Monthly Archives: August 2013

Work and the WPA

The artwork produced by the artists of the Federal Arts Project, the major visual initiative of the New Deal Works Progress Administration, is always accessible and often compelling. I think this because of the complete lack of abstraction in the works, but also because of their timeliness. During the period that the Project was operational (1935-43), the artists it employed produced over 200,000 works of art, including the iconic poster that informed the public, their employer, how and on what they were working.

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Where the federally-employed workers worked in 1936:  Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

I like how the FAP artists visualized work, both their own and that of other contemporary sectors. In advance of Labor Day, I was looking through their occupational posters, and thinking about work in the past, work in the present, and work in the future. For me, the Labor Day Weekend and Labor Day itself has always been less about the end of summer and more about heading back to work/school, whether as a student or a professor. This year, I’m going back as chair of my department, so I’m thinking about work in a different way altogether: rather than my own work, I’m thinking about how I can support and evaluate the work of my colleagues and facilitate the path of our students towards gainful and satisfying employment. As chair, I will also have to answer that dreaded question that always comes from students and their parents:  what can you do with a History major? There’s a long-winded answer (basically anything and everything), and I wish I had one of the FAP’s occupational posters to help me animate it! I just might have to commission one.

Workers LC household

Workers LC industrial

Workers LC

PicMonkey Collage

PicMonkey Collage

PicMonkey Collage

PicMonkey Collage

FAP/WPA Posters from the collection of the Library of Congress.


Intricate Insects

There are beetles in my garden and some West Nile-carrying mosquitoes in Salem: I’ve got bugs on the brain. On a more pleasurable note, the Getty Museum has expanded access to thousands of its digitized images through its new Open Content Initiative. Another treasure trove to explore (and eat up time)! One of the most precious manuscripts in the world is in the Getty collection, the Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta, or Model Book of Calligraphy, the collaboration of two late Renaissance artists who never met! In this first age of printing, when it was feared that the skill and beauty of writing would soon be lost, Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I commissioned his court scribe, George Bocskay, to produce the Model Book; 30 years later, his grandson Rudolf II instructed his court artist, Joris Hoefnagel, to illustrate it. And thus the beautiful little (6+ inches by 4+ inches) was created, over the period from about 1561 to 1591.

Bugs About Hoefnagel Getty

Bugs About Hoefnagel 2 Getty

Hoefnagel (1542-1601) worked in every medium and all over Europe: though generally classified as a Netherlandish artist he also spent time in England and really flourished in central Europe at the courts of two major royal patron-collectors, Albert V, the Duke of Bavaria, and Rudolph II, who was in the process of assembling the largest Kunst- and Wunderkammer (“Cabinets” or collections of art and natural wonders) of the era. While in Munich, he completed his three encyclopedic collections of  zoological and botanical miniatures, Animalia Aqvatilia et Cochiliate (Aqva), Animalia Volatilia et Amphibia (Aier), and Animalia Rationalia et Insecta, between 1575 and 1580. These images are amazing blends of art and science, and while the animals are compelling (especially the hairy people–more in a later post), the insects almost jump off their pages!

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Insects Hoefnagel 2

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Joris Hoefnagel’s insect miniatures, watercolor and gouache on vellum, 1575-1580, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Is Hoefnagel’s inspiration primarily artistic or scientific? Sometimes it’s hard to tell, really. He is a transitional artist in so many ways–transitioning between the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, between manuscript culture and print culture, between the medieval miniature and the early modern still life with his precise eye for detail. But at the same time he is merging all these things rather than evolving from one to another. At about the same time that he was engaged in his “collaboration” with Bockskay, Hoefnagel was part of another artistic partnership, this time with his son, the teenaged Jacob Hofsnaegel, whose collection of printed botanical and entomological engravings, Archetypa Studiaque Patris (1592)  was inspired by his father’s early allegorical drawings and accompanying verse. You can see more of the younger Hoefnagel’s images here and here, as well as at the British Museum.

Hoefnagel Allegory of Winter Louvre

Hoefnagel Insects and the Head of a Wind God

Hoefnagel Archetypa frontspiece

Hoefnagel Archetypa 2 BM

Hoefnagel Archetypa 3 BM

Joris Hoefnagel, Allegory of Winter, c. 1589 (The Louvre, Paris); and Insects and the Head of the Wind God, c.  1590-1600 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); Jacob Hoefnagel, frontspiece and plates from Archetypa Studiaque Patris Georgi (Joris) Holfnaegeli, 1592 (British Museum, London).

