladies, saint, and Rembrandt, but nevertheless it was good to see them (again).

Lady in Yellow Thomas Wilmer Dewing

Crivelli Saint George Slaying The Dragon 1470

Rembrandt Self Portrait 1629

All Images courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

 


Bearded Days

I listened to a great program on National Public Radio’s On Point show with Tom Ashbrook yesterday about the return of the beard which featured a historian and a style expert:  the perfect combination! Here is Mr. Ashbrook’s introduction to the broadcast: Maybe you saw it at your house over the holidays.  At your New Year’s Eve party.  Men’s facial hair all over the place.  Beards have been growing back into fashion for a while.  From the hip streets of Brooklyn to the Hollywood red carpet.  Now they’re everywhere.  And not just a little scruff.  Beards that have grown for a year.  “Yeards,” they’re called.  Beards worthy of a Civil War general or Paul Bunyan.  Of a lumberjack.  “Lumbersexual” is the funny, hot term of art.  This hour On Point:  What is it in the air, in the culture, in the minds of men, that’s brought back the beard? The topic resonated with me immediately:  I did look around my holiday table and see beards, including one that could be called a “yeard”! And I’ve definitely noticed more beards among my students over the past year or so. I must admit, however, that I had never heard the word “lumbersexual” before yesterday.

The historian on the program, Dr. Stephen Mihm from the University of Georgia, talked primarily about the rise and fall of beards over the past century or so, in reference to his recent New York Times article, “Why CEOs are growing Beards”. I’d like to go back a bit further with this topic, to the Renaissance, which is always the beginning/big break for me. I remember distinctly reading a journal article in graduate school about one of the lesser-known cultural consequences of the Discoveries:  European men, upon their realization that the newly-discovered Amerindians were decidedly less hairy than they, decided to emphasize their “superior” masculinity by letting their facial hair grow. The Reformation also celebrated the beard, even though its spiritual leader, Martin Luther, remained steadfastly clean-shaven. The lavish beard of the leader of the Reformation movement, John Calvin, is absolutely integral to his image. It’s actually quite shocking to examine the first century of oil portraits, say from 1450 to 155o, and view the shift from the clean-shaven Renaissance men, apparently eager to separate themselves from the shaggy Middle Ages and emulate their classical forebears, to the much more hirsute men of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Bearded Age Memling 1471

Bearded Age Ghirlandaio

Bearded Reformers

Clean-shaven Renaissance Men and (mostly-) Bearded Reformers:  Hans Memling, Portrait of a Man with a Roman Coin, 1471-72, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp / © Lukas—Art in Flanders VZW; David Ghirlandaio, Portrait of a Young Man, c. 1490; Detroit Institute of Arts/ Bridgeman Art Gallery; Luther in the Circle of Reformers, German School, c. 1625-50, Deutsches Historisches Museum.

I think that the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries must be golden ages for the beard, with the resolutely beardless eighteenth century in between: Dr. Mihm commented yesterday that he didn’t think there was a bearded signer of the Declaration of Independence. Certainly facial hair was the mark of success and power in the seventeenth century: it’s hard to find a notable man who was not so adorned, at least before 1650. In the second half of the century, the mustache and goatee are more common–it’s almost as if a beard would be too much competition for the long luxuriant locks of later-seventeenth-century cavaliers. And after that, very little facial hair is visible among the minority segment of western society who would or could sit for portraits until the second half of the nineteenth century. We are all familiar with images of bearded Civil War Generals and Robber Barons, but at the same time they became symbols of working-class radicalism, encouraging members of respectable society to pick up their (safety) razors–for a century or so.

PicMonkey Collage

Goya Sebastian Martinez y Perez 1792

Degas Collector of Prints 1866

PicMonkey Collage

Two kings of the very hairy seventeenth century: King Charles I, c. 1640 by Anthony van Dyck (Parliamentary Collection), and King Charles II, c. 1670 by Peter Lely (Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II). A representative of the clean-shaven eighteenth century: Sebastián Martínez y Pérez, painted by Goya in 1792 (Metropolitan Museum of Art). Beards are back in the nineteenth century: A Collector of Prints by Edgar Degas, 1866 (Metropolitan Museum of Art), and the two iconic bearded robber barons, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, painted by society portraitist Theobald Chartran in 1895 and 1896, the last days of the beard (apparently until now!)