Below: Art and nature, father and son, INSECTS:  Allegory on Life and Death, Prague, 1598: Figure and landscape within oval drawn by Jacob Hoefnagel, surrounding flora, fauna and bugs, by Joris Hoefnagel, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Hoefnagel Allegory of Life and Death Met


The Eyes have It

Thumbing through the New York Times Style Magazine yesterday, two features caught my eye: one on the beautiful botanical compositions of the French artist Carmen Almon, and another on eye motifs in current clothing and accessories collections. Everything comes around again in fashion, and there is certainly nothing new about the decorative use of the anatomical eye. I was immediately reminded of one of the most spectacular portraits of Elizabeth I, the “rainbow” portrait by Isaac Oliver, in which all-seeing and all-hearing eyes and ears adorn the seemingly-eternal Queen’s gilded gown.

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Eyeful Elizabeth

Isaac Oliver, The “Rainbow Portrait” of Queen Elizabeth I, c. 1600, Hatfield House.

I was also reminded of the Georgian and Regency custom of wearing somewhat secretive “lover’s eyes”, miniature paintings of one of your beloved’s eyes, on a chain or as a brooch or ring, supposedly initiated in England by the Prince of Wales (later King George IV) as an expression of his devotion to his unmarriageable mistress, Maria Fitzherbert. Eye miniatures seem to have had an earlier, French, political purpose, and then of course the “all-seeing” eye of providence became an important Masonic symbol that somehow found its way onto our own dollar bill, but the hundreds of decorative objects that have survived seem to be predominately love tokens. Two early nineteenth-century brooches from the Victoria & Albert museum are below, and you can see many more examples here and here.

Eye brooch 1800 V and A

eye miniature V and A

Two early nineteenth-century unsigned watercolor eye miniatures, Victorian & Albert Museum, London (Note the diamond tear in the lower one!)

The Times “This and That” item, Eyes Everywhere, features eye-embellished flats and a gorgeous organza dress from Christian Dior, as well as the amazing “blue-eyed” ring by Colette and a Kenzo sweatshirt, both below. To complete the ensemble, I scouted out an optical skirt and another blue-eyed accessory–this time a clutch. It would take a daring woman indeed to wear all these items together, transforming herself into a veritable eyeful.

Eye Ring Colette at Fragments

Eye top Kenzo

Eye Skirt by Illustrated People

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Skirt by Illustrated People; Lulu Guiness clutch.


Poison Vessels

News of the discovery of a late medieval poison ring in eastern Europe has intrigued me; I know that “poison rings” (alternatively called “pillbox rings” with built-in receptacles) were popular in the Renaissance and after, but very few of them actually served to contain or convey poison–more likely the held articles of remembrance. But this Bulgarian bronze ring, with its little channel, looks like the real thing! It instantly reminded me of one of my favorite (also late medieval) woodcut illustrations of a woman poisoning her husband–through a much larger pipeline–and set me off on a hunt for more man-made vessels for poison, besides the proverbial poison arrow.

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Poison 1481

Book of Wisdom of the Ancient Sages, 1481; The Illustrated Bartsch. Vol. 83, German Book Illustration before 1500: Anonymous Artists, 14811482.

Well of course the most obvious vessel is a cup:  whether medieval depictions of Socrates drinking his hemlock or later prints of supposed royal assassinations, the poison is generally conveyed in a cup, or, more seriously, a chalice, as in Shakespeare’s This evenhanded justice Commends thingredients of our poisoned chalice (Macbeth). Somehow a chalice is more reverent, and at the same time menacing, than a mere cup. John Foxe’s Protestant martyrology, Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, Touching Matters of the Church (1563) shows King John being poisoned by English monks offering his majesty a chalice of wassail, of all things. The chalice and the mortar and pestle become the two most “medieval” vessels associated with poison, as in the line from Danny Kaye’s Court Jester (1955): the pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true!

Poison Cup Socrates

Poison Cup BM

Poison Cup MET

National Library of the Netherlands MS RMMW, 10 A 11 (c. 1475), John Foxe, Acts and Monuments  (1563); NYPL Digital Gallery.

Another English monarch who was threatened with assassination by poison (and other means) was Elizabeth I: a Jesuit-inspired French plot involving a poisoned saddle is illustrated in George Carleton’s Thankful Remembrance (1627). This might or might not be the basis of the purely fictional poisoned dress scene in the 1998 film Elizabeth. In any case, it was foiled.

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George Carleton, A Thankful Remembrance of God’s Mercy, 1627.

Things seem to get more straightforward in the modern age, when poison was contained in boldly labeled and brightly colored apothecary bottles, dispensed collectively in war and from planes, self-induced through various addictive substances, and trivialized by mid-century modern “name your poison” bar sets. But obviously the most effective poisons would have no vessel at all.

Poison Sign

Name Your Poison Glasses Etsy


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: Print and Visual Culture in Sixteenth-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?

Three Witches Molitor 1489p

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!


Pendle and Salem

While weeding in front of my house yesterday I encountered a group of tourists who had come to Salem for the “witches” but were surprised to find so many nice buildings too. Poor people! Once we started chatting I couldn’t stop myself from subjecting them to a lecture, well, several really: first I told them all about Samuel McIntire and the merchants and sea captains who built Chestnut Street and then we got into the witch trials. They did ask questions, but clearly it’s a good thing that the semester is about to start.

One thing became clear in our “discussion”: they thought Salem was the only place in the world that prosecuted accused witches, at least after the “Dark Ages”. Even after fifteen years of teaching a popular course on the thousands of witch trials that occurred in early modern Europe, I was surprised. The singularity of Salem always bothers me; “our” trials are so seldom placed in western or global context, at least outside of academia.

There are important parallels between the Salem trials and the largest and most notorious English witchcraft prosecution, the Lancashire (“Pendle”) trials in northern England in 1612. The Pendle trials were held 401 years ago this week, and their 400th anniversary was commemorated last year. Salem and Pendle were both (relatively speaking) “frontier” communities, with the Pendle district of Lancashire located in the “dark corners of the north” of England, where various types of nonconformity still reigned. Salem cast a much wider net (185 accusations, 59 trials, 31 convictions, 19 executions, one death by torture/interrogation) than Pendle (16 trials and 10 executions, with one death in prison), but both were notoriously collective, conspiratorial episodes–unusual in the history of English prosecutions for witchcraft. Both trials were well-publicized, with the Pendle “source”, (more of a personal reflection really), clerk of the Lancashire court Thomas Potter’s Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster (1613) being particularly influential.

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Thomas Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster. London, 1613. STC 20138.

But the most important comparison/connection between Pendle and Salem was the admission of legal testimony by a minor in the former trials, which set the precedent for the latter. Before the Pendle trials, the testimony of children under the age of fourteen was inadmissible in English courts, but nine-year-old Jennet Device was the star witness of the 1612 trials, offering up testimony that implicated her entire family as well as others. Jennet’s family would have been vulnerable anyway–they were a marginalized family led by a “cunning” matriarch, and probably represented the lethal mixture of nuisance and nonconformity to the community–but her vivid testimony was key to their conviction. Jennet was the informer at what became a sensationalistic show trial. Like Salem, the Lancashire trials seem to have become a somewhat self-generating process, engulfing the accusations of the “Pendle Hill” witches as well as so-called “Samlesbury Witches” who were also implicated by the testimony of an adolescent girl. The Salem girls most definitely had their forerunners, and perhaps their inspiration.

Then, of course, there is the cultural aftermath, theatrical and fictional accounts based on Pendle and Salem, tourism, commemorations. Several decades after Pendle, Thomas Heywood brought his comedy to the London stage, while several centuries after Salem, The Crucible transformed the American trials into an ongoing allegory. Salem has, of course, transformed itself into “Witch City”, and in the Pendle district there is a Witch Way bus service with individual buses named after the officials and victims of the Lancashire trials. There are statues in both places, although Pendle’s is of a real victim, Alice Nutter of the village of Roughlee, and ours is of Samantha Stevens, a fictional television character! (Of course we have the beautiful and meaningful 1992 Witch Trials Memorial, but I am afraid that more tourists see Samantha). There are also logos galore, on both sides of the Atlantic, official and otherwise, with just a sampling below.

Witchcraft Plays

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Witchcraft Statues

PicMonkey Collage


Asylums Abandoned and Adapted

What is it about abandoned mental hospitals? There is a lure there; not quite sure why. For many years, the abandoned state mental hospital in nearby Danvers, formally and progressively known as the Danvers Lunatic Hospital, the Danvers State Insane Asylum and the Danvers State Mental Hospital (you can trace the evolution of the vocabulary of mental illness by charting the changing names of such institutions, so many of which were built in the later nineteenth century), drew many night-time visitors to its darkened doors after its closure in 1992. Constructed between 1874 and 1878 in the “Domestic” Gothic style and according to the Kirkbride Plan which dominated asylum architecture at the time, you can see why it cut a rather menacing silhouette when lifeless. Even before it was abandoned, Danvers was inspirational (it is said to be the model for H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham Sanitarium in “The Thing on the Doorstep” and several other stories) but somehow became even more so in its abandonment: inspiring preservationists, photographers, and movie producers.