Superheroes in the Sixteenth Century

I love to play with history, inside the classroom and out, which is one of the reasons I started this blog. Any sort of mashup of past and present, especially if it is clever and creative, is instantly going to catch my attention–and hold it, for a least a little while. So when I saw just one of the images of French photographer Sacha Goldberger’s “Super Flemish” series, in which twentieth-century superheroes are reimagined in the guise and garb of Northern Renaissance portraits, I had to see them all. Below are my favorites, and you can see the rest here, along with more of Goldberger’s provocative work. His commentary on his photographs is interesting too: By the temporal disturbance they produce, these images allow us to discover, under the patina of time, an unexpected melancholy of those who are to be invincible. “Temporal disturbance”, that’s what interests me. And don’t these icons look a bit melancholy in their trunk hose and ruffs?

SuperHerosFlamands_Batman_RGB1998_011

superheroes-robin_3111213k

SuperHerosFlamands_Catwoman_RGB1998_014

superheroes-wonder_3111209k

superheroes-superm_3111212k

Sacha Goldberger’s “Super Flemish” Superheroes: more here (including lots of Star Wars characters in ruffs–and the Incredible Hulk!)

These images got me thinking: who were the superheroes of the sixteenth century? Batman, Robin, Catwoman, Wonder Woman, and Superman might look like they’re hanging out in the sixteenth century in Golberger’s photographs but they don’t really reflect sixteenth-century values and ideals, as superheroes should. After looking at what seemed like hundreds of prints of his Twelve Labours, I decided that Hercules must be the perfect Renaissance superhero: he’s from the classical past, but convertible enough for that era (or any, really). People in the sixteenth century liked to mash-up history just as we do: that’s what the Renaissance is all about, and the Reformation popularized such representations. Picture in point: Martin Luther portrayed as “Hercules Germanicus” by Hans Holbein the Younger, slaying all the Catholic authorities in his midst, the perfect Protestant superhero.

Hercules Jost Amman BM 1590

Superhero Luther Hercules

Hercules in the company of a Roman warrior and a wild man, Jost Amman, c. 1590, British Museum; Luther as the “Hercules Germanicus”, Hans Holbein the Younger, 16th century, Zentralbibliothek Zürich.

 

 


From Bewitched to Bewitching

In my constant yet intermittent pursuit to chart Salem’s course from global, glorious port to Witch City, I am now focused on the moment (which may be a decade or more) when the 1692 Witch Trials ceased being something to be ashamed of and began being a “trademark” of sorts, a calling card, something light and even fanciful rather than something that was dark, dark, dark. After this transitional moment, the path was clearly paved toward collective capitalization: Salem was released to embrace its past–and profit from it. There’s more research to do, but I now think that this moment came in the mid-nineteenth century, in the 1840s, to be somewhat more specific. You’ve got to capture such a transition in expressions of popular culture: Nathaniel Hawthorne and his burgeoning ancestral guilt just won’t do–so that’s why I have been looking in more ephemeral publications, and there are some very interesting little stories in the newspapers of that decade which clearly indicate the shift from shame to celebration. I particularly like a series of stories which represent an interchange between New Hampshire and Salem newspaper editors in which the former are poking at, and the latter embracing, Salem’s seventeenth-century past in a very “modern” way.

Bewitched 1843 Salem Register

Bewitched 1845 NH

The Salem Register, Oct. 9, 1843 & the New Hampshire Sentinel, July 30, 1845.

This first story represents an attitude that is a far cry from the previous remorseful century: mocking an isolated case of “witchcraft” in Hollis, New Hampshire, the editor of the Salem Gazette offers to “investigate” the matter thoroughly, and even hang the supposed “witch” on the same old hill where her predecessors suffered. So cavalier! Both stories convey a sense of bewitching as a captivating quality that is far more alluring than demonic. And from this time and place, we’re off to Witch City.

Bewitcher 1884

Thomas & Fancer, She’s a Bewitcher, 1884; Library of Congress.

 

 


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:

Tudors 1

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).

Henry_VIII_Petworth_House

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”?

elizajesuscollege

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.