Abandoned Asylum Danvers Trask

Abandoned Asylum Danvers 1930s

Abandoned Asylum Danvers 1895

Danvers in its heyday:  photographs from Danvers Town Archivist Richard Trask History of Danvers State Hospital at the Danvers Archival Center and from the Eighteenth Annual Report of the Trustees of the Danvers Lunatic Hospital, 1895.

Below are pictures of the hospital dating from 2000-2001, when preservationists were engaged in an intense battle to save the building, or at least its central administrative section, for adaptive re-use. They were successful in placing Danvers on Preservation Massachusetts’ Most Endangered List that year, but not in saving the structure: both its wings and its central section were demolished by the Avalon Bay Communities, Inc., an apartment development and management company, following its acquisition in 2005. What “remains” was really reconstructed rather than renovated, so my alliterative title is a misnomer, at least as it applies to Danvers State.

Abandoned Danvers2 SSU

Abandoned Danvers SSU

Abandoned Danvers 3 SSU

The Shuttered Hospital:  Preservation Massachusetts Flikr. (The steeple was removed in 1970, apparently for safety’s sake).

The shuttered era of Danvers State has inspired some hauntingly beautiful images, most notably by photographers Roger Farrington and John Gray. Farrington is the historian-photographer, capturing the institution’s interior at the moment of its closing in 1992, while Gray comes along a bit later and expands the geographical context of Danvers and its decline in an extremely compelling way in his beautiful book Abandoned Asylums of New England: A Photographic Journey. I particularly like his image (below) of Worcester State Hospital, another Kirkbride building built and closed at the same time as Danvers, which met much the same fate. Looking through Gray’s book, my question is no longer what is it about abandoned mental hospitals but why do we build monumental buildings that we can’t, or won’t, maintain? Maybe we no longer do.

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Abandoned Asylums Danvers Rooftops Gray

Worcester State John Gray

Photographs by Roger Carrington (interior) and John Gray (Danvers turrets at sunset and Worcester State in the dark).

The consensus among preservationists is that Danvers didn’t have to be demolished/reconstructed: there were other options and there are other models of adaptive reuse among the remaining (sadly small number) of Kirkbride buildings. There is a great blog/website which provides a one-stop resource of information and images for these institutions and their fates. The list of demolitions is much longer than the list of saves, and most of these complexes seem to be crumbling, but there are a few rays of hope:  the Traverse City Mental Hospital in northern Michigan (alternatively known as the Northern Michigan Asylum), now redeveloped and reconsecrated as the residential Village at  Grand Traverse Commons, seems to be  the best example of preservation and conversion. Things look good for the Fergus Falls State Mental Hospital in Minnesota as well but, like Danvers, it’s been abandoned for years.

Traverse

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Fergus Falls Hospital 1928

Traverse City in 1990 and The Village at Grand Traverse Commons today, photograph by Gary Howe for the New York Times; Fergus Falls Hospital in 1928, Minnesota Historical Society.

I could go on and on about each and every one of these abandoned buildings, both those that remain (Athens, Ohio, Buffalo!!!) and those that have been lost, but I’m going to go back to Danvers, which has provided a dramatic backdrop and inspiration in both its open and shuttered eras. Two films have been filmed there, the Jean Simmons  film Home before Dark (which I saw long, long ago and have no memory of the Hospital; I’m going to look at it again) and the 2001 horror film Session 9, which I have not seen and have no desire to see.

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Poster and Screen shot from Session 9 (2001).

Perhaps the most creative expression inspired by Danvers State Hospital has simultaneously preserved a piece of it. A year ago, I came across an article about Danvers resident John Archer’s “Scrap Mansion” in the New York Times. As a board member of the Danvers Preservation Commission, Archer was a key part of the fight to save Danvers State, but when it came down, he salvaged a turret and installed it in his ever-expanding house.  So pieces of Danvers State Hospital remain intact, both in the reconstructed facade on its original site and a house nearby.

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Danvers State/Avalon

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John Archer before his Danvers Wing, and salvaged doors from Danvers State, Trent Bell for the New York Times; Danvers State administrative building/Avalon Danvers, last weekend.


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