 


Set in Salem (sort of)

I have heard so many dreadful things about the new WGN series Salem that I was desperate to see it: our cable provider does not carry that station but I was able to watch it online and I also checked out the series website. It is indeed horrible, in more ways than one. Its central premise, that there were witches in Salem who themselves initiated the 1692 trials in a devilish divide-and-conquer strategy against the voiceless Puritans, sustains that mythology and ignores decades of research, but of course it is fiction, so I suppose all is well. Or is it? One of the series’ executive producers, Adam Simon, maintains that the history is fantasy but the magic is real and that Salem reflects all the knowledge we now have about the reality of European witchcraft. His reality is a strange mishmash of witchcraft folklore from the Continent, England, and the New World, with no cursing crones: a very sexy head witch, empowered by her very sexual pact with the Devil and aided by the very sexy Tituba, stores her familiar frog in her bewitched/incapacitated husband and prepares to face off against a very sexy Reverend Cotton Mather, whose father Increase burned scores of witches back in Essex (England, I presume, though to my knowledge Increase never visited there; he is better represented by his iconic assertion that”It were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape, than that one innocent Person should be condemned”.) Geography–a sense of place–is not a strength of this show, which is odd because it is named after a place. I get the feeling that the producers and writers don’t even know where Salem is (was): the big city is New York, not Boston, and the costume designer comments that In Salem they had more [sartorial] rules than the rest of Europe. I could go on with my critique, but I think you get the picture.

Set in Salem WGN

The Streets of “Salem”, according to WGN America

This “Salem” got me thinking about other screen “Salems”, and there are many. Salem on film is a huge topic, impossible to capture in one post. If you differentiate between films that are supposed to be set in Salem (lots of Scarlet Letters, The Maid of Salem (1937), The House of the Seven Gables (1940) and several Crucibles, and films that were filmed in the actual Salem (the more recent Hocus PocusBride Wars, and American Hustle), it is more manageable. I’m more interested in the former, and it basically comes down to “Puritan films”  in the earlier part of the twentieth century and “witchcraft films” thereafter, with notable exceptions and overlap. I haven’t seen all the Scarlet Letters (the first one dates to 1911!) but I prefer the 1973 Wim Wenders version (in which Portugal stands in for 17th century Salem) to the 1995 Demi Moore film, and The House of the Seven Gables (starring Vincent Price) has nothing at all do with Hawthorne’s novel: we need a real/reel “remake”! There are also several versions of The Crucible: a 1957 French film adapted by Jean-Paul Sartre, entitled Les Sorcières de Salem, and Arthur Miller’s own 1996 adaptation, which was filmed for the most part up the coast on Hog Island in Ipswich Bay.

PicMonkey Collage

Set in Salem 1973

Set in Salem 1937

MSDHOOF EC137

© Copyright 2010 CorbisCorporation

Set in Salem 1957 Crucible

Posters for the 1926 and 1934 versions of the Scarlet Letter, and a screen shot of the 1973 Wim Wenders film; Posters for the Maid of Salem (1937) and The House of the Seven Gables (1940), and a photograph of the latter’s Salem opening at the Paramount Theater on Essex Street; Poster for Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Sorcières de Salem (1957).

 

 


War Games

It’s not just contemporary video games that engage our children (boys) in virtual warfare: their paper predecessors had the very same focus. The majestic monarchs and large professional armies and navies of the eighteenth century inspired the transformation of traditional games of the goose into more strategic games of fortifications and war, and nineteenth-century manufacturing and marketing techniques intensified this shift, along with contemporary ideas about nationalism and education. Four things inspired me to dig into this topic:  André Hellé’s Alphabet de la Grande Guerre, which I featured in my last post, the discovery of a board game dating from and “playing” the Crimean War of 1853-56 (too topical), a recent New York Times “Opinionator” column about “The Myriopticon”, a Civil-War parlor game which was “immensely popular with boys”, and an advertisement for Salem’s own Parker Brothers’ Spanish-American War games, The War in Cuba and The Battle of Manila. And then I discovered the Victoria & Albert’s Museum of Childhood “War Games” exhibit, which is closing at the end of the week.

ABC Great War Games

War Games Crimea V and A

War Games

War Games Parker Brothers

I find these games a little disarming. I understand that the ABC was intended for “the children of our soldiers”, but do these children really need to see pictures of trenches and tanks (no gas masks, thankfully)? I’m just nervous about the Crimea. And Milton Bradley produced the Myriopticon during the Civil War (or Great Rebellion), a tactic that was followed by Parker Brothers at the end of the century. Both World War I and World War II challenged the glorification of war in many ways, but they did not put an end to war games; if anything, the intensifying competitive nationalism and focus on propaganda made them even more popular. The latter are of the bombs away variety, but games of the Great War seem particularly and personally destructive: German children targeted Britain with their toy u-boats, while the object of British children was to get rid of the Huns.

War Games U Boat

War Games Sink the Huns

Get Rid of Huns Maze Puzzle, c. 1916, Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood.


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